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.