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The Writing Life

Retired educator shares tips for becoming an author

Ray Willis, author of the autobiographical book “Staying Afloat: Keeping My Head above Water through Some of Life’s Storms” shares some of his tips for writing in retirement. 


Ray Willis (pictured left) taught seventh-grade English for 30 years. Naturally, he carried his writing passion into retirement.

Willis loved to teach writing because he could write alongside his students, sharing stories with them and fellow educators about his eight years of active duty with the Coast Guard. Impressed, Willis’ readers often encouraged him to write a book. But it wasn’t until retirement that Willis fully embraced his literary talents.

After leaving the classroom, Willis moved to North Carolina and married the grandmother of a student he tutored. The couple moved around—to southern North Carolina and Arizona—finally settling in Havana, Fla. Along the way, Willis wrote essays and submitted them to local newspapers.

“I started writing while in North Carolina, mostly spiritual columns,” Willis says. “Many of them were published. And the writing never stopped.”
In Florida, Willis began writing in earnest, and The Tallahassee Democrat—the area’s major newspaper—published several of his Thanksgiving-themed essays. Willis’ spirituality grew along with his writing, and he often contemplated God during walks on nearby Twin Ponds Road.

“I thought, if I could get some of these thoughts published then maybe I’d be able to write a weekly column or something,” he says.

Eventually, Willis received a call from an editor with the Gadsden County Times who asked him to write a weekly column. “Oh man,” Willis says, “That’s exactly what I wanted!”

Wish Becomes Reality
Today, Willis is in his sixth year of penning the column, which he calls “spiritual, feel-good essays.” Appropriately, the column is called “Along Twin Ponds Road.”

From state to state and essay to essay, Willis remembered the urgings to put his experiences into a book. In 2013, he published “Staying Afloat.” The autobiography covers 25 years of Willis’ life—from childhood through his service with the Coast Guard.

To fellow educators who want to write, Willis offers simple advice: “Do your best to interest the reader,” he says. “Think about what they’d want to read. And, most importantly, never sell yourself short, especially anyone who’s been a teacher. You’ve got so much to share. Even in retirement, you’ve got new experiences that you can write about.”

And, like so many other endeavors, Willis says that patience and time management are key skills for sharing your literary talents.

“Make time to do it,” he says. “It took me seven years to write the book. Be patient but get started, and don’t ever underestimate yourself. Keep at it. I wish more people would just go for it and write.”


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