Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Down by the riverside

Glad the election's over. Glad to see those frenzied twins, Hype and Spin, slowing down at least, leaving winners to gloat and losers to try and put the best face on things, or else to curse the darkness. That's something I stopped doing long ago. Life's too short. It's a beautiful world. I'm surrounded by loved ones who share my values and some pretty decent people who apparently don't. So it goes. We'll get along somehow.

That's not to say it hasn't been tough. This might be the toughest election season I've seen. We all took a beating, and I gave about as good as I got.

I've been a hero to people who agree. “You speak for me,” some e-mailers write. “You're the only reason I read this paper,” say others. “Don't let up.” I get lots of email, letters and phone calls, mostly positive, believe it or not.

But I've taken a pounding from those who don't agree. Letters to the editor have been hateful at times, callers to radio stations have been caustic, and I've been strident in turn, maybe to a fault. Anger feeds anger, righteousness, righteousness, and the feedback loop tightens, tending towards the shrill.

Three people I respect have told me I'm too caught up, that I've locked horns, it's time to back off. And they're right. Lately I've been humming an old Gospel song, “I'm gonna lay down my burdens, down by the riverside, down by the riverside… I'm gonna study war no more.”

“No mas, no mas,” said Roberto Duran after taking it on the chin from Sugar Ray Leonard for eight rounds in 1980.

“From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever,” said Chief Joseph, the legendary Nez Perce, more than a century ago, and I have inklings how those gallant men felt. Of course, such comparisons are absurd. I'm a part-time columnist from a mid-size newspaper at the buckle of the Bible belt. "What do you think you're trying to do?" people have asked.

Simply put, I've been taking my own advice. Light up your own corner, I tell people, and this column is part of my corner. Sometimes progressive Internet sites pick up my column, and then my corner opens out all the way to England, France, Singapore, Washington….

I've had personal emails from Helen Thomas, that tough-as-nails grand dame of the Washington Press Corps, and other notables, and sometimes the echo of something uttered here shows up in the national media. When that happens, what I'm doing seems worthwhile.

On the other hand, I get called lots of names. “Pile of horse manure” is one that shows up frequently next to my column on the KnoxNews website. Go ahead and laugh. I swear that name-caller must have four email addresses and he fires them all at me every week. I feel badly for him, though, for name-calling is just a way to embrace the darkness, and darkness is a cold spirit to snuggle up to. Others call me “Molly Ivens” or “tree-hugger” and I take such intended insults as compliments. They must mean I'm doing something right. The most common epithets, though, are “liberal” and “radical.”

Liberal I don't mind so much. Sure, it's a reductive way to look at the world and I've never been a reductionist. I'm in love with the variety and whimsy of this old world, and I believe I'm more complex than the misused word liberal implies. Still, I'll gladly march under the banner with liberals--those busy extending human rights, saving the planet, ending slavery, going to the moon, defeating tyrants, working for peace.

But radical? I believe our leaders are the ones who turned radical, while folks like me mostly stayed the same. I liken those who dissent from the present administration as pieces of driftwood that got stranded on the shore when the tide washed out, and on out, to some radical misnamed place.

Still, a stick of driftwood, especially one that's been stranded in an upright position, can be a lightning rod, and just now I'm tired of drawing thunderbolts.

This doesn't mean I'm abandoning the causes I believe in. In coming weeks I'll surely speak out on nuclear weapons, war, this good earth and other notions that resonate in Tennessee. But I also yearn to write descriptively again--about nature and the stars and country roads and waterfalls and sunrises and people I admire. Maybe I'll see you--down by the riverside.


Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist for The Knoxville News-Sentinel, as well as a freelance journalist, short story writer and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. His writing awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Michigan Journalism Fellowship, a Golden Presscard Award and the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize. He is finishing a novel, ORACLE OF THE ORCHID LOUNGE, set in his native Tennessee. His book of selected journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes, the Best Writings About People by Don Williams, is now available for ordering. For more information, you may email him at Or visit the NMW website at