As a writer, I’m always struck by what writing teaches me about not just writing — but about being a human being. This happened to me in New Orleans last weekend at the most amazing writer’s conference on the whole planet, Words & Music.
The session was titled “The Evil of the World Inspires Quests for Meaning…and…Compelling Literature.” One of my favorite writers, Ron Rash, a writer more gifted than is believable, appeared on the panel with three others. Ron talked of one of the most evil characters in literature, Faust, who makes a deal with the devil and offers this definition of evil — “the spirit that denies.” Ron built his own way of thinking from that. He said, “Evil is to deny the humanity or selfhood of someone else.”
A ripple ran through the room.
Then one of the panelists I was not familiar with, a writer named Barnes Carr, talked of a story he is writing. Kind of an expose about the 45 bodies found in a New Orleans hospital after Katrina. His research showed they were euthanized instead of evacuated. He was angered, his face red, his voice cutting.
The writer sitting next to him, Tom Franklin— an important Southern novelist and short story writer out of Alabama and Mississippi, who has recently co-written a book with his wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, the novel, THE TILTED WORLD — said he had some demons of his own, too. Said very few people knew of his “unusual” religious upbringing. “I hate most preachers,” he said, “but I’ve not written about it yet.”
The reason I’ve taken you on this journey, Folks, is Tom Franklin’s WHY, why he’s never written about it. Ready for his words? “I can’t write about something,” he said in that soft southern voice of his, “until I can also love it.”
There it is. Being angered about something is one step. We all know this feeling. But, until we can also love it, therein lies the healing — and therein lies the story. I know a writer who made an early career out of writing from hatred and revenge. Her last book was published almost two decades ago. She’s been talking of writing another book, but so far, nothing has seen the light of day.
The villain in my novel, ONE GOOD MAMA BONE, is a man named Luther Ducworth. He wants his boy, LC, to win the Grand Champion Fat Cattle competition — at all costs, bring home the blue ribbon so Luther can decorate his wall with glory. Luther is a mean man, a bad father. But I had to love him, too, had to hold still on that man and go deep into his crevices to find out, not just what he wanted, but what he needed. He needs his boy to love him, needs it like air to breathe. But Luther is aware of his own darkness and feels unworthy of that love and seeks to find light in his own salvation in the church. Herein lies what I think of as Luther’s poetry, the place where a character does battle with himself.
I saw Beth Ann at the breakfast spread the following morning and told her Tom’s comment reminded me of a section in my favorite poem of hers, “From Telling the Gospel Truth” in her collection, TENDER HOOKS. “It’s the part about how to become a writer,” I told her, “about the one guy poacher who killed a bald eagle and left it to die and the other guy from the sanctuary who found the bird and healed him and harnessed it to a hang glider and let its ‘hollow bones’ float one last time.” She had heard Tom the day before but had not made the connection.
She soon took to the podium to do a master class in Poetry and announced that she had changed her mind about the poem she would read. Instead, she said, she would read one that a woman ten minutes earlier had talked of. She read the section that had called out to me. And, like each time before I had read her words, my face became wet, as she made her recitation.
I quote from the end —
Think of the poacher, think of the birder.
shortening the intervals.
Don’t forget to breathe.
When you can hold both of these men in the palm of your mind
at the same time,
come find me, and teach me.