Edward “Ned” James Hickson doesn’t believe in “road blocks.” Instead, the editor and humor columnist sees each perceived obstacle as a catalyst for him to blaze his own trails.
It’s a lesson he learned from his stepdad, Glenn, who was a problem solver. “Nothing was ever a road block to him,” Hickson said in a recent interview, “it just meant a reason to discover a new route.”
And those wise words gave an aspiring journalist, whose formal education stopped at high school, a survival plan. The Lawnsdale, California-native’s life story is analogous to those of born geniuses like George Burns, Julie Andrews, Sean Connery and Wolfgang Puck among others. They succeeded despite their limited formal education because of hard work, sheer luck and natural talent.
Hickson’s natural talent is his comedic timing. It helped him during the 10 years he worked as a chef for Morrison Inc., which owned several restaurant chains (including L&N Seafood, Silver Spoon and Ruby Tuesday’s.)
During that time, he rose from assistant chef to regional chef, overseeing restaurants and openings in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, New York State and Alabama.
Hickson’s humor seemed to follow him wherever he went. “I tried to keep things light during high-stress meal periods and restaurant openings,” said Hickson, who now lives in Florence, Oregon. Humor was so much a part of him that, “if I stopped making quips, the kitchen knew it was time to get serious.”
But he’s rarely serious about anything — except his wife, Alicia (who he affectionately calls “Alicia The Beautiful”), and their four kids who range in age from 12 to 19.
Otherwise, Hickson’s always in joke mode. “Humor plays such a big part of my everyday life,” he said. “I grew up surrounded by funny people in my family — my parents, grandparents, cousins, my older half-brothers. They always had me laughing.”
Now, he entertains readers as a humor columnist at the Siuslaw News and on his personal blog, “Ned’s Blog: Humor at the Speed of Life.” When he started with the paper, he covered sports until he pitched the idea for a weekly humor column.
His editor, who already took a chance hiring Hickson despite him not having prior journalism training and experience, asked: “You really think you can be funny every week and not run out of ideas?”
To this, Hickson nodded. That was 15 years ago, when the paper hired him to replace the sports editor who quit. “A friend who was working there jokingly suggested I apply,” he said. “I had no journalism experience and am not really a sports nut.”
He submitted his application and got an interview. “I was up against some recent journalism grads from the University of Oregon,” Hickson recalled. Fifteen years later, he still wonders if the editor was drinking that day because he got the job.
But Hickson has no regrets. “Taking that job was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said. Then chuckling, the columnist added: “I’m not sure he feels the same.”
Hickson’s readers are still laughing. “My first rule is to always make fun of myself before someone else,” the veteran columnist said. “Unless it’s Justin Bieber; I’ll always make fun of him first.”
That’s the best way Hickson gauges what’s funny. “If I can laugh at myself, then so will readers,” he said.
It also doesn’t hurt that his approach to humor nearly mirrors that of Larry David, whose sitcom-engine style made “Seinfeld” a successful show.
Developing the story for each episode, David picked a mildly annoying habit of a character or their lover and blew it out of proportion. It’s successful because that annoying habit is relatable to viewers.
Hickson’s approach is slightly different. “I’d rather take an everyday situation, blow it completely out of proportion and put myself right in the middle,” he said. “The more absurd the situation, the funnier it gets.”
It worked for a Chuck Norris bit he did for this interview. Here’s his response when asked what his readers would be surprised to know about him:
Readers would be surprised to know I recently got into a tussle with Chuck Norris over the last t-shirt at a One Direction concert. It turned out to be an extra-large, and my daughter wears a small, so I let him have it. The shirt, I mean — not my fists of furry. And yes, I meant “furry” not “fury.” Ok, fine. That didn’t really happen.
It’s those random creative moments, which spring from simple “what ifs,” that make his columns successful. In response to this question — What if the guilt associated with throwing away unwanted fruitcake became an actual disorder? — came his series of columns on FDAD (Fruitcake Disposal Anxiety Disorder).
That column is his most successful one at the paper. With the outpouring of encouraging words, he also got some hate mail. “I discovered there was a strong lobby of fruitcake supporters who weren’t amused,” Hickson recalled.
In fact, they were so hell-bent on defending the candied-fruit treat that they mailed dozens of them to the paper.
Hickson’s response? “I held a taste test in our newsroom and wrote a column about the results,” he said, adding that he actually enjoyed two out of the 12 fruitcakes he received.
But that stunt in the newsroom is nowhere as daring as what he writes about for his blog. “The creativity blogging offers has given me an opportunity to explore humor writing in ways I couldn’t do as a columnist,” said Hickson, who started blogging for over a year and a half ago.
Since then, he’s guest blogged on other sites, met other humor writers he admires, published his book (Humor at the Speed of Life), and built a following.
Michelle Terry’s among them. “OMG…I’m going to love reading your stuff,” the fellow blogger and proud mama of two posted. “…hope you don’t mind another gushing fan.”
Another fellow blogger, Claudia Felsberger, felt she’d hit a goldmine. “Skimmed through your blog. It made me draw the conclusion that you’re awesome!” the freelance journalist and photographer posted. “Humorous, entertaining, thought-provoking, maybe even a little bit awkward, but awesome!”
Encouraging words aside, blogging gives Hickson what his job couldn’t. “There’s a real sense of immediacy in blogging that you can’t get with newspaper writing,” he said. “I love getting an idea, writing it up, posting it and seeing the ‘comment’ icon light up.”
His actual process for creating each post is more involved. It starts with him arriving to the newsroom at 5:30 a.m. “I prefer to write early in the morning because, in addition to fewer distractions, I’m not really awake yet,” Hickson said.
That helps his freethinking in addition to blasting AC/DC through his iPad headphones while sipping coffee. He usually has a rough idea of his topic and doesn’t over-think it until he’s at his keyboard.
“I’ve learned to trust my instincts, so I like things to develop as I write, as opposed to using an outline,” Hickson said. “This works well for humor because the funniest things are almost always born out of spontaneity.”
He likens the process to stand-up. “Except I get to sit down,” the blogger said. “If I bomb, no one knows it but me.”
Another thing most people didn’t know is that he responds to comments and/or tweets if they pop up while he’s writing. “They don’t interrupt my flow,” Hickson said. “At least for me, they keep the creativity flowing by maintaining that level of spontaneity.”
Then it’s time for the oral test. “I read the piece out loud. If my tongue gets tripped up, it needs more polishing,” the columnist said. “That’s also when I check for timing.” Does he need to add a pause? Elaborate more? What can be cut? Those are the questions his internal editor ask before he hits “Publish.”
He’s usually done before 9 a.m. when the other reporters roll into the newsroom. That he posts daily, sometimes twice a day, gives you a sense of his dedication.
But the labor’s not without a pay-off. In addition to new followers, he got the WordPress administrators’ attention, resulting in them selecting two of his posts — both a year apart from each other and within a week of Hickson’s birthday — among their eight favorites to showcase. This process, on WordPress, is known as being “Freshly Pressed” and results in a major traffic surge.
The first time, WordPress “Freshly Pressed” his blog piece, “Surgery is Safer When Patients Come With Instructions,” which resulted from a report on an increase in cases of wrong-site surgeries.
Hickson’s post was a response to his question: What precautions would I take to make sure my vasectomy didn’t turn into an appendectomy?
That post recorded 1,200 hits in two days and gained him nearly 300 new followers. “I always answer every comment and email, so my weekend was a busy one,” the blogger recalled. “I had no idea what to expect. I couldn’t believe it.”
He also couldn’t it when he got “Freshly Pressed” again last August for his piece, “If You Can’t Fix It With Gum and Duct Tape, It’s Not a Real VW Bus.” The idea for that post resulted from the buzz of new generation Volkswagen vans that Hickson felt lacked the character of their old counterparts.
That post recorded 878 hits the first day and hundreds of comments, along with 400 new followers. Though the earlier experience prepared the blogger for this time, he recalled: “It was still overwhelming.”
It’s the creative process that keeps him grounded. His advice to first-time bloggers: “Write with regularity. Whether it’s once a week or once a day, be consistent.”
That consistency doesn’t just benefit the reader. “Writing is a form of meditation,” the journalist said. “The more you practice it, the more focused and instinctive it becomes.” He added, “Eventually, your creativity will begin to anticipate that routine and be waiting for you when you sit down at the keyboard.”
What also keeps Hickson grounded is another lesson his stepfather, Glenn, passed on to him: “Do something well and the rest will take care of itself.”
Everything the journalist and blogger approach with that philosophy worked out well. “I started with one newspaper column and just focused on the writing,” Hickson said. “Today, it’s in 30 papers in the U.S. and Canada.”
Scott Write and Sandra Walker are among the editors happy to run Hickson’s columns in their papers. ” I only had to read one of his columns to realize his humor transcended regional lifestyles and geographical boundaries,” according to a testimonial from Write, editor of The Post in Centre, Alabama. “That was almost two years ago, and his column is now an eagerly anticipated weekly feature.”
In her testimonial, Walker pointed out Hickson’s intergenerational appeal. “Ned’s column has attracted not just the usual middle-aged class of newspaper readers, but also the high school students who enjoy seeing something lighthearted in the newspaper,” she said. “We are thankful to have his entertaining wit and wisdom as part of our newspaper each week.”
The philosophy of doing something well gained him additional blog benefits. “I’m approaching 3,000 followers, which is something I never suspected, particularly with my limited social networking knowledge,” said the blogger, who managed to link his site to Facebook and Twitter.
“I’m just focusing on the funny,” he added, “and letting the rest take care of itself.”
Hickson’s also focused on taking care of his family — whether it’s cheering on his kids at sporting events or helping them with homework. “Any time I can spend with my family is quality time,” he said. “My wife is truly my best friend and someone who makes every moment together quality.”
In fact, the few pleasures he enjoys, once the kids are in bed, is curling up on the couch with his wife while she reads aloud his post for the day. “When something catches her off guard and she laughs out loud — that’s the best,” Hickson said. “If she were my only fan, that would be enough for me.”