I have an old sweatshirt that says Careful or You’ll End Up in My Novel. The collar is ragged, it’s faded and dingy from repeated washings, but I love it. It’s especially fun to wear it to the grocery store because people always look twice. No one knows I’ve been watching for years and the people I write about have already passed my way, more than once.
Many of my stories come from long ago years, not for nostalgia sake, but because they are far more interesting than the vanilla pc crowd. My Belhaven neighborhood was teeming with characters. Looking for a scandal? There’s Dr. Mendacious who mistakenly sent his rotund wife the black lace negligee he purchased for his lady du jour. Need a quick history lesson about hungry Yankees stealing chickens from Holmes County henhouse? Walk around the corner to St. Mary Street. Mrs. P is sitting on the front porch. Seeking information on the latest Broadway hit? Three fascinating Jewish ladies next door have a brother who’s a famous NYC composer and conductor. On the downside, Mr. L. is showing XXX movies at his dilapidated, no-tell motel, Rev. Stoic on Poplar Street is as delightful as a cement mixer, and Mrs. Felonious has just returned from a three-year vacation at Parchman Farm for firing a pearl handled Derringer at her husband. Despite the loss of an ear, he forgave her. In short, Belhaven was a treasure trove for anyone who cared to pick up a pen and write.
I began my writing career as a plagiarist. During my senior year at Murrah, I was an editor of Hoofbeat, our school newspaper. A shy tenth grader asked me for help finishing a story he’d been instructed to write for his English teacher. I quickly realized how bad it was and that no one-eyed creatures, especially green ones, arrived on earth in a flying saucer. He needed a serious edit.
“Give me your story,” I said. “I’ll rewrite it for you.” A few weeks flew by without comments from his teacher and the episode vanished from my brain as quickly as it had come. Then, darkness fell. Madam English teacher called him to her desk and said, “Goodness Albert, you’ve worked awfully hard on this story. I’m pleased. You get a well-deserved A, and I’m going to enter it into the district wide story writing contest.” The possibility of exposure loomed large. Oh no. What to do? Fess us or keep quiet. Fortunately, he did not win. We rejoiced. This was my one and only time to enjoy a loss. But serious writing whistled for attention. Maybe, just maybe, I can do this.
Over the years, writing continued to nag, whispering in my ear, encouraging me to talk to the guy selling peanuts on Capitol Street rather than sheltering in a law library, pushing aside the Mississippi Code and picking up The Secret Life of Bees, abandoning the Book of the Month Club’s weighty biographies and making notes for my own story. As I sat in Judge Henley’s airy office on the top floor of the Hinds County Courthouse, I realized that I was more interested in the graceful Toulouse-Lautrec print hanging behind his desk than in anything we were discussing. That did it. Truth time, Aak. You’re a writer, not a lawyer, and there is no cure.
As I began to write, I noticed what was happening around me, as well as recalling the past. I fell in love with the intoxicating rhythm of southern words and authentic stories no one could possibly pull out of thin air. “Happened under a big gum trees near the Yazoo River,” Hattie said. “I slipped outta my side-saddle cause I couldn’t hang on. That’s when Buck caught me and carried me into his house. We got married a week later.” I can still hear her tell the tale.
I remember grand stories from Stockett’s Stable, some slanderous, some not, but all stamped into my memory. I still hear riding boots clacking across the wide board floor, the cries of hunting dogs yowling to be let loose, and horses nickering in their stalls. A rainbow of ribbon rosettes hung on his walls next to black and white glossies of well-dressed riders. I won’t forget the smell of the place, as well as the jokes the coon hunters played on each other and the famous writer who lingered in the dining room to escape the confines of small-town sensibilities. I also learned not to boil socks in a coffee pot.
I’ve ridden on the back of a motorcycle, as well as a runaway horse. I’ve felt the tremor of an earthquake in Mexico and ducked under a table as a waterspout ripped across Mobile Bay. I can recognize a snake in the grass lawyer, a slippery banker, and know how to congratulate a pregnant bride. (debutante too). I recall secrets whispered over the back fence, as well as in the church parking lot and understand that gossip is a weapon of destruction just as praise is a budding sunflower.
I’m a goner now. Writing consumes my life. I populate my work with folks down the street as well as those floating in my memory. Stories surround me and bubble up as quickly as an April thunderstorm. Some say writing in a lonely avocation. I disagree. I’m among friends at my laptop. They call out to me as they dance and whirl in my imagination. I feel their passion as they peer in my windows and knock on my door. I record their words because I hear they’re their voices as clearly as my own. I know them and they know me. How else would we get along so well? Everything I need to write is already here. So, take care, you may already be in my novel. If not, let me know and I’ll come knocking.