Oxford, Mississippi

OXFORD, Miss.—It’s a beautiful night in the Little Easy. I’m walking downtown. Taking in the chilly evening. It’s cold. I can see my breath. My hands are numb. The rock rattling around inside my shoe is my toe.

I am walking these arctic streets tonight because I have a hunch that I’m going to find inspiration for a column here. And that’s all being a writer is, really. You work from hunches.

The city is busy. There are college kids everywhere, laughing and carrying on. Live music drifts from pocket saloons. Restaurants are thumping. The air smells like Mick Ultra and adolescence.

There is, apparently, a college-age dress code this evening. College guys all wear warm jackets. College girls all wear miniskirts so short they wouldn’t qualify as belts.

“College girls have antifreeze for blood,” says a local lady on the sidewalk.

I walk inside Square Books to escape the cold and browse the shelves. On cue, a group of college kids traipses past loudly. They reek of perfume and kid-sweat.

“It’s Thursday night,” a store employee explains. “Thursdays are party nights in Oxford.”

“How long does a typical party night last?” I ask.

“Until they graduate.”

Oxford is the “Literary Center of the South.” The mecca of the printed word. Think of this town as Dollywood for authors.

You can’t spit in Oxford without hitting a published author. They’re everywhere. And you can always spot published authors on the street. They’re the ones eating supper out of garbage cans.

Because being a professional writer is hard. Few realize how difficult. Hardly anyone gets rich by constructing sentences. The only way to make a small fortune as an author is to start off with a big fortune.

Moreover, it’s tough putting yourself out there. Being a writer is all about rejection. Rejection is an everyday routine. Rejection is the breakfast of the artist. An average writer will get rejected at least 14 or 15 times before he or she exits the womb.

The beauty of Oxford is, they get it. They understand writers here. They even celebrate them.

In any other American city, tell someone you’re a writer and they’ll just laugh and ask you to Supersize their fries. But in Oxford, they’ll treat you like a real person.

I once visited Oxford to speak at a literary event. One of the keynote speakers was a professor at the University of Mississippi. Someone in the audience asked the professor for life tips on being a professional writer.

The professor replied, “Add water to your shampoo bottle to make it last longer.”

I knew I was in love with this town after that.

Oxford first marked its borders in 1837. Three frontiersmen bought 50 acres from two Chickasaw natives. The parcel was only about the size of your average Super Target parking lot.

They named the town Oxford because—this is true—it sounded fancy. It was the founders’ hope that naming a town after a famous comma might attract a state college someday. It worked. Four years later, boom, they built Ole Miss.

So it’s no surprise that many notable wordsmen come from Oxford. Authors like William Faulkner, a genius whose novels American college students are required to read at gunpoint. Faulkner is the granddaddy of Southern literature. His books are so complex and esoteric that he is regarded by many as the man who built CliffsNotes into a household name.

Oxford is also home to John Grisham, Willie Morris, Larry Brown, and of course, one of the original Charlie’s Angels.

But what I like most about Oxford is its vibrance. This is a college town, plain and simple. It’s a place where throngs of kids come to live, to hang out, to learn new things, and to get excited about their own lives.

Yes, I realize college towns annoy some older folks. Sure, college kids can be rowdy. Yes, college students occasionally stay out late and make bad decisions that either result in teen pregnancy, or worse, becoming an English major.

But there is also a spirit of adventure here. And when I stand inside this bookstore, I feel a little of that adventure.

I wander the aisles for a long time, until it’s time to go. I am about to leave the store when I notice a young man wandering the non-fiction aisle. He looks familiar to me, although we are strangers. Red hair. Freckles. Tortoise-shell glasses. Under-confident. Shy.

I was this kid a few decades years ago.

Something inside me needs to ask him a question. Not for my benefit, but for his.

“Excuse me?” I ask. “Don’t mean to bother you, but you look like you might be a writer. Are you a writer?”

The kid smiles. His eyes are bright. He stands a little taller because, just ask any writer, it feels good to have a stranger call you that.

“Yes, sir,” he answers excitedly. “I AM a writer. How’d you know?”

Just a hunch.

23 comments

  1. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - November 19, 2022 8:02 am

    That’s a good one!

    Reply
  2. johnny Blevins - November 19, 2022 9:36 am

    Real good one hope the toes warmed up

    Reply
  3. Dolores - November 19, 2022 10:47 am

    It’s currently painfully cold in northern Virginia. My feet won’t be warm again until close to June.

    What a God wink for putting your doppelgänger in front of you to encourage! In a writer’s town and in a bookstore no less. Let us all be an encouragement especially to our young folk; sprinkling salt and shining our light.

    Reply
  4. Dennis - November 19, 2022 11:17 am

    My pet peeve is those who fail to use Oxford commas. It was nice to see a reference to an obscure little thing I tense over wen a comma is missing.

    Reply
  5. Lori - November 19, 2022 12:18 pm

    Yeah well those RebelBearLandSharks do have writers but….Hail State I will always prefer StarkVegas youngin. But the mere fact they invited Sean of the South does show great taste and intelligence on their part.
    p.s. they were once in the top ten of party schools and obviously it still continues😊

    Reply
  6. Wanda Wilson - November 19, 2022 1:01 pm

    I lived in Oxford for 2 years and liked it. Was at Ole Miss at the time. Currently live in Pearl, MS. Thanks for featuring Oxford in your column. It is unique.

    Reply
  7. Nina Horn - November 19, 2022 1:11 pm

    This is exactly how one feels when you visit Oxford! Glad you enjoyed the Square Bookstore! One of my son’s went to school there, the other son lost his first love there (she left him for another) and we love reading your stories each morning!

    Reply
  8. mccutchen52 - November 19, 2022 1:18 pm

    When I write short stories I send them to my mom. Like most mothers she always said she enjoyed reading them. Over the years she has acquired a drawer full of stories about growing up in the country. My sister recently found them and asked why I didn’t send some of them in to try and see if they would publish some of them. I thought about it and I guess, like you said, I don’t think I could stand rejection. My mom always tells me how much she enjoys them so that’s all a 70 year old needs.

    Reply
  9. Anne Arthur - November 19, 2022 1:29 pm

    I saw your FB post with photo. Great news. They know YOU are a great writer.

    Reply
  10. Nancy - November 19, 2022 1:42 pm

    My two grandsons from Southhaven visited you in Oxford. Their parents drove them down. All four enjoyed your part of the radio show immensely. Both boys remind me of you with your wit, intelligence, insightfulness into situations, and compassion. I wish they could have had more time with you as each has the potential to become a starving writer.
    Thank you for taking a moment to talk with them.

    Reply
  11. Mike Burgess - November 19, 2022 1:44 pm

    Thank you for spreading kindness, confidence and hope in your stories! Such a blessing to me and so many others.

    Reply
  12. Joan Crowson - November 19, 2022 2:03 pm

    Wonderful description of my town. I get to live here and I’m married to a born and bred Oxonian. It’s been said that everyone on the square is either a writer, a doctor, a teacher, or a lawyer, and the students are one of these to come. I just love this town❤️.

    Reply
  13. Ina - November 19, 2022 2:25 pm

    Your are the writer and I am the reader. Thank you for your story every morning.

    Reply
  14. cobernjudymsncom - November 19, 2022 3:06 pm

    Love your work…..And Oxford!

    Reply
  15. David - November 19, 2022 4:09 pm

    Good story. Thank you Sean!

    Reply
  16. Peggy M. Windham - November 19, 2022 4:16 pm

    Hotty Toddy!!

    Reply
  17. debdearmondDeb - November 19, 2022 5:42 pm

    Now ain’t that the neck-ed truth? Thanks for starting my day off with a smile%

    Reply
  18. Linda Moon - November 19, 2022 7:25 pm

    I never knew that Oxford is the “Literary Center of the South” until now….and now I know why: they get it. I’m glad “this kid” grew up to become you, Writer…very glad!

    Reply
  19. Barbara - November 19, 2022 11:36 pm

    You bring joy

    Reply
  20. Donna Baker - November 20, 2022 4:10 am

    👍👍👍

    Reply
  21. Ginga - November 20, 2022 10:53 am

    I absolutely LOVE it!! I LOVE writers, too!! Thank you forbeing a writer, Sean!!

    Reply
  22. Heidi the Canuck - November 20, 2022 12:19 pm

    C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I think the same goes for writing. After reading your post I came across this in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, “For me, writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers … You feel that you are with someone.” Yep. Sounds right. Thanks for keeping us company so faithfully every morning, Sean.

    Reply
  23. Lisa - November 21, 2022 12:43 pm

    And you knew I needed to read this today, didn’t you? 😉

    Reply

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