“Southern Writers on Writing”
Edited by Susan Cushman
Foreword by Alan Lightman
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Price: $28.00 (Cloth)
Susan Cushman of Memphis, Tennessee has assembled 26 essays by Southern writers, on writing. There are 13 by women, 13 by men, from 9 states; four contributors are African-American, four are poets. I guess poets constitute a kind of group needing representation.
Let me begin by saying these are darn good essays. I honestly did not feel any of them failed. In pieces varying in length from 4 pages to 15 pages, the authors go about their business in 26 different ways.
This is a good thing. If the assignment had been, say, to write about your use of place, or about your daily technique, or the importance of writing group workshops or the difficulties of dialogue, and all 26 had taken on the same task, that would have been intolerable.
As it is, the variety of approach is fun, almost exploratory for the reader.
For example, the prolific Corey Mesler of Memphis explains how he has come to publish nine novels, four story collections, and five poetry collections.
Mesler is agoraphobic. If he is not literally at home he is in the bookstore he and his wife run. He tells us “I have a lot of free time on my hands, and I mean, crikey, I gotta do something with it.” So, he writes.
The piece here by Lee Smith, who in the UK would be a Dame of the Empire, is an excerpt from her brilliant memoir “Dimestore.”
Smith writes of her childhood passion for reading and for writing sequels to her favorite books, sometimes adding herself as a character. She added additional chapters to the Bobbsey Twins, who became the Bobbsey triplets. She also extended the action in Anne of Green Gables considerably.
But the heart of her piece concerns the sudden, unexpected death of her son Josh. Smith had, understandably, a nervous breakdown, manic type, couldn’t sleep or eat or read or do much of anything except cry and rage. Her psychiatrist, after several weeks, handed her a note, a prescription: “Write fiction every day … every day for two hours.”
She was to sit—show up for work—no matter what.
For three days, nothing. Then on the fourth day, a novel began to appear. As often as we might say, “writing is killing me,” it is also true it can save your life.
Several of these contributors are, of course, Alabamians.
Katherine Clark, author of the Mountain Brook quartet, speaks of how her early attempts at fiction writing went nowhere due, in large part to “the burden of Southern literature” (not history, literature).
Clark felt as a Southern writer she was supposed to write about rural life, the plantation, race, cotton, mules, the War, the family dynasty. She actually has ancestors in Scottsboro, complete with a suitable plantation, “Brownwood.” But Clark had no direct connection to all that. Her fiction came alive when she decided to write “The Headmaster’s Darlings” set in her hometown, Mountain Brook, about her school, the thinly disguised Altamont, and her amazing, eccentric high school English teacher. Mountain Brook was HER “postage stamp of native soil.”
Wendy Reed writes of the powers of seduction in well-crafted prose. There is still, after all these centuries, no substitute. Reed refers to “Literary Seductions” by Frances Wilson, who writes “The process of seduction starts once we learn as children that written words unlock a secret world.” It continues through one’s lifetime.
Reed reminds us that the most direct form of literary seduction may be the love letter. Casanova, through writing, and one presumes, clever palaver, seduced perhaps 122 women. His memoir, The History of My Life, is 12 volumes long.
Susan Cushman, the editor, contributes an essay herself to this volume, describing the ten-year-long, agonizing process of becoming a published novelist. She describes the workshops she attended, the search for an agent, the numerous editors who helped—or not—to shape her first book.
Suzanne Hudson of Baldwin County takes a very different approach to this problem.
Furious with the publishing business, as many writers rightly are, Hudson’s advice to writers is “just do it yourself, by gum.” Self-publishing has lost the stigma it once had and you would avoid the “bloodsuckers, Mad Men and accountants.”
Jennifer Horne writes of the pleasures of her own room at Canyon Lake, but more importantly, the tension for a Southern writer in the South who does not subscribe wholeheartedly to the prevailing political, cultural, religious, sports-oriented culture. She means to insist that “y’all means all, that the loudest, crudest voices don’t get to have the last word.”
Jacqueline Trimble, African-American poet, tells of her struggle with reconciling the “universal” with the political. Early in her career, she was advised to avoid “topical” and possibly transient subject matter in favor of the “universal,” but she found her poems lacked power. Then, moving to issues of social justice and expressing her rage, taking the subject matter from the newspapers, the television and the streets, has given her poems a power they never had.
The writing life is a difficult and solitary business, to be sure, but it can be, nevertheless, fiercely competitive. Both Somerset Maugham and Gore Vidal are credited with saying: “It is not enough that I succeed. My friends must fail.” Nicole Seitz, in her essay, “The Necessity of Writer Friends” advises the reader to find a few trustworthy friends, those who “will both celebrate your successes and grieve at your failures. “
Good advice for writers and everyone else.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.