I feel so lucky to have been raised in the south amidst a community of long-winded talkers. The voices I grew up with often define the stories I write. It's not just the cadence and sweetness of tone of my homeland region; my characters carry a wonderful kind of confidence, the self-assurance they're telling a story that others want to hear. Whenever I face misgivings about a piece I'm working on, quite often, a voice from my past will provide ballast. I can still hear my neighbor, Gaynelle, saying, "Stay a minute, Libby, and let me tell you what happened yesterday when I was in town."
And of course, there's the southern structure. A good storyteller knows that roundabout is the way to go. A decent story rarely starts at the beginning, but rather, starts somewhere in the middle and then travels back and back some more -- in a jazz player's riff, with all the attendant antidotes and rambling digressions -- until finally, maybe, it circles forward to an ending.
I haven't lived in the south for quite a few years but, the best part of writing about it is this: it's like going home. The great storytellers I grew up with come alive while I'm working. I hear my father's voice as clear as day, how he'd say things like arthur-i-tis and Los Angee-lees in his sad soft timbre. And the way, before he'd start talking, he'd pull a pack of cigarettes out of his front pocket then tuck them back in again because he didn't want me to see him smoking.
First, there's the voice. Then the details come up -- and I'm winding my way through until I've got my story. Some days, it feels like an old friend I once knew from the past is calling me in and sitting me down. "Oh, you'll want to hear this one," they say. And I do. I do.
The best part of writing about the South is that you have to go there in your heart of hearts to render it with any sort of authenticity. Few trips are ever as richly layered, as deeply beautiful, as movingly sad, & as ultimately life-affirming as that journey.
It’s a love-hate dance with the people and the place, grasping on to the outlandish hope that maybe this time around, we will be true to who we say we are: people who don’t know a stranger, who will give you the shirt off their back, who always have an extra seat at the table and room in the inn.
I think most writers will nod with recognition when I say that the hardest part about writing is...writing. But from attempting short stories and creating fake newspapers as a kid all the way to journaling and writing fiction as an adult, it always felt like something I needed to do in order to cope. Jotting down notes (an exchange I witnessed on the subway, the way I feel like my heart might burst in a moment, etc.) is the easy part. Even coming up with a vague plotline feels doable. But sitting down to turn my idea into something not only readable but enjoyable, forces me to confront my fear that I might not be able to do it. Actually sitting down and doing it—that's when the magic can happen, when the freedom of expression sets in, and that's what keeps me going.
What drives me crazy about the writing process is the fact that I am often unsure of when I am truly “done” with a story. No matter how comfortable I am with the setting, theme, and backstory, or how well I know the protagonist’s voice and arc, when I begin the revision process, I sometimes find it difficult to know how much major revision versus minor adjustments the story ultimately needs. Maybe I worry too much about whether the reader is going to “get it,” so I revise and re-read and tweak and re-read and worry and re-read, and, and, and… I am a perfectionist by nature, so the process requires me to contemplate the work honestly but compassionately, with criticism that is constructive and not obsessive.
I write all my creative work by longhand first, and then later edit on the computer. It’s a habit I started as a kid. I always ran around writing stories in a notebook that my friends would later read and edit. Sometimes I wish I could break this, as it can be a serious time suck! But there’s something about writing by hand, especially when building the framework for the physical place(s) and time(s) that these characters will exist, that feels more organic this way. And when writing in Seattle, it always makes me feel a little closer to home.
In elementary school, I wrote song lyrics in my emerald-green, spiral-bound notebook. My formative experience would probably be when I was a teenager, and I discovered confessional poetry. One of the most notable and revered confessional poets, Sylvia Plath, captured my attention and my envy immediately. I found my muse. Her striking imagery—flame-red poppies and fog-riddled hills—seared into my mind, and I wanted to emulate her vision.
In 10th grade, because of a convergence of things: Ms. Denson's English class at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia; listening to and reading about the Doors, U2, R.E.M., and The Velvet Underground. I really liked just about everything we read in Denson's class (A Separate Peace, The Outsiders, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Lord of the Flies), but have only reread Lord of the Flies (I still think it's fairly good), and somehow don't think I'd like the others much anymore. I also don't think I was reading much literature on my own yet, although that did explode by sometime in 11th grade.
But in her class, I started speaking up about our readings. It took all the courage I could muster to raise my hand during discussions, and it was torture waiting for her to call on me, but after I made that first comment of the day, the nerves would disappear and I actually liked voicing how I perceived readings. Sometimes she probably wanted to shut me up. Then, the next day, those nerves would be back until I'd again made that first comment. There's a cycle of having these perceptions inside that I want to get out, being scared, taking a risk, finding my voice, and then having more to say and be scared about which is all still very much part of my emotional rhythm.
-- Andy Fogle
I won two essay contests when I was 10: One for writing about “How Music Makes Me Feel” for my piano teacher and the other for “Why My Teacher is the Best” for a local radio station. I don’t remember being all so fond of the teacher, but she was delighted when the prize -- a crate of Red Delicious apples -- was delivered to our fifth-grade classroom. While early recognition was encouraging, my fuse was lit when I read All the President’s Men in a high school journalism class. I wanted to be the kind of writer who could tell the stories that make a difference.
“My Story” by Kim Kardashian.
-- Julie Mihaly
One of my first published stories landed in an anthology, and the publisher scheduled a series of readings around Alabama to promote the book. The seven-minute chunk of the story I chose to read went over so well in the first venue that I read the same selection everywhere we went. At a library in Selma, I was in the middle of the piece when I realized the salty dialogue coming up might not go over well with the three or four elderly men and twenty or so elderly women in the audience. My thoughts were—Do I read it as written or do I censor myself? I chose to read. Instead of the applause and uproarious laughter I’d enjoyed in our other outings, I heard a couple of nervous chuckles and a lot of uncomfortable shuffling. When I sat down next to the editor, I asked him if anybody winced at the dialogue. He said the whole first row wilted.
The worst and the best were the same. I received a very nice acceptance letter from the Saturday Evening Post, a top publication and dream one for most writers, but the story had already been accepted and published in Los Angeles. I was devastated, but rather than simply respond that way, I told the editor I had two even better than that. I didn't, of course, but she said, "Send them on Monday" and this was on a Friday, so I worked all weekend writing, rewriting, editing, reading out loud, and then I pushed the send button on Monday. I didn't hear immediately, so I sent a follow-up email after a week just to make sure she had received them and to my surprise, she took one. I was beyond elated. That was in 2019 and that year, I was named in the top 10 of the year by Saturday Evening Post. Again, I was thrilled and I keep hoping to land there again one of these days.
I once submitted a short story to a literary journal as Julie Mihaly & it was rejected. Then I submitted the same piece under the name J.S. Mihaly and it was accepted. This was decades ago, but it definitely reinforced my notion that it’s easier for even an imaginary man to get published than it is for a woman to do the same.
-- Julie Mihaly
After years of reading East of Eden and Of Mice and Men with my high school students in TN, I visited Salinas, California: Steinbeck Country. I saw the flowers that punctuate the fields and drove among the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges that create the Salinas Valley. I watched the farmers work fields of lettuce. I had lunch in Steinbeck's childhood home and visited the Steinbeck Museum. I visited the graves of the Steinbeck and Hamilton family. I even drove toward the coast to walk on Cannery Row.
Though I had never paused to consider the literary pilgrimages of my life, the present hesitancy to travel has caused me to think of them now with tenderness and gratitude—for I have hung out in the haunts and houses of Hemingway in Ketchum and Key West and Cuba. And I’ve tarried at Karen Blixen’s estate near Nairobi. I’ve stirred around Tennessee Williams’ gigs in New Orleans and Key West—and his elegant grave in the St. Louis Cemetery, where Kate Chopin is buried more modestly nearby.
I’ve trekked around many cemeteries, actually—in Paris, for instance, to the graves of Balzac and Proust, Wilde and Stein, Hugo and Colette. Also in Paris, I have sipped champagne with the spirits of de Beauvoir and Sartre, Joyce and Fitzgerald and Papa at Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore. I’ve hiked about Walden Pond and stopped by the Alcott’s Orchard House. I’ve soaked up Shakespeare in Stratford and poked around Jack London’s Wolf House and grave (so many graves in so many places) near Sonoma, and I’ve made my way to Santa Fe several times over as dinner guest of N. Scott Momaday.
I’ve sought out the childhood homes of Mark Twain in Hannibal and Thomas Wolfe in Asheville, and I’ve spent long afternoons at City Lights Bookstore with the omnipresence of Kerouac and Ginsberg. I’ve journeyed to the border of Old Mexico to interview William Eastlake for my dissertation, then again when he died. In Salem, I’ve seen Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, and near Taos, I’ve spent the afternoon at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch (in the company of Joy Harjo!) and longer than that in Oxford at Faulkner’s Rowan Oak.
In the years of my studies with James Dickey, many were the pilgrimages to his house on Lake Katherine, but more so I cherish our pilgrimages together across campus for late afternoon lunches. Dickey, in many ways, was a literary father to me—which leads me to Pat Conroy, my literary brother. No—strike that—my brother. The pilgrimages with Conroy were many and varied, mostly the back porch kind, though there were book festivals and decadent dinners and the sad honor to be there when he set out on his own great pilgrimage as he crossed beyond the veil.
Two years ago, I was hiking the Flume Trail near Lake Tahoe, overlooking a horizon of mammoth-Ponderosa pines and massive boulders that'd fallen in a recent landslide. Upon the dusty, upward-winding footpath, I came across a bench and placard placed in tribute to Mark Twain, who'd hiked the same trail in his formative years, and seen a similar, righteous-blue vision, “As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains.” Best advice I can give to emerging writers: seek out many earthly-experiences, absorb-and-channel the daunting waves of daily frustration, and wander kindly through new places.
Much work in American letters is volunteer work done by writers who love language, starting journals, organizing contests, and readings and workshops. It’s a lifestyle choice; great fun and adventure can be found, plus or minus smoky cafes/coffeehouses. Growth opportunities are everywhere, and inequities. Listen. Amplify other voices. Starting a zine, publishing your own e-book, and the like are the best teachers in terms of editing, or curating a manuscript of diverse pieces. All of the nit-picking over formatting that comes with publishing work, and even communicating with other writers, those experiences will ripple through your craft over time.