A WRITER’S LIFE
A Brief Glance at the Life of William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. O Henry
“It ain’t the roads we take; it’s what’s inside of us that makes us turn out the way we do.”
He was born on September 11, 1862 in Greensboro, North Carolina. For some reason he didn’t like the spelling of his middle name, Sidney, and at age 36 changed it to Sydney. It hardly matters today how he spelled it since most of us have only known him by his pen name, O. Henry, and his trademark stories with surprise endings.
Who among us doesn’t remember his sentimental Christmas story The Gift of the Magi or his hilarious The Ransom of Red Chief, in which two bad guys kidnap a ten year old boy, the only child of a prominent citizen, and live to regret it.
Like most of us who write, Porter was an avid reader in his youth, drinking in everything from dime store novels to classics. He also had some artistic skills as well. The career to which he initially applied himself was the pharmacy trade at age 19.
For health reasons he moved to Texas when he was 20 where he became a shepherd, ranch hand, cook and baby-sitter. He also continued his love of reading classic literature.
During his bachelor years he had different day jobs and began writing stories on the side. He also enjoyed music — played guitar and mandolin — and even sang in a quartet.
At a certain point in time he fell in love and eloped with the seventeen-year-old daughter of a wealthy family, Athol Estes. The positive here is she encouraged him to keep writing. Unfortunately, the reason her mother objected to their getting married was because she had tuberculosis.
One of Porter’s occupations after they married was drawing maps for the General Land Office based on surveys and fieldnotes. He also took a job at an Austin bank as a teller and bookkeeper. It was while working here that he got into hot water. I don’t know whether it was his creativity that got him into trouble — bookkeeping is not something you should do creatively — or something else, but while working at the bank there had been some embezzling. He was accused and lost his job.
He then started a humorous satire publication called The Rolling Stone, for which he worked full time. Porter wrote stories and did sketches. It failed to get enough readers to generate a living wage and folded the following year, but not before his having been noticed by the Houston Post.
WRITERS TIP: When you take initiative and put yourself out there, people will notice.
The one O Henry constant, no matter his circumstances, was the ability to recognize and capture ideas and turn them into tales.
WRITERS TIP: Porter gathered ideas for his stories by loitering in hotel lobbies and observing and talking to people there. This was a technique he used throughout his writing career.
Unbeknownst to Porter, the embezzlement case wasn’t closed yet. The bank brought in Federal auditors and two years later Porter was indicted for embezzling. The day before he was to go to trial Porter fled the country.
His wife was too ill to join him in Honduras, as originally planned. When he learned she was dying, he returned home to face the music. He was sentenced to five years in the Ohio Penitentiary.
With his pharmacy training early on, he ended up working in the prison hospital as the night druggist, proof once again that you never know which past experiences will prove useful in the future.
With time on his hands, and surrounded by men with stories, he was never at a loss for story ideas. During his stay he published at least 14 stories under various pseudonyms, O Henry being his favorite. He would send them to a friend in New Orleans who then sent them to publications whose editors never knew he was behind bars.
His daughter didn’t know he was behind bars either. His in-laws told her he was “away on business.” You can be sure it was a happy reunion when he was released in 1901, two years early on good behavior.
In 1902 Porter moved to New York City to be close to his publishers. There he wrote nearly 400 more stories. The critics panned him but his fans adored him.
WRITERS TIP: Don’t listen to the critics. Listen to your heart and follow your passion.
Despite how the critics rated him, Porter’s fame was such that the O Henry Short Story Award was named after him. The O Henry Award is still given today for outstanding short stories.
WRITERS TIP: Do you have skeletons in your closet? Prison time or some other shadow? Don’t let that hold you back. Let your work be your legacy, not your past.