Author Jedwin Smith is a treasure hunter.
While researching his critically-acclaimed book about the Atocha, a sunken Spanish galleon, Smith dove to the shipwreck to help recover gold and emeralds. He's currently working on a Civil War novel about a general's lost diary that would be worth a fortune if it were discovered today.
And for eight-week workshops throughout the year at Decatur's Eagle Eye Book Shop, Smith uncovers treasure in the work of aspiring writers.
"That's the beauty of it, to watch somebody who can't write a lick and you prod them, push them, edit them, talk civilly to them, encourage them and pump them up," he said. "Then you see the light go on."
In two years, Smith has had three of his students published and eight or nine have finished manuscripts.
The next workshop starts Jan. 6 and he's already taking applications for the May course. The price is $250 ($230 for Atlanta Writer's Club members). Only 12 students can participate and spots fill up quickly.
Smith, a former journalist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Gwinnett Daily News, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice: for his coverage of the Marine Corps peacekeeping force in Beirut and for his articles about the Eritrea-Ethiopia civil war.
Smith's book, Fatal Treasure, a rousing account of Mel Fisher's obsession with the Atocha, is being made into a movie. Smith has also written a biography of boxing referee Mills Lane (Let's Get It On) and a memoir (Our Brother's Keeper) exploring how he finally came to terms with the death of his brother Jeff in Vietnam.
"You've heard the old saying, 'Everyone's got a story in them,' and they do," Smith said. "I tell everyone that writing is a catharsis. You take all those hurts and emotions and put them down on paper, and believe it or not, once they're out on paper you start feeling better."
Workshop participants can write about their own lives or introduce their experiences into characters in a novel. Smith's classes encompass all genres and ages, from romance and vampire novels to mysteries and travelogues.
He said he became a writing instructor by accident.
"I knew what made a good story; I didn't trust myself to go in there and edit a story," Smith said. "I learned my punctuation and grammar from watching a Saturday morning cartoon show, [Schoolhouse Rock!], with my daughters."
He said he reluctantly agreed to be a judge at an Atlanta Writer's Club workshop and was surprised how much he enjoyed it.
Smith recalled the two successful writers who had taken the time to show him the ropes, Bill Diehl and Janice Daugharty, and their request to pass the knowledge on.
Workshop topics include finding and protecting your voice, structure, pacing, handling criticism and knowing when you're finished.
Smith tells his students to develop a writing habit, surround themselves with other writers and experiment with language.
He brings in some of his edited work, complete with red marks, to show them he's not infallible.
"I say, 'It looks like somebody has bled over these pages," he said. "I wasn't an overnight success. I had to work very hard at it. You have to learn to get a little thick skin, and you have to trust the person who's doing your editing."
One writer turned in 20 pages that were all one paragraph. At first Smith was aghast, and then realized, "In these 20 pages was the heart and soul of an incredible book."
Students share chapters and read aloud in class. Smith won't tolerate sarcasm or hurting anyone's feelings.
"All of us, no matter what profession we're in, we go through life with people – bosses – telling us what we can't do and pointing out every mistake we make in a derogatory fashion, making you feel like an idiot," he said. "They have the power, and you don't."
Smith's approach is consistent with his background as a Marine.
"A person who has lived life and wants to write stories has a million roads in front of them and doesn't know what road to take," he said. "I'm the guide. I'm making sure they don't get ambushed on the way, don't trip on any trip lines and the bad guys don't come out and riddle us with bullets.
"And I do it in a gentle, friendly way, not talking down to them or talking at them. And we get to the destination safely."