Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Outsider Asks: What Is Southern Lit?

By Janie Kronk

“You learn a lot about where you’re from by learning about someplace new.”

These words were spoken to me by my boss in Ohio, shortly before I transplanted myself south for graduate school. Taking this statement to heart, I’ve done my best to be a good pupil while living here, learning about “The South” and trying to piece together what it teaches me about the north.

There are many aspects of Southern living to hold up in comparison to what I knew back home: Southern Architecture, Southern Cuisine, Southern Literature. This last item on the list is of particular interest to me. While it is easy to see the influence of climate and history in the buildings along the coast, and hard to argue with the zeal for barbeque that permeates the region, I have a little more trouble recognizing what makes writing “Southern.” Is it literature that takes place in the South? Written by Southerners? Or is writing made Southern by the presence of certain thematic elements? If so, what are those elements?

The tradition of southern literature includes greats such as William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Mark Twain and many others. There are anthologies published to highlight the work of contemporary Southern writers. I must admit, I have not witnessed quite the hype over a tradition of Midwestern literature, even though Ohio alone claims authors such as James Thurber, Sherwood Anderson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

For a time, I thought this may have something to do with my home region being part of “Middle America” – thus having no distinctive character of its own around which to form a literary culture. Still – and this may just be because it is “home” – I do find something unique about the blend of farm and factory, rivers, cities, and cornfields. But the sense of identity with the place is more subdued than what I have witnessed in The South.

So far, the thing that strikes me as being most unique about The South is not its food, its cities, or its literature. It’s not the manners, and it’s not the hot summers. It’s the sense of being Southern that Southerners seem to have.

This sense of uniqueness is there even though modern life has erased many of the boundaries that define one place from another – throughout the country we see the same strip malls and the same sprawl; we have the same food shipped to us in our grocery stores; we have access to the same information over the internet and in our libraries and bookstores. Despite everywhere becoming more and more the same, there still seems to be a consensus: something is different about The South.

This different-ness holds up as writers continue to fabricate stories. But what makes these stories different? Maybe Southern Literature in the 21st century is itself a fabrication – not in the sense of being false, but in the sense of being a built thing – an identity constructed again and again with each telling of a new tale while other distinctions vanish with the shift to a global culture.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

My Muse in an Unlikely Place

By Kimberly Johnson

When I was in high school, I thought a muse for an artist or a writer was a zaftig, round-eyed lady lounging, semi-nude, on a chaise lounge. And for a female artist or female writer, the muse was a wooden bowl of fruit.

When I was in college, I considered the source of inspiration flowed from art history books and tales of Joyce and Keats accompanied with popcorn-filled nights of foreign films. Then I realized that a 500 year-old statue, a 200 page novel and a black-and-white reel did not motivate my fingers to dance on a keyboard.

When I was a journalist, I discovered that country music motivated me, period. It’s not because I live in the South. It’s not because country stations dominate the FM dial. It’s not because I watched Hee Haw on Saturday nights. It’s because the Nashville sound helps me in character development and plot structure. Think about it: that snake in Carrie Underwood’s "Cowboy Casanova" is a writer’s dream (or nightmare). I definitely dig Martina McBride and George Strait. I want to give literary shout-outs to South Carolina natives Josh Turner (Pamplico) and Darius Rucker (Charleston), formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish.

Below are some muse-worthy lines from songs that I downloaded to my iPod. By the way, that bowl of fruit, I ate it.

Tim McGraw, "Real Good Man"
Girl, you'll never know no one like me, up there in your high society. They might tell you I’m no good, Girl, they need to understand just who I am. I may be a real bad boy, but, Baby, I’m a real good man…I might have a reckless streak at least country mile wide, if you gonna run with me it’s gonna be a wild ride.
This is an awesome portrayal of a roguish male antagonist in a romance novel. Move over Fabio.

Waylon Jennings, "Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line"
Everybody knows that you been steppin’ on my toes, and I’m getting pretty tired of it, cause since you were a little bitty tiny girl… you got the only daddy that will walk the line…I’m comin’ unglued at your funny little moods.
This country legend is best known for the Dukes of Hazzard theme song. Waylon is a master of the visible description; he does a fantastic job in lamenting about a woman who doesn’t appreciate his love. After listening to this, I would dash to the computer and bang away another chapter or two.

Marshall Tucker Band, "Can’t You See"
Gonna take a freight train down at the station, don’t care where it go…what that woman, oh, she been doin’ to me…Gonna find me a hole in the wall, gonna crawl inside and die.
This blues-inspired song gets me to focus on structuring my chapters into coherent masterpieces. I mean, really, this man’s in pain. I understand it - I’m in pain because I can’t get the chapters quite right.

Trisha Yearwood, "Wrong Side of Memphis"
I’ve been living on the wrong side of Memphis, really breaking away this time full tank of gas and a '69 Tempest takin’ me to that Nashville sign no turnin’ back come too far headed down Forty with my old guitar…I’ve been living on the wrong side of Memphis gonna bronze these blue suede shoes, these cowboy boots looking kinda restless, they ain’t gottta single thing to lose.
This is an inspirational song. Trisha’s from Georgia. I’m from South Carolina. She’s dreaming of the Grand Old Opry. I’m dreaming of New York. She made it. I will make it, too.

Fleetwood Mac, "Dreams" I know. It is not a country song.
Listen carefully to the sound of the loneliness of your heartbeat… to the stillness of your memories of what you had, what you lost…thunder only happens when it’s raining; players only love you when they’re playing.
Can you sense the agony that Stevie is singing about? I’m not a big Fleetwood Mac fan, but, after hearing this song, I believe in the power of words.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Latest Addition

Meet A New Writer


I didn't begin writing until around a year ago when I retired. I had taught English as a Second Language. I loved the job because I enjoyed my students, was able to know people from different countries, and learned about their homelands and their traditions. Best of all, the students were very motivated. As one of my students said, "I have a passion to learn English!"

I've always loved reading, so I decided to try writing. By writing I discovered an entirely different world, a world where I could escape from reality by creating stories and characters that came alive to me. I used memories to invent these people. Some stories were okay while others were awful, but the thrill is in creating the stories, and, hey, I can't stop now!

Favorite authors and books:
Atonement by Ian McEwen
The Catcher in the Rye
by J. D. Salinger
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
March by Geraldine Brooks

Other favorites activities:
Snorkeling, Hiking, and Llama Treks

Suzanne's first posting follows.

How Memories Can Provide Writing Material

By Suzanne Roberts

When you are searching for writing material, think about your childhood. Memories of your youth can supply a myriad of events to be used as topics. What uplifting experiences did you have when you were a child, and what are some of the sad events? List the happenings and think about which ones are the most important in your development as an adult. If you kept a journal or photos, these might help jog your memory.

If you plan to use your memories in a novel consider your goals. Do you want to describe a life that will inspire your reader or, perhaps, illustrate the effects of abuse and neglect?

I try to picture the happening completely, the sights, smells, sounds, my feelings, the unusual qualities of the event. I want to capture the moment and the essence of the people or animals. For example, after my cat, Squeaker, died, I thought about what an unusual but wonderful animal she had been. I wrote the following poem.

Is her vision a hallucination?
Daringly bold or unbalanced?
Images of the unknowable
Waging war on her enemies,
Using her sixth sense to disclose danger,
A courageous crusader.
Her view of life
Fighting fearlessly against the norm,
Resisting the rational,
A regular Joan of Arc
Yet she exists
Cleverly as a cat.

Perhaps it seems strange to compare your cat to Joan of Arc, but to me, the poem captured Squeaker, a cat who showed affection for me but was so opposed to strangers that she frantically hissed at them, viewing them as enemies. To many of my friends, she was an unbalanced scary animal.

Consider the people you loved as a child and how they might inspire the reader. Make a list of their attributes. What made them special to you? How can you convey their essence to the reader?

I have a wealth of memories from my Uncle John and Aunt Bess’s farm, which thrilled me as a child. The farm had acres of land and a pond. Some of my memories include riding a large farm horse when I was eight-years-old; taking a bath in a bucket in the back yard with water pumped from a well; and getting chased by a bull.

Think about the years of your young adulthood. When I was in my early twenties, I was a social worker in the rural Georgia mountains, a job which enabled me to meet men and women who made illegal whiskey, people who seemed to be right out of the pages of James Dickey’s Deliverance, and some very wonderful individuals.

So, when you’re looking for topics, you can find so many happenings from your childhood. Think about your younger years and write!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Revising & Whatnot

By Lisa Lopez Snyder

I’m at that stage of revision where I’m taking workshop feedback on my short fiction and making decisions: Do I cut this sentence? Should I move this part up, move that back? What’s a better, stronger word? Does this make my character more authentic?

Revising can seem like trudging up a long hill you just slid down. But does it always have to feel so daunting? I guess it means you need to feel the pain to get to the joy.

Writing always seems so much easier, and with a few handy mantras by my side, I usually feel spurred forward. There’s the straightforward Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” Another one is my own: “It doesn’t write itself.” I admit, they are admonishments, but they work for me. So…why not put together something to help with revisions?

Here are a few ideas. See what you think, and if you have any more, please comment. I need some help up the hill!

• Start in the middle and see what happens.
• You’re more than halfway there.
• Tell me what it’s like to be that character in that scene.
• Read it aloud.
• At least there’s a story to work with.
• That wasn’t so hard.