Writing from Seagrove Beach, Florida this Thanksgiving weekend feels like writing from home. I’m staying in the location where I spent several month-long writing retreats several years ago working on my novel CHERRY BOMB. It’s also where my family has shared several wonderful vacations, and where our daughter was married in 2011. Right here on this gorgeous white sandy piece of heaven. And now I feel like Seagrove Beach is once again the venue for something important in my life—possibly an awakening to where I am in the pursuit of my dream of being a “successful” author. And how did I get here? By reading Harrison Scott Key’s wonderful new memoir, CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?
Harrison and I met at the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, where he won an award for an essay he submitted. The essay, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir,” was published in Creative Nonfiction Journal in 2015, and Harrison allowed me to reprint it in the anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, which came out this past May. He was on a panel with me for the anthology at the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s Visiting
Author event in Blufton, South Carolina, in September. Our other common thread is that we have both lived in Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. And one more common thread is that he now lives in Savannah, Georgia, where he teaches at SCAD (Southern College of Art and Design), which was the setting for much of my novel CHERRY BOMB, for which he wrote a generous blurb. It was fun catching up with Harrison when he gave a talk about his new book at Novel bookstore in Memphis recently.
I loved Harrison’s first book, THE WORLD’S LARGEST MAN, so I was expecting to love this one, too. But I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it, as a writer and as a wounded human, that I would decide that it’s my FAVORITE READ OF 2018. After several failed attempts at writing a memoir about my own sad childhood, sexual abuse, and ongoing healing, I gave up and let my truth feed my novel CHERRY BOMB (2017). Harrison didn’t chicken out, on either of his books. This is creative nonfiction at its best – telling true stories with all the elements of great fiction. Raw. Honest. His words cause me to reconsider whether my own dream has already come true, or if it is (hopefully) still a work in progress:
“My dream came true, it did: I can access the light inside me, what little there is . . . for a book, like any work of art, helps you find a bit of your own light, and my light is silly, and my light is sad, and on good days, my light is true, and I can shine it now….”
All of us—not only writers and artists and musicians, but also those who teach, heal, build things, design things, and even sell things—need to find the light inside us. And finding that light can help us heal. It can help us fill the holes we all have inside us:
“A story is an old-fashioned treasure hunt, and what makes it so very hard for the writer is that when you start to write, you don’t necessarily know the nature of the treasure or even what the map looks like. All you need is a human with an empty place inside them they’re hoping to fill. That’s what a story is. We turn the page because we all have the hole in us, too, and we’re all trying to fill it, and we’re hoping the story will give us some ideas about how to do that.”
We’re also hoping that a book—or even a good short story or essay and especially maybe a good poem—will help us better understand ourselves and our world. As Harrison says:
“Hadn’t I written my book to lay bare the complexity of a family I’d never fully understood, and who, with every story, every remembered moment, showed itself to be more original and full of love and truth and pain than I’d thought possible? Isn’t that why you tell stories, to understand the thing you are telling?”
Yes, and no. This is something I’m just beginning to learn in my own writing, so I was on the edge of my seat as I read on:
“A book is not a report of something that happened in the past, whether that past is real or imagined: The book is the thing that happened. The writing is the action. The art is the knowing. Which is why you cannot write what you know. You can only really write what you want to know…. You paint a painting to see what the painting will look like. If you knew before you started, why would you need to paint it?”
If we heed Harrison’s words here, we (writers) will avoid the common mistake of “telling” our readers what happened or is happening, simply reporting on the events of the story, and we’ll begin to “show” them—and ourselves—what it is we are coming to understand as we write.
As a writer, I could relate to much of Harrison’s writing and publishing and book tour stories, and I think his journey to find his dream can apply to people in all walks of life. The fact that he writes about the difficult things of everyday life with such amazing humor is icing on the cake. This is a MUST READ for anyone with a dream. Or anyone who needs to have a dream. Which is everyone.