Lee Pitts: A lifetime of writing leads to lessons learned, and those still to learn
March 15, 2016
I've been writing a syndicated column for 35 years now. Thirty two years of that time was spent on the syndicated column you're reading, and three years when I wrote a humor column under an assumed name because I didn't want to disgrace the family name. When I was 21, I worked for a livestock weekly as a contract worker trying to sell cattle advertising.
I was terrible at it.
I couldn't sell French fries, a Coke and a burger to a starving teenager.
What I really wanted to do was write. Unfortunately, the publisher didn't share my glowing opinion of my writing skills. I begged to be made the editor, but instead they hired a plagiarist, then a jail bird and an egomaniac who once ran a full page photo of himself. What that publisher didn't know was I was already penning a syndicated column called Grandfather's Collection, written by the guy who couldn't write. After a while, I became a freelance writer, so named because that's what if feels like you work for — free.
Over the years, I've witnessed several great columnists who met their writing demise when they impugned the integrity of female steer jocks, the Hereford breed and a town in the Texas panhandle that some might say has a certain odor as a result of being surrounded by several feedlots. The guy who commented on the town's odor is now waiting tables at Applebee's. Not that there's anything wrong with Applebee's, mind you. And let me be perfectly clear, I love Herefords and the town of the same name. I also happen to think lady steer jocks are really hot.
The problem for humor writers is that political correctness has made it very difficult to be funny. You should have read the hilarious endings I wrote to several of my columns but had to change them because they might be offensive to small minorities of people. You'd have laughed your rear end off. See there how I avoided the use of the A-word so as to not offend anyone?
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Knock on wood, my column has never gotten me into a lot of hot water. My feature writing yes, but my column? No.
There was the time I got in mildly lukewarm trouble for a title I didn't write, and one irate caller called me every name in the book for an article written by a columnist competitor of mine. I gladly gave the caller the phone number of the offending party.
I'm proud to say I've never lost a publication because they found my writing offensive. The reason I have managed to stay out of big trouble is my wife, who has read every word I've written in the 43 years we've been married.
If she hadn't censored me, I wouldn't have lasted six months in this business.
Although we both had the same number of English classes in school, my wife must have had better teachers, or paid more attention than I did, because she knows all the rules, whereas I wouldn't know a split infinitive from an idiomatic expression if it slapped me upside the head. And I really have trouble with when to use its or it's, which is a real problem for a guy named Pitts. Is it Pitts's cow or Pitts' cow?
See what I mean?
My wife knows my audience a lot better than I do, too. Whenever I write something that I shouldn't, have my wife invariably says, "The ladies in Nebraska aren't going to like it."
That's because over the years, I have received several well-written and intelligent letters from different ladies in Nebraska who suggested things like, never use the H-word when referring to real estate WAY down south, nor should I use the A-word, not even when I'm referring to a politician or a male donkey.
It's been my experience that women in Nebraska have exquisite taste, extremely high morals and are exceptionally bright. Not that the ladies in Indiana, New Mexico, Delaware and Florida aren't geniuses too. Whew, I barely dodged a bullet there. Let me be perfectly clear, I think women in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Canada are just like my wonderful wife: 100% perfect in every way.
And that, my friends, is how you survive four decades as a columnist and a husband. ❖