I'm not sure if this counts as a traditional literary pilgrimage, but my MFA thesis in graduate school was a collection of research-based poems on the victims of Ted Bundy. As part of that project, I went to Florida with my mother and re-traced his steps there. I visited the sorority house and the former school he lured Kimberly Leach, his last victim from. We talked to a friend of her mother's, and someone else who knew her well. The trip was strange and haunting, not just in the context of Bundy's actions but in the people we met, and the weather we experienced - for thirty minutes we were driving in the worst rain I've ever experienced, and could barely see the tail-lights in front of me. Every car driving as slow as possible.
I once booked a flat for cheap on Lafayette Square in Savannah. There, I got trapped in the bathroom. The door wouldn’t budge. I yelled for my kids. No response, likely busy photographing orbs. I considered going out the window, but the sharp fence two stories below made me think twice. Next door, I could see a stone statue of a saint centered in a small garden. A voice interrupted my thoughts. Try the door. It opened. Later, we noticed a historical marker in front of the saint house. Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. My accidental FOC pilgrimage.
I don't know that I'd call them pilgrimages since I am usually already in town for some other reason, but whenever I have the opportunity to visit a writer's-house-turned-museum, or any sites related to famous writers, I do. So far, I've visited Eudora Welty's home in Jackson; James Whitcomb Riley's home and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, both in Indianapolis; Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, which boasts a statue of Longfellow and another of Minnehaha and Hiawatha from his famous poem, as well as, weirdly, a 2/3 scale replica of his Massachusetts home; the Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in a home they lived in only for a short time in Montgomery; Flannery O'Connor's childhood home in Savannah (though I have yet to visit her farm, Andalusia); Charles Dickens's home and the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London; the Emily Carr House in Victoria, British Columbia; and the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, along with his grave a few blocks away in Westminster Presbyterian's graveyard, a very cool place to visit in its own right. I love seeing the places where great writers worked, and the insights gained from tidbits about their lives. Welty's garden is still beautifully maintained, and her manuscripts are arranged on the dining room table as if she's just stepped away from revising a story. You can see that she physically cut and pasted her manuscripts as part of her process. It's easy to imagine Poe in his sparse, low-ceilinged room on the third floor, bent over the writing desk and dreaming up terrors in the dark night. With each visit, I hope that some flash of inspiration or new appreciation for a certain turn of phrase will come, but just as often, I am drawn in by the architecture of the home, the landscaping, or the cobblestone street outside.
My most embarrassing moment is more a collective of years of mistakes in front of the public eye. I began publishing young, at 16, with anthologies and now-defunct magazines. As a result, I've "grown-up" in the literary world, quite literally. All of my experimental phases, underdeveloped plot lines, and moments of coltish prose happened before an audience instead of the confines of a workshop. However, I don't feel "embarrassing" is the correct word. I don't regret anything I've published. Pieces that may be cringe or more juvenile to me now held the importance of some sort at the time. I think of it more as an ongoing growth experiment. I'm now 27--by all accounts, still young, much too young to know anything, according to some. But I've had a lot of life experience, trauma, grief, and loss in my days, more than some people experience their whole lives. Youth is a "flaw" I've embraced in my work and career, and I only hope to gain more experience and never stop learning. I wear my embarrassment as a medal of honor; the fact I look back at things in ignominy shows change, and that speaks to progress.
What's the hardest part of writing about the South?
I'm not quite sure what 'the South' is. Miami, where I live, and really all I know about Florida, is a strange city. It's culturally vibrant and eclectic and infuriating for various reasons, but still, it has its own distinct, separate ambiance. I'm not sure how else to put it other than in purely negative terms: Miami is *not* the South. Which, of course, doesn't mean it's the North or anything else but, rather, a point of exception. To be a little philosophical, it's a city of difference and becoming, a limbo where identity, despite the city's seeming tribalism, is actually quite fragile.
Answering this question is not as easy as it may seem. I've been a trial lawyer for 17 years. Full stop. It's not a career you cannot half-do. It is all-consuming a lot of the time. So, you could say that at some point I made the decision to work instead of write. For many years that is exactly what I did. Though I'd been writing poetry since I was an undergrad, I'd never submitted any of my poetry for publication. I toyed with the idea of getting my MFA in Creative Writing in my last year of undergrad, but I applied to law school and that was that. I left the writing part of me behind even as I continued to read voraciously, mostly fiction, and then, around 2010 I began writing again and writing regularly, but this time, I was writing fiction. When I finally got my first short story published in 2014, I couldn't believe it. It's still hard for me to believe because, on most days, I still see myself as a lawyer and a lawyer only. Only now, after more success with writing and publishing, when I see myself as a lawyer, I think of my job not simply as "work" but as a unique lens through which I've been able to see the world and interact with all sorts of people. My "work" is now a tool I use for my writing instead of letting it prevent me from writing and making that shift in perspective has finally made my writing life manageable and extremely rewarding.
When I’m not feeling inspired to write, I turn to the calls for submissions and specific features of online lit journals. Sometimes finding a specific prompt gives me the right mix of freedom and parameters. I recently wrote a "my first" essay for Hobart, for example, about discovering that I had crabs from my first boyfriend while on a trip to Iceland. They didn't take the essay, but that's okay because I enjoyed working on it and feel good about what I crafted. I'm also working on another essay inspired by Smokelong Quarterly's Flash in the Classroom essay series, about teaching Kara Vernor's Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song in my freshman comp classes.