A Sandstorm Settles

In an effort to understand the settling sandstorm that has been my MFA program, I have ignored writing and reading for the most part for the past few weeks. I have spent my time trying to reawaken my body to the pleasure of tender muscles by planting growing things. Tomatoes. Green Beans. Bread-seed Poppies (which are the kind of purple that make your knees weak). Sweet Basil. Dill. Sage. Jalapeños and a few other things I’m not sure will cooperate. I’m going to buy a few plants from the farmers’ market every weekend. I will try to plant something every Monday. This is only second summer in this house and the first I’ve had to devote any time to playing in the dirt.

I have prepped soil with cow manure. I piled stray bricks around my garden beds. I still hope to get a rain barrel and start composting. But right now, I’m focusing on getting things planted.

I have also been walking my Border collie and my Papillion –both of whom have put on a little extra chunk since before I started my MFA program. If it hadn’t been for Nature Writing last spring, I probably wouldn’t have ventured outdoors at all. Thanks to Mel Fox for a wonderful class –for reminding me that being in the natural world was a vital part of my creative process. I start each day now with a walk, followed by gardening, and then I fiddle with these pesky words. This is the life I have always wanted, and somehow, I’ve managed to create it.

At the end of this intense few years, I meditate on what I’ve wrought with the thesis project (now novel project) and others and from whence these creatures sprung.

I started traveling early in school. I was a total geek, into history and all the academic clubs. With that, came travel, and my world expanded beyond the South, beyond Charlotte and the neighboring Union county, beyond fields and forests and roadside vegetable stands and playing in the back of my grandpa’s truck. It was a world beyond shucking corn and snapping beans. Between travel and the other worlds of books, I grew to hate my surroundings. The more I learned about the South, the more I hated it and longed for escape. But I never got away. There was always some reason to stay. I had a lot of resentment. But over the years, I started to realize I appreciated a great deal about my upbringing, my story. By the time I was accepted to the full res program at Chatham, I was ready to leave, but sad to go. But circumstances kept me in Charlotte. I realized I would probably never leave the South. And once I got to the ten-day residency in Pittsburgh at the start of my first semester, fellow students from Pennsylvania and beyond encouraged me to embrace this apparently quirky and edgy Southern sensibility of mine.

I guess sometimes you need to be immersed with people with different stories to really see your own.

I had told a new friend in the program, “I don’t want to write Southern fiction.” People looked down on it from my perspective. I don’t like genre and sub-genre titles. They seem to limit understanding and audience. Fiction is fiction. Good writing is good writing; there’s no need to get snobby about categories. Yet, the more I studied myself and Southern fiction, the longer I worked on this project, the more I realized there was something going on here that I wanted to be a part of –that I was made to be a part of –and that is this affinity for malaise, history, hope, food, rebellion, and the illustrious beauty of all these Southern subcultures.

Southern fiction is nuanced.
I am nuanced.

My friend said, “But you’re so Southern,” and finally, it clicked. How did I not see it? What arose from this was an attempt to illustrate both the uniqueness and the universality of characters in the South and to come to terms with the fact that I would probably never escape and that maybe, the most frightening aspect of all, that I no longer wanted to. My thesis/novel is my attempt to capture these emotions and the complexity of emotions that goes along with growing up here –the intense pressure on women in particular and the fragmentation and desire to find home that comes with being an exile. Exile is a term that can encompass more than just geographical exile as Salman Rushdie says. Exile is a state physical and emotional, present and past. I traverse these lines with this project and find it as the general backbone of longing to my nonfiction and poetry as well.

While I originally intended to construct my thesis as a collection of interrelated stories, the committee kept telling me to resist defining it along the way. I wanted to force it to fit a construction –a mosaic, if you will and in my mind I saw only one way to do that –through linking stories; however, the longer I worked, the more the same voices kept speaking. They had more to say and more to work out than I originally imagined. The themes circled around this feeling of exile in a universal way. It was about being exiled in the land from which you hail. About being exiled from faith. About being exiled from family. From history. From self. And trying to reconnect on all those levels, pulling all those threads together. It is about unraveling and trying to repair the fabric. In the end, I hope this work will act as a meditation on what it means to tackle the emptiness and desire for connection that goes with not only being Southern, but being human.

I believe I have accomplished what I set out to, despite the fact that it was not my intent to write a novel. I remember Sherrie saying she thought I might be afraid of the novel and I guess I was. I guess the idea of staring down something in that long of form was intimidating, but I found myself having to rein it in by the end. I had two more chapters and a prologue more than I needed. I guess that shows I have passion for these characters and my subject matter. I think my characters have come to life. I can see them clearly. I can hear them. I almost live in their all-encompassing world. Reality eludes me but the fictional family and friends created in this text have become a solace for me –my own little made up community of friends. Before I started this project and my MFA program, I was afraid to face certain aspects of my personality, my past, my family and my place. I can honestly say that I wrote without abandon. I lifted the veil and never put it down. As Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men once said, “I am just as much Betty as I am Don.” For the first time in my life, I am comfortable in my own skin. That is because of this project.

I also believe that I have entered the larger conversation of what it means to write Southern fiction, to be Southern, to exist in this strange new world that is just as much megastore, strip mall as it is steeped in history and tradition. The South is getting homogenized. I am interested and think I have captured aspects of the South that carry on. That overwhelming sense of duty to family, the special connection we feel to the land and to place, and the cultural scars which leave a sort of self-loathing, guilt-ridden and angry sickness over its people. The malaise, which seems to be fed to us with our cornbread and beans. I believe I have captured the aftereffects of trauma. My book is a ripple.

In writing my thesis and continuing the work as a novel project, I have learned I can sit down and face the demons everyday and come away better for it. I can create. I can focus. I can move the camera in and pull it back. I can write a sentence. I can write a paragraph. A chapter. I can write over 200 pages with the same characters. I can figure out plot. I can figure out metaphor and symbol and subtext. I can meditate on words for hours. I can still drive a car and be in my novel world. I can make myself cry with my work. My work can piss me off. My characters can do things I don’t expect and behave in ways that make me want to smack them.

I can drink more than I thought.
I can completely block out the world as long as I have headphones.
I can read the whole thing out loud.
I can edit on my walls.

I have learned to fully embrace the social aspect of writing. Nothing happens in a vacuum and so many people have helped me along the way. It’s much easier to write when you have support from family, friends, and colleagues. I’ve learned sometimes you have to write a chapter even if you cut it immediately thereafter. It helps you understand character. Above all, I have learned that we are all characters just trying to make our way. I’ve found my place. It’s in fiction. To quote one of my favorite books on my reading list, Cavedweller, “Rot was not what Cissy saw. Consummation, the slow alteration of what people thought they knew, that was what Cissy saw in the cave” (Kindle location 4810). That is what I see when I look back at this project –the slow alteration of what I thought I knew about my environment and myself.

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