“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”—Flannery O’Connor
Why do I write? Who can answer this question definitely? No one thing made me want to write. In fact, I think it was an accumulation of experiences from childhood and maybe even lives before I was born. I guess it’s the idea of the transience in life. The way our family moved in and out of each other’s lives and into the lives of other families as well. I never worried about this as a kid, but as an adult looking back I see it as both a blessing and a curse. I was being groomed to be a writer I think and all I can do is point to some of these signposts. Some of my earliest memories are probably what everyone would agree are the those emotional events that your memory holds onto because even as a child you know they hint at something profound though you can’t quite put your finger on it. The mystery surrounding all of us all the time is what drove me to want to write. It’s the mystery that is lived as O’Connor said. Flannery O’Connor said the modern world wants to eliminate mystery, but it is this fundamental mysteriousness inherent in each of our lives that drives me to write.
As a boy, I can remember lying next to my brother Lane on the floor. Lane was older than me by a year. He was born mentally handicapped. He could not communicate. It was never clear to me that he recognized us, my mom and me, for sure. He would sometimes sit in the sunlight with the dustmotes coming in from a window and slap the back of his hand so hard over and over, he would also gnaw on his hand, until there was a callous on it. Well, I would lay there on the floor and stare into his blue blue eyes and try to communicate with him telepathically. I’m not sure I knew that word then but for some reason I was convinced it might be possible. He would stare back at me very calmly, but as far as I know we never communicated in words but at least I did feel love and an indescribable emotion. This impulse to communicate with another human being, a friend, a mother, a father, a son or daughter, is the heart of what a writer does. Interestingly, when my children were born, this idea of communicating emotion returned to me. The feeling I had when I attempted to communicate with Lane.
I talked quite a bit as a young boy. I see it in my kids now. It’s this fundamental need to know, to share, and to love in that way. There was a time in my adolescence when I almost quit talking to anyone I didn’t know. I think there were reasons for it. We moved so much. I didn’t want to try to make new friends and connections when they were going to come to nothing. Even then I still yearned for understanding. It was a frustrating time as it is for most everyone. However, communicating emotion through stories is T. S. Eliot’s Objective Correlative but it’s a pretty tall order. I feel emotion. You feel emotion. It’s tough to put it into words. I can remember everytime we drove over the Missouri River bridge going in and out of Jefferson City, my great Aunt Vivian would point out that my great grandfather was one of the carpenters who worked on the state capitol, which seemed pretty magnificent to me. The giant dome. Over time I began to associate it with my great grandpa. I could remember him vaguely, he had quite a sense of humor, but he died when I was young. In my mind, he built the capitol all by himself. But since we moved around so much, I was not around family much and I felt this void. Who was I? A question that haunted me for a long time. It haunts most of us one way or another I suppose. How did I fit? It was one of the negative things to constantly moving, this alienation. I wanted to make sense of life and know who I was. My parents had divorced when I was so young, I could not remember them ever being together as husband and wife. I saw my father on average about once every two years. He was a handsome stranger, a mystery, I could never unlock. At other times, my mother also mysteriously disappeared and I lived with my great aunt and uncle. They were wonderful for taking me in. I think my mom had us so young she wanted to sow her own wild oats. I couldn’t articulate any of this except that I yearned for her to return.
As I grew older, I was around an independent Christian denomination based on the Holiness movement. It was charismatic. Spirit-filled. My Uncle introduced me to it as a boy. The church was called the Christian Center and later they opened a school called the Christian Center Academy. I went there for a few years in grade school. Again, it was an introduction to the spiritual world and still more mysteries. Could human beings communicate with God? I saw people being prayed for: Miraculous healings; people being slain in the spirit; the faithful speaking in tongues; the beauty of the Psalms. The metaphors in the Book of John are still quite wonderful to me. The Word was God. I remember in one of the upper rooms of the Christian Center (the Church was in an old building on the main drag through town and situated right next to a tavern) there was a big painting of a giant white cross over a fiery abyss and the faithful ran across it. No one needed to explain this. Also, the themes of impending apocalypse, fire, and redemption were real to me in a way that was so literal that if you found yourself alone you might wonder if the Rapture had already taken place. It reminds me that in an interview the Mississippi writer, Larry Brown was asked something like if he’d ever been Born Again. And he said something like, ‘I feel like I’ve been saved many, many times in my life.’ I love that and it resonates with me—and my experience too. I was very passionate about my own spirituality in my twenties. In the Church they talk about the feeling of the Spirit moving in the congregation and that is a very palpable feeling.
As a teenager, I read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and all about the Lost Generation of writers and artists. I loved the Surrealists and wished I could be an artist of some kind but I seemed to have no physical talent for it. So, I remember reading things by and about Andre Breton and even the Dadaists. I thought maybe I could write if I could train myself to think in words instead of images. So I started to try this and some of those early experiments were bizarre to say the least. Most were terrible. But I was reading and dreaming so much then. This is very necessary to the development of any writer. There was a great deal of emotion going into poetry and something like prose back then. I felt like I was tapping into something, but I didn’t know what it was. Now, I know I was tapping into the universe. Around that time I remember coming across an old hardback copy of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. What a great novel! There was an author photo of the young Capote in a white t-shirt. I was hooked!
In college I read A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor in an English class. I remember thinking, why haven’t I read her before now! Why have they hid this writer from me! I don’t know who hid her per se but I couldn’t believe I’d never even heard anyone talk about her before! My English professor told me about Wise Blood. I read all of O’Connor’s work. It resonated with me because of my religious experiences. Wise Blood was the book that made me want to be a writer again. Several years went by. I really didn’t write that much. I wasn’t that good at it. Writing was, and is, hard work unless you totally immerse yourself in it. Then, it can be sublime.
Several years went by. I discovered the annual New Stories from the South collection. I started to read that collection religiously. I came across Larry Brown’s works because of that series. I think I read Facing the Music first. Then, I found Joe. I sensed that my spiritual experiences along with the kind of rural characters I recognized in Brown’s work was something I could write about as well. Even before Brown, I read a couple of books by Harry Crews. In a Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Crews opens with these startling lines: “My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.” This line really spoke volumes to me as I mentioned earlier that I felt disconnected. Now, I can see that one reason I decided to write was to find these connections and some of them I’ve found in events real and imagined. The historic record and the fictional world of imagination come together in the writer’s mind and form this bridge to emotion, to understanding and connection. Readers read for this connection just as much as writer’s write for it. I recently read this piece in the Oxford American that Barry Hannah wrote. Something he said stuck out to me: “But I believe he (a writer) might also be a sort of narcoleptic who requires constant waking up by his own imaginative work. He is closer to sleep and dream, and his memory is more haunted . . .”
At one time I thought I would find all the answers in a person…and later I thought I might find them in a book…then I thought I might find them within and from my own writing. Now, pushing 50, I find I’m more resigned with being (with process) than thinking I know all the answers. My advice would be don’t be so quick to eliminate all of the mystery. You only get that sense of wonder one time and it cannot be duplicated. This is the mystery I’m talking about.