I’ve always envied my writer friends. Always. And I’ve always admired Lee Smith who I feel like I know, though I don’t really. When I heard about her memoir Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, I put it on my must-read list and began reading it as I took off on Spring Break with my family. As I’ve confessed before, it seems like these days I only read while on vacation. Spring Break came and went, and I was only about halfway through Dimestore, so when I got home, I put it on top of my bookshelf where it waited patiently until I took off on another trip in late May. That’s when I had my Dimestore “aha!” moment and began underlining passages left and right.
While Bacon’s Jennifer Puryear has recommended Dimestore based on Smith’s eloquent chapters on family and her Appalachian childhood (Mother’s Day post and the StyleBlueprint Guide to Summer Reading 2016), the book came alive for me in chapters entitled “Big River” and “A Life in Books.” These chapters, one about the experiences that provided inspiration for her book The Last Girls and the other a reflection on her life as a writer, perfectly articulated why she is a writer and I am not. Her words also gave me a glimmer of hope that, perhaps, it’s not too late for me, or for any of us, to try our hand at writing.
First, though, why I am not a writer. Through her account of teaching, writing and being published by the literary luminaries at the fledgling Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, Smith captures perfectly the literary scene in and around the University when I was there in the 80s. Greenlaw, the (surprisingly ugly, modern) English building at the center of campus, housed an eclectic trove of writers, poets, literary critics and students far more confident, talented and outspoken than I was. Smith’s first husband, the poet and professor James Seay, was a a striking figure on campus. While she doesn’t describe him in Dimestore, my memory of him is of a tall, exotic-looking man with a black eye patch, the sort who wore tweedy blazers and black turtle necks. Intimidating. As an aside, Smith’s second and current husband, Hal Crowther, who seems to be her soulmate and her rock, also was and is a well-known writer in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, a revered, no-nonsense, speak-truth-to-power sort of journalist who wrote for the Spectator and the Independent Weekly, the equivalent of our Nashville Scene. But I digress . . .
When in the spring of 1983, I got a coveted spot in English 29W, Doris Betts’ Creative Writing Class, I was thrilled, but justifiably terrified. This was going to be my first class in Greenlaw, and, according to the class syllabus, I was to be reading and writing (emphasis on writing) short stories. Now, Doris Betts was as warm and gracious and charming as your very favorite, very Southern great aunt, but she was also smart as a whip and a terrific writer who demanded excellence from her students. I wish I could find my actual college transcript, but I’m pretty sure I got the lowest or maybe next to lowest grade I ever received in college in that class. Though my grade was absolutely justified, and I knew I wasn’t a natural fiction writer, I could never quite articulate what it was that I was lacking, what made certain other classmates and friends stand apart as writers. That is until I read what Lee Smith had to say about writing. Get this: “I am a conduit, nothing but a way for the story to come to the page… my every sense is keen and quivering… All my senses are involved when when I am writing fiction…” And then this: “So a story always comes to me in a human voice, speaking not exactly in my ear but somewhere deep inside me… The most thrilling, of course, is when it is a first-person voice telling a story of real urgency. At these times, all I have to do is keep up.” Wow. Now I understand.
But then comes the glimmer of hope that you and I really should try our hand at writing:
“Writing can also give us the chance to express what is present but mute, or unvoiced, in our own personalities… because we are all more complicated and various people than our lives allow.”
That quote brought to mind my octogenarian in-laws, both of whom have started writing, and sharing their writing, over the past few years. My father-in-law shared his “Geriatric Reflections,” something one might expect from a retired preacher, but then he wrote a powerful retrospective of his experience in the Korean War where he received a Silver Star in 1952, something he never really talked about, either in conversation or from the pulpit. My mother-in-law’s writing tended to chronicle her family history and stories about the childhood escapades of my husband and his three sisters, all told from her own perspective, but then she surprised us this spring by sharing Lazarus, a poem of hers that had been published in her retirement community newsletter. Indeed, these writings gave me a glimpse into my inlaws’ various selves.
While I could continue to quote Smith ad infinitum, I’ll end with a quote that gives credence to all forms of writing, not just fiction, and speaks to how the act of writing, in and of itself, can be beneficial:
“Whether we are writing fiction or nonfiction, journaling or writing for publication, writing itself is an inherently therapeutic activity. Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist, to give a recognizable shape to the chaos of our lives.”
So perhaps this summer, instead of pestering my child about finishing her summer reading and related writing assignments, I should sit down, myself, and give writing another try.