Tag Archives: Rick Bragg

Not Slacking Off – Plowing Through, Head Down

PlowI’ve been quiet for weeks. While I have a moment I wanted to note that the quiet is not a result of slacking off. Rather, I’m working more hours at the bookshop, reading a great deal (thick into Rick Bragg’s “Ava’s Man” – fantastic book! Just finished Steven King’s memoir “On Writing”, last week, and about to pick up some Shelby Foote again as soon as I am done with my next Bragg book; “The Prince of Frogtown”.)

I’ve done some serious soul-searching in regards my writing. I need to learn more of the craft. I’m not a good writer. I’ve spent years writing. But just like practicing a bad golf-swing over and over again for years – you don’t become a better golf player from it. I’ve been writing badly for years. I’ve never had the benefit of good coaching or a critical reader. My goal for the coming year is to remedy this deficit.

As to what I write, that’s a different matter. I’m still struggling with that conundrum. I have a good deal of legitimate story-telling in me; the kind that I believe will make not-terrible fiction. Nevertheless, I am compelled to finish this biography of William Ellis Jones – and to get it as close to “right” as possible. I am no historian and so I come at this project with one arm tied behind my back. I don’t have any money for travel to go to some of the places I need to visit to get facts and details as near-correct as possible (not yet anyway). Despite all that I am determined.

Anyway… this is what I have been up to and where my mind is noodling.

By the way; I just had a birthday. I am a year shy of half a century along. Seems a bit late in life to think I can become a writer. Then again, it seems like I have enough life under my belt to think that maybe I have a right to speak up.


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.


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.


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