Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Eyes in the Back of My Head

If you ask twenty different authors about from where his greatest strength as a writer comes, you may get twenty different answers. And most, if not all answers, would probably come from a place that you’d least expect.

I can, for example, tell you that you may be surprised to learn mine. At first, if you looked at my curriculum vitae, you might guess that my gift may have come from my education. I have a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in English education. I even have a year’s work on a PhD. During my courses of study, I took many classes in literature, writing, poetry, linguistics, and the list goes on from there. I did learn many useful things in those classes that continue to help me write today, but you’d be incorrect to believe that my education was my greatest strength.

My training as a writer continued when I sought out writing organizations and groups. I spent many years going to conferences, seminars and workshops, and I bought and poured over many books on the craft of writing. I met a number of award-winning authors and became friends with some. Their rises to the New York Times Bestsellers Lists and the USA Today Bestsellers Lists were impressive, and they shared their tips and secrets about their climbs with me. I sat in a number of critique groups with them and learned from them…but even all that would not be where my greatest strength as a writer lies.

Well, you might question, did it come from my employment as a managing editor at a publishing house? Even though I poured over many hundreds of manuscripts and ushered many through the publication process—from submission, to acquisition, through a three-pass editing process, to copy-editing, to proofreading, through creating back cover blurbs and managing the cover process and ultimately the book’s publication and marketing—you would be wrong if you guessed that my position as managing editor informed my writing the most.

Ah, you say, is it that my strength comes from my love of literature and, therefore, my love of reading? Nope. Though I love literature—especially Southern literature—and I can be a voracious reader at times—that is not from where my greatest strength comes. Maybe you would go back a little further to when my grandfather ignited my love of story when he told me countless tales on his front porch as a little girl…or maybe it began when I started writing poetry and stories when I was in elementary school because of my grandfather’s tales. Nope and nope.

My greatest strength comes from my having been a teacher. I not only learned how to captivate an audience, but I learned how to effectively convey information through inspiration. It was in that profession that I learned about people, and I applied that knowledge to writing characters.

You see, when you are a teacher, you develop eyes in the back of your head. I didn’t understand this concept at first. When I was student teaching, I didn’t have that talent. But I recognized it the first time I saw it in a colleague when I was paired with him to do “Lunch Duty.” Ken Boleman was a consummate professional. We stood together for a week in the outdoors of Summerville Intermediate High School at our station. As we talked, and he showed me the ropes, he interrupted our conversations again and again by strolling over to different groups of students. I was confused each time he left, but he had seen something that I had not. He would come back with confiscated cigarettes or other contraband. He stopped multiple instances of PDA (and more). I was amazed at his intuitive assessment of each situation—situations about which I was ignorant. I realized then that he had those mysterious “eyes in the back of his head.” He had honed his ability to read situations, behaviors and people. I wanted that skill!

It took a couple of years, but eventually I grew the same eyes in the back of my head. After watching thousands upon thousands of students try the same types of tricks, teachers learn the subtleties of behaviors. I learned to watch for the “watching of the teacher” and then the averted eyes. I learned about both sincere excuses and apologies…and the insincere ones. I learned character…and character traits. I watched as students wanted to learn from me…and I watched those who tried to play me.

I saw the characteristics in students that propelled them to go on to be doctors and lawyers and ministers and teachers, and I saw the characteristics in some students that turned them into murders, rapists, thieves and pedophiles.  

Throughout my years, as I was developing my eyes in the back of my head, I still stayed positive, looking for goodness. I always hoped for the best in each student and gave each a chance. Though we weren’t allowed to openly express our religious beliefs to our students, I always lived my Christian beliefs in front of them, extending the hand of kindness and understanding, even through their issues. Many of my greatest rewards were with those students. 

Being a teacher taught me how to understand one of the most important trinity concepts in writing—goal, motivation and conflict. I saw how these concepts were worked out in my students’ lives. I learned to read subtle signs of need, greatness, disrespect, compassion and corruption… I learned…people, and I responded with empathy.

From those years as a teacher that I spent understanding people, I understood what goes into characterization. I learned to write the subtleties of three-dimensional characters—their needs, their issues and how those things manifested themselves in characters’ daily lives, and how to resolve those conflicts on the page.

So, ultimately, though you may not have guessed at first, my greatest strength as a writer comes from my teaching experiences, where I grew the eyes in the back of my head.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Shakespeare Is Southern!

I’d like to nominate William Shakespeare as an honorary Southerner. He is already unquestionably one of the most quoted, prolific poets and playwrights of all time. Unfortunately, many people think him inaccessible; however, I differ. In fact, his universality is at the very core of his popularity. He grasps the myriad personalities that create social strata across cultural divides. His abilities to create real characters and expose internal conflict is particularly exciting, and if his dialect were delivered with a Southern drawl, the world would say that he belongs to the South!

Will has created words and phrases that have gone mainstream in the Southern dialect. He gave us, “Neither here nor there" for us to dismiss extraneous comments. He gave us “Salad days” to help us remember our youthful, more inexperienced times. He gave us “Send him packing” to colorfully show how we get rid of carpetbaggers and other useless people.

Will told us that “Mum’s the word” so that we can pretend we don’t gossip about our neighbors, and he taught us how to live “With bated breath” when we anxiously wait for Northerner neighbors to understand our Southern way of life, which may never come.

Particularly in the South, I have seen the “Green-eyed monster” rear its ugly head when one family thinks its heritage is grander than another’s. I have seen people’s hopes “Vanish into thin air” as their dreams don’t materialize. And in almost every tale told in the South, I have heard said tale turn with the phrase “All of a sudden.”

Personally, I have been on a “Wild goose chase,” trying to find a decent man to date, and I’ve been “Eaten out of house and home” by hungry party guests. I’ve been “Up in arms” over people who do not know how to appreciate my Southern hospitality, and I’ve have seen “The devil incarnate” in the form of fake friends. I’ve been told that someone has “A heart of gold” at my church, and I’ve been told that “All that glitters is not gold” by my mother.  I’ve also been told that many times something that I would like to affect a change has already been declared a “Forgone conclusion.”

I could go on and on, but you’d eventually tell me “Good riddance,” so I’ll move on so I don’t get myself in “A pickle.”

William’s plays and poems hit at the very heart of the human condition, and that fact is the very detail that makes Will so Southern. Romeo and Juliet features families that feud over social status (such a Southern theme). Julius Ceasar shows how even the common man cannot handle power, and how war is always at hand. Hamlet teaches us how crazy and underhanded even honorable families can become. Macbeth is the epitome of envy and social climbing. Hello, these themes (and more) are at the core of Southern society.

Southerners have adopted so much of what William Shakespeare wrote in the 1600’s, even though all may not even understand from where it came. Though you may say “It’s Greek to me,” I will continue to advance the theory that Shakespeare is essentially Southern all the “livelong day.”

*All phrases in quotations are from the bard!

Monday, February 3, 2020

Authentic Southern Writers

What does it mean to write Southern? Well, it’s not about writing in a location. You may not even be a Southern writer if you were born in the South, though being born and raised in the South will give you a huge advantage.

As a student and connoisseur of Southern literature, being brought up on Flannery O'Conner, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain, I have learned to distinguish between the nuances of true Southern writers and those who—bless their hearts—wish to be. The differences are sometimes subtle but stand out like a carpetbagger at a pig pickin' to natives.

I do appreciate those who love the South and have tried to assimilate into our culture so that they've taken it upon themselves to document our truth with words in novels and poetry. It's just that many who genuinely know and love Southern literature are authentic Southerners themselves, and when they read those authors who straddle the Mason-Dixon Line with words and details—well, let's just say, they can tell (and it pulls them out of a story).

Southerners use particular dialects, colorful phrases and unusual sentence structures that are unique to an area…and a culture. I could be writing about a party with lots of characters and have numerous Southern dialects, phraseologies and structures in one scene. Writers who don’t understand the South won’t be able to differentiate the linguistic nuances well enough to fool Southern readers; however, they do a good enough job so that they get by with the masses—and the New York editors who’ve never once been to an oyster roast or a camp meeting.

Southerners, however, can identify an imposter from the first page…and from the very first paragraph, they can identify a native who writes humidity and hospitality into every sentence. Normal Southerners don’t prepare meals, they “fix” them. Their meals must be more than the ubiquitous fried chicken, but it won’t include a barbecue with hamburgers and hotdogs. Southern women are affiliated with church and life-long girlfriends, and Southern men know hunting and college football. Though an outsider can toss a few of these facts into a manuscript, a Southern writer can weave these facts into the fabric of the novel effectively and effortlessly.

For many years, my reading list was filled with novels from authentic Southern authors—writers who lived the South, breathed the pluff mud, and ate its fare. Pat Conroy, Ann Rivers Siddons and Dorothea Benton Frank were my favorites and never disappointed on any page. They sat me down and told tales like I’d been told by my grandparents—tales filled with family, heart, disappointment and food. Each had a lesson—a lesson best learned in the South. These days, my heart beats more sadly because each of my favorite Southern writers have ended their stories—two in the last year…and the world of Southern literature is poorer for the losses.

I strive to write that which is authentic, true and realistic for the actual South in which I live—not the one outsiders see or wish it to be. As I weave a tale with an insider’s heart, I attempt to anchor the region as a character in my books. This stretch of Southern coast we call The Lowcountry is my South, my home, my world, and I write about it as though I have been anointed to write a book for a Southern Bible.