R. S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Hillside Monday: 7/25/16


“One Way to Get To Nashville”
Pure Life Studios
LaGrange, Georgia – 26 June 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)



Aren’t we all.

As usual, I’d let the Johnson grass in the back yard grow too high to mow. Instead, Mom and I chopped it into submission with machetes. It was hard, piss-you-off-quick work, what with the sweat running in our eyes and the sweat bees stinging us faster than we could shoo them away. Plus I hated the late September slant of sun. It made four-thirty in the afternoon feel like the end of the world.

The sudden whonnk-whonnk-whonnk startled me. In the washed-out blue distance, there they were—their neat, strict V flawless as always. Canada geese, of course, here taking jobs from American geese and wrecking the avian economy. They swagger around the backwater as if they own the red clay banks, hissing to rival the biggest cottonmouths, crapping glossy greenish-black all over the picnic area.

Arrogant, rude, noisy, messy—and stunningly beautiful, with those graceful black velvet necks and elegant white chinstraps. No charcoal, no gouache could duplicate their shading. No couturier could duplicate the white contrast seam binding along their smoky flight feathers. Subtle gray-brown scallops on their ivory bellies provide relief between the stark palettes above and below.

At the slightest threat to nest or wounded mate, WHHHHFFFFF! Beauty takes near-noiseless flight. A dozen sixteen-pound waterproof feathered mortars bear down shrieking and scare the bejesus out of combat-hardened Army Rangers jogging by the lake.

They were flying north.
In September.

“Dumbasses,” I muttered. “They’re going the wrong way.”

Mom pitched another clump of grass over the fence. “Aren’t we all.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Keep Your Faith


Stovall, Georgia – 21 July 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


“You can’t know if it’s any good while you’re writing it.”

Like most professional writers, I get a lot of people asking me for advice. The other day, someone asked how I know if a piece is worthwhile. “Do you know it’s good stuff before you start? Do you know while you’re writing it?”

Those are fair questions, and ones I hear pretty often. And the answer is: DEAR GOD, NO.

Most of the time, I start with very little—the barest sketch of a scene, a snippet of conversation, a fragment of an idea written half-assedly on the back of my hand. I don’t dare judge my idea at this point. No, no, no. I have to get everything out before I know if it’s still worth pursuing.

Often, it is. Sometimes, it’s not. But having written about it is never a waste of time. The ideas need to percolate through my brain and out my fingers and onto the page. Then they need to sit a while. That’s how writers figure out if what they’re working on is worth a damn.

Easy enough, right? But, no.
I forget this truth all the time. And I have to remind myself of it all the time—as in, daily. Other writers remind me of it, too.

A couple years ago, I was having trouble hammering out the first draft of my novel. Nothing I did seemed to work. So I asked a writer friend for help. She had just published a stunning book of exquisite new poems—the kind of stuff that, as Emily Dickinson put it so well, “takes the top of my head off.” My friend invited me to her house on a thick July evening, where we sat on her back porch, sipped bourbon, and talked writing.

“I’m struggling,” I told her, “struggling like I never have before.”

“Mmhmm.” She nodded. The melting ice in her glass clinked as it collapsed on itself.

“The words are so slow to come. Paint dries faster than I can write. All I can think while I’m typing is, Oh my God, this is awful. This is the worst stuff I’ve ever written. And I can’t make it stop.”

“Yep,” she said. “Sounds about right.”

I took another sip of whiskey. “So what do I do? I’ve got a book to write, but all I can come up with is garbage.”

My friend was quiet for a moment. Fireflies blinked their evening hello-hello-goodbye above the giant hostas by her porch. Finally, she sighed. “You can’t know if it’s any good while you’re writing it.”

She got up and poured herself another drink. “If you stop mid-process and try to determine how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is, you lose your momentum. You lose your flow. Stopping to look at the details before they’re on the page blocks the process.”

“Right,” I said.

“There is no way you can know. There just isn’t. The knowing comes later. You have to get it all out there first, and then let it sit. Only then can you make value judgments.” She smiled. “To get to that point, maybe you’re just going to have to write a bunch of absolutely horrible first drafts.”

“Yeah. Maybe so.”

My friend sat back in her chair. “Remember last summer, when I went to New York? I spent three days there poring over Arthur Miller’s personal papers—Death of a Salesman, in particular. Today, we know it as a classic. It’s perfect. But looking at all those drafts, especially the earliest ones, helped me understand how much steady, persistent work he put into the play.”

I nodded. “How so?”

“Those first drafts aren’t very good. They’re immature, even didactic. I couldn’t see much of Miller at all in there. There were characters that didn’t make any sense, didn’t seem to have a purpose in the play. But I kept reading, draft after draft after draft. I saw all the lines and characters he cut out, or revised, or added. It gets stronger with each version, all the way to the one we know as the official Death of a Salesman. The one we cover in English 1102.”

She drank deeply from her glass, then spoke again. “Reading through all those drafts made me understand that it’s not just a great play. It’s a great play that began as a not-very-good play, and that got better and better in stages, over time. Miller took his bad drafts and kept on reshaping and revising them. Same with my book. Some of those poems I wrote while I was still in grad school. If you look at what I wrote in 1994, it sucks. But the version I put in the collection? With 20 years of distance, and at least 18 months of reshaping and revising? It’s great.”

I laughed, and finished the last of my bourbon. “Well, damn. If a bunch of horrible drafts are good enough for you and Arthur Miller, then they’re good enough for me.”

Sure enough, my friend reminded me of this great truth of writing: It never happens perfectly the first time we get it down. Often, it doesn’t happen the second, third, fourth, or maybe even 17th time. The strange magic here lies in our having faith in the process. We keep going, even when we think we’re just producing trash. When we keep showing up to meet our ideas and ourselves on the page, version after version, our writing becomes strong and clean and new—almost without our realizing it.

And that is all I have to say today—after 24 drafts.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Another Quiet Moment in Nashville


Waffle House #511
Nashville, Tennessee – 17 September 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 7/20/16


“Golden Leaves and Sky”
Carrollton, Georgia – 11 November 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


No Questions

When she heard the familiar squeaky fan belt out in the yard, Eula had already peeled off girdle and slip and was walking about in her gown-tails. Eight-thirty was no time for visitors, least of all those who didn’t even have the decency to call ahead. She stepped to the door, gathering her summer housecoat around her waist. Damned if she’d put on a clean dress this late in the evening.

As he swung his legs out of the car, Corvus saw her shadow behind the weathered screen, and grinned. Eula did not. She grasped the solid comfort of the steel pipe that she always kept behind the wide front door, and spoke without a greeting.

“Your letter said you didn’t want folks to know. Said you didn’t want to have to answer any questions about who you been courtin’.” The cool, smooth pine beneath her feet reminded her just how awake she was. “So, no, I didn’t stop or speak yesterday when you saw me on the square. I thought I’d wait. Maybe see what you’re made of.”

He warmed all over. She would be his again in a matter of minutes. “What am I made of?”

“Oh, the usual. Snakes, snails. A few puppy-dog tails. But mostly chicken shit.”

His broad, tan face turned coleslaw-pale.

She smiled. Her words had hit their mark—bull’s-eye. “No questions: that’s what you wanted. Now you got it.”

Eula stared into his icy blue right eye, the good one. Too bad she couldn’t gouge it out, grip the living jelly with her fingers, leave him screaming as she snatched the bloody orb from its socket. Maybe she’d keep it in her purse for her very own good luck charm. Maybe she’d tote it to work, send the Davis brats shrieking with the dried grayish-blue lump, and for once hang their mama’s drawers on the line in peace. Knowing that his eyeball dangled from her key chain would hurt him far worse than blindness.

“Get out of my yard.”

He took a shaky step and set his mind to the screen door handle. Pulling it open would take strength he wasn’t sure he had. “Eula, I didn’t—people were just—”

“I said: Get out of my yard.”

In the wide front seat of the Pontiac lay an armful of tiger lilies and Queen Anne’s lace, her favorite flowers. He’d picked them in a ditch outside Eckersley. Next to them sat a deluxe box of the cordial cherries she loved, the ones that made her kisses even sweeter. His voice wavered in a way neither of them had ever heard. “Please, Eula. I—I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I—well. All that’s in the past. Let’s make up.”

“Let’s make up. Just like that?” She snapped thumb and forefinger to emphasize this last.

“I know. It’s been a while. But I had to let it all die down. Had to lay low.”

“Lay low for what? Two years ago, you were ready to tell everyone.” Eula wiped the sweat that beaded her brow. “The world’s changed, you said. Didn’t matter that I’m colored, you said. But then you ran for office.”

“You’re not colored, baby—not enough for it to matter. C’mon.”

“Not enough for it to matter?” Fury rose from her soles clear to the top of her head, clean and cold and pure. “Show your face around here again, and I will lay you bare.”

He stood as if his hip might be welded to the car. His eyes widened. For a split second, he resembled a forlorn hood ornament.

Eula straightened herself against the edge of the door. “Surrounded yourself with yes-men and crooks. They’ve got you believing your own piddling little press releases. But step out past that courthouse a ways. Ask around. Nobody in this county is a big enough fool to believe you anymore.” She wiped her brow again with one cherry-print housecoat sleeve. “God knows I used to be.”

He buckled slightly at the knees. At least he could lean against the fender, play it off a little, while he squinted at her through the house plants lined up against the screen. “Aww, you know me. I just like to stay off the gossip circuit.”

For a moment, she thought she would never stop laughing. “‘Stay off the gossip circuit!’ Oh, now that is precious. I’m gonna use that one.” She shook her head. “Corvus Eugene Watson, you are County Commissioner. You’re on the gossip circuit whether you want to be or not.”

“And what your yes-men have failed to tell you,” she continued, “is that it’s the way you treat the people at the edge of your world that’s so important. It’s how you treat people like me—people you use and throw away once you get what you want from them—that keeps the gossip circuit running. How you conduct yourself with those who can do the least for you—that, Mister Commissioner, is what they will always, always talk about.”

In the evening light, the mighty red oaks stretched mute and watchful over the sandy, clean-swept yard. Eula saw his proud figure turn shabby and wounded. His pant cuffs made sad blue seersucker poufs atop his dirty brogans. The ribbon bow tie hung in jaunty, defeated loops. Even the expensive Stetson on his head was soaked clean through with flop sweat and reckoning.

He was trying, and failing. “Please, Eula. Please.” His mouth bent at one corner.

In the loam-scented shadows of the porch, she closed her eyes, forced her thoughts back to the cold galvanized steel in her hand. “I haven’t hit a man in fourteen years. Don’t make this the day I break my streak.”

Corvus turned so she couldn’t watch his face crumple. He slid back into the Bonneville, fired it up, and was gone.

She let the pipe fall ringing behind the door, and steadied herself—she’d forgotten to breathe. Inhaling big, she stepped onto the porch and watched the dust cloud at the mailbox swirl, swirl, swirl, then settle. At the edge of the yard, Hyatt stood before the boxwood hedge, his redbone hound leg raised in urinary bliss. He hadn’t so much as whimpered when Corvus pulled up. Sorry-ass dog.

Once she was in her favorite chair, she realized she could not stop shaking. She fumbled in the half-empty tissue box for an emergency cigarette. No, she would never, never have struck that man. Or would she?

Her fingers answered her question and refused to work. Both lighter and pack clattered onto the porch floorboards. Across the road, the last magenta remnants of daylight flared, then dimmed, just beyond the hog pen where the sows already lay dreaming.

Until it was time to go to bed, Eula just sat there, and sobbed, and wished it wasn’t so goddamn hard to hate and love at the same time.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Hillside Monday: 7/18/16


“Any Porch In a Storm”
LaGrange, Georgia – 19 July 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


A Garden in Flames


Dale Chihuly, Amber Cattails, 2006
On display at Denver Botanic Gardens
Denver, Colorado – 10 August 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 7/13/16


“Reserved for Paying Customers”
Wedowee, Alabama – 19 September 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Nice to meet you

2016-02-29 14.46.39

Yesterday, I had a wonderful time as a guest on The Show’s video podcast. To those finding their way here post-interview: Welcome, and thank you.

I work as a freelance writer and photographer. Since 1996, I’ve lived in LaGrange, Georgia, but grew up in southwestern Heard County, Georgia. Songs My Father Barely Knew (link to excerpt) is my nonfiction novel-in-progress. I aim to be done with it by the end of 2016.

For many years, I taught college writing. When people discover I was once an English professor, every bit of their old teachers’ wrongheaded and unhelpful writing advice comes pouring out. So, now and then, I post something to help these folks recover, and to explain my own creative process.

I also write a lot about flowers, animals, rural places, graveyards, and dilapidated buildings.

Sometimes I write about music—for myself and for other people.

Once in a rare while, I write short fiction.

Most often, though, I write about the smallest moments in life—the moments most people miss, the moments we think aren’t worth noticing.

My current projects also include a couple feature articles, a scholarly research presentation on country music,  and (as always) taking better photos. In April 2016, I gave a talk at Arkansas State University’s Delta Symposium on my photos—”Talking with the Ghosts: Representing Cultural Heritage and Matching Text with Image.”

Unless otherwise noted, I created every image on this site. To explore my photos, check out these weekly features:

Want to work together? Let’s talk.

Want to put food in my pets’ bowls? Have at it!

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Hillside Monday: 7/11/16


“Mirror Oak”
LaGrange, Georgia – 31 August 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Join Us for a LIVE podcast: Sun 10 July at 4pm Eastern!

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Another reminder that I’ll be a guest on The Show video podcast tomorrow (Sunday 10 July) at 4pm Eastern time! W00t!

Brian Mallard, Timothy Childree, and I have a lot to squeeze into just one hour. I mean, there’s writing, photos, country music, pro wrestling, Southern food, and bizarre stories. Plenty of bizarre stories.

I’ll talk about my novel-in-progress, Songs My Father Barely Knew (links to an excerpt). I’ll also give a brief reading from my work. So far, nobody’s requested bad guitar playing or interpretive modern dance. So far. But, hey, anything could happen.

To join us:

  • Follow this link at 4pm on Sunday 10 July.
  • Program not streaming on the website? Just click here to follow along live on The Show’s official Facebook page.
  • Can’t join us live? No problem! It’ll be archived, so you can watch later.

See you then!

Text and photo © R. S. Williams
“Listen to Merle R. Haggard” shirt courtesy of Trailer Parkman


Cherry Limb, Thanksgiving Day


Heard County, Georgia – 26 November 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 7/6/16


“Fence and Sky”
Franklin, Georgia – 22 July 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Hillside Monday: 7/4/16


“Traveling Shoes”
LaGrange, Georgia – 5 June 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Mile 61


Thanks to W. B. Walker for identifying this as a railroad mile marker sign!

Anniston, Alabama – 23 June 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 6/29/16


“Light Fixture Rising Sun”
Waffle House #646
LaGrange, Georgia – 3 December 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Tune in to The Show on July 10!


Just a reminder that on Sunday, July 10 at 4pm Eastern, I’ll be a guest on Columbus, Georgia-based video podcast The Show. Looking forward to talking with Brian Mallard and Timothy Childree about my work, recent and upcoming projects, weird Southern stories—and probably even our memories of The Four Horsemen of professional wrestling. Hope you’ll join us!

Oh, the shirt? It’s just telling the truth.

Text and photo © R. S. Williams


Hillside Monday: 6/27/16


“Silk Tree Shadow with Vinyl Siding”
LaGrange, Georgia – 6 June 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


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