Thursday, September 16, 2010
Times Change, but People Don’t
My picture there above is three years old now and was when I lived in Tennessee. I don’t need that coat now that I live in South Georgia and my hair has turned gray. I need to get a new picture, but I like that one better and have thought about coloring my hair, but I probably won’t. There’s not that much to color.
Recently, I was asked to speak at an English Studies Graduate Student conference at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia. The head of the English department, Mark Smith, introduced me—told the group about my collection of short stories Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, a finalist for an EPPIE award, and then told the group about my newest book, a novel titled Lead me Home, nominated for an IPPY and Pushcart Prize.
I went up to the podium, thanked Mark, and began to tell them all that was nice and made me sound like somebody who really knew something, but that in so many ways, I was still the kid who grew up there in Valdosta and later Hahira, who went to college there (or went some of the time when I wasn’t out partying or sleeping off the partying), though they’ve chopped down the tree I climbed to serenade girls in the dorm, they’ve removed the fountain we used to put detergent in creating the best bubble sensation in front of the library, and my professors have mostly all retired.
I talked about my writing and zig-zagging career path and what I thought might be of value to them as they aspire to complete degrees and get jobs, and I shared a chapter of my novel with them. Some asked how much truth was there, if I really had an Aunt Catfish. As writers, our characters are composed of DNA from multiple people, and while I told them I didn’t have an Aunt Catfish, I knew her, and she was just as real to me as some of my own kin. Most importantly, I hope I made them think a little and laugh a little.
I told them how I wrote about family and friends, things that they did or said that weren’t quite right—my aunt collecting road kill, my dad giving people used Pizza Hut pans as wedding gifts, my mother calling me on her cell from a graveside service to read an epitaph on a tomb stone (“Her feet don’t hurt no more”) because she thought I should use it in a book.
Or I write about things that annoy me—going to Wal-Mart and filling a buggy, emptying the contents of the buggy on the conveyer belt, putting the bags back in the buggy, digging my receipt out to show someone at the door (who just watched me put the bags in the buggy and pay), unloading the buggy again into my Jeep, unloading the bags again when I get home, and all the while I AM PAYING TO DO THIS. I get annoyed by people going up in prices without improving service—the electric company (I can’t tell a change in the electricity itself; it still goes out in storms), the cable company (the cable goes off more than the electricity), phone companies (despite the rising bill, I still don’t get service even if I were standing next to the tower, which I have done just to see). I get annoyed by people who have no respect for themselves—let alone other people—the kid in the mall with his pants dragging behind and showing his streaked underwear no one wants to see, listening to music with foul language that shouldn’t be played in front of people he doesn’t know, or the woman at the football field Monday, while I was watching my son practice, who told anyone within hearing distance of her teeth trouble, her hemorrhoids, how bored her kids are in school and how the teacher “don’t know nothing,” which is why they are failing, or why the drive-thru clerk forgets the sauce, straw, or napkin when I’m in a rush. I just want to explode, take them by the throat, tell them to “get right,” but I don’t want to go to jail and I don’t want to sink to their level. So they motivate me to write about them, once again to illustrate that times change, but people never do.
Then, I wonder if I’m not just getting old, being cranky, and becoming the male Ouiser (Steel Magnolias) without the money. But I think about those great Southern writers through time who aren’t here now, but inspired me, and I know that I need to plod on. Mostly, I write what I know, my experience, and I do it because I have to and I want to share that which I think is worth sharing. Besides, my kids think it’s cool and that I’m famous. Hopefully one of these days when they learn more, they will still think I’m cool and I’ll still be famous to them. I have the feeling, however, that if they follow in most teenage footsteps, they won’t.