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Rewriting Southern Traditions

Beth Gilstrap

Beth Gilstrap

LAKE HARTWELL, SOUTH CAROLINA

By Beth Gilstrap

 

It’s past lunch hour and Grandmother is still wearing her

housecoat. Tings and sprays bounce from the stovetop. A

glimmer of steam gathers on her upper lip, not sweat, mind

you—not sweat. The peonies on the fabric are wide and

heavy pink, like they’d fall over if they were out in the

side garden as they always are during late April. But we are

in July and July is sweet and frayed, the grass only green

down on the banks of the lake. Me and Juna played chicken

on rafts all morning. Our suits still damp when we put

them on, hers only halfway up as we ran out the door, letting

it slam too hard, hearing Grandmother say, “Watch my

nerves. For Lord’s sake. My nerves.” By the time we come in,

we were striped, our torsos a wormy kind of white, our fingertips

wrinkled, begging for fried squash and okra Grandmother

had in heaps by this point, for smushed-up peaches

meant for the ice cream churn, for teeth-cracking chunks of

rock salt, the wayward bit of a watermelon seed, you know,

that stringy bit you can’t get down no matter how hard you

try so you wind up spitting the seeds on Grandmother’s

floor even though you wasn’t supposed to be eating them in

the house cause y’all know better, cause she done told you

twice to get your butts outside. And once you’re outside,

the menfolk stand in a circle around their cache, taking

stock of M-80s and bottle rockets and whirling spiders and

whistling dixies, which was basically the same, but hateful,

so hateful you could feel it blow your cousin’s pinky off

even though some grown-up yelled “fire in the hole” and

dumbass stood there in a sulphur fog like it was all happening

to someone else and next year when you and Juna went

in at lunch you were practically teenagers and ate rolled-up

honey ham cigars and Chicken in a Biskit Crackers—those

buttery rectangles with a chemical chicken flavor—instead

of spitting seeds on the floor cause now y’all were good girls,

making sure to let Grandmother lie down awhile and have

herself a little peace in the back room with the big box fan

and a single bed and her thin, yellow sheets.


ABOUT BETH: Beth Gilstrap is the author of the Deadheading & Other Stories, Winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize due out October 5, 2021 and available for preorder now. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. Her stories, essays, and hybrids have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Wigleaf, The Minnesota Review, New Flash Fiction Review, and the Best Microfiction Anthology, among others. Born and raised in the Charlotte area, she recently relocated to Louisville where she lives and writes in an ornery old shotgun house.


LEAN INTO LYRICAL TRADITIONS WITH BETH: Join Beth for a reading and book discussion of Deadheading and Other Stories on October 20, at 6 PM for our next Wednesdays@Lit. And join Beth for Uneasy Women: Writing Feminist Southern Gothic Fiction on October 21st. In this workshop, you’ll examine writing traditions, how they’ve changed, and how we might craft them for 21st Century readers by examining excerpts from contemporary female authors including: Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, and Dorothy Allison. We will examine how they subvert traditional gender roles, how they give agency to characters (often deemed outsiders) who have traditionally been victims of the American capitalist patriarchy. More information is here.

That Fragile Moment

Ashley Memory

Ashley Memory

We are always at the beginning of things, in the fragile moment that holds the power of life….we are always at the morning of the world.

I often think of this quotation by the Chinese-born French writer François Cheng, but especially in the morning. This is indeed the most “fragile moment” for me as a writer. I love autumn because it means I can sleep with the windows open and wake up to the sounds of dawn: the cry of a blue jay or the jingle of our wind chimes.

This is the time when I feel most compelled to slip out of bed and into the pages of my journal. It’s paramount that I do so quietly, before waking the dogs and before the rituals of the day intrude, even breakfast.

Here, staring out the window at my desk, I can revel in the day’s first light, that gentle shaft of sunlight through the trees. Sometimes a deer will surprise me and we find ourselves staring at each other, transfixed, wondering who will look away first. When the window is open, I can hear the distant crow of roosters, even the salubrious moo of cows from miles away. This is when the gentle buzz of inspiration floods my senses.

This “fragile moment” is when I am able to conjure up the most creative metaphors for a poem or even finish a paragraph of prose that had troubled me the day before. New structures and themes for my work often reveal themselves now. I also am privy to a special kind of clarity that brings perspective. The work that is most pressing always emerges, and I gain the single-mindedness needed to finish it.

However, if just the tiniest sliver of the rest of the world emerges, say my husband J.P. rises and turns on the television or if a neighbor decides to roar down our common driveway, the spell is suddenly broken. Now I am lured too easily into other rituals, and my “fragile moment” slips away forever.

You may know this already, and you may be even more disciplined than me about seizing these precious nuggets of time, but if not, try it yourself. Climb out of bed early one day and ignore your normal to-do list. Go to your favorite writing perch, grab a notebook or your laptop, and let your imagination wander. You’ll be surprised at how much this “unstructured” time contributes to the larger plan. You may even experience a whisper of serenity, which will seep into the rest of your day, and make that to-do list of other tasks less daunting. Better yet, you may experience a creative rebirth and the power to begin again, every single day.


ABOUT ASHLEY: Ashley Memory’s fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, most recently in O’Henry, Gyroscope Review, and Mental Papercuts. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize twice. Her first poetry collection, Waiting for the Wood Thrush, is currently available from Finishing Line Press.


JOURNAL WITH ASHLEY: Join Ashley for Fueling the Fires: Journal as Inspiration on October 12th, via Zoom. In this class, we’ll discuss the many options available for journaling as well as techniques for transforming these scribbles into polished stories, essays, or poems. Time will be divided between teaching, looking at examples, discussion, writing in class, and sharing. More information is here.

Nervous

Judy Goldman

“Whenever something good happens to you regarding your writing, you just get nervous,” my daughter tells me. She’s talking about when I’m on my way to publication, when I get a positive review, when I win a prize.

What’s also true is that when something bad happens to me regarding my writing (publication impossible, bad review, no prize), I get nervous.

Rejection makes me nervous because it confirms what I often believe to be true about myself.  Acceptance also makes me nervous because I’m convinced some major rejection is next.

For years, I’ve told students in my workshops they need to possess both arrogance and insecurity to be a writer.  Arrogance enables you to think that what you write might matter to somebody else.  Insecurity forces you to keep going back to your work to revise, to strive to make it better.

But what role does nervousness play?  And what is the key to getting rid of that nervousness or, at least, tone it down a notch?  How do you become a person who approaches writing with a sense of calm?

Be a dead writer?

Maybe.

But if you’re reading this, you’re alive, and we need to work with that.  Is there some trade secret all the successful writers know?

Ann Enright, an Irish writer, says, “Writing is mostly a case of mood management.”

So how do you manage your mood?

Well, this is what not managing your mood looks like:

  1. Praise paralyzes you.  You think, surely they’re just trying to make you feel good.  Or maybe the praise is sincere, but they don’t know good writing, so you can’t trust them.  Or maybe they know good writing and meant what they said, but you know all that could change in an instant.
  2. You know you’ll never get it right.  It’s the contrast between the image in your mind of the work you want to create vs. what actually ends up on paper.  How they rarely match.  If only readers could see inside your head, they’d know what a fabulous writer you are.
  3. You’re so afraid of failure, you don’t take risks.  Your inner critic is forever blowing the whistle.   Maybe you stop yourself before you even begin, before you take the risk of writing at all.
  4. What’s the use? is your mantra.

And what is really excellent mood management?

Persisting.  Persevering.  Without discouragement or bravado.  With curiosity.  With wide-eyed wonder.  With the attitude that anything can happen — and so what? Regardless, you’re right there, at your sturdy little desk, pecking away.  The writer, Fred Leebron, once said to me: “It’s a war of attrition.  Don’t attrish.”

So, it turns out the key to continuing to write even while riddled with nerves is to continue writing even while riddled with nerves.  It’s the trade secret every successful writer knows.  It’s also the problem every successful writer struggles with.


ABOUT JUDY: Judy Goldman is the author of seven books – three memoirs, two novels, and two collections of poetry.  Her new memoir, Child, will be published May 2022. Her recent memoir, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap (published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) was named one of the best books of 2019 by Real Simple magazine and received a starred review from Library Journal.

Her first memoir, Losing My Sister, was a finalist for both SIBA’s Memoir of the Year and ForeWord Review’s Memoir of the year.  She received the Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award and the Mary Ruffin Poole First Fiction Award, as well as the three prizes awarded for a poetry book by a North Carolinian and Silverfish Review Press’s Gerald Cable Prize.  She received the Hobson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters, the Fortner Writer and Community Award for “outstanding generosity to other writers and the larger community,” the Irene Blair Honeycutt Lifetime Achievement Award from Central Piedmont Community College, and the Beverly D. Clark Author Award from Queens University.

Her work has appeared in USA Today, Washington Post, Charlotte Observer, Real Simple, LitHub, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.

It’s ALL in the Details

Megan Rich

As writers, we often think about writing “universally” — whether that means connecting to universal human themes or attempting to reach the largest possible audience. In this, we sometimes fall into the trap of generalities, thinking that we need to speak to those themes directly or that we need to remain more objectively distant to increase our reach. But when reading, I’m often most struck by minute details– be it a beautiful concrete image, a punchy line of dialogue, or a character trait that feels both idiosyncratic and real. Could it be that the more specific we are, the more universal we are, too?

Our everyday experience, though sometimes monotonous or repetitive, is full of rich, specific detail. Be it the sound of cereal hitting the bottom of our morning bowl or the strange, muffled cry of a siren passing our car, specificity is the norm, not the exception. As a teacher, I often come across passages in burgeoning writer’s work that seem to replace those details with grand statements, often meant to create deep emotional experiences for their readers. The truth is, these generalities leave me feeling far less than a concrete detail might. Don’t tell me your character felt saddened by the sight of a long-lost friend; instead, let me see what he sees in her face, right there in front of him. Let me remember what she once looked like under the strange transformation of that face he hasn’t seen in so long. By embodying the concrete fact of her features, we will better feel his sadness in those changes because we, too, will have experienced this many times, perhaps even in the mirror, ourselves. The best writing will never have to tell us how a character feels, but will describe the people, places, and objects so vividly that we’ll know. It’ll be as if we walked into a dinner party and read the room ourselves– intuitively, based only on what we sense.

Just like in real life, we don’t usually go around asking or telling people how we feel, but rather, we see it in an expression, feel it in a movement, or hear it in the phrase a person chooses to say in a certain moment. These are the details that clue us into what’s really happening, under the surface, and at their best, a writer should show us the most telling details in every scene.


ABOUT MEGAN: Megan Rich is the author of two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir. She’s currently revising her third book, a literary-fiction novel inspired by The Great Gatsby. Meg is a graduate of University of Michigan, where she participated in a highly-selective creative writing program, and a recent graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project Program in Denver, Colorado. She has taught creative writing for twelve years, working with students of all ages and in all genres. Meg pioneered Charlotte Lit’s weekly Pen to Paper writing group and serves as a coach in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.


DIVE INTO THE DETAILS WITH MEGAN: Join Meg for the The Art of Detail, a 4-week studio immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions. More information is here.