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Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, with the editors of Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Pinch, writers from The Washington Post, memoirists, journalists, in Faulkner’s Oxford, Nov. 11-14, 2010.
Featuring Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore (Brevity editor), Mike Rosenwald, David Magee, Kristen Iversen, Neil White, Beth Ann Fennelly, Jeff Kleinman, Stella Connell, Laurie Chittenden, Robert Goolrick, and more.
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Kathy Rhodes (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Six thirty in the morning I sit at my computer, the desk beside a window where the sun rises across the street and pushes its heat inside and around me. My skin feels moist and the old Vols national championship tee shirt I slept in — Tennessee 23, Florida State 16 — sticks to me. Sleep? I didn’t sleep much. Slept too hard on the couch before bedtime, couldn’t sustain sleep throughout the duration of night.
Up early, though, same time, 4:45. The coffee is set on automatic, and the dog smells it brewing. She awakens, licks her feet, her collar tags jingle and disturb the sleep I’m finally getting. She’s desperate to go out and pulls me behind her when I attach the leash.
The creases at my elbows are starting to moisten. Under my breasts, too. Coffee makes me hot now. I close the blinds beside me, hear the birds chattering behind them. I push my hair back off my forehead and feel dampness at the scalp.
I get e-mail from my sister, who is on a cruise in Alaska. Looking at glaciers, going from bay to bay to view wildlife, panning for gold in the Yukon. I picture ice, cold waves of water, cool breeze on skin. And cold nuggets of gold.
The only gold I have is a parched yard. Thirsty yellow grass. The weeds are green, though. I need to mow them before it gets any hotter.
Sometimes it seems the weeds take over my life, too. Sometimes I need to see some gold.
She steps where the Ohio River meets its bank, and the water rolls in and curls around her feet. The river is so clear here she can see the bottom. It’s just a short skip down a cinder path from her house—big, wooden, built long before the Civil War. Monks on a nearby hill told Pop it was a station on the Underground Railroad. Slaves were hidden and fed in its basement, then sent north to safety, following the course of the river. Soldiers used the house, too, during the war and left behind caps, rusted guns, and blood stains splattered everywhere. It must have been a hospital where the wounded were taken and limbs amputated. The house faces the river instead of the road, and was once an inn for weary travelers headed west by flatboat to settle the Missouri Territory.
She is alone here today. A stray dog shows up, sidles up to her, follows her around, eyeing every step she takes. She’s a skinny child and must appear as one who needs looking out for. She kicks up water and runs where the river laps in, and he is right there with her, play-bowing, hopping this way and that, running circles around her. Barking like he’s talking. She’s glad for the company.
The river is her playground, where she swims with her sisters, rides in her brother’s rowboat, and splashes in circles around Pop who floats and sleeps at the same time without ever going under. She and her sisters once made a mudslide on the riverbank, threw water on it to make it slippery, and then slid down it into the river. Once, she and a sister sneaked onto a towboat and barge stopped nearby and stole two brown paper sacks of chocolate marshmallow cookies. They jumped into the river to escape after they were spotted, and the cookies spilled and floated to the surface of the water, bobbing and moving out on ripples away from them.
This is two years before the 1933 flood comes spilling over its banks and fills her house halfway to the second floor where they move all the furniture except the piano which is hoisted between floors. It is six years before the big flood that takes the house with it down the river in a rage.
She steps on a sharp rock, and it pierces the tender sole of her foot. Ouch, she screeches, then lifts her foot, clutches it in her hand, cries. She reaches down and picks up the rock, holds it in the other hand and mumbles something to it, then hurls it onto the muddy bank. She jigs over there on one foot, sits down and cries, still holding her foot, red with blood gushing out and streaking across her wet skin.
The dog comes over to her, sits down beside her, licks her wound. He whimpers. Then he walks into the water, picks up a rock, brings it to her and puts it down on the dirt next to her. She is still crying, squeezing her foot and rubbing it. He goes back into the river and one at a time he picks up rocks, carries them out of the water where she plays, and places them in a pile beside her.
She stands and heads home up the cinder path past the cherry tree, past the carriage house, past the garden of cabbage and corn and Irish potatoes, walking on the heel of her hurt foot, and the dog follows her all the way.
“Can I keep him?” she asks Mom.
Mom lets her keep him for a month and then gives him away to a man across the river.
I wish I could be there this evening. Mary Karr is there at Square Books to sign Lit. Oxford is about 5 hours from here. I’ve made it there and back in a day and if I didn’t have other things going on, I’d jump in the Outback in a heartbeat and head south. Oxford is on the mind a lot lately, what with the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference coming up in November. Oxford is just such a “busy” artsy wordsy town with things going on in a literary sense that no other small town can match. Not even my own town of Franklin. Not by a stretch.
Three or four years ago, my writers’ group made a trip to Oxford. Me, Currie, Colleen, Susie, Chance. Below, I’m posting the description of that little jaunt that I wrote after I got home.
It was a jam-packed twenty-seven hour weekend for five Writers in CAPS, built around two noted Mississippi authors and one famous little independent bookstore. We arrived in the quaint hill town of Oxford at noon last Friday, and the first thing we did was a photo shoot on the courthouse lawn with William Faulkner. His statue, that is.
Square Books was first on our agenda. Suzanne Kingsbury had told us about it. In fact, it’s where she met author William Gay, with whom she became good friends and later edited The Alumni Grill, an anthology of writers from the Blue Moon series.
The building is one of the first built in Oxford after the Civil War. On the square, thus its name, and across from the county courthouse, it housed a dry goods store and a drugstore until Square Books opened in 1979. Its founder is Richard Howorth, now the mayor, who graduated from high school with my brother-in-law. The bookstore is filled with whirling, old-looking ceiling fans, faded and worn Oriental rugs, cozy chairs, and a slew of photos, framed and signed, of Mississippi authors, including native son William Faulkner and fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty. It hosts an impressive schedule of readings by internationally acclaimed writers and is regarded as one of the finest bookstores in the nation.
I picked out a soft chair upstairs in the History section to sit and meditate, to absorb the muse gathered there and preserved over the years. I could smell it, I could feel the energy of ink and print. I was drawn to this spot because there is a red and blue Oriental rug under a table of books, and an area of the rug in front of the table was worn through to the backing where people have stood to look at the print and turn the pages. It spoke to me.
I walked to the other side of the room, past the café where the coffee machine whirred, to the fiction section—three rows and ten racks of towering books, the right wall devoted to locals. I sat on a rickety wooden bench, one end chewed up, and on one side of me were books of Mississippi authors, one rack, four sections—John Grisham, Larry Brown, Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Eudora Welty. Behind me, against the wall that backed up to the balcony, was William Faulkner.
I walked outside to the balcony where people were sitting and chatting and drinking lattes and eating ice cream.
Before leaving, I bought a light blue Square Books T-shirt and Suzanne Marrs’ new biography, Eudora Welty.
My own Pink Butterbeans was on the front table to my right as I exited the store.
I walked with my writing group down the wide sidewalk to Off Square Books, set up for Suzanne Marrs’ book signing. The front of the store was open wide to the evening breeze that rushed through the one long room with books on both side walls. There’s a stage at back, appropriate for speakers, and Off Square is home to Thacker Mountain Radio and an affectionate brown and black cat named Mamacita.
Suzanne Marrs, a Millsaps College English professor, moved to Mississippi to study the writings of Eudora Welty. She developed a close friendship with Eudora, which lasted twenty years, and gained permission to write a biography. In the newly released book, Marrs concentrates on Eudora’s private life, describing her routines, her friendships, her encounters with love. Eudora’s own letters are included in the book. In one, after meeting William Faulkner and touring his home, she wrote a friend that he was “besides being the greatest writer to me, an attractive, darling person.”
In her hour and a half lecture at Off Square, Marrs offered interesting tidbits about Eudora. For example, Eudora always wrote on a typewriter. After she wrote her rough draft, she’d spread it out on her bed or on the dining table and then cut it up and put it back together. Sort of like the Cut and Paste feature on the computer long before the concept of the PC. She placed her desk so that she could look out a window as she wrote. And she was a morning person. She’d get up early and write all morning, pecking away at her typewriter, in her nightgown. I’m so pleased to have things in common with Eudora Welty.
I couldn’t resist buying The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora’s favorite of her works, the one for which she won a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
I got up early Saturday morning, made coffee in my room at the Holiday Inn, and pulled out a copy of the short story “Barn Burning” from my suitcase. I wanted to brush up on Faulkner, kind of get in the mood, before visiting his home. I laughed out loud at two lines of smooth Faulkner transition:
“Get on to bed now. Tomorrow we’ll get there.”
To-morrow they got there.
Late morning, we got to Rowan Oak. The house pre-dates the Civil War, but Faulkner purchased it in 1930 and named for the rowan tree, a symbol of security and peace. Standing secluded among cedars and hardwoods, it was Faulkner’s home until 1962, the year he died. It’s a step back in time to the way Faulkner lived and wrote. He spent his productive years there as he set his stories and novels to paper and got the Nobel Prize in 1950 for his literary genius, right about the time I was born about a hundred miles away. He remains the most-studied author in the world, with more books, articles, and papers written about his work than any other writer besides Shakespeare. And I spent my childhood about two hours away from him.
During Faulkner’s first years at Rowan Oak, he wrote in the library, the first room to the left as you enter the front foyer. His picture hangs over the mantel. He had a Thirteen Colonies secretary just like the one my mother-in-law gave me. After he won the Nobel Prize, he added on a small office which became his sanctuary. Here, he wrote the plot outline for his novel A Fable on the wall, where it remains. He used graphite pencil and a red grease pencil to set down this working plan of the novel about Holy Week set during World War I. The novel was published in 1954, and he won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for it.
Faulkner’s old Underwood portable typewriter still sits on a small table near the window of the office. The table was given to him by his mother, and he used it virtually all the years he lived at Rowan Oak. Sometimes, he moved it outside with one of the Adirondack chairs to enjoy the outdoors while he wrote. He wrote nineteen novels at Rowan Oak.
It was Faulkner’s desire to have his obituary and epitaph be the same:
He made the books and he died.
and the livin’ is easy…
An afternoon nap with Mr. Lion in the cool living room — best way to spend a day!
Who is Don, and why do people have to talk about him when they are getting dressed? I mean, really.
I read a sentence the other day in an essay in a lovely magazine that said something like “I ran into the house to don my swimsuit.”
I know, it’s a word. Don — v.t., to put on or dress in: to don one’s clothes.
But is it one we use in our everyday conversations? I don’t recall ever telling my husband, “Honey, I’ve got to don my shorts so I can mow the yard.” Or Son One: “Yes, you will don that brand new letter jacket and wear it — you will not hang it on a nail on the wall like a souvenir pennant.” Or Son Two: “Don your Speedo and go swim the butterfly.”
People just don’t talk that way. Why can’t writers just “put it on.” Why do they have to drag Don in?
If there’s a simpler word, use it. Good rule. Get down there with us real folks.
Me, where I came from, we just put it on.
It was a proud moment standing at the grave of my fourth great grandfather, John Mehaffey, Revolutionary soldier, one of seven sons of Scots-Irish immigrants Moses and Jennet McIntyre Mehaffey, who came to these shores in the mid-1700s.
John was almost nineteen years old when he originally enlisted for service, July 3, 1778. He served four voluntary terms, totaling twenty-five months during the War of the Revolution.
He was also a scout and government spy among the Indians on the frontier in western Pennsylvania and along the Ohio River. He served under General Anthony Wayne.
In 1799 John traveled from Pittsburgh to Adams County, Ohio, to claim a 100-acre land warrant for his service in the Revolution. He was one of the earliest settlers in Liberty Township, so named to perpetuate among the early leaders’ descendants the memory of the cause for which they struggled.
John was too old to enlist in the War of 1812, so he went as a substitute.
He died in 1849 at the age of 91. I have a piece of his original tombstone in a bed of irises in my backyard.
Here’s a salute to John Mehaffey.