What’s difficult or rewarding when writing about the South?
The most difficult and gratifying part of writing about the South is the exploration of memory and experience to bring forth sincere perspectives in its rendering of the people, voices, and places that live in stories. For those writing out of Appalachia the gravity of the Southern Gothic can be treacherous to orbit. It’s not that it isn’t valuable, as forms offer useful interpretive keys and expedient ways to reach wider audiences. But Eastern Kentucky isn’t Georgia or Mississippi or Middletown, Ohio, for that matter; a coal mine isn’t a plantation. Histories are local, and a dominant orientation can stifle different voices. In the end, it’s not about persuasion, agreement, or even authenticity, but affective resonances, understanding, and empathy. You don’t have to love or hate the characters that populate Southern writing, but they deserve to be seen and heard, and should.
—Billy Joe Stratton
The diversity of the people makes writing about the South both complex and amazing. I can focus on the rural family living mainly from the earth, or the urban single mom just trying to get by. Both require hard literary work to fabricate something real and meaningful. Completion leaves me feeling satisfied and matured.
—Patrick W. Gibson
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
As a child, my mother took my brothers and I to Fruitlands, a commune in Western Mass established by Louisa May Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott. As a transcendentalist utopia it failed miserably–they refused to use animal products or labor, which made the farming they needed to do to survive impossible. Alcott was ten years old during the seven months they lived at Fruitlands, the same age I was when we visited, and the trip was the first time I had considered the childhoods, or really, any biographical details at all, of my favorite writers. Before that, their books simply existed for me as completely separate creatures from the people that created them. As an adult, in my wandering years between undergrad and grad school, I took myself to Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library, which is neither a library nor a memorial site of an old residence, but rather an eclectic bookstore and cultural center that Miller’s friend Emeil White created a year after Miller’s death. Miller himself disapproved of memorials, but the energy at the library–a combination of the staggering beauty of Big Sur and the spirit of the artists that hung around–was infectious. I knew at that moment that the writing and art community was one I would always want to be a part of, wherever I landed.
— Alise Wascom
Most recently: Virginia Woolf’s home in Rodmell, Monk’s House. Extraordinary experience. For women of my generation, Woolf was (almost) the lone female who made it onto the college syllabus. We became mightily attached to her work and to her industrious example. I made my pilgrimage in June, when Leonard’s planted gardens were in full bloom. The house itself is low-ceiling-ed and unpretentious. Unlike at nearby Vanessa Bell’s Charleston farmhouse, a visitor can roam about Monk’s House on her own, without a docent, and linger in Woolf’s bedroom for as long as she wishes, scanning the bookshelves and Woolf’s volumes of Shakespeare. Another highlight: the writing “lodge,” set apart from the house. Impossible to look upon her desk, her chair, her pens without feeling at least a little transported. Virginia Woolf composed in that space—day after day, year after year.
— Kat Meads
Last year, I encountered Dorothy Richardson’s “Pointed Roofs” for the first time. Too few have encountered this phenomenal work, recognized to be the first stream-of-consciousness novel written in English, published in 1915. “Pointed Roofs” is the first volume in Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” sequence, and I found it to be a true epic journey into the feminine psyche. From this work, I began writing a poetry collection inspired by Richardson, and I hope to continue her legacy as a writer bringing awareness and consciousness to the varying forms of the modern female – and universal human – experience.
—Emily Madapusi Pera
My greatest literary pilgrimage was going to Ireland to visit Yeats’ grave and his tower Thoor Ballylee where he, his wife, and children had lived. My wife and I stepped out of our car during a thunderous rain storm and started on our trek through the wet trees when suddenly the ghostly tower was visible through a haystack leveling wind. I had taught his poem “The Tower” in my modern poetry class for many, many years; to unexpectedly see the real tower completely took my mind away and literally rendered me senseless. My wife would have to say when I recovered because I cannot remember. All I know is this: never, never have I had an unearthly experience commensurate with the same kind of dazed joy I get when I read his poetry and think of such lines as those in his unequaled love poem “No Second Troy” about Maud Gonne: “Why should I blame her that she filled my days/with misery . . . . Why, what could she have done, being what she is?/Was there another Troy for her to burn?
What drives you crazy about the writing process?
I think that the same qualities which make writing good also have the potential to make writing impossible. For example, many writers I know think very critically about everything from cinnamon rolls to gender binaries. We break apart and rebuild thoughts again and again in an effort to bring life, truth or emotion closer. There’s a tendency to live close to the blade. When chasing a character, I lose touch with the people in my life, the persons I love. I haven’t found a writing process that effectively balances the hunger and passion and fascination of a budding story with the demands of an earnest life. I don’t know how to love what I do without loving it a little too much.
— Alina Stefanescu
I always tell my peers that I wish I had a printer in my head so I could just click “print” and have all my ideas out. Often, I think of a really great plot or an opener to a poem and then it just lies dormant in my brain because I don’t have a pen or paper to write it on. The phone is not enough for me. There is a certain privilege of ideas that comes with actually touching a pen and writing thoughts down. I am occasionally frustrated when I lose or forget these great promises. Sometimes though, I keep thinking about them, a sort of creative marination and when my subconscious finally spits it out I am glad I went through the process.
I am a terrible speller. For certain words, I have made the same mistake so many times that it looks right to me. I spell “very” with two r’s. I spell “disappointed” with two s’s and one p. I have had to correct these words literally thousands of times. Not to mention words like “acquiesce” or “Massachusetts”, which I spell so wrong that there aren’t even any spellcheck suggestions. Part of my problem is that I have always written by hand, so my non-standard spellings have developed without the enforced discipline of spellcheck. It makes typing my first drafts a slow and humbling process.
— Jessica Aue
What’s the worst rejection you’ve ever received from an editor?
The worst editorial response I ever got was neither-acceptance-nor-rejection, in response to my submission of a humorous (supposedly) essay. Here’s what the editor said, verbatim: “Hi! Thanks for writing! [The piece] is cute and well-told, has nice observations. Not sure it would get in, though, it might, it might not. It’s a fence-straddler. So if you don’t object, I’ll hold onto it and see. If it gets in, I’ll pay you $100 and send you two copies. Sorry to be so wishy-washy. It happens sometimes. My best, [The Editor].” It did not get in. At least the note was hand-written.
Nowadays writers have to deal with the torments of Norman (No rejection means no), but back in pre-electronic submission days publishers made you include SASEs–self-addressed stamped envelopes–with your submissions. SASEs were what you got your rejections in. Rejections could range from personalized lamentation (rare) to form slip (common). Acceptances (extremely rare) came in the magazine’s own envelopes, and were usually fatter: they contained (sometimes) a form on which you could gratefully sign away all rights for zero dollars. One day I opened the mailbox to find, yet again, my own pitiful handwriting ridiculing me from yet another SASE, the magazine’s return address in the corner. I didn’t open it for a whole day. Why bother? Indeed, why continue in this wretched business at all, when even a stupid rag like this one rejects me? And it *was* a terrible magazine, wasn’t it? Indeed, so terrible that getting a rejection from them was, in a sense, confirmation that my stuff was good, right? Bucked up by this logic, I finally opened the SASE. Inside was an acceptance letter. Wow, what a great magazine. A hidden gem of the publishing world, brilliant in its obscurity. The fact that it was an unsigned form acceptance letter sent in my SASE just showed what an efficient operation they had going there. My career was back on track! I subscribed to the outstanding publication right away.
What are your guilty reading pleasures?
On the first Saturday in May you can always find me at a comic book shop for the annual Free Comic Book Day. In addition to the freebies, it’s also an excuse to buy more comics about superheroes, zombies, and space and time travelers. While I enjoy reading literary journals and serious novels, I also can’t resist the ever-changing stories of good versus evil from DC and Marvel and the rest.
Is there a poem, essay or story nobody should write?
The story, poem, or essay that nobody should write is the story, poem, or essay that tells anyone not to write something. Writers, like artists who sculpt, paint, or draw, are tasked with finding the universal within a character, place, or experience. To tell anyone that they cannot write about a specific person, place, event, or idea oppresses the idea that we are all human beings engaged in human experiences. Art is humane at its heart. Authors and artists reach for that core element, the emotional resonance that will heal our global world.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a small kid, I used to hide in closets and draw on the walls people, houses, horses, trees. If you looked under every piece of furniture in the house, you would find one of my drawings. Because of my dyslexia, I gravitated towards the visual arts. I did not want to deal with the tormenting reprimands I constantly got about my spelling. So I won prizes for my paintings and fell in love with the works of Gaugin, Goya, Delacroix, El Greco and was in awe by the Mexican muralist, telling bigger than life stories in grandiose spectacles of color and form. But painting went through a period of abstraction, of what I considered, reduced to a decoration and a piece of furniture. I wanted my paintings to tell stories, to move, to feel, to have angry characters, brave characters, epic dramas to unfold.
It wasn’t until I read two works that I felt that what I desperately wanted to do was write. That was “The Metamorphosis” by Frans Kafka and “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner. I was so shocked, so mesmerized that I then consumed like an junkie Hemingway, Marquez, Styron, Italo-Calvino, Flannery O’Connor and so on. It was then that my paintings became a zoetrope in my head and began to move. I traded my brushes and canvases for words and paper. I could now laugh, cry, be angry and find some deeper meaning in my work, but it took me many years to actually feel like I was a writer. I was just a dyslexic hack, writing was my secret, a closet addiction, besides my grammar was still horrible, my spelling bad, and English was in deed, my second language. But I was hooked and there was not turning back, and thus I became a writer.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
My advice for new writers isn’t new, but it works. Write every day. Even if you only complete a paragraph you’re progressing the craft. Don’t be fearful of straying from a particular genre. Push yourself and try new things. If you’re comfortable writing in women’s fiction, try science fiction. It’ll open up new challenges and yield big results. Read constantly. Consuming others work will polish your own.
—Patrick W. Gibson