>Telling Stories: Tornadoes, Writers and “First Dark”

>I have 14 pages of notes from this weekend’s Conference on Southern Literature presented by the Chattanooga Arts & Education Council in collaboration with the Fellowship of Southern Writers. The conference began in 1987 and has welcomed scores of Pulitzer Prize winners and other colorful voices from the South over the years. The first five guest authors were Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Cleanth Brooks, Andrew Lytle and Margaret Alexander.
So, if you’re not a writer or an avid reader, just skim along and click on any links of particular interest, which shouldn’t take too long. Writers and serious readers and lovers of Southern literature, buckle up for a long ride!

I would be remiss, as a Southern writer, not to include the journey to the conference in the story, because it was quite a journey. Under normal circumstances, I could make the drive from Memphis to Chattanooga in under five hours. But when do we ever have “normal circumstances” these days? Two momentous happenings turned a leisurely drive into a story-worthy experience—a visit to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, and a tornado.
First the hospital visit. My Goddaughter, Stacy and her husband, Jared, live in Nashville, and their precious 11-month-old daughter, Olivia Kate, was in the emergency room with high fever, vomiting, and seizures. By the time I got there on Thursday, she had been through a myriad of tests and had received a diagnosis: tuberous sclerosis.

Sweet girl was thrashing around from all the meds, but later that evening the doctor came in with good news: she has a very mild case, and would be discharged the next day. Yes, she’ll be on meds for seizures and they’ll watch her closely, but the tumors aren’t growing and we all hope she’ll be able to live a long and healthy life.

Stacy’s email today says: Olivia Kate is 100% back to her normal self, even standing on her own for a few minutes last night. When she realized what she was doing she giggled so hard she fell over! It was quite a moment after last week! We are so happy to have her sweet little self back, thanks be to God!

As I was leaving Nashville, around 3:30 Thursday afternoon, the traffic on I-40 was bumper-to-bumper and I turned on the radio just in time to hear that we were under a tornado warning… a tornado had been spotted nearby. As I continued to creep along towards the I-24 ramp towards Chattanooga, the news got worse. A tornado topped a couple of 18-wheelers just an exit away from me! Check out this video.

Thankfully, I made it to Chattanooga in one piece, although I joined hundreds of other motorists going about 30 mph through thunderstorms part of the way. Amazingly I only passed one wreck along the way. The heated indoor pool and hot tub at the hotel were welcome treats to my tired, aching joints after the stressful day!

Friday morning the shuttle driver that dropped me off at the historic Tivoli Theater, the venue for most of the conference sessions, pointed to the marquee and said, “Have you ever noticed that Tivoli spelled backwards is ‘I lov it’?” I knew it was going to be a good day. Friday was full of literary award presentations, readings, dialogues, and panels. At the risk of leaving out someone else’s favorites, I’ll only highlight a few here. Like Marco Ramirez, winner of the Bryan Family Foundation Award for Drama, who did a reading of his monologue for a Hurricane Katrina survivor. Maybe this piece hit a stronger chord with me because of my close brush with yesterday’s tornado, but some of his phrases were worth so much more than a photograph, like his description of lightning—“blue black sky and lightning like an angel is taking pictures,” and thunder—“the sky rumbling like the stomachs of 7000 homeless crack heads all at once.”

One of the morning’s two dialogues was “The Changing Atmosphere of Southern Time,” featuring James Applewhite and Elizabeth Spencer, who is best known for her book, The Light in the Piazza, which was made into a musical. Applewhite talked about “Southern gothic” element in Spencer’s work, especially her short story, “First Dark,” which was set in Carrollton, Mississippi. Ms. Spencer explained that in Mississippi you have twilight, then first dark, then the light appears again, and then it’s finally dark. So the expression cropped up, “See ya’ around first dark.” I lived in Mississippi for 37 years and I’d never heard the expression, but she was a generation ahead of me, and lived in a small town. I did discover some interesting connections Ms. Spencer and I have:

We both went to Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi (she finished in 1942; I was there in 1970-71) and she was interviewed by my first cousin, John Griffin Jones, in 1981, for a book called Mississippi Writers Talking. I found the interview in Conversations with Elizabeth Spencer which she graciously autographed for me during one the breaks. In the interview she told Johnny that “Ship Island” was about her favorite short story, and it started a new theme in her work:

It’s that women feel themselves very often imprisoned by what people expect of them. You know? Some people mount rebellion: they are not going to put up with it. This has come to the surface in many aspects of my later work.

An early Rebel, Elizabeth Spencer taught at Ole Miss in the late 40s and early 50s, so I found in her a kindred spirit on several levels, and thoroughly enjoyed her participation in the conference. Especially in the panel on Friday afternoon:

“Borrowing Tongues: Writing To and From Another Race”

The panelists, Rita Dove, Allan Gurganus (left, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All), Natasha Trethewey and Elizabeth Spencer, addressed the topic I blogged about on March 27 after my writing group had just done a “progressive flash fiction” writing exercise which resulted in some differing points of view on the use of black dialect in storytelling. While all four panelists made important contributions to the discussion, I’ll highlight a few here:

Rita Dove, who served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993-1995, grew up in Ohio, where she said she “learned that she must speak the language of the white middle class. “She had two languages, the one she spoke with her cousins and grandparents, which was “lyrical and strung out,” and the white middle class language she spoke at school. On the street, the language was mixed—a “blended language from both feeds.” Dove said, in response to the question, “Does one have the ‘right’ to write in another people’s language?”:

The question isn’t so much about rights, as it is about doing it well…. As a writer, if you decide to speak out of another voice, know that someone might call you on this…. We all have blind spots. The question is more about what defines you, ultimately as a human being…. We need to have this discussion on an artistic level—about how to have these distinctions and how to keep them.

The panels all agreed that the different voices aren’t just about race, but also about the challenge of writing in a different gender, or class, or time.

Elizabeth Spencer was brought up in segregated Mississippi and wrote 2 novels about the Southern way of life. She says that by her 3rd novel, she had begun to question these issues, and by her fourth novel—The Voice at the Back Door—she hit it face on. (The title refers to the fact that blacks had to come to the back door of a white person’s home.) Spencer talked about the importance of getting the rhythms and exchanges right in dialogues between blacks when there are no white around. (During the Q & A I mentioned Kathryn Stockett’s new novel, The Help, which does a great job with the nuances of dialect when the “colored maids” in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi are talking with each other, and how it changes when they are talking with the white women they work for.)

Natasha Trethewey, 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi. She emphasized the importance of writing well when writing in the voice of another race, class, or gender, to “exercise all our powers of human empathy” and “not to think of them only as ‘other’ but as ourselves.” She said that syntax is often a better way to get at those voices than dialect, because bad dialect can be offensive to others. Especially when you use phonetic spelling in the writing, which “assumes that we hear it differently, which is a way of distancing the other.”

There was lots of discussion amongst the conference attendees I visited with during the break… and I’m sure the conversations will continue as long as writers keep laying down stories, especially in the South.

The rest of Friday afternoon included a panel of four poets, and then a musical presentation by Clyde Edgerton and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. After dinner Rubin did a special presentation to Wendell Berry, followed by the Conference Keynote Address by Lee Smith. Smith has published 14 books—11 novels and 3 collections of short stories. She read one of her stories, “Easter at the Dime Store.” (Her father owned a dime story in Grundy, Virginia.) She talked about the changing face of Southern literature, and how literature and publishing are in danger nationally just as a new crop of young Southern writers is growing. Observing that “Southern writers are more successful when we fit the country’s perceived image of the South,” she encouraged us to remain true to self, even as the “Global South” replaces the “New South” as a buzz word.

I was happy to meet up with fellow Memphis writer, Terry Bernadini, who was in town visiting her daughter, Natalie, who will graduate from UT Chattanooga next month. Terry and Natalie and I enjoyed supper together on Friday, and a walk along the riverfront…

…where this guy was making repairs to the rock-climbing wall that opens soon…

… and the clouds filtered the first movement of the sun towards its setting. It was like all of nature was recovering from the previous day’s storms. March had indeed refused to go out like a lamb, but held tenaciously to its strong winds and joined forces with April’s showers to remind us that we’re not in charge. After a good night’s sleep and a brisk walk to the theater the next morning, I was ready for the day’s events, and they did not disappoint.

Saturday morning’s Panels were both great:

First, “From the Page to the Stage: Playwriting” was fascinating. I was thrilled to see my fellow Murrah High School schoolmate from Jackson, Mississippi, Beth Henley, Pulitzer-prize winning author of “Crimes of the Heart” and many other plays. She said that she “loves rehearsal—after creating alone, getting to be with people is like watching your doll house you built.” It was fun to catch up with Beth (whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years!) and to hear that she’s working on a play set in Jackson called “The Jacksonian,” (an old motel that was popular in the 60s) which should be a hoot.

Beth was joined by three other playwrights, Jim Grimsley, 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother) and Marco Ramirez, who all did a great job of enlightening us on the differences in writing plays vs. novels. Grimsley, who also writes novels, said that with a play you’ve “got to leave holes in the work—for actors and designer to come into.” He talked about the danger of having a director cast a character in such a way as to change the character completely. He talked about the importance of knowing the business well enough to “write a play that can sustain itself all the way through to production.” He also said that a play is “richer than a movie—there’s so much life to it—it happens around you—it’s in your skin, good or bad, the highs are higher and the lows are lower.” Ramirez talked about writing a play being like putting together an event—like a sports game or throwing a party. And Norman gave a beautiful description of the process: “The experience is like the end of a day of hunting, cooking, eating, and the fires are going down and it’s time to tell the stories of the people.”

The other morning panel was called “History is the big myth we live.”
Panel members were Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason and Allen Wier. The panel topic comes from a quote by Robert Penn Warren:

“Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” –from Brothers to Dragons.

Alan Wier, who teaches at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, is author of 4 novels and a book of stories, and has won the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction. He opened the panel by talking about how works presented as memoir or autobiography may gain mythic proportions, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek…. That “in writing about ourselves, objectivity is hard to come by—even as we overcome ego—first person doesn’t guarantee accuracy.” He went on to say that “factual accuracy is difficult and may not even be helpful to the art…. A story is an illusion that may rearrange the facts to present the truth in its best light…. The ‘fictional truth’ of the story matters more than actual facts.”

Bobbie Ann Mason agreed, and added that “by telling the imaginative parts of the story, those memories will mirror and deflect to the reader feelings he can relate to.” She said that the explosion of memoirs is indicative of people’s need to document history.

Wendell Berry expanded Mason’s comments, adding that academic history usually deals with large events of great significance, and we need this, but history also includes human reasoning and imagination. I hope you can follow the thread of his comments with these few quotes: “Our sense of history is frequently corrupted by myths, or stereotypes…. Novelists, poets and dramatists fulfill a need for little history to balance big history…. Emotional truth matters as much as actual truth. Your memory is limited, but you can imagine the whole story….”

As I listened to the members of this panel, I thought about my own writing—my personal essays and my memoir-in-progress. When there are details, or certain words in a conversation that I can’t remember, is it ethical to “ad lib” so long as I stay true to the “emotional truth” of the story? It’s a fine line when writing nonfiction, this emotional truth-telling.

Saturday’s luncheon included another keynote, this time by Jill McCorkle. (Sorry ’bout the blurry photo… I was way in the back of the banquet hall.) I was looking forward to hearing her after having read her award-winning essay, “Cuss Time,” a few weeks ago. I even did a blog post about it while I was on my “solitary beach writing retreat.” The essay was selected for the Best American Essays of 2009. I was drawn to Jill even more when she said, near the beginning of her address:

“I started writing early in life for the same reason the pilgrims came to America—freedom…. I could play all the parts—no one could say, ‘but you’re a girl’….”

She was adamant about the importance of a writer’s freedom: “Before you write, get rid of the parents, preachers… the person who wants to stand right here and judge you. The first draft requires total freedom of choice of words, voice…. Get the observers out of the room.”

Her words reminded me of something Jere Hoar told us at a workshop at Ole Miss last June: “If you decide to publish, the watcher in the shadows will say, ‘I can’t write this—what would so-and-so say?’ The watcher kills your ideas. He says, ‘make that softer,’ and ‘round that a little.’”

After her introductory remarks, Jill went on to read her essay, “Cuss Time,” as the meat of her keynote address. It was even better hearing her read it in her own voice. When I introduced myself after the luncheon and told her I had enjoyed the essay—twice—she apologized that I had to hear it again! I told her it took on new life as I listened to it being read aloud in her own voice. It’s a freedom call to all daughters, writers, and mothers. She was generous to take time to chat with me about my own writing projects. All the speakers were like that during the conference. Available. Approachable.

The final panel on Saturday afternoon was “After the Writing is Done—Publishing, Promoting and Dodging the Critic’s Arrow.” The panel was moderated by Shannon Ravenel of Shannon Ravenel Books, an imprint of Algonquin. The writers on the panel were Dorothy Allison, best known for her book, Bastard Out of Carolina, which was made into a movie; Roy Blount, Jr., Clyde Edgerton, and Samuel Pickering, the teacher who partly inspired Robin Williams’s performance in Dead Poet’s Society.

Shannon opened the panel by saying that the topic was about “heart vs. commerce, and I’m here to represent commerce.” All 4 writers responded to Shannon’s questions with a seamless exchange of wisdom and wit that kept the audience in stitches. A few examples:

SR: How much attention do you pay to sales?

SP: I really don’t get any money. My wife hasn’t read anything I’ve written.

SR: Do you have an agent?

CE: I have an agent in New York. A good friend. But with Raney, which was only 100 pages, she said I needed to double the size and change person in one chapter that was different than the rest. If you’re just writing short stories, you don’t need an agent. If you’re writing a book, get an agent.

SR: How hard was it for you to get your first book published?

DA: Not very, because it was a book of poetry. Good literature begins with bad poetry. If you don’t have any expectations of wealth or publicity, you can get poetry published. Stories are way more dangerous—I write some dangerous stories. (She went on to tell the story about charging into a publisher’s office with her manuscript for Bastard and shocking them into reading it. It became a finalist for the National Book Award, a best-selling book, and was made into a movie.)

SR: Do you read reviews?

RB: Yes. The good ones are never quite good enough, and then there are bad ones. My memoir, Be Sweet, got a shotty review in the New York Times. It was like letting your little dog out… you send it out there by itself and somebody runs over it.

SR: What is your reaction to your publisher’s marketing plans and how much do you make yourself available to help?

DA: I was given a $3000 budget for Bastard. The publisher wanted to spend it all on one ad in the New York Times. Instead, I spent it on rail passes and traveled and spoke and read and cajoled. I had to rewrite the marketing materials….

RB: I fell like I’ve hand-sold most of my books. Once I was on a book tour in New Orleans and I woke up in a motel room with a clot of blood in the middle of my forehead. I didn’t remember getting shot at the book signing. When I looked closer in the mirror I realized I had slept on my complimentary mint. (This is the kind of thing that brought the house down with laughter. It kind of deteriorated into a comedy-fest, especially between Dorothy and Sam. I won’t quote them here. You had to be there!)

I had to leave before Richard Bausch’s reading, which I hated to miss since Richard is here at the University of Memphis. There were also four short play readings by Marco Ramirez that I’m sure were great, but it was time for me to hit the road back to Memphis.

This time, there was no tornado and no thunderstorms. I was trying to get back in time for an engagement party that started at 7 p.m. I knew I’d miss the first hour, but I’d probably make it by 8. At 7:15 I ground to a complete stop on Interstate 40 about 35 miles east of Memphis. For the next 45 minutes I crawled, bumper-to-bumper with hundreds of other cars, for 4 miles as we approached the Somerville overpass, which was closed for construction. My first reaction was to be irritated. I was tired. I had been sitting in conference chairs for 6 hours and then in my car for another 4 ½ hours. But then I rolled my window down and felt the fresh air. It was 72 degrees. A few minutes earlier, at twilight, I had caught glimpses of sunset through the trees and across patches of water along the way. I had listened to the sound of the birds welcoming first dark. I watched for it, and there it was—a brief interlude of light—and then it was dark, just the way Elizabeth Spencer had described it. She said the ghost appeared at first dark, and James Applewhite said that “gothic represents the fracture between the past and the present.” Maybe it’s a stretch for me to say that I was having a Southern gothic moment, but the magic of their words—and the other brilliant writers at the conference—carried me through the traffic jam and safely home to enjoy the remains of the day with friends at the party.

I could hardly wait for Monday morning to come so I could get back to my writing. I feel lighter this morning, as I tackle final revisions for an essay I’ve been asked to contribute to a book about Southern women and spirituality. Jill McCorkle’s words are coursing through me as I strap my courage on to face down the word Gestapo, rewind, and put the watchers in the closet. And Elizabeth Spencer’s words about how we absorb a lot of our primal thinking from our forebears. In her story, “First Dark,” the gentile Southern lady finds it difficult to compete with the house of her aristocratic family, which is so alive with her mother’s presence. Spencer says, “The house threatens to absorb Frances.” That’s how I’ve felt about the South, Mississippi, and my own not-so-aristocratic but strong, crazy and beautiful family all my life.

Remembering the darkness that fell as I sat immobilized by the traffic jam on the interstate Saturday night, Spencer’s words come back to me today: “If you get entombed by the past, the you’re into second dark.”

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