I was very happy to be invited to Baton Rouge Community College's Arts Festival on Tuesday, March 22. The workshop was about publishing and, more specifically, writing about "place." I read the title story "The Persimmon Trail" from my collection because it best reveals how I think and write about place. Setting comes to mind first, as in the place where I lived/inhabited and grew up. The story also explores place within the external group of society, community, by setting it with mythological bones. And lastly, the story both situates and upsets the young protagonists' place within the internal society of family. I added that, overall, I think place is successfully revealed through specific language, through words that describe and give meaning to place - only then can the readers understand and then speak of place, using adjectives like sad and sorrowful, or cheerful and optimistic. The best stories, I believe, allow each place a tone that the readers can hear quite easily.
I went on to talk, briefly, about gowing up not quite sure of my particular setting. We lived in the direct middle of two small towns and, as children, we were never quite sure of which town we belonged to. This might explain the desire my family always seemed to have to travel and explore the world. Our family actually held an address for one Parish and lived in a separate Parish. We left the first home we had known as a family, forced to move to an inferior house. I was also a middle child in a large family of eleven children, so I always seemed to be pitching myself up, trying to be noticed, even though it was not my natural inclination to do this. It seemed to be required, that’s all.
So, I grew up to be a writer of short stories (and essays and poems, but for this discussion, stories). And for those who write, you know that there is hardly anything more important than place when writing stories. The stories that I typically write are set in both rural Louisiana, where I grew up, as well as in New Orleans, the place I’ve lived for half my life, the place I've grown to call home.
One of the workshop exercises called for the participants to draw a map of a particular place, a place that held significance for them. I gladly accepted the sheet of paper offered and began to draw. Because I had just finished reading from "The Persimmon Trail," and because of the real life story behind the fictional one, I began to draw that first house we lived in. Dave, my editor and friend (and who was sitting at the same table with me), and I talked about our drawings after the exercise. I said, "I can never forget that house; it is stained on my memory." I mean that in a good way of course - I certainly lament the day we left that house. I guess we never quite let go of our childhood, or maybe it's because that is where I spent the formative years of my life.
After the maps were drawn, Reggie and Sarah asked us to write about what we had drawn. We were given ten minutes to explore what the place on the map meant to us. Let me preface my next statement with this: I generally do not write unless I am sitting in front of my computer, typically in my favorite spot where I've grown to feel comfortable. And yet, in those ten minutes of writing, I found that I could not stop; the pen flowed across the page, as I wrote about a memory I had not thought about since I was very young. Believe me, I did not ignore the irony: a visiting writer writing!
The workshop ended with the students volunteering to read what they had written during the workshop. They were excellent writers; each had pulled from their memories little anecdotes about their lives. I wish I could have talked to them individually and encouraged them to keep writing. And to the young man who wrote about outhouses, I am still chuckling. Ah, the memories.
I am, again, very happy to have been invited; the entire experience was quite memorable, and I am thankful to BRCC Liberal Arts and the Department of English for including me as a visiting writer. The photo is of Dave Rutledge talking about publishing, with Sarah, Reggie, and yours truly on panel. (Photo courtesy of Rhett Poche, 3/22/16)