Read an Excerpt
Humor, Heartbreak, and Hope
The University of Alabama Press
Copyright © 2012 Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities at Auburn University
All right reserved.
Chapter One Don't Cry for Me, Itta Bena
I'm so glad to be back here in Auburn. I'm going to just talk for a while off the cuff about myself as a writer. I'm going to forgo any of this heavy bull that I usually talk in interviews about the reason I'm a writer is death, pure and simple, blah, blah, blah, and really just tell you about the accidental way I sidewaysed myself into being a writer and then I'm going to read a recent story. I often wonder why it was I got to be a writer when so many people who knew early on that they wanted to be a writer didn't get to be one.
I came from a little town in Mississippi called Itta Bena. I wanted to call my memoir Don't Cry for Me, Itta Bena, but nobody could pronounce Itta Bena. So the joke was lost.
The school I went to was a good little school in a good little town, but not one that emphasized creative writing by any means. There were no writers in my family, no familial models to draw upon.
But once in the eighth grade, maybe the only time in all of my twelve years of schooling, I was asked to write a character sketch about somebody in my family. So I chose my grandmother and wrote a few pages in my eighth-grade handwriting on a ruled sheet of paper and got a good grade on it. Not only that, the teacher said it was the best thing in class and asked me would I read it to the class. And so, hell, yes, I read it to the class. Next thing I knew, a preacher didn't come to the weekly chapel, and they said, "Why don't you read your story about your grandmother to the whole school?"
I said, "Yeah." And I figured that's what I'd do the rest of my life, just read these three or four pages about "Mammy."
The few good sentences in that essay began to wear a little thin, though. About this time, they stopped asking me to read it. From eighth grade through twelfth grade, I was never asked to write another character sketch, not because they didn't like it, but because there were just too many people in a class to read that many character sketches.
At my high school graduation, I was asked to give one of the speeches for the graduating exercises, and so I imagined what we might be doing some years after high school. I imagined that some of us would be farmers, and doctors, and lawyers, and teachers. And then, in an afterthought, almost, I said, "and freelance writers." I didn't know what a freelance writer was, but it seemed to me that was something somebody might be. Maybe from eighth grade through twelfth grade I'd taken on, somehow, inside myself, the notion of becoming a writer. It's not something I did consciously. But somewhere festering inside me after all the attention I got from writing about my grandmother's eccentricities, there it was in my speech. "And freelance writer," I said, and I could almost see people saying, "What? What did he say? What? Freelance writer? Pfffff."
So I went off for one year of college before I was, I would say, "asked to leave." In that year I took the only journalism course offered by the school, again heeding some call from within to write. The only way to get an A in this particular class, it seemed, was to write a character sketch and to send it to your hometown newspaper and have it published. That would be an A.
Well, my hometown was so small, there was no newspaper. But I wrote a character sketch and sent it to a nearby town about ten miles away with the idea that it would never be published. I would take my lower than an A grade and be happy.
I didn't write about my grandmother. One of the requirements was that it not be a member of the family. Well, there you go. All the things I had imagined I would write about were no longer available.
There was a Methodist minister in town who was an oddball, to say the least. He had a very weird nervous laugh: "hee hee hee hee hee." His sister, unmarried, as he was, had been a missionary in China.
I took these scant pieces of information about them and wrote a full-blown character sketch of perhaps eight or ten pages, making up every other word. It was published!
In the character sketch I told the entire Delta of Mississippi that Mr. Wasson saw angels, that there were great dark presences that stood at his bedposts and directed his life. I hinted that one of them may actually be Gabriel. [Gabriel] wearing a great sword had directed Mr. Wasson's sister, Miss Julia, in her missionary work in China.
I was not called and told, "Congratulations. It will be published." They sent me a copy of it, along with a $5 check, already published. I was humiliated. I can't tell you how embarrassed I was that I had made up all that stuff about dear Mr. Wasson, especially the supernatural parts.
Later I got a letter from Mr. Wasson and Miss Julia saying they had never told anybody that they could see angels. They wondered how on earth I had discerned it. I got a number of other letters from people saying, "What a ridiculous piece of writing. You have humiliated two fine people who certainly don't see angels." So I skulked around and very soon after that joined the navy so that I wouldn't have to face anybody on this particular subject.
In all my years, those were my two writing experiences, two character sketches—one of them sentimental and ridiculous about my grandmother and the other one 98 percent fiction about a minister in town whom I really didn't know at all. I went off to the navy. Didn't write. Got out of the navy and went back to college at Millsaps College in Jackson. Didn't write. Went to work as a high school teacher. Didn't write. Went to graduate school. Still didn't write. Got my MA. Hadn't written anything yet. Moved to Auburn. And that's where I want to tell you that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Auburn is where my writing career actually began. Not that I wrote anything here in Auburn, certainly not to amount to anything. I actually started to write years later after I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I wrote about Mississippi, or supposedly about Mississippi, of things that occurred earlier. But it was here in Auburn, specifically Loachapoka where I lived, that writing began to seep into me as something that not only I wanted to do but had to do and had been putting off doing and putting off doing for reasons I can't really name, except fear.
I read the work of Madison Jones, who is a brilliant writer, a genius. And though he and I have nothing in common politically, I was able to recognize that I could never write so beautifully as Madison. He was working on A Cry of Absence at the time I lived in Loachapoka, and he came to the house to talk to me and my then wife, Mary. We flattered ourselves for years that we were the empty-headed liberal intellectuals who were satirized in his work. Whether we were or were not, I never used him as somebody who might be an influence, because he was simply too good.
But there was a writer from out in the country in Loachapoka whom I heard read. His name was Wallace Whatley. Are you here tonight, Wallace? I'm not sure he has published a book yet, and this was thirty-five years ago. Wallace's story was so good, so funny, so resonant with sound and imagery and sense, that I halfway believed that I could do that. Now, I did not write for many, many years after that, but I believed that I might be able to.
Wallace performed his piece as well as wrote it and spoke it. He was closer to my age and not an elder statesman like Madison practically already was. It is he whom I credit with telling me, "You can do it, Buddy. You can do it." I haven't really seen Wallace since then. But I hear that he still lives around here, and I wish he had come tonight. I would love to see him.
But the things that began to happen to me in Loachapoka are the things that began to come out disguised as things in Mississippi in my later work. Lightning Song is a novel in which the fiction itself is set in the north Mississippi hill country, but in fact, it's set right in Loachapoka.
John and Iris Bachelor were my friends and still are my friends. At the time they lived out there in Loachapoka. They saw me at my worst and also possibly at my best as I developed as a nonwriter, as I began to take in the countryside.
There was a house near me, two houses down from me on a country road that kept getting struck by lightning—I mean, like ten times a day. Every time it clouded up it would get struck by lightning. So I said to the owner, "Caroline, why does your house get struck by lightning so much?"
In fact, once when I was there the house was struck by lightning and a ball of lightning bounced across the floor across the house. She said, "I don't know. We've had some geologists come out here, and they think there may be an iron ore deposit beneath the house. But we're not sure. The real danger, though, is that we grounded the house through the plumbing so that any time there's a storm we are in danger of our lives."
They had later changed the grounding so that the lightning only bounced through the house. There's something about high voltage, low wattage, or something that explains this, but I won't ever claim to have known what they were talking about.
Later on I wrote a novel called Lightning Song about a house that gets struck like that. I add my fictional details, of course. That and "The Sin Eater" and many another story are in my mind and heart based right here in Auburn, though I did not write them for years after I left Auburn. In the fictional setting, they are all set almost entirely in Mississippi, not in Alabama.
With so little writing behind me, so little chance of being a writer, nevertheless, I went around the world thinking of myself as a writer. The only thing was I just didn't write.
Fred Bennett, who is here in the audience, who was also living in Loachapoka at the time, came out to my house many times. But this one time, I read him a story that I was writing, as I had read to John and Georgia Goodling some time after that a story. These stories were pretty awful, and they were not at all in the language that I meant to write them in. They were more visual than heard language, and they didn't work well at all. I thank you for your tolerance during that time, John and Georgia and Fred.
Then later, when I was living in Georgia, I met James Dickey the poet and asked him for advice about being a writer. Dickey, who could make even the honest truth sound like a lie, said to me, "Just listen, boy. Just listen to it. You'll hear it." And so I started to listen and sure enough I began to hear a sound that was to be my writing. I didn't have any words to put to it yet, but I began to hear what I had meant to hear all along—that is, a rhythmical sound that would later carry the words that I meant to write. It was the sound of cheerleader chants and skip rope chants and preachers on Sunday and poems that I had read and a great many things. But I had no words, and eventually the words became available to me. My stories didn't make any sense. They were just tales told to this rhythm. Then later they began to make sense, and I began to be an actual writer. This is not advice to anybody who wants to be a writer. I have no idea what any of it means. I just tell you this is what happened to me. Now, while I was at Auburn, I was not writing, but even before Dickey told me to listen, I was beginning to listen. I listened to Yeats and I listened to Wallace Stevens.
Wallace Stevens—brother, I sure didn't know what he was talking about. In Wallace Stevens I began to hear silences that I had never really realized were there before, and I couldn't shake the fact that something was touched inside me even when I couldn't understand what he was talking about. These ambiguous, private sections of his mind were coming out in images. It struck me.
I gave a talk when I was in graduate school on Wallace Stevens in which I managed to humiliate myself not only by not knowing what Stevens was talking about, but by latching onto a phrase about his ambiguity, which you'll understand when I tell you. Instead of saying, "the ambiguous parts of his writing" or "the parts of his writing that were difficult to understand," I kept saying, "Wallace Stevens's private parts." "If we would just look more closely at Stevens's private parts," I insisted, "then we would know more. His private parts, of course, are large, but we have to observe them carefully." Somehow I managed to get out of Auburn with a degree—but not with any dignity.
I began to put stories together that made more and more sense after I quit drinking. And that's the history of Buddy Nordan as a writer.
Until recently, basically all of my work has been set in Mississippi. Very few parts of it, private or otherwise, have been set outside of Mississippi. Now I am writing a book about a southerner who lives in Pittsburgh. It requires a slightly different kind of language. Nevertheless, I have found a way to write something outside of the South.
Chapter Two The Strangely Familiar World of Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair
It seems good and right to me that when Buddy Nordan was a boy in Itta Bena, Mississippi, he ordered a ventriloquist's dummy from a Montgomery Ward catalog, and the dummy arrived already named, and the name happened to be Buddy. Just the sort of quirky detail that brought me delight when, as a student in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, I first read Buddy's collection of stories, Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair: Moany Shirley's tales of the family loonies; a man whose given name on his birth certificate is Big Boy, after the tomato of that variety; a family of midget construction workers invited for a spaghetti dinner, where the spaghetti comes in slices and hunks; and, of course, the marvelous image of an eighty-threeyearold man, the baby of his clan, plucking arrows shot from bows out of the air with his bare hands. The world, all at once, was made strange and unpredictable, and yet these were people I knew—people who felt like family to me, though I'd never, until coming to Arkansas in 1982, lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line. How was it that this man from Mississippi had anything at all to show me about writing my own people, those farmers, oil field roughnecks, refinery workers, small-town insurance agents, grain elevator workers, café cooks and waitresses, nursing home aides, dry cleaners, welders, mechanics?
As it was with Buddy and the way he looked at his native Mississippi, there was just enough askew in my neck of the woods to catch my attention: the neighbor woman who sometimes drank too much and went running down the street naked, her husband running after her, saying, "Aw, hon, you don't want to be like this"; the kindly old gent who gave candy to kids uptown on Saturdays and then peeked in folks' windows at night; the boy who said, when my mother asked him his name one day at the Laundromat, "Hog Sausage!"; or the boy who rode the streets with two cur dogs sitting in his rear-wheel bicycle baskets, doing a dead-on imitation of a police siren—the boy, not the dogs, though the latter wouldn't have surprised me, that's the sort of place it was.
When I got to Arkansas, I didn't know what to do with people like that in my fiction any more than I knew what to do with them when I encountered them in the grocery store or the café or the pool hall or the barbershop. Just like Buddy when he faced his dummy, I didn't have the words to make these people human. Here, from Buddy's memoir, Boy with Loaded Gun, is the story of how he and the other Buddy eventually parted ways:
The reason I finally gave up working with the dummy was that I discovered I had nothing to say. I would hold Buddy and speak in my strained falsetto, but the words that came out were not interesting.
"Hello, Buddy," I would say in my regular voice.
"Hello, Buddy," the dummy would say in his falsetto.
"Is there an echo in here?" I would say.
"Is there an echo in here?" Buddy would say.
I wanted more. I wanted the words that would go beyond mere contact with this exterior world. I wanted words that came from so deep inside me that when I heard their sound, perceived their meaning, I would become possessed of a new self, somehow, one that might someday leave Itta Bena and exist, nay thrive, in another world. I poked through the box the dummy came in, looking for a pamphlet telling me what words to speak to produce the interior, spiritual results I so vaguely, and yet so passionately, hoped to effect. I found nothing. There was nothing. I would have to wait for those gifts of the spirit from which words would be formed. (56)
Excerpted from Lewis Nordan Copyright © 2012 by Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities at Auburn University. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.