>A Second Helping: Writing on Writing

>Wednesday’s Feast of Words brought a friendly message to my email inbox… from Beth Ann Fennelly. She was writing to me and the others in the Yoktapatawpha Writers Group who heard Beth Ann read her poem, “First Warm Day in a College Town,” at the workshop in June. The one that got published in the Oxford American. The one she said she hoped wouldn’t get her fired from her teaching post at Ole Miss. Well, here it is, in her own words:

Hi guys–Thanks for the congrats! You’re so sweet! And of course, partially to blame–if you’d been more shocked and horrified by the poem I don’t think I would have sent it to the OA. So you only have yourselves to blame! Susan, thanks for the blog, and I enjoyed the Neal Walsh piece a lot. I thought that David Payne’s essay on So. lit was brilliant–make sure you check it out. I’m wishing you all much writing success in 2008.
Your pal, Beth Ann

So there it is. She was test-driving the poem at the workshop in June and we loved it. So did the folks at the Oxford American, evidently.

Beth Ann’s encouragement to check out David Payne’s essay in the same issue of OA is the impetus for this “Second Helping” of a Word Feast today. Oh. My. Goodness. What an incredible essay. “Carrying America’s Shadow.” It’s what we southerners do for the rest of the country… especially we southern writers. I’m a fan of Jungian psychology myself, so when Payne defined the situation with terms like Self and Other and Shadow I knew it was going to be yummy. A few clips:

Self and Other in the outward and political realm correspond to ego and shadow in the inward and psychological one, which brings me to my hypothesis—the bias against Southern writers is an example of a lingering Northern bias against the South itself, which has historically played the role of shadow in America’s collective psyche.

Yes. The dark, fertile Mississippi soil that nurtured writers like Faulkner and Welty and neighboring shadowlands like Alabama and Georgia, whose bumper crops included jewels like O’Connor and Harper Lee represent a place, an “Other,” to the rest of the country. Our Northern neighbors are afraid of their shadow. Of us. As Payne says:

The shadow, psychologists tell us, is the repository of what we hate and fear as well as of urges difficult to reconcile with self-regard. Thrusting these down into the unconscious, we then project them outward onto others.

So they came up with stereotypes like “Nigger” and “Redneck” … distortions of their own repressed selves.

The healthy end stage of the process involves the reintegration of the shadow; to reach it, the projector has to look at what he hates or fears and ask the question, How is this like me?

Payne’s argument continues as he explains how this plays out in the country’s judgment of Southern writers:

The shadow inevitably presents this way—as “primitive,” “behind,” or “backward” —and I suspect this is why critics so frequently attack Southern writing in two key areas—language and emotion—labeling the first “over rich,” the second “overheated” and/or “sentimental.” It’s just those areas in which Southern practice differs most noticeably from accepted Northern norms.

If I keep this up I’ll quote the entire essay… you should really buy the magazine and read it yourself. So much more yummy stuff in here, about staying connected to the soil, to our roots, not rejecting our bodies, remembering what it means to be truly human. He hails Lee Smith, contemporary Southern author whose works aren’t hailed much north of the Mason Dixon Line, but should be, because:

Smith and Faulkner offer the memory of an older path that leads through a hidden door, down a winding stair, away from what is advanced to what is primitive,…away from reason toward emotion, away from the waking world to the world of dreams. There, in the shadow realm, we must look for answers among the broken items lying on the floor where previous generations discarded them as worthless.

I understand why people who aren’t from the South are afraid of it. I was born and raised in Mississippi and I’m still afraid of it. It’s dark. It’s dirty. But I’m learning that I have to face it down and embrace it, much like my own personal shadow, if I’m going to benefit from its richness. And forgive it. Someone said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past. I’m in the process of forgiving the South for its shortcomings and embracing my People in all their primitive, backward, emotional, earthy, beautiful selves.

Kudos to David Payne for his brave and clear call. Let’s try to answer him with writing that is intimate and real and connected to the older path. It might take some time to clear the overgrowth off the path. But we can do it. I’m game.

I’m meeting with my writing group buddies tomorrow for our monthly critique session. Here we are… the “original 5″ at our first meeting in September. And the group that grew, at our last meeting in December. Can’t wait for our first meeting of 2008! We’ve changed venues… instead of meeting in Oxford, we’re gathering at Memphian Patti Trippeer’s home… and our spouses are joining us at the end of the day for a cookout. See you guys in the morning!

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