Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Judgement of Crickets.

cricketThe overwhelming (sic) response to my last post “Feedback Please?” was… (no drum roll required)… Crickets.

Damn. Was it that bad?

You know, it’s a good thing I have thick skin, a hard head, and determination. If I didn’t have these attributes, I’d probably allow my feelings to feel bruised. As it is, I’ll just ignore the… Crickets. And keep on going.


Rick Bragg Changes Life of Itinerant Writer – Fuck ‘em All

Fuck 'em all.

Fuck ’em all.

I just completed reading Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’, which was recommended to me by Charles McNair. In truth, I just completed the second reading. As soon as I finished it the first time around, I started over again, ‘cause I had to make sure I’d read it right. First time I’ve ever done that with any book – ever.

Since I now know I read it right the first two times, I went to ABE and ordered his entire backlist. I’ve never done that before, either. I’m not loyal to authors (generally speaking.) Okay… maybe a couple; Jane Austin (when I am melancholy and hopeless), Bruce Chatwin (when I need to get out of my own head), and James Lee Burke (when I really feel like slumming.) Think what you will, if you could see what all I’ve read over the last three or four years, you’d know this loyalty is atypical.

This book – this man’s voice – got into my head and got under my skin. Too many similarities in our early lives to ignore; too many stark contrasts to gloss over. I’m still processing it. But I’ll say this; Rick Bragg has given me hope that an insecure, beat-down, quietly pissed off person with a hard, chiseled chip on her shoulder might still have a chance in this Starbucks, homogenized world. Prior to reading this memoir, I never really thought it was possible. I just accepted that I was doomed to dream and wish without any hope of actually accomplishing anything worthwhile. (If you ever heard anything contradicting this notion, it was pure bravado. I never believed it. Not till now.)

Just to be clear, I am not aspiring for a Pulitzer. I know better than that. Hell, I’d be satisfied just to get a publisher willing to put my verbiage between two covers and then have some bookseller scan a bar code on it. The idea that someone might want to read something I wrote is as big as I dare dream. It’s big enough for me. This time around anyway. (I’m a believer in multiple opportunities at screwing things up.)

Rick Bragg has given me permission to have any dreams at all. If that Alabama cracker can do it all the way to New York and the Pulitzer, then by God I can do something closer to home. And suddenly I don’t give a rats ass what my family thinks (I didn’t get the support Rick got, still don’t, never will), or what the world thinks, or how poor I am, or how old I am. I’m just about fed up with people telling me to stop wasting my time and get a job (I tried that for 30 years, it sucked, it didn’t work, and it made me miserable.) I’m tired of wasted time and wasted energy on other people’s bullshit.

I’m going to take a line out of Rick Bragg’s book and just refuse to listen to or be intimidated by the people who have been working in concert most of my life to keep me in check. Fuck ‘em all. I’m gonna do something with this drive. And then I’m gonna keep doing it until I die of trying to do it the rest of my mortal life on this earth.

Rick Bragg has finally given me permission to write from who I am, and what is real as I experience it, and stop trying to be something I am not.

‘Bless his heart’

Fuck ’em all.


Slaves in the Family – Review

slaves-in-family-edward-ball-paperback-cover-artSlaves in the Family, by Edward Ball

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York

Edward Ball blows the doors off the spoken-of-only-in-inferences-and-whispers subject of the source of his family’s wealth, status, and generations long domination (economically and socially) of the South Carolina Low Country; i.e., their slaves.

The book is a thoroughly researched historical document specific to the Ball family, well-written, and candid. But more than all that, it is a look at All Our Histories,  putting a mirror in front of us and forcing us to look at the aftermath (for both black and white) of slavery, and the “cover-up” created by white descendants to romanticize and gloss over the grim facts of the past.

Bell’s is one of the bravest books on this subject that I have so far encountered. Near the top of my “Must Read” list.


Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 – Review

Frances Kimble - JournalJournal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, by Frances Anne Kemble, Edited with an introduction by, John A Scott

Brown Thrasher Books / University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1984. (Originally published, 1863.)

Frances Kimble’s journal is surprisingly approachable, despite its vintage. She’s a skilled, sharp-eyed “journalist”, motivated to tell a story that few people in the 1830’s wanted to hear, fewer would have found sympathetic, and most would have derided as fiction.

This book is ‘Downton Abby’ with an underbelly so bleak, so grim it makes Dickens’ (writing in the same vein, on similar subjects occurring in England), seem like pretty cartoons. Kimble’s work is the very factual, well-documented, first-person account of what slavery was in the American South. Hard to face, but impossible to look away.

If you only read one book on the subject of antebellum slavery, this is the one.


The Ghost of the Ashley Wilkes Archetype Haunts Me

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

My head is a swimming blur of conflicting priorities. On one hand, I have William Ellis Jones, II, the Civil War Diarist and book publisher demanding that I “get back to original programming”. On the other hand I have his grandson, William Ellis Jones, III, and his dead daughter and his two living, but very tormented children, agitating for an expansion of the fiction “assignment” I produced for Mr. McNair.

I shipped McNair the deeply revised story (Is it a short story? Is it a novella? Is it a draft of a book I didn’t know wanted to be written?) yesterday – with tremendous trepidation.

I’ll tell you why I have trepidation. It isn’t about my weak verbs, or too many adjectives, or lulls in the prose, or even the fact that the damn thing is too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. All those things can be resolved if the thing has any legs underneath it at all. My trepidation has to do with something that I have dealt with my whole life, and can’t do a damn thing about.

It’s about who I am, where and who I come from – and what that all means – in this case, to Mr. McNair as a person.

Yeah… yeah… yeah. I know I’m not making any sense.

I’ll spell it out for you.

McNair’s protagonist in Pickett (and I suspect Land O’ Goshen too, tho I have not read it yet), is an Alabama “cracker”; a man from the dirt-farmer class of southern folks who make fantastically tough, very colorful characters in modern literature. They’re just interesting to read and write about because they’re so damn uncivilized and irrational that they’re actually “novel”, in the original sense of the word.

When McNair and I first met, and I told him I was writing a bio of my g-g-g-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, he instantly recommended a book for me to read. He said it was the best piece of autobiographical / historical prose he’d ever read, and it demonstrated near perfectly how to draw out a character and bring him to life.

That book is ‘All Over But The Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg. And I agree that it is incredibly well-written. It’s a great book about a whole lot of tragically broken, complicated, very colorful misfits.

But here’s the thing… Bragg’s misfits, like McNair’s protagonist, are of a “class” of Southern stereotypes that, while interesting, are about as remote from my experience and understanding as it gets (I could come up with a lot of nifty comparisons here, but that would just be trying too hard.)

Bragg, in his memoir, writes “White people had it hard and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps of nothing? This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather. No one I knew ever had a mammy.”

Well guess what? My own Mother (born 1936) had a Mammy. And her Daddy had a black wet-nurse. And both sides of my mother’s parentage descended from the “Plantation Class”. And I grew up with an overwhelming sense that we “…owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather…”, because the fact was that we knew every advantage we had (and even by the 21st century, there are still many) came at the expense of someone who our ancestors “owned”. I grew up understanding that my intelligence and ability to converse and move with ease through any social or business setting was literally stolen from the descendants of the people my ancestors enslaved.

I find the struggles and torments of the fallen southern aristocracy to be dark, often quite tragic, but more than anything else – complicated. And I’ll never be able to shed my fascination with the concept or the characters – because they are the people I know. They are, in fact, me, as well.

All that said, I wonder if Mr. McNair– given the characters and culture he knows best and who he respects – will be able to stomach reading about a somewhat effete, fallen aristocrat, who is full of self-loathing and guilt on so many levels that he can’t think his way out of his wet paper bag of pathos.

Looking at me and my characters from his (or better perhaps, from Rick Bragg’s point of view), we’re not a very sympathetic lot. We’re the people who built the system that stole every opportunity from everyone “below” us on the social ladder, and now that the ladder has upturned we’re sitting in the dirt feeling sorry for ourselves, trying to figure out what happened and where we went wrong. Pathetic really.

The reality is that we’ll probably never escape the class issues that define and divide us at least as much as the race issue. It makes me sad. I wonder whether this issue is enough to sink any hopes I might have had that McNair might actually help me become a better writer, and then do something with it.

I’m just hoping that all the above is just my own pathetic insecurity – and not what Mr. McNair actually sees in me or my work.

Maybe I just think too much.


All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg – Review

All Over But The Shoutin', a memoir of life in the American South that few writers as gifted as Bragg have ever even visited, much less survived.

All Over But The Shoutin’, a memoir of life in the American South that few writers as gifted as Bragg have ever even visited, much less survived.

All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg

Pantheon Books, New York, 1997

For his memoir, Rick Bragg reveals the raw bone of dirt poverty in which he grew up. The culture of violence, abuse in every medium, and the grinding pain and humiliation of inequity – as a blow-by-blow assault the poor-white-classes in the South endure every day. Bragg’s South is not the South I grew up in; but I could sure see it from my grandmother’s back porch steps.

This book is so well written, the time, place and people so familiar, I simply couldn’t put it down. It made me ask – how do people manage to survive this life? But moreover, how do people like Rick Bragg not only survive it, but actually use this broken, unsteady foundation as a springboard to fantastic success on a global level? (Bragg won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for journalism, while reporting for the New York Times.)

This is a must read, for everyone who thinks they “get” the south. Bragg will give it to you straight up, with a bloody lip if you’re not careful.

I wrote a follow-up, after my second reading, which you can see here.


Old Ghosts. New Ghosts. Ghost Competition.

Alan Gurganes rather famously confessed that his novel “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All”, was not so much written by him, as it was received as dictation in a very proscribed manner in the wee-early morning hours between about four and five in the morning, until….

He told Charlie Rose in an interview not long after the books’ debut, that if he was late arriving in his over-the-garage writing room, the old widow would have given up and gone, and another day of material contribution to the story would be lost.

I find nothing strange or contrived in his story.

I find myself in a not terribly dissimilar predicament.

Charles McNair gave me an assignment. I took a break – a week, I thought – to accomplish it. But now that assignment has taken on a life of its own with his second assignment to edit the original, make it stronger – better – worthier of my effort and the digital trees scarified to its conception and birthing.

When I called up that muse to bring me the story for McNair’s assignment, I got a muse who obviously wanted to be heard. Her name is Dora and her story came swiftly, crudely, like a frightened child trying to tell me something she could not quite organize but had to get out – but there is substance to it – no matter how disorganized it appears right now.  I want to do her the honor she deserves.

But now, my other ghost – the ghost who I’ve been working with for more than five years – is standing behind Dora with his arms crossed and a furrow in his brow, and he’s more than a little annoyed with my “shelving him” in favor of this disorganized, crazed little half-Indian girl. “Will” has been patient with me. He’s put up with my poverty, my geographic wanderings and lack of connection to the wider world of research (because I chose to go off-grid and live in a log cabin for two years, with no iNet, no running water, no electricity.) I think he found humor in seeing a 21st century descendant trying to make it in his world. But now that I’m back – his humor and patience are running thin. He’s not cutting me any slack at all.

Tonight I tried to explain to “Will” that this dalliance with McNair was about making me a better writer. About forging relationships with influential people who can actually get his story out there. I don’t know if he bought it – god I hope so. I hope he has patience. I need him to – because it’s actually his story that I need to tell, more so than any of the others.

The problem is that more ghosts are lining up behind my friend (my great-great-grandfather) Will.

More stories to tell. More almost-forgotten souls to reanimate. The room is filling up, and I can hardly hear myself think for the din they create. Accents and languages and lives lived in times and places and people that I have only begun to scratch the surface of understanding. For God’s sake, there is a man here with what I think must be three thousand head of sheep all swirling around him like dervishes! (Is that William of Brynterion? Is it his father, Richard? Maybe Richards’ grandfather? I need to find out just who he is!?)

Call me crazy. I don’t care. I still manage to show up to work on-time and do what’s needed. Balance my checkbook. Wash my hair. Brush my teeth. Fulfill the basic obligations.

But I’d sure love to have about three more lifetimes in order to figure out who all these people are, and three more after that to properly tell their stories.

I need them all to be patient. I got a late start. I am doing the best I can. They should have shown up sooner, before I spent half my life on worthless, trivial stuff. Man, what I would not give now for all that wasted time to be recovered to me.

Will, hang on. I am coming back to you. But I need to show this guy McNair that I am worthy of encouraging and helping. We both need him.

 


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