Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Labor South roundup: Journalist Bill Minor's early career chronicled in new documentary; famed burlesque performer Blaze Starr dies; and UAW wins at auto parts plant in Mississippi

 
This Labor South roundup ranges from a new documentary on trailblazing Mississippi journalist Bill Minor and the recent death of famed New Orleans burlesque performer Blaze Starr to a United Auto Workers victory at an auto parts plant in the Mississippi Delta

Mississippi journalist Bill Minor’s early career tracked in new documentary

(Journalist Bill Minor during a birthday celebration in 2012)

The documentary Bill Minor: Eyes on Mississippi premiered at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., June 14 with hundreds on hand to celebrate a legendary journalist who has been covering Mississippi politics since 1947. Among those in the crowd were former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, Civil Rights-era leader Ed King, and former black state legislator Robert Clark.

Minor, 93, who reported on Mississippi for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, his own publication Capitol Reporter, and in his statewide syndicated column, covered every major event during the tumultuous 1950s, 1960s and beyond, including the 1955 trial of Emmett Till murderers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the 1962 Ole Miss riot, and the 1964 murders of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner.

Unlike much of the Mississippi press, Minor covered these events with a sharp eye on and total commitment to truth and telling it like it is.

Produced by veteran journalist Ellen Ann Fentress and edited by Lida Gibson, the documentary follows Minor’s career through the Neshoba County, Miss., murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. A sequel is tentatively planned. The documentary included lengthy interviews with Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the late journalist Claude Sitton, among others.

Minor continues to keep his “eyes on Mississippi” in his weekly columns. At the event this past Sunday, he told the crowd, “Let’s hope we elect the kind of leadership Mississippi needs to enjoy the kind of progress the rest of the nation has seen.”

Blaze Starr, famed mistress of Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, dies at her West Virginia home

Fannie Belle Fleming, 83, better known as burlesque performer and stripper Blaze Starr, died at her home in Wilsondale, W. Va., this week. She had been experiencing heart trouble.

As Blaze Starr, she became nationally famous in 1959 because of her involvement with Earl Long, the populist three-time governor of Louisiana who has been featured in Labor South several times. She had been a performer at the Sho-Bar club in New Orleans.

Starr's relationship with Long was depicted in the 1989 movie "Blaze" featuring Paul Newman as Earl Long and Lolita Davidovich as Blaze.

Starr later confided to friends and relatives that Long was the love of her life. She must have been a great source of comfort to Long, who had major battles with family members, including his wife, as well as with political opponents in the tumultuous last year of his life.

UAW victory at auto parts plant in Mississippi

A strong majority of workers at the Faurecia Automotive Seating plant in Cleveland, Miss., voted in favor of joining the United Auto Workers earlier this month.

The workers have complained of low wages, poor working conditions, and the French-owned company’s practice of hiring temporary workers.

 The UAW continues to mine the potentially rich soil of the U.S. South with an ongoing campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and a continuing presence at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and other plants across the region.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Labor South roundup: Steve Stern's tales from a "East European enclave in Memphis"; the South's Medicaid gap; anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga; and B.B. King singing "poor people's music"

 
Here’s an early summer round up from Labor South that includes an account of Memphis-born writer Steve Stern’s recent visit to Burkes Book Store in Memphis, a glance at anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the South’s Medicaid gap, and finally one more look back at the late great B.B. King.

(Author Steve Stern reading from his new book, The Pinch, at Burkes Book Store in Memphis)

Finding an “East European Enclave” in Memphis, Tennessee

Steve Stern, author of The Book of Mischief (reviewed in Labor South back in May 2013) and other novels and stories about Jewish life in Memphis, the Catskills, the Lower East Side in New York, and Europe, stopped by for a reading and signing of his new book, The Pinch, at Burkes Book Store in Memphis last week. An overflow crowd welcomed him, so many fans that the store ran out of copies of his book.

“I can’t believe people are so nice to me in this town,” the Memphis native said, recalling how as a young man he “shook the dust off this town” but then later “washed up again on its shores” to do the basic research on the city’s old Jewish district, the Pinch. For the past 28 years, Stern, 67, has taught creative writing at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“When I first saw it, it was this moonscape,” he said of the old district just beyond the levees to the Mississippi River along downtown’s North Main Street that once was home to succeeding waves of Irish, German and Jewish immigrants. “I learned it was a self-sustained, very vital, East European enclave with artisans, fishmongers, tailors. Yiddish was the lingua franca of the street.

The burgeoning writer stumbled upon literary gold. “I guess my stories were looking for a home.”

Indeed, Stern’s wonderful tales put him in a league with the great Jewish writers Isaac Babel (whose stories were an inspiration to him), Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, and Sholom Aleichem. Like those writers, Stern writes of poor shopkeepers and ragmen who live their lives in a world constantly threatened by the larger world outside that neither understands nor tolerates them very well.

The Southern Medicaid Gap

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation, the Southern states of Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina are home to 61 percent of the approximately four million people denied Medicaid coverage in this country.

“And it’s people in the South who are predominantly left out because Republicans refuse to have anything to do with President Obama,” the Texas-based Progressive Populist recently reported.

Anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga

As the United Auto Workers continues to try speak on behalf of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., even without official collective bargaining status, the rival group set up to counter the UAW’s presence there operates in relative secrecy.

The American Council of Employees, claiming 381 members compared to the UAW’s 816 members at the plant, boasts of local roots and independence of outside groups but refuses to reveal its funding sources, according to the Associated Press. Plus, “the lawyer who recently filed the group’s overdue disclosures with the U.S. Department of Labor touts his expertise in `union avoidance,’” the AP reported recently.

The group’s filing only listed about $15,000 in “other receipts,” according to Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42.

The UAW’s Local 42 receives its funding entirely from the union’s national office.

B.B. King sang the music of “poor people”

OXFORD, Miss. – Blues music may be singing the “No Future Tomorrow” blues once B.B. King hangs up his guitar for good, Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer warned back in 2004.

(To the right above, the hearse carrying the body of B.B. King makes its way down Beale Street in Memphis en route to his burial site in Indianola, Miss.)

Speaking at a “Blues Today” symposium in Oxford, Iglauer, whose Chicago-based company recorded Hound Dog Taylor and other greats, called bluesman B.B. King the music’s standard-bearer. “Sooner or later he’s going to be forced to retire. He’s an icon. When he does, that blues is history. … I’m very scared about the future.”

To keep the music alive, Iglauer said, blues musicians must be “nurtured” to be able to connect with contemporary audiences. “If we don’t nurture the young musicians, we are talking about a museum.”

King, who died last month at the age of 89, got his nurturing from folks like his cousin, country blues artist Bukka White, and the music he heard along Beale Street in Memphis back in the 1940s. “I’m a self-taught man,” King told an audience in Oxford during that same blues symposium. “Every time I’d hear something I’d learn a little more about it, and I’d play it. It’s like learning a language.”
           
In an interview I had with the Mississippi-born blues great that same year, he said he was optimistic about the music’s future. “There is a young guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb Mo, Corey Harris. They don’t play what I play. I don’t play like Bukka did. I wish I could. What I’m trying to say is that each generation brings about their own musicians.”

 King was right. Compare the clean, soul-rending notes from his guitar Lucille on “Three O’Clock Blues” to the raw chords you hear on Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” in the 1940s or Charley Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” in the 1920s.  King’s lineage may be more evident in Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 classic “Dark Was The Night”. Johnson’s every emotion-filled moan is echoed by his bottleneck guitar.

(Blind Willie Johnson)

It’s all blues, just different kinds of blues, different generations of musicians with something to say to an audience that knew exactly what the musicians meant.

The nurturing Iglauer called for can be seen today in places like the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, where young local musicians get training that allows them to tap into their region’s rich cultural legacy.  The upcoming young blues prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is a product of that training.

The blues grew out of a South haunted by poverty, isolation, racial oppression, old-time religion, and intolerant, oligarchical rule. It was the music of poor people, a kind of rebellion against those crushing forces. It’s the same with poor people’s music everywhere in the world—flamenco in Spain, fado in Portugal, tango in Argentina.

It crosses racial and even class lines, however. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf liked to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Bluegrass and country greats Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams all learned from the blues.

To some, the blues lost much of its poignancy when it left the backwater South and went commercial in Chicago. In the 1930s, Mississippian Robert Johnson’s blues laments about “hellhound on my trail” and “me and the devil … walking side by side” were existential cries of anguish. By the 1960s, Texas guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins once complained, practically every Chicago blues song was about a woman.

In many ways, B.B. King straddled those different eras of blues. From learning at the knee of Bukka White to singing duos with Eric Clapton, he was a part of blues’ evolution from the music that W.C. Handy heard at the Tutwiler train station back in 1903 to what the Rolling Stones were singing in the 1960s and beyond. That’s why he was, in Iglauer’s words, “an ideal spokesman for his music.”

“I think one of the things about the blues is truth,” King told me in 2004. “It’s truth without a lot of makeup. If we hear Frank Sinatra, he paints a beautiful picture. He sings about a girl in a beautiful meadow. He finally tells her he loves her. That makes the picture. In the blues, the guy doesn’t know all these beautiful lines. The blues singer just says, `Baby, I love you!’”

That’s a universal language, and people are going to want to hear those who speak it well for a long time, whether the words are about hellhounds, lost love, or loneliness and an empty bed at three o’clock in the morning.
           

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A research graphic on "Modern Prisons and Their Predecessors" shows a stain on the nation's conscience

 
 
(To the right, a 1911 photograph of convict laborers at Mississippi’s notorious “Parchman Farm” prison)

Labor South has followed the incarceration issue in this country over the years, decrying in one post back in December 2013 how the United States has become “the world’s largest gulag.” Of course, the South, with Louisiana and Mississippi at the forefront, leads the nation in putting people behind bars and often throwing away the key. Twelve of the top 20 incarcerating states are in the South.

The obscenity of private, profit-making prisons is a plague on the land that contributes to the fact that this nation exceeds even China and Russia in incarceration rates. Corrections Corporation of America in Tennessee and the GEO Group, Inc., of Florida are the nation’s top two private prison companies.

Viviana Shafrin, a loyal reader of this blog, recently sent Labor South a research graphic she helped create that details just how big an issue this is. Below is the link to the graphic, titled "Modern Prisons and Their Predecessors:
I think you’ll all find it very interesting.

Here is a short write-up of the infographic Viviana sent Labor South: The United States has the most prisons in the world in order to house the highest number of incarcerated people in the world. In prison can be found 707 of every 100,000 people in the country. Out of every 100 citizens, three work in the justice system. One in nine state employees works in corrections. How this vast prison system evolved is examined by looking back at what was before modern prisons existed.         

Here in Mississippi, the prison system has been rocked by corruption at its highest levels with veteran Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps accused of pocketing $2 million in bribes related to no-bid contracts. Reports of medieval conditions with the state’s private prisons have also put the system’s reputation in shambles.

One would have to go back to the early 1900s to find an era as dark (or perhaps I should say almost as dark) as what is happening today. That was when then-Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman, racist though he was, had to weigh in and end the abominable practice of convict leasing in the state’s prison system. Convict leasing was "a source of cheap labor after the end of slavery" in the South, Chris Kromm of Facing South has written.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

B.B. King takes his last ride down Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, the street where he got his start in the late 1940s

 

(The hearse carrying the late B.B. King makes its way past the famous A. Schwab store down Beale Street in Memphis)

MEMPHIS, Tenn.– John White, a 35-year-old schoolteacher in Memphis who got his graduate degree at the University of Mississippi, said he picked up the phone one day as a young fellow and B.B. King was on the line.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled with a laugh.

He found out that King knew his grandmother, Claudia Jackson. They used to date. “She has a photograph of her with B.B. on one side and Elvis on the other.”

(To the right, John White)

White was one of thousands of fans crowding the sidewalks of Beale Street here in Memphis Wednesday as the great bluesman made his last journey down the street where he began his career back in the late 1940s. King died earlier this month at his home in Las Vegas at the age of 89.

A New Orleans-style brass band played “The Thrill Is Gone” and other classics as it marched down Beale in front of the long, black hearse that had carried King from the Memphis airport, where he had been flown in from Las Vegas, and would bring him to his final resting place in Indianola, Miss.

People called out “We love you, B.B.!” and “Rest in peace, B.B.” as the hearse passed by the B.B. King Blues Club and Schwab’s dry goods store and made its way toward Third Street, where it turned right onto what becomes Highway 61 direction Mississippi Delta. When the hearse came to a stop just past Beale, women walked up to the back of it and kissed the rear view mirror repeatedly. Many cried.

(Bluesman Bobby Rush, center, in the crowd around the hearse carrying B.B. King)

Famous blues singers like Bobby Rush and Keb Mo were in the crowd, but most were regular folks like Lucille Shields and Latham Walker.

(Lucille Shields)

“Yes, my name is Lucille,” Shields said, “and I’ve got an ID to prove it.”

Of course, “Lucille” was also the name B.B. King gave his guitars after a long-ago dispute between two men over a woman by that name. The dispute took place in an Arkansas dance club where King was performing and led to a fire and King’s desperate rescue of his guitar from the blazes.

“I’ve been listening to the blues since I was five,” 59-year-old Shields said. “I’m here to celebrate B.B. King’s homecoming from Las Vegas to Beale to back home in Mississippi.”

Latham Walker, 61, is another Memphian who loves B.B. King and the blues. “I’m first cousin with Rufus Thomas,” he said proudly, referring to another Beale Street legend known for his classic “Walkin’ the Dog”. “The blues will never die. The blues will be forever. Everyday everybody’s going through something.”

(To the right, Latham Walker)

I interviewed King back in 2004, and we talked about his career and the future of the blues. He recalled his influences--from his cousin, early era country blues singer Bukka White, to the music he heard up and down Beale Street in the 1940s. Today “there is a young guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb Mo, Corey Harris,” King said. “They don’t play what I play. I don’t play like Bukka did. I wish I could. What I’m trying to say is that each generation brings about their own musicians.”

Maybe among those thousands mourning and celebrating B.B. King on Beale Street Wednesday were a handful of young blues musician waiting for their chance and knowing they’d never forget the day they paid their last respects to the King.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Republican "grass-eater rule" in Mississippi has prison system in shambles, workers' compensation gutted, and education on a precipice

 

("Uncle" Earl Long on the stump)

OXFORD, Miss. – Three-time Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, a betting man who loved the horses, knew his maneuverings to get a fourth term in 1960 were a long shot.  He also knew he was the last hope for the poor white and poor black in a state where the right-wingers were aching for power.

A.J. Liebling, a newsprint poet who also loved the racetrack, records in his classic The Earl of Louisiana what indeed happened when Uncle Earl’s bet came up short. “The grasseaters and the nuts have taken over the streets of New Orleans.”

Sure enough, newly elected Gov. Jimmie Davis quickly moved to cut $7.6 million in welfare funding and put 22,650 poor children on a path to starvation.

When I get depressed about politics, I look back to Uncle Earl for some solace. His enemies called him crazy—and maybe he was a little—but he was a true-blue populist who stood up for regular folks, something hard to find these days.

Look at Mississippi under Republican “grass eater” rule in both the governor’s mansion and state Legislature.

A lop-sided tax system that favors corporations and the rich has contributed to one of the biggest income gaps between the rich and poor of any state in the country. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn’s solution? Phase out the state income tax and the $1.7 billion in state revenue it provides.

Thank goodness, House Democrats killed Gunn’s plan and prevented Mississippi from becoming another Kansas, where Republicans succeeded in such an effort and nearly wrecked the state’s budget while flatlining its economy.

I’m one of the few journalists in this state who has decried the miserable protections workers here get due to a Republican-spawned gutting of workers’ compensation rules. That’s why I get calls from desperate workers injured on the job with little or no means of getting just treatment from their employers. Got one the other day. What can I tell them? Get people to stop voting in politicians who side with bosses and CEOs rather than working folks.

Another nearly wrecked institution is Mississippi’s prison system. Corruption at the highest levels and medieval conditions within its private prisons have the system’s reputation in shambles. Experts acknowledged during a recent Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics panel discussion here at the University of Mississippi that past politics and a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude set the stage.

My view? The core corruption in the state’s prison system is its willingness to hand over what is a state responsibility to profit-seeking private corporations.

Finally let’s look at education in a state with a sordid history of politically sanctioned disdain for public education.

Once again, the state Legislature ended its most recent session underfunding public schools, this time by $211 million under rules it set for itself in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). Initiative 42 (on the ballot this fall and which would force the Legislature to meet MAEP funding requirements or face judicial sanction) is an effort to fix this.

Quite clearly a grass-eating core within the Republican Party wants to privatize public education. Charter schools and vouchers are merely Trojan horses in that cause.  According to a study recently published in New Labor Forum, charter schools across the country have doubled since 2008 while some 4,000 district schools shut down. Charter school CEOs earn as much as three times what school principals earn. Yet charter school advocates are the first to condemn teacher unions that want fair wages and benefits for teachers.

Higher education is in a nationwide crisis. The cost of one college year has increased 1,200 percent over the past 30 years, the New Labor Forum reports. Student loan debt jumped 400 percent between 2003 and 2013. Thank the corporatization of America for those statistics.

The board of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, known as the College Board, has been under fire for failing to renew the contract of University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones. The decision, reached in secret, led to widespread speculation about a right-wing takeover of higher education in Mississippi.

Such speculation is warranted given what has happened in North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Tea Partyers, corporate wheeler dealer Art Pope, and the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors managed to get rid of progressive UNC President Tom Ross earlier this year as well as university centers devoted to the environment, voter engagement and ending poverty. Pope’s dream is to get writer Ayn Rand, right-wing goddess of unhinged capitalism, accepted into the canon of required studies at UNC.

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor and possible presidential hopeful Scott Walker tried to get the wording of the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement changed from “searching for truth” to “meeting the state’s work-force needs.” He failed, but he did succeed in seriously cutting university funding.

Mississippi voters have a chance to change things next election. Will they vote for Initiative 42 and for politicians who serve rather than oppose their interests?

I’m hoping, but I’m not placing any bets.

A version of this column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Labor South's May Day Roundup: Rosie the Riveter, building cars in Mexico on the cheap, and anti-union toxins in South Carolina

 
It’s May 1, the true “labor day”, St. Joseph the Worker Day, and time for another Labor South roundup with a look at the late Rosie the Riveter, the growing auto industry in Mexico, and anti-unionism in South Carolina.

Rosie the Riveter

One of my favorites in my grand collection of coffee cups is my Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It?” cup. With her red bandanna, blue work shirt, rolled-up sleeves, and balled fist, she’s always been a labor hero to me, not only a symbol of World War II-era, factory-working women but also a reminder of the wonderful legacy of women at the forefront championing working-class folks.

One of several women associated with the Rosie legend, Mary Doyle Keefe, died last week in Simsbury, Conn., at the age of 92. Keefe was the model for artist Norman Rockwell’s 1943 rendition of Rosie the Riveter, which had her in overalls with a lunch box and rivet gun close at hand, and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf under her feet.

Like another Rosie, the late Geraldine Doyle, who died at 86 in Lansing, Mich., in 2010, Keefe had never worked as a riveter. Keefe was a telephone operator when Rockwell had her pose for him. Doyle was briefly a factory worker but quit when she saw that the hard working conditions might endanger her true love, playing the cello.  It was Doyle whom artist J. Howard Miller used to create the Rosie in the “We Can Do It!” poster.

Some might say the real Rosie was Rose Will Monroe, a Kentucky native who did actually work at Ford’s Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Michigan, which was building B-29 bombers. She came along after the poster was already created, however, but was featured in a film promoting war bonds. Monroe died at the age of 77 in 1997.

They’re all heroes to me, and they’re all Rosie, one tough gal who wore a blue collar, did a good job, and was proud of her work.

Building cars in Mexico on the cheap

A recent report from the Associated Press shows Mexico in position to become the next “Detroit South” with plans by both Toyota and Ford for new plants there. Most of the 18 auto factories in Mexico were built in the past 10 years.

Mexican workers like the money. They can earn as much as $10 a day at one of the Japanese plants, or even $20 a day at Volkswagen. Those are good wages in a country with a minimum wage of $4.50 a day.

It’s going to be hard for even auto workers in low-paying states like Mississippi to compete with such miserable wages.

So what authors Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais in their classic 1955 book, Labor’s Untold Story, described as the “run-away-plant movement” continues, aided by NAFTA and its kin, and it will continue as long as workers remain unorganized on an international scale.

What’s encouraging, however, is that Mexican auto workers are raising complaints about poor working conditions such as long hours and injuries on the job. If workers like them unionize around the world, eventually the run-away plants will run out of places where they can run.

Anti-union toxins in South Carolina

Another recent Associated Press report tells of the decision by the Machinists union to forego a planned union vote last month at the Boeing plant in North Charleston, S.C.

The union released a statement describing the “toxic environment” against unions in the state. Threats and political interference are among the toxins. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has publicly urged workers at the 7,500-worker plant to oppose any unionization effort.

A “toxic environment” toward unions exists throughout the South these days with the Republican takeover of the region. Workers eventually are going to realize that the Nikki Haleys of the world don’t represent their interests. Let’s hope that realization comes sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

An ink-stained wretch pens a novel, and thus a "long apprenticeship" comes to fruition

 
(To the right, Edgar Allan Poe)

It all started when my eighth-grade English teacher, Bill Watson, introduced us to Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and tales of horror. He told us of other writers, too, but Poe was my man.

When I got back home after school in my North Carolina town, I went immediately to my room and starting writing. Oh, the words that poured forth! Pages and pages of epic poetry! Story after story of Poe-like terror and mayhem so pitiably inadequate they deserved to be killed and buried like Poe’s “tell-tale heart.”

When my Poe fixation faded, I turned to Jack London. Here was a challenge. What adventures could I boast to a writer who had been a gold prospector, hobo, able-bodied seaman, oyster pirate and war correspondent? Working summers on a tobacco farm just didn’t compare.

(Jack London)

No matter. At my writing desk, I spun great long tales of frozen barrens with roaming packs of wolves, pirates on stormy seas.

Mr. Watson admitted to me decades later he never had any idea he was changing forever the life of the unremarkable-but-wide-eyed 14-year-old near the back of the room.

I’m reminiscing these days about those childhood years when I envisioned writing both the greatest epic poem since Milton and the Great American Novel. Today, this aging, ink-stained wretch, after decades of banging out true stories in newspapers, magazines and a couple books, can now claim a published novel.

Mine has been a long apprenticeship.

(To the right, the cover to my recently published novel, Casey's Last Chance)

Ernest Hemingway once said this about journalists writing fiction: “On the (Kansas City) Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”

Papa Hemingway had a good point. Newspaper work can be a wonderful muse. You write fast and hard against deadline, often under a tough editor’s stern eye, ridding your language of excess baggage, boiling it down to crystalline purity. That’s what I see in my favorite writing journalists, from A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Day and Ernie Pyle to modern-day masters like Charlie LeDuff.

Some of my favorite fiction writers got their training banging out newspaper stories, like hardboiled master James Cain, but Hemingway had another point when he said getting “out of it in time” may be necessary.

Making the transition from newspaper articles to magazine articles is no cinch. Newspaper deadlines can be just hours away. A magazine deadline may be six months in the future with publication six months later. Newspaper writers want immediate gratification. Waiting a year to see a byline is an eternity. Today’s online journalism makes old-style newspaper deadlines seem like a luxury.

Fiction’s biggest challenge to the nonfiction writer is that the writer makes most of the decisions. He can't always rely on the facts to make them. Another challenge is failure.

“If there are to be any claims to greatness, they are to be found only in the scope of the failure and persistence in the face of it,” novelist and journalist Stephen Marche wrote in the New York Times about the failures of great writers like Herman Melville. “That persistence may be the one truly writerly virtue, a salvation indistinguishable from stupidity. To keep going, despite everything. … To keep failing.”

For many years, I was the stereotypical newspaper reporter with the unpublished manuscript in the bottom drawer of his desk. I looked everywhere for models. Mississippian Eudora Welty talked about the importance of a writer’s “sense of place.” The great worker poet Philip Levine, who died this month, believed writers should leave their “place”.

“It’s important to get away from the place where you’re from,” he told an Oxford audience in 2000. “When you’re away from (such places), it is then that you can look back and see their beauty and their horror.”

In other words, writers disagree with each other.

Hacking away at an earlier, never-published novel many years ago, I’d get up at five in the morning and put in a couple hours before spending the next nine hours reporting and writing nonfiction. Got it finished, but 40-plus rejections and my friend, novelist and crime reporter Ace Atkins (no relation), finally convinced me to shelve it and start working on a second.

It was good advice. I later learned that’s what a lot of writers did and with success, including Ace Atkins and now me. Writing (and publishing) short stories also provided good training for that future novel.

Fiction and nonfiction share one thing in common. Both give you a joy that’s hard to describe when you finish what you’re writing and know it’s good. At that point, it’s not even important whether someone else knows it, too.

Except Mr. Watson. If he were still with us, I’d want him to know.

A version of this column was published recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.