I could write for a hundred years, fill up every blank journal on my bookcase, and never run out of material about my family. And, probably, so could many of you.
The last few days, I have been sifting through memories of my father, who passed away suddenly last week. As I process his loss, I am also considering his legacy. I won’t get overly personal, but I want to share three lessons that guide me in business, and in life in general.
My father was not a writer, but like many writers I know, he had a day job in the oil industry that paid the bills, plus a second job in the family cattle business that was his true calling. He was hard-working and responsible in both, and when I took the leap into professional editing, his work and personal ethics gave me guidance.
Lesson #1 – Be professional.
Daddy loved his cows. He fed his Heifers, checked on them daily, and kept them healthy. He planted new grass in a fenced off field and waited until Christmas Day to let them feed on it, as a holiday present. He stayed up all night when a cow was calving. When he lost a herd in a flood during a hurricane, he was devastated. If our house got too noisy, he’d go off for some peace and quiet with his cattle. When he was sad or worried, he went to his pasture because “sometimes a man just needs to talk to a cow.”
But raising livestock was not a game, and when the time came, he loaded the cows into a trailer and off they went to the slaughterhouse. It wasn’t personal, it was business.
How is this a lesson for me? When I review a manuscript, I must put aside my personal feelings and remember that this writer—maybe a friend, maybe a stranger–is paying for honesty and help, not sweet compliments or hand-holding. The author-editor relationship is a business arrangement between two professionals, and the only way it works is to keep it that way.
Lesson #2 – Be a good boss.
Daddy’s first job was at a small town movie house called the Joy Theater. He was 12. When he was older, he was lied about his age and got a job as a roustabout on an oil rig. He worked in the oil industry for decades, finally as a workover supervisor. At his funeral, so many men introduced themselves as former oilmen, and I remember at least half a dozen said Daddy was the best boss they’d ever had. “He was tough but he was fair,” one man told me, with tears in his eyes. When your passing makes a former roustabout cry, you know you left a strong impression.
I am my own boss, so managing time and juggling jobs falls to me. If I can’t find balance in my home life and my professional life, both will suffer, and I’ll be a bad boss to myself. Sometimes it’s tough to say no to someone who asks for a too-fast turnover, but I have to be fair—to the work and to myself—so that the job is done well.
Lesson #3 – Make your deadlines.
Daddy was impressed when I started my own business, but I’m not sure he ever quite knew what it was—exactly—that I did. “You read books and people pay you?” he asked once, somewhat incredulously, and I answered, “Something like that.” He might not have understood the ins and outs of professional editing, but he got the gist: people sent me projects, I did them, and the people paid me. Every phone call, he wanted to know if I had jobs lined up. He was most happy when I told him I had projects queued for 6 or 9 or 12 months ahead.
One thing about my job never baffled him. When I reported that I’d stayed up late or missed an outing because I had a deadline, he didn’t say, “Poor you.” My father was early to every appointment and he always got work done on time. He never let his cows go hungry because he fiddled around instead of feeding them. He didn’t force a crew into overtime because the project plan was sloppy. Being late was not an option for him, and it can’t be an option for me. When work is due, I get it there–on time.
I could tell you many other things about my father, but those are personal. Bits and pieces of him have always appeared in my stories, and that won’t change or be lost. He may be gone, but his legacy runs through me and my siblings, our cousins, and many friends. I hope you’ll find these lessons good guidance along your own path, whatever it may be.
From him to me, and now from me to you:
- Be professional.
- Be a good boss.
- Make your deadlines.
And, as lagniappe, a picture from his cattle pasture, because sometimes a person just needs to look at a cow.