Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts

Saturday, February 10, 2024

St Andrews Teacher Attends Symposium

South's enduring past intrigues teacher
Clarion Ledger June 15, 1983

Steve Anspach is a Northerner charmed by the South. 

Come June 25 Anspach, a resident of Florence and an English teacher at St Andrew's Episcopal School, will turn the pages of literature to learn more about the region he loves. "There's something about how the past endures in us that intrigues me," he said. "Books at least give partial answers." "For me, it's not a love of books but a love of place. It's the books that help me understand the place." Anspach will hopefully unravel some of the mystery during a Southern writers seminar at Louisiana State University that is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He is among 15 high-school teachers selected from 300 applicants nationwide to attend the conference. Lewis Simpson, an authority on Southern literature and professor at LSU, is scheduled to teach the group. During the five-week course, the group will study novels by literary giants such as William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Walter Percy and visit several related literary sites. Because "The Moviegoer," a novel by Percy, is set in New Orleans, Anspach said the class would probably see the city's sights. Also, a trip to Oxford, to visit Rowan Oak, the home of Faulkner, is a second possibility for a literary field trip.

Anspach applied for the summer classes in January after his wife, a student at Mississippi College School of Law, received a brochure listing various topics of study offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was tempted to learn more about Chaucer, which he also teaches, but instead chose to apply for the Southern writers course. He outlined his reasons for wanting to attend the seminar in a short one-page essay tacked onto his application. "I said I was a Northerner, and that I'd had fascination with the South ever since I'd been in the army in Fort Jackson, S.C." His wife felt the essay was too short, but Anspach disagreed. "I felt right when I wrote my essay.

I felt like I said what I wanted in a convincing way." Two months later, Anspach's instincts proved correct and he received an acceptance letter and course outline. Of the novels to be studied, there are two he is reviewing "Absalom, Absalom!" by Faulkner and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" by 'For me, it's not a love of books but a love of place. It's the books that help me understand the place.' Steve Anspach Ernest Gaines. Anspach hopes the conference will boost his self-confidence about teaching Southern literature. He also hopes to become more familiar with the works of Faulkner, a novelist whom he finds difficult to read.

The class will be a far cry from all play and no work. Each participant is required to complete a 3,000-word essay during the course. Anspach and his wife, Judy, came south in 1978 when they moved to Florence from Cleveland, Ohio. He was scheduled to work on a doctorate degree at a Mississippi school but instead accepted a job at SL Andrew's. Since 1979, he has taught tenth graders literature of the world, and seniors, American literature.

Anspach received a bachelor's degree in psychology and English from Kent State University and a master's degree from West Virginia University. He and his wife, Judy, are parents of one son, Erich, 19, a sophomore at Washington and Lee University.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Derailed Story

Sometimes, I lose control of my stories.  Earlier today, I tried to write down how this girl once spent several minutes slapping and punching me because I didn't keep my eyes closed during an intimate moment.  It was supposed to be funny.  At least it was unusual.  Along the way, I wrote down how I'd never hit a girl, which is almost true in that I've never raised my hand in anger like that, but there was that time in fifth grade when I mistakenly tried to wrestle a girl because I thought she was another one of the boys.   

Once I did that, the whole piece became about how bad that mistake made me feel, which it did, and whatever point I had that was funny evaporated like a vampire in the sun, and the longer the story got, the less it worked.  It wasn't funny anymore.  It wasn't anything, just an ambling mess.  

When I paint or draw, I usually try to capture something my eye actually saw, which keeps me on track.  Writing is only like that when you answer an essay question in school.  With free writing, you sometimes start out trying to bake a chicken and end up with broiled oysters.  The process, at least the way I do it, takes its own course, and you're just there trying to scribble it all down.

Art is a collaboration between the conscious and unconscious mind.  While my story wasn't particularly good, it became an interesting opportunity to examine my creative process. Maybe one day I'll return to that story's funny side, or maybe I'll never think of it again.  That part doesn't matter.  What does matter is that I had an idea, and I put it on paper, and it became whatever it needed to become.       

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Eudora Welty - A Visit of Charity

 Tomorrow's story for the Eudora Welty reading group is "A Visit of Charity" from "A Curtain of Green."  The story is about Marian, a little girl and member of an organization like the Girl Scouts (but not the Girl Scouts) who visits the Old Ladies Home to gain points for her organization and her reaction to the women in the home.

The Old Ladies' Home was a large wooden structure just east of the Jackson Zoo.  My grandmother was a contemporary of Miss Welty but a few years older.  My father's mother, she was deeply involved in the Girl Scouts most of her life, and in middle age, she and a group of women she knew became very involved in helping with the Old Ladies' Home.  As time passed, the City of Jackson became less and less interested in maintaining the Old Ladies' home, so it fell on private citizens to help maintain it and provide for the residents.  

Eventually, it became really difficult to maintain the old wooden structure, and only a few residents left living there, as most people had begun using nursing homes rather than the Old Ladies' Home.  Since I was on the board of the Zoo, she asked me to help facilitate giving the land and the building to the Zoo.  I told her we didn't really need the extra five acres (and another old building to maintain), but as the City of Jackson ultimately owned both properties, I felt certain there was a way to make it happen.

Sometimes, it's hard for me to read Welty's stories from an academic viewpoint because her subject matter seems so very familiar.  She wasn't family or anything, but it's really close.  It wasn't hard to imagine my mother or grandmother as Marian, the protagonist in this story, as both had stories about visiting the residents at the Old Ladies Home, as I'm sure Miss Welty did herself.

An avid gardener, she creatively includes her beloved plants in nearly all her stories.  For this story, she mentions cineraria as a small potted plant her antagonist brings as a gift for the ladies at the Old Lady's Home.  Sometimes called "climbing fig," you see cineraria in many Mississippi gardens.

Put on by the Mississippi Archives and History and the Eudora Welty Foundation, I'm really enjoying these weekly zoom sessions to discuss the works of Eudora Welty.  Many thanks to Catherine Freis for telling me about it.  

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

To Be Well-Read

How many books does it take to be considered "well-read?"  I'll go to my grave, considering myself just the opposite.  Part of it is because, even after fighting that dragon for more than fifty years, it's still a struggle for me to read any book, to keep my eye on the page rather than focusing on the flicker of a light bulb filament or the legs of a moth as my ADHD demands, frustrated by trying to arrange the words and letters on the page that my dyslexia jokingly rearranges.  

I surround myself with people who make me envious of the books they've read.  People like Catherine, who taught generations of young scholars to read Greek, or Brent, who nearly killed us all by demanding we read a new play every week and turn in a card on it, or Suzanne, who quietly sat with Miss Eudora all those years and soaked in all the magic she gave out. 

I used to go to Oxford to try and catch a glimpse of Larry Brown.  In a time when most people who like letters were looking for the more elaborate Barry Hannah, I was fascinated by this quiet fireman who ate one book after another in his firehouse, then settled down and wrote dozens of stories and two novels before deciding to show them to anyone.  

My father wanted me to settle in and become part of the community of businessmen who provided jobs and helped build their community, like his father and his father's father, but all I wanted was to at least sit with the people of letters, even though I never dreamed of being one of them, at least not to where I'd admit it to anyone.

How many books does it take to be considered "well-read?"  I have a bucket list that's quite long.  Plays, novels, collections of stories.  An awful lot of the science fiction I love so much comes in the form of stories because that was how you published them in the years when science fiction grew out of a few nineteenth-century novels into what it is today.  

I'll never finish the bucket list.  That's part of the point of having a bucket list.  I'm a boy who loves to read, born an imperfect and fettered reader.  I suppose that's for the best.  If my reading weren't fettered and restrained, considering the sheer volume of books I'd like to read one day, you'd probably never see me again.  I'd be sitting under a tree, surviving off the fruit it drops, and reading my books.  

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Uncle Frank - Film Review

 Alan Ball is a playwright and screenwriter from Mariette, Georgia.  He's a Southern gentleman of a certain age (six years older than I am).  This and other factors mean he often writes on issues that travel in my lane.

His most famous work was the film "American Beauty" which won the Academy Award in 2000 for Best Original Screenplay and for a while was considered one of America's best films until it was revealed that its star, Kevin Spacey, was about as creepy in real life as some of the characters he plays.  Among actors, this is a phenomenon known as "DUH!".  This isn't really a rule among actors, although it happens fairly often.  Vincent Price, for instance, was an exceedingly gentle creature, a dilettante and a gourmand; the only characteristic he had in real life that he shared with the roles he played was that he could be something of an effete.  In life, Price always kept his sexuality as a very private matter, but after his death, his daughter revealed that Price was a gentleman who enjoyed the company of other gentlemen.  Are you surprised?

Alan Ball is an American Buddhist.  He claimed that the inspiration for American Beauty was the trial of Amy Fisher and an experience he had watching a plastic shopping bag floating in the wind, a scene that was included in the film and attributed to one of its characters.  Critics felt that American Beauty helped redefine and conceptualize masculinity in the previous century as we cross the threshold into this century.  

Amazon Prime offers his newest film, Uncle Frank, free to Prime members.  Like American Beauty, Uncle Frank concentrates on the second half of the previous century but goes back thirty years before American Beauty and sets the film in the early 1970s.  Uncle Frank tells the story of a man in his mid-forties from a small Southern Town who found that a small Southern town could no longer contain him, so he moved to New York and became an English professor.  

Noticing a kindred spirit in his young niece, he encourages her to do well in school so she can choose any college she wishes.  She chooses the one where he teaches.  At a party at his New York apartment, Frank and his niece Betty (now choosing the name Beth) hear the news that Franks's father, Beth's grandfather, has died.  At the party, Beth also discovers that her beloved uncle is in love with an Arab Engineer named Walid.  She and her aunt are the only people in the family who know Frank is gay, and Beth is the only one who has actually met Walid, who they call Wally.

Frank and Beth borrow Wally's car and drive to their small Southern town for Frank's father's funeral, only to discover that Wally has rented a car and has been following them.   Wally fears that Frank may need his support on this difficult journey.  He knows something about Frank's past that might make this trip extremely painful for him.  They agree that Wally can come along, but he has to keep himself hidden from the family.

Wally knows that, as a boy, Frank's father caught him kissing another boy.  His father said he had a sickness, and God hated him.  Confused, Frank writes a letter to the boy he kissed, saying he can never see him again, with disastrous consequences.   These are the demons Frank must face when he returns home for his father's funeral.  

Any time you have a story where the characters spend a great deal of time traveling from one place to another, the story is either a travelogue or an accounting of a transition from one state to another.  In this case, it's a story about a man who never faced what happened between himself and his father but is forced to deal with it when his father dies.  He uses a lot of the elements of a traditional Heros Journey to describe what happened to Frank.

Uncle Frank isn't nearly as complex and sometimes disturbing as American Beauty.  It's much more emotional, though, and you end up much more sympathetic to its characters.   Paul Bettany, who you probably know as Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plays Frank.

There's a line in Tennessee William's play "Orpheus Descending" where Carol Cutrere says, "Wild things leave skins behind them, they leave clean skins and teeth and white bones behind them, and these are tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can always follow their kind."  I always think of that when I read work by Southern writers; they tend to leave bones and skins and clues in their work so that their kind can follow their kind.  Ball does that with Uncle Frank.

The issues of gay men, born in the South in the thirties and forties, ended up being something I found out a lot about, even though I never pursued it.  These men recognized something in me that made them believe I would hear their stories without the sort of prejudice they often faced from straight men in the South, so they told me their stories.  Sometimes, very happy stories, and sometimes very painful stories.  

In their sixties, seventies, and eighties, they told me stories about when they were young and beautiful and living a secret life in a world that would kill them if they knew.  Watching Uncle Frank reminded me very much of those stories.  For men of that generation, there could be a real brutality that men pressed onto other men, be they fathers, lovers, or just others who would judge them.  

Beth mentions Truman Capote several times as a writer she admires.  The character of Frank would be around ten or fifteen years younger than Capote would have been in real life.  In the sixties, Capote was the darling of New York intelligentsia; by the seventies, they had cast him out.  He was constantly drunk and paraded on the Tonight Show as something of a freak.  I think there are aspects of Frank's character that are intended to be echoes of the younger Capote before he became a parody of himself.

Ball writes the script in a way that people who would hate Frank for being gay would most likely hate this movie.  For people who, like some of the characters in the movie, are able to accept Frank's sexuality as just one aspect of a complex life, I think you might enjoy this.  It doesn't leave you as drained as American Beauty did, but that's okay.  Sometimes it's okay for a story to not tear your guts out.  

Monday, August 28, 2023

UMMC Urban Myths

For quite a while now, I’ve been collecting the urban legends that emanate from students and employees at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  Now that I live next door, I’m looking for some new ones.  Urban legends are similar to myths.  They tell a story that’s usually related to something historical or factual but doesn’t have to be, and the story reflects some sort of moral value, as interpreted by the culture the story comes from.  They are cautionary tales that are disguised to not look like cautionary tales.

Being told in Mississippi by Mississippians, there’s some effort to make the stories more vivid, more interesting, and more local than, say, stories from the University of Pennsylvania Medical College, no offense to Pennsylvanians.  Stories generated in Mississippi will have our unique flavor and perspective on things like race, sexuality, gender, religion, and people from Mississippi State University.

I’ve been doing this for around forty years, and there are a lot of stories.  These are the categories I’ve organized them with.  

Stories about Cadavers:  Like the Greeks, UMMC students are obsessed with the moral implications of death, the relations between the dead and the living, and the influence of living morality on the dead body.   Stories about cadavers often have the elements of ghost stories but are couched in a medical scenario to give them extra vitality and credence.

Stories about Swelling and Exploding Cysts:  What goes into the body must come out of the body, and what more interesting way to come out of the body is there than exploding cysts?  Often, these stories involve elements of new ties/shirts/suits that are destroyed by detritus shooting out of a cyst.  These are often tales of how dedicated a young doctor might be who sacrifice his new tie or designer glasses to open the cyst, often on some fat woman’s taint.

Stories about Catheters:  The Greeks did this, too.  Stories about the phallus and its misadventures are both the stuff of comedy and morality.  A malfunctioning phallus and what must be done to make it function can encompass all sorts of memes about morality, culture, and body horror.

Stories about Aids:  Although they’re not as prominent now, there was once an entire genre of stories about Aids.  To the myth-maker, aids was not only a disease but a moral judgment against the people who violate the cultural mores about sexuality and gratuitous sexual encounters.  Stories about men, often upstanding citizens, who got aids by cheating on their spouses were common.

Stories about Strippers and Prostitutes:  Much like the aids stories, these are stories about sexual morality and the perils of wanton sexuality.  Strippers and prostitutes make a lot of money, but they end up at the hospital with fatal diseases or gunshot or knife wounds that prove fatal.  These stories are precautions both against using prostitutes and becoming one.

Dumb Mistakes/Darwin Awards:  There may be no greater cautionary tale than “Don’t do dumb things.”  Especially in the South, stories about “y’all watch this” or “y’all hold my beer.” are perfect for urban myths, and their arrival at the hospital with fingers/testicles/teeth/ears/toes blown off make great stories.    

Crime Doesn’t Pay:  Stories about criminals who show up at the hospital after the police or other criminals shoot them are pretty common.  While there’s sometimes a racial element to these stories, they all have moral implications.  If you hadn’t have been doing that, you wouldn’t have ended up here with a gunshot wound.

Because University is a communal experience, they are great places to generate stories, particularly myth-building stories.  Most of the stories I’ve collected about UMMC I can’t reprint here because they’re either really gross, really depressing, and sometimes obviously bigoted.  There are guys who spend their entire lives and careers studying the memes broadcast in stories like these.  It’s a fascinating area of study.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Signs and Omens

 Ken Stribling messaged me last night with corrections about a piece I wrote at 3:00 a.m.  What would I do without friends who can’t sleep either?  

Janie messaged me during coffee hours with some really vital information about an aspect of my Mississippi History project.  If this thing ever comes together, it’ll be due, in large part, to her input and influence.

Nearly all the boys I knew fell in love with Jane at one point or another.  If you ever saw her, you’d know why.  I did, too, but when a girl takes your friend’s heart, there are rules a gentleman must follow, or at least try to.  

I told her that I thought seeing Ruma’s photo at Hal & Mal’s was an omen.  Ruma had been the city attorney at a very young age.  She was an unusually brilliant lawyer and a valuable asset to the city.  A boy I knew loved her more than anything.  When she died so young, a lot of us felt like we lost a limb.  Jackson’s in constant trouble now.  The kind of trouble where the advice of a good lawyer could make a really big difference.  

Ruma loved Mississippi.  She died exploring it.  If I were to meet her in heaven today, I’d have to explain why I let Jackson get as bad as it is.  Maybe that’s what an omen means.  It’s a reminder of where your course lies.

Jane and I were born into a kind of bubble, a gilded age in Mississippi history.  We had very politically and socially active parents at a time when the worst of the Civil Rights stuff had passed, and Jackson’s population was growing at a pace never experienced before.  We had two very strong, locally owned banks.  Our electricity came from a company based here in Jackson.  Our clothes, our shoes, and luggage all came from stores based here in Jackson, where we’d see the owners at parties.  Millsaps was at its peak enrolment, and the academic world was falling over itself trying to copy the success of George Harmon.   The entire medical profession was amazed at the success of a bunch of nuns from Chicago who moved to Mississippi.  William Winter and Ray Mabus were governors–without a scandal in sight.  At certain parties, you were fairly likely to see Willie Morris, Eudora Welty, Michael Rubenstein, and Dale Danks wandering around.  Long-neck beer was a buck at CS’s, Cherokee, and Dutch Bar, and the Jackson Mets were Texas League Champions.  

Bubbles don’t last, though, and when bubbles break, it can break your heart.  The city of Jackson is facing the possibility of their insurance increasing by 300% because they can’t seem to manage their affairs.  My beloved Zoo is valiantly fighting to hold on, but I’m basically watching it die.  Violence in the city is at terrifying levels, and nobody in the city government seems to be taking it seriously–at least not to the level that the situation would seem to warrant, and nobody seems to have answers.  

Her children, my step-children, my nephews, and the children of nearly all my friends are asking if they should stay in Mississippi and will we be hurt if they don’t.  It’s not their job to worry about how we feel if they leave Mississippi; it was our job to make sure Mississippi is a place where they felt like they could grow–and I guess we didn’t do that.  

Some people, like Jane, tried to keep building Jackson and Mississippi a lot harder than I did, and I feel pretty bad about giving up for as long as I did.  I guess I thought maybe I was the problem, and if I stepped out, smarter and better people would take over, and that’d fix everything.  It didn’t.  The bubble around Jackson broke, and we were left naked, looking around and saying, “Oh.  I don’t think I know how to fix this.”

I think my plan was not to be here at sixty still, looking at all this.  I think part of me wishes I’d left this mortal coil when the bubble around Jackson broke.  That was a pretty shitty plan and a cowardly move on my part.  

When I look at Jackson now, I see so many green shoots.  The signs of life and growth are everywhere; we just have to provide the right environment for it to thrive.  There’s nothing that says there can’t be more than one Gilded Age.   Seeing that photo of Ruma reminded me of the path I’m on and energized me to keep pushing.  

Keep correcting me while I post parts of this project on Facebook, and keep messaging me these details that I missed.  The past isn’t the only avenue to the future, but it’s the only one I understand.  

What Happened to Feist-Dog

This project that I’m calling “Lies My Mother Never Told Me” has been openly banging around in my head for about a year and a half now.   Quietly, these stories have been whispering to me for forty years.  The funny thing about whispers is they sometimes say, “Go now!” and they sometimes say, “You better not.”  

What makes this project interesting is these are real people with real stories, and they all have histories and are interconnected.  I can put my finger down and say, “I want to start here.” in, say, 1963, but the story doesn’t end there; it feathers out like the Mississippi River Delta into time and space, spreading farther and wider, dropping more and more rich loam.  What makes this project dangerous is that these fingers, these feathers of time, reach into real people with real lives and descendants.  The story doesn’t stay in 1963; it reaches out through the seventies, eighties, nineties, and the millennium. It reaches until today, and if I write about things in the past that were painful, it could hurt somebody today.

For example, when I went to the McMullen Writer’s Workshop, the featured speaker was Andrew Aydin, a fascinating young guy who wrote a graphic novel about John Lewis.  So, I’m going to the lecture, and I’m thinking this is really cool because I’ve been into graphic novels longer than most. Lewis was a guy who really interested me, and this is pretty important work, and one of the first things out of Aydin’s mouth was how much he appreciated the school putting him up at Fairview, and in the back of my mind, I think, “Oh.”

Fairview is beautiful and a great representation of what Jackson can be like, and the food is really good, but, to me, that was Bill Simmons’s house, and even though he and Ms. Corley from St. Andrews made it into this beautiful inn, it’s still his house, and his history is so deeply intertwined in everything “Lies My Mother Never Told Me” is about, that I can’t really talk about the story without talking about him.  I can talk about pieces and fabricate whole sections that avoid him, but the story of how Mississippi moved from 1954 to 1994 involves Bill Simmons and some really unpleasant things about him.

Even writing just that sentence makes me nervous.  I’m pleased about what’s happening with Fairview, and I wouldn’t ever do anything to damage their reputation, but going to Bill’s house and having him show me all his books on the Civil War and what I call the “questionable anthropology” he studied for twenty-five years are part of the story–part of my reflection on his story.  The newspaper and radio program he wrote are part of the story.  The schools he created are part of the story.  

I can’t tell this story without talking about Bill Simmons; most importantly, I can’t tell the story of Bill Simmons without pointing out that I really liked the guy.  I know many brilliant people who also liked the guy.  As a writer, I can reconcile that.  That becomes part of my story, but I'll be criticized as a historian (which I am not).  Historians have written about all this.  Stephanie Clanton Rolph wrote about it, and I’m reading her book now for reference.  I think her work on this is much more important than mine, but Stephanie is a lot younger than I am, and she didn’t have all the sort of interpersonal connectedness I did.  I can’t tell you how to reconcile the facts that Bill Simmons was this brilliant guy who appreciated art and music and history but also believed and taught some of the most putrid, hateful things I ever heard.  Both statements are factual, though.  Maybe part of why the universe draws me to this story is that somebody really needs to make the point that it’s a lot more complicated than just saying he was a horrible guy.  

Another part of it is that I deeply love Galloway.  It’s a part of me, like a limb I didn’t use for twenty years but really need now.  People have already pointed out that there are painful parts of Galloway’s history in this, and if I loved the church, do I really want to dig all that back up?  

The answer is that I don’t want to bring all that back up without strongly making the point that Galloway worked through it.  Love and acceptance won out, even though getting there was rough.  Goodness won out, and Galloway was much stronger in 1970 than they were in 1960 because of it.  A sword has to pass through the fire to become strong, and we passed through the fire.

I wrote that long piece about why I was baptized by WJ Cunningham, not by W.B. Selah or Clay Lee, making the point that I never met Cunningham and didn’t really engage with his future in any way other than what I saw on paper, but it turns out that wasn’t true.  Joe Reiff helped make the connection that he was Lori Trigg’s grandfather, and I knew Lori well.  A guy in my pledge class was deeply taken with her; the rest of us were absolutely devoted to her. I very likely met her grandfather one of the years she was voted on the Millsaps Homecoming court, but I knew him as Lori’s grandfather, not the former pastor at Galloway.

Another thread that I’ve been interested in but can’t really make up my mind about is that Riverside Methodist Church didn’t die out.  They took the money the Boy Scouts paid them for their building and built a smaller church in Rankin County.  They have a website, and it's given me some tantalizing bits about what they’ve been up to over the last fifty years, but do I have the right to try and talk to them about some potentially painful and embarrassing things in their past? 

I can’t actually tell my story without telling the story of other people, too.  That’s one of the reasons why I post big pieces of it on Facebook, so people I know can pick it apart and correct me when I make mistakes and either privately or publicly challenge my perspective.  It also gives them a chance to tell me pieces of the story I don’t know, which is really interesting because these stories are fifty years old, and I’ve been digging into them for at least forty years, but every time I write about it, somebody tells me something new.  

My dad believed the only way to deal with Mississippi was to keep looking ahead.  Tear down all that antebellum stuff and build modern new stuff.  The past is but the past, and we’re all about the future.  I understand his point of view, and sometimes I agree with it, but the past is the stock and the roux that binds this stew together.  We’re not yet to the point where we can say the past has no hold on us.  I know that my dad, and Mayor Danks, and Mayor Davis tried to put a modern face on everything so the world wouldn’t judge us for the sixties, but those stories are a part of us, and it’s important to tell them.  I may not be the guy to tell them.  I may be better off writing about Dinosaurs, Robots, and Space Ships like Ray Bradbury said I should.  These stories don’t leave me, though.  They percolate through everything else I try to do.  

Even if I say I will stop working on “Lies My Mother Never Told Me,” it won’t be true because there’s more to writing than just moving my fingers across a keyboard.  I’ll still lay in bed, putting pieces together in my head while I wait for the alarm to go off.  Photos of brilliant people I used to know hiding in a corner of Hal and Mals will still catch my eye.  

I haven’t written about Feist-Dog in a while.  There’s a million other dogs living here, so he’s running around sniffing butts.  This is feist-dog’s story, though.  The day Medgar Evers was shot, Feist-dog was on the radio.   The day men ran Ed King off the road, Feist-Dog was on the radio.  The day Rev Cunningham left Galloway and the days Bill Simmons and Jessie Howell opened their schools, Feist-Dog was on the radio.  He’s just an imaginary dog on the radio, but this is his story.  I’m just a little boy who saw parts of it, and tried to piece together the rest.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Reading The Other Side

If I'm going to write about what happened in the sixties and early seventies, I feel like I need to be able to at least understand and articulate the opposing viewpoint, even if I don't agree with it.  

In Mississippi, most of the argument in favor of segregation came from the Citizens Council, and most of that came from Bill Simmons.  There's such a vast gulf between the things the guy said and wrote and my personal experience with him that I struggle to rationalize it all, and yet it's all true.  

No one sets out to be a villain.  Everybody believes they're working for the greater good.  Medgar Evers thought he was working for the greater good.  Bryan De La Beckwith thought he was working for the greater good.  Obviously, they weren't both correct.   Either that or the actual greater good isn't something we can understand.  

Most of what Bill Simmons wrote, I attribute to what Stephen Jay Gould called "biological determinism," or what I call "really bad anthropology."  What really helped me with all this was Richard Dawkins' theory on "The Selfish Gene," where he introduced the idea of the "meme" as a unit of cultural evolution to help the gene maximize inclusive fitness.  

There's an awful lot more to the word "meme" than funny pictures of cats or animated gifs from 90's sitcoms.  "Meme," as Dawkins intended it, could be the key to everything.  Once you infest yourself with a certain set of memes, then everything Bill Simmons ever wrote and everything Bryan De La Beckwith did starts to become understandable.  They're serving not truth but a meme, and that meme serves some level of genetic inclusive fitness.  

The wrongness of what these men said and did was the result of the selfish gene and the memes it spun to protect its agenda.

George Lucas simplifies the story so that red light sabers mean bad and light colors mean good, and that makes a great story, but there's more to it than that.

I'm starting these stories with the idea that everybody in the are trying to do what's right, but there's a big difference in what they all consider "right" to be.  Everybody is working to serve the memes they start with, but everybody starts with different memes.  

It's possible that the same flaws in my brain that make it difficult to read or speak also give me a way to see these things differently.  Either way, every time I turn on the television, I see where an old enemy of my culture has returned.  Understanding them is vitally important.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Tolkien and Creation

Because his life wasn't as full of so many personal tragedies as his friend Lewis, Tolkien never vacillated between belief and atheism as Lewis did.  Tolkien was born a Roman Catholic and remained one all his life.  Many people have written about how Tolkien's theology helps inform and shape his fiction.

Despite his devotion to Catholicism, Tolkien believed that the Romans, by converting Britain to Christianity, had destroyed, displaced, and erased the complex cultural mythos that existed there when the Romans arrived.  He held up Stonehenge as proof that, before the Christianization of Britain, there existed a thriving, complex, and developed culture with a fully developed mythos of their own.  

Whatever these proto-Britons believed, all we had left of them in Tolkien's time were these stone "henges," massive rings of carved stone distributed around the middle and south of the island nation.  Tolkien died in 1973, Missing the discovery of the Lindow Bog Bodies, which date to the time around the building of the henges, and suggested a surprising (and disturbing) possibility that the proto Britons practiced human sacrifice.  Greek and Roman writers had for generations accused these so-called "druids" of human sacrifice.  Here was the proof.  

In Leeds and again at Oxford, Tolkien made a living for himself as a linguist.  In particular, he was an expert in Germanic and early English languages, making a name for himself by interpreting and studying Middle English epic poetry.  Before and after the First World War, Tolkien was known for his study and interpretation of Beowulf.

Tolkien decided he could use fiction to replace the lost British mythology, and he would use Beowulf and the Prose Edda as his models.  This became The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Simmilarion.  

Like all mythologies, Tolkien had to address the issue of creation, in particular, the creation of man.  Like many cultures, the proto-Semitic races that became Judaism proposed a creation story where the progenitor god created men from the soil.  Nearby cultures suggested clay, dust, and even the foam of the sea.    All these near-eastern myths shared a similar concept.  Men were impotent copies of the progenitor god and would be used by the god or gods as pawns in some larger game.

Tolkien was aware of the pointy-hat, fake beard-wearing "neo-druids" who pranced around Stonehenge on the equinox, but he didn't think much of them.  He was convinced that they and the horror writers of the sixties who produced works like "The Wicker Man" had it all wrong.  

In Tolkien's mythology, men are still pawns of a progenitor god, but he creates several levels of creation, each possessing less and less of the divine spark.  First was the Istari, the Wizard class, which had a shade that became the Balrog.  Then came the Ents, and their shade, the trolls.  Elves and Orcs, Dwarves and Hobbits, and then men.  As the creative spark of earth wore on, all these sentient creatures would filter down to men, and men were all that was left.

Tolkien never intended for his creation to replace or weaken Catholicism, but I've heard quite a few uninformed people call it satanic.  We assume that most mythologies come from generations of people blending their stories together; Tolkien does a pretty credible job of it working alone.  Perhaps it always was just lone writers working alone all along, only we renamed them prophets.  

Saturday, July 22, 2023

An Elven Messenger In The Woods

Sometimes I run into people who, even if we never interacted so much before, my life and theirs intertwine like the roots of two trees in the same patch of forest, deep and wide pushing through the same soil, pulling out the same moisture and nutrients to keep our leaves alive and send out new buds.

Wanting to be a writer, calling myself a writer, and actually being a writer are all very different things.  I can, and did, type a thousand words a day for forty years, but I'm still not a writer because unless I offer those thousand words for anybody to read, it's not communication; my typing is a dead message with no listener.  With no listener, there is no writing.  

When the prospect of turning sixty came into my sights as a reality, I decided that regardless of whatever health challenges I have left (which get fewer every day), I should mend this situation.  God created me wanting to type a thousand words a day, more than wanting to--needing to.  If I don't get my words out in a day, I feel incomplete, and if I go two or three days without it, depression starts to set in.  I don't know how much I believe in the idea of "God's Plan," but I don't believe that much of a compulsion to do something would come without there being some purpose in it.  

I knew I could do the work.  I've been doing it as long and sometimes much longer than I've known most of you.  Other than my brother and sister, there's a pretty small fraternity of people who knew me before Mrs. Kitchings suggested I learn to type.  Doing the work and getting it out in the world are two different things, so I decided that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to start making connections with writers.  I grew up seeing Willie Morris and Larry Brown in bars and Eudora Welty at parties and socialite functions, but that's something different.  I needed to make connections with people who were trying to do the same thing I was doing, only better and with more confidence and more experience, who could show me the way.

Since today's prospective college student consumes twenty times more new media than traditional media, one of my strategies for the past two years has been to identify and amplify the social media message from organizations that are important to me.  I know how this works.  The social media companies "publish" millions of messages every day and decides how many people to show this message to by how much engagement the message gets and how much engagement the sender normally gets.  That means if I like, comment, and share the social media messages of the organizations I care about, then it greatly increases the chances that the social media company will serve the message to another target of the message, in this case, prospective students and prospective donors.  

This might sound dumb, but tapping "heart" or typing "Great Job" on the stuff Millsaps posts makes a huge difference.  Every time you do it, you increase the algorithm score on both the message and the school.  As a side benefit, whenever I log into social media for the day, I get a pretty comprehensive run down on what's happening on campus, a task I used to accomplish by strolling around campus or just talking to Joe Lee Gibson while he emptied the garbage cans.  

This way, I end up knowing, every day, what's going on with the Phi Mu's, what's going on with Food Services, the Baseball Team, Campus Pride, The Many Adventures of George Bey, and what was the original kernel of this story, whatever Liz Egan and the Writing Center was doing, which one day included a one-sheet about the McMuling Writing Workshop.  Having just seen it that morning, I mentioned to my sister in church that maybe I should go to that.  She said I should.  Having that conversation at that place at that time with that person probably meant something.   I was still basking in the blessing Cary transmitted to us at the end of his sermon, so when I got home, I shot off an email to the address on the post, which I assumed would be Liz or one of her students.

Preparing for the course, I sent in the possible first chapter of a book I'm working on, and the first person to respond to it was a woman who I knew worked at Millsaps named Isabelle Higbee.  Even though it said "Ezelle" in her Facebook profile, I wasn't yet making a connection with who she was.  Isabelle had just retired from a position at Millsaps that I always knew as Jack Woodward's office, so that's a pretty big connection there, but there was still a lot more I didn't know about yet.

Part of the writing workshop is reading to the other participant's pieces of what we're working on.  Sharing your work with other people doing the same sort of work is an important part of the creative process.  Isabelle's project is stories her mother told her about how her parents met during World War II in what became occupied Belgium.  As she told the story, my ears began to tingle.  Holy Shit, did James "Paddy" Hearon have a daughter I didn't know about?  James worked for my father for most of his life and took a special interest in me when it became clear that I was drowning in my professional life and struggling to find a place where I belonged.  

"Who was your father?" I asked.  "Robert Ezelle," she said.  I still wasn't making the connection.  I said that her story was so incredibly familiar to me that I knew a guy who had almost the same life story.  "James Hearon?" She said.  Her mother and James' wife Paulette knew each other and spoke frequently as the only two Belgians living in Jackson.  Then she said something about Mississippi Bedding, and the pieces started falling into place.  "Do you mean Bob Ezelle?"  I said.  I'd known her father and her brothers my entire life, but I had never heard the story of how her mother came from Belgium during the war.  

I'm ashamed to admit this, but sometimes little sisters get overlooked.  I always thought I tried not to do that, but I guess I missed one.  Isabelle's brothers were a huge part of Galloway Youth Ministries and a huge part of my youth.  They and the Gobers pretty much ran the place.  There's more to the story, though.  Part of our business at Missco was selling furniture for dormitories at schools and (unfortunately) furniture in prisons, and each of those furniture sets required a pretty durable mattress that we always bought from Bob Ezelle.  We laughed; even though Franklin Dorm is mostly used for storage now, I'm sure there are still a bunch of mattresses in it that came from Mississippi Bedding.  Our lives had roots that had interwoven for years, and because I'm sometimes completely socially blind, I had missed her.  Deciding to take this course in writing mended that.  Now that I've been given a second chance in life, I'm paying a lot closer attention to the trees around me, and this was one of them.

In The Lord of the Rings, it means something where there's a member of the Elven race in the woods.  They're this powerful class of being with magical forces that tie them deeply to the roots of Middle Earth, and their presence means something important is happening.

One of the first faces I picked out of the crowd when I attended the McMullin Writer's Workshop was Jeanne Luckett.  I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Jeanne Luckett was.  Even though she was considerably younger than my Daddy, he was incredibly impressed by her, not only because she was a Millsaps kid (which she was) but also because, on a professional level, she was involved in everything he thought was important, so throughout my life, whenever we would discuss these major campaigns going on, like the re-naming of First National Bank, or giving Millsaps a new look, or giving Missco a new look, her name was part of the conversation, and her work was not only evident but prevalent.  

To be honest, she always kind of intimidated me.  One of Daddy's business associates, whom I never got to fish with or drink with, was always kind of a mystery to me.  But I knew that everybody who knew her loved her, including some really important ones like Suzanne Maars and Rowan Taylor.  During the night, when Graphic Novelist Andrew Aydin lectured, I saw him talking with Jeanne.  Passing to my seat, I touched his elbow and said pretty cheekily, "Don't let her fool you; that's one of the most important marketing people in Mississippi history."  I meant it too, but I think I embarrassed her.  Having grown up at the feet of people who had remarkable careers, most of them didn't impress me with what they created, but she did.  Just driving around town, even now, I can look at things and say, "She did that.  She did that.  She did that too."

On the last day of the conference, I came early because I always try to go early to things now.  I spent so long not going to things at all that I figured I needed to start going early so I could catch up.  Going early, I had a chance to get Jeanne alone for a few minutes.  Talking like that, one on one for a good spell, really for the first time ever, I learned that our lives overlapped and intertwined in so many ways.  It means something when you love the same things and the same people, and that's something I share on so many levels with Jeanne Luckett.  For me, her face will still always mean that there's an Elven messenger in the forest, but now I'll always know this was someone who drank from the same well I drank from, someone whose history is part of my own.

One of the last things Ellen Ann Fentress said before I left at the end of the conference was, "Why don't you try putting together a short story."  I've always liked short stories, but I never thought I could write them, even though I've had some great teachers in short stories, including Austin Wilson and Suzanne Maars.  

Even though they ordered in some really great sandwiches from Broad Street for the conference, I made a tomato sandwich when I got home, just because we're rapidly running out of tomato sandwich season, and holding it over the sink to eat it so I don't get tomato seeds and tomato goo on my shirt, I started putting clay on the board and poking around at it with the idea of what sort of short story I could write.

Ray Bradbury's name came up over and over during the conference.  One of my peers, Kate, who was a very recent Millsaps Graduate, is taken with him too; she should be; he's Ray Bradbury.  One of the things Bradbury told me at the House of Pies, with Uncle Forry across from us, was that I shouldn't worry about writing, that I loved robots and dinosaurs, so I should be ok.  With that in mind, I started turning over ideas of robots and dinosaurs and rocket ships and Martians in my head, and what I heard was a whale song, and I knew I had my story.  

I've already written a crap ton this morning.  God knows if anyone will read this.  I have my idea for a short story.  Hopefully, I'll have at least the skeleton laid out by Monday.  

Friday, July 21, 2023

What Motivates Amanda

It's my hope that I can show you more than I tell you in my book, but since these are imaginary people, I have to decide what to tell you before I show it.  Although my characters are all imaginary, they all have qualities and histories that match people I've known in real life, but none of them have the same combination of qualities and histories as people I've known in real life.  It's kind of fun to say, "What if they're like John but with a father like Mary and a smoking habit like Tom?"   

Some of the faculty and administration do have pretty close to a one-to-one correlation with real-life people, like George Harmon and Lance Goss.  I even include Frank Hanes just so I can give him a happier ending.  None of them are exactly one-to-one, but they'll be recognizable.  None of the students or their parents match up with any living person in every aspect.  They're all amalgamations.  They're all imaginary and not meant to be taken as my opinion of any real person.

 Amanda Moore is eighteen.  At 5'8" she considers herself tall for a girl.  She'd much rather be six inches shorter.  She has light brown hair, with tremendous hazel eyes, and a few acne scars that aren't nearly as noticeable as she believes they are.  Most would say she was pretty, but she practices not looking friendly or approachable.  Her looks get her attention, and she knows how to work that, but her looks give her very little satisfaction or confidence.  

Other parts of her personality get in the way of her education.  Without that, she'd make a remarkable lawyer one day.  If she had any confidence, she could do just about anything, but despite the attitude she projects, she has none.  She's always done well in school because she was usually the brightest one in the class, but now that she's in a school full of kids who were the brightest ones in class, she's lost her seat at the table.  

Amanda is from Pascagoula, between Camille and Katrina, and before gulf coast gambling.  She's the only child of her mother, who was the second wife of her father, who now lives with his third wife, who is twenty years younger than him.  She has three half-brothers and sisters, including the four-year-old, that now gets all her father's love.  At four, he's decided that this will be the big strong son he always wanted, even though he's only four and still eats his boogers.

A modern psychologist would diagnose Amanda with Histrionic personality disorder.  Amanada's only ever seen one psychologist, a marriage and family counselor, ordered by the court when her mother sued her father for more support.  Since then, Amanda has refused to see any "head shrinkers," even after she started cutting her arms and thighs at fifteen.  Her mother, who is never sober after five o'clock, accepts Amanda's promise to "get help at school," even though her school counselor isn't a psychologist.  She's not even a counselor.  She's a nice Christian lady her private academy hired because she had an education degree and the right political attitude.  

Amanda has been experimenting with sex and drugs since she was fifteen.  A pretty girl can always get free drugs.  Sex gets her attention but never warmth, passion, compassion, or companionship.  Sex sometimes gets her better drugs and more of them.  

Amanda chose Marsh for college because her father and grandfather went there.  Her mother sees it as a chance for a new beginning, away from those nasty boys who she knew were leading her precious only child down the wrong paths.  Her mother went to community college.  She was her father's secretary before she became his mistress and would have probably remained his mistress had she not confronted Amanda's Father's first wife with a tremendous pregnant belly and some bad news.   Her father's first and second wives are now pretty good friends who mix a drink and call each other on the phone to talk about how much they hate the third wife and her stupid son.

Marsh College could be a fresh start and a new beginning for Amanda.  Her life could be very different, but she doesn't want that.  She wants more of what she had in Pascagoula, only this time with smarter boys, better drugs, and nobody to talk her ear off if she comes home four hours late.  

I'm trying to figure out ways that Amanda can eventually find happiness and peace later in life.  With all my characters, I'm telling the story of the moment but showing glimpses of both their past and their future.   That's kind of the point.  College isn't a destination.  It's a transitory point between the future and the past, even for the people who work there.  I'd like to say that what happens in the book is a painful moment that passes, and life becomes better; I just don't know how I'm going to do that just yet.  I'm not going to leave Amanda in the state she's in, though.  These are my creations, and I do have a fondness for all of them.  

Amanda will come off like a bitch, and somebody you don't want to be around.  It's my hope to show that she really never had a chance.  The cards were stacked against her.  Bradley tries really hard to find some good in her, but he's looking in the wrong places.  His attitude comes from an unstated belief that women are always good at heart, and men are always bad at heart, and someone like him has to mediate a safe place between them.  That's kind of the premise of being a gentleman, a myth Bradley believes more than he believes anything else and tries to apply in his life, but never with the results he hopes for.  People are never good or bad.  Their choices might be, but they themselves aren't.  Everybody tries to do good, even if they're wrong about what good is.

Amanda and Bradley, and Laurel aren't real, but I want to make them feel real.  That's one of the reasons why I'm setting them in a place that's very real, so real that some of my readers will recognize even the trees and the hills.  I'm not promising solutions to social problems.  This is just a story about people.  These are just observations about things that are in all people.  I'm not strong enough to shape a solution to what happens in the world, but I can maybe tell you about it.  I hope readers will see something they can sympathize with and understand in both the nicest and the meanest characters.  

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Book Title

Since the action of my book takes place around a college production of Mid Summers Night Dream, I'm thinking of calling it "What Fools These Mortals Be" or some variation of it, maybe even just "What Fools."

This means I will spend the next few months reading criticism of the play to try and discover themes I can use that I hadn't already picked out on my own.  It's probably presumptuous to borrow a title from Shakespeare, but when Faulkner did it, it left an impression on me, so maybe it will have a similar effect if I do it.  You're also supposed to write what you know, and theater is something I know.

I constantly worry that if I write about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, even though they're imaginary, somebody will point out that I'm no prince either, and they'd be right.  That's the point, though.  I'm not writing about evil people.  I'm writing about ordinary people faced with situations that don't match any of the good and evil scenarios their parents taught them at a time when most young Americans got their morality from television, and on television, America's favorite dad was Bill Cosby.  

I have stories with a pleasant ending, but this isn't it.  The best I can say is that everybody survives by the last page.  Some learn from the experience.  Some don't.  I'm not even trying to teach my readers anything.  It's an image of an echo of a time.  I hope to make somebody care about what happens to my imaginary people, even if the imaginary people don't get what they want or even what they need.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Quentin Compson Leaves Home.

Mississippi never leads nor follows.  It intensifies whatever fears and prejudices are already present in the larger society as if to say, "We can do it too," worried that, if we don't, we might be overlooked or forgotten about.   

"Do you hate blacks and queers?  We really, really hate them.    We'll prove it, and boy, will you be impressed.  Do you want to stop abortion?  We really want to stop abortion.  We'll do anything to stop it.  Boy, will you be impressed!"

It's not that we can't change, or be loving, or human.  We once tried to kill James Meridith, but now he walks those same streets as a hero.  People ask him to pose for a photo with their children.  It's almost as if we proved our point about integration; now, we can go back to being human again.  We never really hated the guy; we were just trying to show how dedicated we were to this idea, even though those who did lead were leading the entire country in another direction.     

Maybe, ultimately, it's a matter of confidence.  Maybe if we had more of it, we wouldn't be so determined to lead the way on the most prevalent negative emotions.   Maybe then we could say, "That's too much.  We don't want any part of that."

Yesterday we had a lecture from Donna Ladd, formerly the founder of the Jackson Free Press and now Editor of the Mississippi Free Press.   When I first started blogging, some of the people who now run very political blogs recognized me as having once been very political and tried to win me to their side by impressing me with how much they hated and disagreed with Donna.  Now that the face of journalism is changing, I worry that those same guys are having a much larger impact than they deserve.  That's not to say we didn't suffer from horribly biased news before, but for a while, we had almost liberated ourselves from that.  

Donna has launched more young writers than I've even met.  That makes her the perfect addition to the McMullan Young Writers program.  Donna's from Philadelphia, Mississippi.  She's just a couple years older than I am, and I was born in 1963.  If you think about what happened in Philadelphia in 1964, then you can't really blame her for feeling some sorta way about Mississippi.  

Those feelings made her want, more than anything, to escape Mississippi and never come back.  I know of a lot of people who had the same feeling, some really famous ones like Oprah Winfrey and Leontine Price, and Tennessee Williams.  Williams didn't go far, but in the 50s and 60s, New Orleans was an oasis of its own.  There were only a few places in the country where he could be what he was, New Orleans was one, and Mississippi was not.

At one point in her lecture, Donna asked the question that I spend a great deal of time thinking about.  "How many of you want to leave Mississippi when you graduate?"  More than half of the hands went up.  Some with energy and enthusiasm.  

I talk about this with my friends a lot.  "How do you keep your children here?"  So many of my generation face this.  Some of the young people in the forum that day were actually children of people I've known for a long time, raising their hands to say they want to leave Mississippi--to my mind, they want to leave those who love them more than anything.  I can't really blame them.  We invest so much treasure and time and energy and blood into raising these children, working so very hard to make sure they become remarkable people, and when they do actually become remarkable people, can we really ask them to stay here knowing that they might have to clip the wings we spent a lifetime giving them?

So much of what happened in Philadelphia that summer in 1964 touched my life.  Even though I was just learning to walk, it was so close to me.  My father always told the story of how the FBI called and wanted forty desk sets in forty-eight hours and how he struggled to fill the order.  Ben Puckett talked about the day the FBI called to rent equipment to dig up an earthen dam.  Clay Lee was a passionate young minister who the conference moved away from some pretty terrible things in Jackson, at Galloway, and sent him to a quiet country church where the troubles of Mississippi wouldn't upset his promising career, and they sent him to--Philadelphia Mississippi, just months before June of 1964.

I can't really blame Donna for leaving Mississippi.  We didn't exactly lay an appetizing table before her.  It's a miracle we ever got her back. 

When I was at St. Catherine's, I would have coffee with some guys, and one of them told the story of how they longed to leave Mississippi and see the world, and did, but when he saw in the newspapers that Rabbi Nussbaum's office and synagog were bombed, he figured he needed to go back to Mississippi.  He never hated Mississippi, but he never thought he'd get such a loud call to come back to her, either.

Many of Faulkner's characters spend a great deal of time turning over in their head what it means to be from Mississippi.  In Absalom, Absalom! my sometimes favorite novel, Quentin Compson struggles with his feelings about his home.  Throughout Faulkner's books, the Compsons often represent the moral heart of Mississippi.  Far from home, he says, “I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!”  I've never really had a Quentin Compson moment, but it's been close.  I've known a lot of people who did, though, and acted on it.  It's our own fault, really.  Everybody has a chance to make it better, but not everybody does. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Photo Prompts

For my writing workshop today, we were assigned to bring in photo prompts for some free writing.  I have a folder on my phone of a couple hundred photos I use as prompts for drawing and painting.  These are images I don't know that much about, but I thought they looked cool.  I can write about that.  

Then I started thinking about maybe photographs where I do know the backstory.  Maybe those would be an even better writing prompt.  I chose two; one is of Bob Addams in front of the observatory.   I honestly could write an entire book about the observatory and the things that went on there, but if I did, there are people who wouldn't speak to me afterward.   Lately, though, I've been thinking it might be shocking if their children found out their parents did these things, so I shouldn't write about that, but their grandchildren will soon be old enough to think it was pretty cool.   I also really love Bob Addams.  

The other is a fairly famous picture of Ed King at the Woolworth sit-ins.  I picked that because I was born a month later.  Less than two years later, some thugs would run Rev. King off the road and forever change his face.  I never knew him before the accident.  He was quite handsome.  I don't remember a time when Ed King wasn't around somewhere.  He didn't rest after the sixties.  He stayed involved in everything, particularly everything I was involved in.  When I was an undergraduate, I'd see Ed show up at Millsaps, and I knew somebody was going to get a dressing down.  He didn't make many social calls, but when he felt like there was something going on, he addressed it.  A lot of guys from the Civil Rights Era were punished for it in the 70s and 80s.  Mississippi wanted very much to separate itself from its racist past, but Ed King was made chaplain of the University Medical Center, the biggest gem in the Mississippi higher education system.  I'm not really privy to how that decision was made, but it sent a very clear message.  

If my free writing is any good, I'll post it here.  I can produce words like mini muffins as long as I can type, but they're not all worth reading.  

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Defending My Novel

While I haven't actually been asked to do this, I'm constantly trying to defend my novel, at least to myself.  Why is it worth writing?  Why is it worth reading?  Is this worth doing?

In a college, you have all these different communities; there are the students, the faculty, the administration, the staff, the alumni, and the larger community of the city and the state that aren't in the college.  In a small school, something that happens to just a few people ends up felt by all of these different communities in different ways.

When I was a freshman, there was a woman who said she was raped by several boys, then she recanted, then she recanted again.  It was a pretty devastating thing, and I don't think anybody on any side was ever satisfied with the outcome.  My idea was to take that incident, but just that incident, change all the people involved in it, change the victim, change the accused, change the motivations, change the Greek organizations, change how and when it happened, but keep this idea of how having this really big thing hanging in the background is reflected differently in all of the communities, and maybe keep the time of year when it happened.  

In a story like this, there are a lot of social issues involved.  Issues of gender and class and justice, I'm even going to bring issues of race into it that weren't part of the actual events, but I don't want it to be a book about issues; I want it to be a book about people, about characters, not even the people involved in the main action, but all the people who try to live their lives while this goes on around them.  My two main characters have very different opinions about what happened and how to deal with it, and in the end, they arrive at very different places.  

I want to include ideas about mental health and what motivates people, and what impact actions have on their state of mind and sense of self.  

Although this will be a fictional story about a fictional place and fictional people, if you were ever at Millsaps, you'll recognize a lot of ghosts and memories.  If you were at Millsaps in the '80s, it will feel like a memory, even though it's not.  I tend to think of it that they filmed a movie of my novel and used Millsaps as the location.  

I think it's important that this takes place in the early Eighties because that's when traditional college students in the South were the first in their region, and often in their family, who never knew a segregated education system.  While I don't intend to deal with that directly, I do want to keep the notion that this is a new generation and a new chance at something different in our larger culture.  We were the children of the civil rights movement.  That much is very clear to me.  

Behind all that, there are the troubles in Ireland in a school where most of the students have Irish roots.  There's Reagan and Reaganomics and all the social changes that came with the Republican revolution.  We were also the first MTV to go to college.  There ended up not being many after us, so being MTV consumers at its inception ended up making us pretty unique.  

Because more of my training is in Theatre than in literature, I'm using the classical dramatic elements to build my story around. Point of inciting interest,  exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement.  I don't think I'm ready to do stream-of-consciousness or non-linear formats yet.  

I hope that I'll end up with something worth reading.  I hope I'll be able to create characters you are interested in and care about what happens to them, even if you don't agree with their actions.  I'm not out to expose anyone or beat a drum about any of the issues in the story, but to maybe show how these issues play out in a character's life and motivation.  People going off to college think they know everything, but reality soon hits them, and sometimes they find themselves in the middle of a storm.  My story is about people who find themselves in a storm, then find their way back out again.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Writing for my Love

It’s been about a year since I started letting the world read my daily journals or significant parts of them.  I began writing them forty-five years ago, or more, then one day, when I was still too weak to sit up in bed, I thought, “I really should let people know I”m alive,” and started posting extensive excerpts from my journal on Facebook.  

It’s been a fascinating process.  The response has been truly overwhelming.  Having kept all this hidden for so long, I had no idea I could get anyone to read me unless I wrote about big things like dinosaurs and spaceships, like some of my idols.  

Earlier today, the question arose about what the women in my life thought of my writing.  The answer is pretty simple: they didn’t know anything about it.  Some knew I was doing it, but since I said it was my journal, and none of them knew how to find things on my computer, none were ever read.  

I’d only ever planned for there to be one woman in my life.  Instead, there were like twelve.  I think part of the problem was that I was never very honest with them, not nearly as honest as I am with the people who read my blogs.  I think that was a vital mistake.  Even if being more honest wouldn’t have kept any of them in my life, it was still the moral thing to do.  

I always tried to project that I was a counter to whatever challenges were in their life. No matter how storm-ravaged their existence, I was indomitable and immutable, and I could form an impenetrable barrier between them and whatever was hurting them. That’s a lie, of course. I could keep it up for a while, but not forever, and let’s be honest, once the storm passed, it made me obsolete.  Maybe, if I’d shown them the things I write in the hours when the sun struggles over the horizon, it would have opened up a new era of understanding.  Maybe I would have proved more valuable in the long run.

There was one woman; her name means “honey” in an ancient tongue.  She was the only woman I ever courted who knew me from work.  Not from Missco or the ABoyd Company, but from my real work, in this instance, theater and painting.  We played chess and drank coffee and discussed many things.  I don’t know that giving her access to my journals would have changed the trajectory of our lives, but I would have deeply valued her perspective on what I wrote.  I’m really a bit angry with myself, now that I think of it.  

She had the voice of an angel.  Her hands were tender, and her eyes shown brighter than the moon, but I missed having such a brilliant critic and soundboard available before the ink dried on my copy.  We were so horribly star-crossed, I don’t think anything could have made us end up together, but imagine what a difference learning that other people wanted to read my words would have made if I had trusted her to read them.

There’s another woman.  I write about her often.  She had a gigantic smile and bushels of blonde hair, and the world would have thought she was the most cheerful person in it while she was flaying the skin from her own bones in secret and doing whatever she could to numb the pain from it.

That was almost forty years ago, but even now, I feel genuine pangs of guilt for not clearing a path out of the tangled morass of rose thorns she surrounded herself in.  Saving her wasn’t my job, but it was the only thing I wanted to do, and it’s still the one thing I wish I had accomplished that I didn’t.  People tell me all the time that this wasn’t my responsibility and what happened to her wasn’t my fault, but no, that’s a scar that I’ll carry on my back until the day they close my eyes for good.

My plan was to show her that I was stronger than anything that happened to her, stronger than anything she might do to herself, and all she had to do was be calm and let me pull her out of the cutting weeds that grew around her.  That failed. It failed utterly.  

Maybe, if I’d shown her my words, maybe if I’d let her see that I saw and felt the same darkness, the same cold and isolation that she felt, that maybe we could have made a connection there, and maybe somehow knowing she wasn’t alone in what she was feeling might have made her hold on to herself long enough to climb out of the hole she was in.  

I’m aware that I’m describing a scenario where I might have found a way to succeed at something I failed at, and not a scenario where someone from my past would have wanted to stick around and be someone in my present, but it’s really hard to twist my mind to thoughts of what I need.  I don’t think that’s going to change.  At least, in this one instance, the world would have been just a little better if I’d won this battle I fought for somebody other than myself.  

Although I’ve had all these other people playing that role in my life, there’s just the one woman I ever really loved.  We met as children, young enough that we got to see each other’s body change and grow tall.  

Her hands were slender and strong.  Her eyes were the deepest brown, like staring into your coffee and seeing the world reflected in it.  She took my arm many times and escorted me whenever there was a fine thing I had to attend, but I never once tried to express to her how special she was to me.   Asking her might mean she’d reject me, and as long as I didn’t ask, I could always tell myself, “It might have.”  Fifty years later, “it might have” means nothing to anyone but me.

The funny thing is, she studied literature.  While it’s not what she ended up doing for a living, it’s something that was dear to her and important to her.  Imagine what might have happened if I had said, “Hi, these are my words.  I’d really like to know what you think of them.”  Imagine the impact of arranging a meeting between the thing I loved the most and the girl I loved the most.  It was impossible, of course.  I wasn’t willing to show my words to those who didn’t matter; showing them to someone who did matter would have been such a huge risk.  I would have fainted from the anticipation.  

Some of my former dance partners read my words here. Sometimes they ask questions and clarifications of a point. I haven’t yet gotten into trouble for revealing something I shouldn’t have. I try to be sensitive.  I have been scolded for not saying this or that twenty years ago.  That’s to be expected.  I do choose my words differently, knowing someone might read them.  That’s also to be expected, but I try to retain the candor I had when I was writing for myself.  

If I could tell a younger version of me something, I’d tell him to be honest. Trust that people want to see the truth. You can’t be strong enough to heal the world. Its enemies are stronger than your arms, no matter how strong you make them.   You hide this precious thing every day, thinking the world has no interest in it.  You’re wrong; your words are what the world made you for.  

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Miss Eudora's Typewriter

If you visit Eudora Welty's house and museum, you can see some of her typewriters.  How a writer writes is very important, especially for writers of her generation.  Through his business connections, her father could procure quite good typewriters for her for most of her life, both new and secondhand.  

When Miss Eudora was writing, there were only three places in Jackson where one could purchase typing paper or legal pads.  The Office Supply Company was down the street from her father's office, so I've always amused myself that some of her novels began life as a box of blank typing paper sitting on a shelf in my uncle's store.  I even confirmed once that Mr. Welty had an account, although what he purchased was long since lost to history.

Eudora Welty was most likely taught to type in high school.  Most women in her generation were, in case they'd have to get a job one day, and typing or teaching was about the only jobs available to most girls.  Businesses needed typists too.  Every letter, every statement, and every invoice had to be hand typed in the days before computers.  One of the reasons banks and insurance companies had such large buildings was to house secretarial pools of typing women.

Faulkner had a typewriter but didn't write with it.  He preferred writing longhand so he could see and feel the shape of his words.  There weren't many things in Faulkner's life that he treated with love and care, but his words were among them.

When I was a younger man, I traveled to Hollywood in the summers hoping to live there someday.  I even gave it a shot a couple of times, but living outside of Mississippi never took hold.  In those summers, I made friends with Forrest J Ackerman, the previous editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and the inventor of Vampirella.  

Uncle Forry's life was in the waning years.  He'd lost his wife.  It'd been many years since his magazine shut down.  When he was a magazine editor, Forry was a literary agent for hopeful science fiction writers.  His most notorious client was L Ron Hubbard, who wrote very sort of standard Sci-Fi for the fifties.  His books were light on science but heavy on post-war social commentary.  Most were pretty bad.  Forry did not represent Hubbard's book Dianetics, which was an effort to replace psychology, which became Hubbard's obsession and, ultimately, a religious cult.  

One day, Forry introduced me to a man at lunch, saying, "This is Ray Bradbury.  He writes sometimes."  

Ackerman and Bradbury had been childhood friends and were considered co-founders of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Forum.  Ackerman had been Bradbury's agent, but after Fahrenheit 451, his publisher demanded Bradbury get a more well-placed agent. Ackerman didn't seem to take offense, and they remained the closest of friends until their very last days.  

 As a young writer, Bradbury didn't have a typewriter of his own.  In the basement of the library, you could put coins in a machine and get an hour's worth of electricity on one of their electric typewriters.  Descending with a box of his own paper, Bradbury wrote all of Fahrenheit 451 this way, spending time between pages and looking at the books in the library for inspiration.

Compared to his other novels, there wasn't very much science in Fahrenheit 451, but he hit on cultural memes that resonated deeply in American culture, especially counterculture.  After Fahrenheit 451, he was able to afford his own typewriter, an IBM selectric.  He'd have other typewriters along the way, but he favored the selectric.  Stephen King suggested a word processor for him, which Bradbury got, but never really produced anything of note on it.

Ray Bradbury was who I wanted to be.  His advice for young writers was to produce one thousand words a day.  In his method of writing, that's slightly less than three pages.  You're not really a writer if you don't write.  I've been producing between a thousand and two thousand words a day for forty-five years now.  At first on my mother's portable typewriter, then later on, different forms of computer word processors.  I've only allowed anyone to see what I write for the last two years.  That's another story.

The way that Welty, Faulkner, and Bradbury wrote was like making multiple interactions of a carving, making changes and improvements between them, and ultimately only showing the world the final copy.  It's a pretty tedious way to write.  You end up typing or writing over the same sentence several times.  With word processing, there's just one draft that you're constantly massaging and improving.  

It's possible that the multiple draft method of writing produces a better result.  Typing the same sentence over and over again can make you either commit to it or change it.  Most people don't do it.  It's time-consuming, and it keeps you from the more interesting part of making new sentences.  

I really don't know what my writing will produce.  I'd like to think I can produce seven or eight books in the next ten years.  I have pretty good writing discipline and can sometimes write things that produce emotion; what remains to be seen is if I can bring all these pieces together into something larger.  I love Ray Bradbury, but I've been to his office, and he's not a very organized person.   I don't think I can do what he did, but I think I can match his output, maybe even exceed it for a while.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

What I'm Reading - May 10


My dear friend (and former football trainer) gave me a copy of Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey.  I met McConaughey briefly when they were shooting A Time To Kill and had no clue he would be such a powerful and charming writer.  

Part autobiography and part philosophy, McConaughey gives a very frank and candid review of his life and how he managed and interpreted it all.  Greenlights is a very Southern book, both in his experiences and attitude.

Although I primarily use kindle to read now (mostly a matter of storage), some of you may know I'm something of a bibliophile snob, especially when it comes to the physical book.  This first edition of Greenlights (my copy came from the fabled Square Books) is a joy to touch and leaf through.  They use heavy rag paper, almost like expensive drawing paper with a substantial tooth.  It switches between different colors of ink and shades of paper so often that I wonder if this book was printed on a web press at all.  Some of the signatures may be from a sheet-fed press, which is unusual.  

Greenlights earns its spot on the best-seller list, primarily on the strength of the writing alone.  This is a book of life, not your typical Hollywood expose.  It's a book that speaks especially to Southern men in a voice they'll find familiar.

The Screwtape Letters.

I tell people that I"m an agnostic because I am, and I believe everyone is; no matter if they claim absolute belief or absolute disbelief, everyone has questions and doubts.  I've read many Christian apologists through the years, and I can only call Lewis beloved, at least by me.  This is my third time through on Screwtape and probably not the last.  

Written before he lost (and ultimately regained) his faith, Lewis dedicates Screwtape to his dear friend and fellow scribbler, J.R.R. Tolkien.  It's a fictitious series of letters written from a supervisor daemon to his nephew, advising his efforts to collect the soul of an English "client" recently converted to Christianity.  

In this and other works, Lewis makes Christian apology entertaining and digestible.  Lewis has a pragmatic opinion on Christian practices and philosophies, which come through almost effortlessly here.

Like the Narnia books, The Screwtape Letters is a quick read and a staple of English-speaking Christianity.  

Sunday, February 1, 2009

January's Most Read Posts:

Google provides webmasters with some really useful tools on how people use their website. Here's what it said about Boyd's Life for the month of January 2009

Most Popular In Order:
  1. The Impotence of of Proofreading
  2. Jackson's Horrible Movie
  3. Is there a God Delusion
  4. What do Teacher's Make?
  5. Obama Chia Pet
  6. Print is dead and I don't Feel So Good Myself
  7. The Cruel God
  8. Miss-Matched Presidential Hands
  9. Oops CNN Does it Again
  10. The Rational Flea
Unusual Search Engine Phrases that Found my Blog:
Search engines turn words into math to try and match up what someone is searching for with websites that might possibly be what they want. It's really fascinating to see the phrases people used that Google linked to my site. Sometimes it'll show some real lu-lu's that make me wonder what the searcher was really up to. For January 2009, the most unusual were:
  • "articles that are considered strange for people suing companies for monies"
  • "blue whale reincarnation"
Site traffic is not quite double what it was six months ago

Official Ted Lasso