A Southern Canon

It's 6am. A Carolina wren sings outside my window. I've been up, writing, finally this week, for two hours. More on process next week, when I'm back in full force with the Sixties Trilogy.

Five things I have loved this week:

1. The green curry with steamed tofu from Yum-Yum Thai.

2. Seeing my husband up and about after surgery on Monday. All will be well.

3. Catching up on sleep.

4. A house full of good, kind people.

5. Rereading my southern personal canon in the cracks between doctors and hospital and dispensing meds... these selections in my canon comfort me and bring me home:

THE REIVERS by William Faulkner
DELTA WEDDING by Eudora Welty
GROWING UP IN THE SOUTH, edited by Suzanne Jones.

These books taught me how southerners write, what the southern story sounds like, and how southern childhoods can be evocative, funny, crazy, scary, meaningful, lyrical, blunt, and loving, all at the same time. They are unique, southern stories, as much as they are universal.

My copies of these four books are heavily underlined and annotated and full of my own wonderings. Each one was -- remains -- a college classroom for me. When I found GROWING UP IN THE SOUTH -- it took my breath away. If you buy this book, be sure to get the out-of-print edition (published in 1991) -- you can order it at abebooks. The newer edition has swapped out some of my favorite stories, and I wouldn't want you to miss them.

Here were some of the first mouth-watering stories I read about the south and southerners, written by southerners... I was transported to my own childhood -- the smell of chicken frying in a cast iron skillet, the sound of the grease popping, the feel of the air and the taste of honeysuckle, the riotous laughter that accompanied family stories, and I knew this writing -- these southern stories -- they were part of me and I wanted to tell my stories. So I began a study of southern writing, which led me to many, many different writers, but the books I list above are my favorites.

Here is how I learned to write.

I read like a writer -- how does she/he DO that? I pulled apart the prose, I studied it because I wanted to DO it, and I used the books I admired as my models of good writing. I copied phrases I loved -- words I adored -- into my notebook... I have notebooks filled with what Nancy Johnson calls "golden lines." Many of them I know by heart.

When I gave DELTA WEDDING to my mother, she handed it back months later saying she couldn't get through it. "Nothing happens!" she said. "Ellen gets up in the morning and says, 'I think I'll move this bush from here to there' -- I just couldn't go on!"

And DELTA WEDDING is on my top ten list of favorite novels. There is nothing like it in American literature... read the essay at the link above, and you'll see why. I think EVERYTHING happens in DELTA WEDDING... it's subtle, but it's there.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a book I read yearly; I always get something new from it. I loved the book so much, I read it aloud to my children more than once, and I had them watch the movie with me so many times that one of them declared "A Moratorium on Mockingbird," which is still in effect today. But I sneak it in, when I'm by myself. Horton Foote wrote the screenplay; he is another one of my southern-writer heroes. The wondrous musical score, by Elmer Bernstein, is one I listened to in a playlist that accompanied the writing of THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS.

MOCKINGBIRD was the ultimate for me, until I found other southern writers... I didn't even know they existed, in high school... but I found them, yes I did.

THE REIVERS is Faulkner's most accessible novel, a small gem of a story, written by a master storyteller who takes his time, is in no hurry to let the story spin out and out... and out.

I have learned to take my time with a story as well. The conventional wisdom is that something has to happen right-away in children's books, we must find the problem and the protagonist and get on with it. Well, yes... but not so fast, not so fast. The traditional southern storyteller reels you in, line by line, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, until you have taken so much of the bait you can't stand not going on...

...until you are in love with the characters and the setting and the possibilities as much as you are the problem... we want you to know us for life, we southerners... we want you to fall into our stories, to consider our characters as real people -- in my case, Comfort, Declaration, Peach, Dismay... Ruby and Melba Jane and Miss Eula... House and Cleebo and Honey and Finesse and Pip and .... you get the picture.

They are real to me, my characters, and my job is to make them -- and their world -- real to you. I'm still studying these four books in my personal canon, to figure out how to do that better and better... and better.

These writers are some of my teachers. Who are yours?

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