Food For Thought

Entrepreneurship...The Savior of Rural America? 


by Deborah Huso, Contributing Columnist

Deborah Huso

It is a normal thing when you first meet someone to be asked what you do for a living, at least it is for most people. Not for me. Every time I am approached with the question, I’m overcome with a sense of dread. It all started a couple of months after I first took the leap into full-time self-employment. A teacher approached me at a Ruritan Club meeting and asked innocently, “So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a writer,” I replied.

She smiled, “Yes, but what do you do for a living?”

For me, this simple question never ends with a simple answer. It is always followed by an exhausting explanation on my part of how one earns a living as a freelance writer. You see — people have one of two perceptions of what it is to be a writer. The first is that one cannot seriously be a writer. Perhaps you are a starving artist with some misguided illusion that one day you will publish something and then sell movie rights for millions or you just dabble in the craft for fun, writing poetry and then stuffing it into a box under the bed.

Then there are those like the friend of a friend who last weekend said to me, “So I hear you’re a writer. Wow, that’s so exciting! What do you write? I’m always reading on the book jackets of romance novels that so-and-so is a freelance writer, and that sounds so romantic! What a wonderful life you must have!”

“My job is so boring,” she added. “All I do is sit behind a desk all day.”

Well, so do I, when I’m not on assignment, but it’s no use explaining this to anyone. Lawyers write for a living, and I bet no one bombards them with questions about what they write or how they can possibly earn a living wage by the written word. At times, I feel that my life is not my own, so endlessly curious are people about what I do, so baffled are they by the idea that one could pay bills and even get ahead in life by writing.

But it’s not just writing. It’s the frightening idea of being one’s own boss. That is what drives the romance and the curiosity. A director of communications at a college said to me a couple of years ago, “I tried the freelance writing thing once. I had visions of getting out of bed at 10 a.m., working in my bedroom slippers with a cup of coffee. It just didn’t work.”

Of course it didn’t. I don’t personally know any entrepreneurs who rise at 10 a.m. and work in their bedroom slippers.

But you see, this is the thing that people in cubicles and on production lines dream about — eliminating the routine of their lives, doing something meaningful, being in charge of their own destinies. For many, it never occurs to them that being in charge of one’s own destiny is a lot of work. And others have a tremendous fear of not being able to make ends meet. “I’d love to start my own business,” a friend of mine tells me with regularity, “but I just can’t give up the money I’m earning.” Some of us get a false sense of security from that weekly paycheck, never realizing how easily a pink slip could take its place. I feel much more secure being self-employed. The chances that the dozens of different editors and clients for whom I work will all decide they don’t need me at the same time are slim to none.

But we perpetuate a culture predicated on the myth that the path to success requires a college degree, moving to the city, and getting a job with a big company. Rural communities, in particular, take great pride, it seems, in the number of young people they can send away to school and the cities and “rescue” from a life of poverty and hard work on the farm or in a small town. Every local rural civic organization sponsors college scholarships that more often than not send the community’s most promising students far away, never to return and enrich their hometowns with their passion and intelligence.

I wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, but I was led to believe that working for someone else was a more secure and faster path to success. It took me nine jobs and six relocations in eight years to realize that working for someone else was not for me. But I was lucky. Some people spend their whole lives being afraid to do what they want with them. And parents, teachers, and professors, unfortunately, out of fear for young people’s financial security, send them down a path of thankless toil in a company that will not remember them the day after they retire.

As a resident of Virginia’s most isolated county with a population of only 2,500, I know there are only two ways to survive here — work two or three jobs or start your own business. And small rural communities like mine often have more independently owned businesses per capita than large cities. If you want to be a carpenter, there aren’t a ton of big construction companies to work for. You go into business for yourself. If you want to be an attorney, you’re not going to find a big law firm to join. You become a small country lawyer with a one-room office. So many of us are entrepreneurs by necessity, at least in so far as our desire to live in a rural place dictates that we must earn a living somehow.

Yet even those who own their own businesses and maintain their own farms will happily support handing several thousand dollars to a graduating senior to get an education with no requirement that he or she come back and invest that education in our rural communities. These same folks will often complain that the family farm or the small main street town is dying.

But we are committing our own suicide.

If we teach young people from childhood to be cynics, to believe that rural America has sounded its death knell, and don’t teach them how to not just survive in their hometowns but how to, in fact, be wildly successful, we cannot expect our communities to remain vibrant, our farms to remain in production, or our main streets to continue to support small businesses. Land-use taxation, tax credits, industrialization, or suburbanizing the countryside will not save our rural landscapes and small towns. But young and growing families of brave entrepreneurs just might.

My husband often chides me for my frustration with the persistent line of questions from neighbors as well as strangers about my life as a writer. “What they’re really asking,” he tells me, “is not how do you earn a living as a writer, but how can I earn a living doing what I want to do, being my own boss?”

Perhaps he is right.

If he is, my answer is this: Set your alarm for an early hour, follow your passion and work at it every day, even when you don’t feel like it, and never ever wear bedroom slippers to the office. And while you’re at it, teach a young person to do the same.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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