Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Writing Path

by Pamela Duncan

When you grow up in a small North Carolina town believing all authors are either dead or live in New York City, it’s hard to imagine becoming one yourself. And yet, deep inside me, there was always this knowing. As I read Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Chris of Coorabeen--all stories of curious, independent little girls who grow up to be writers--I recognized myself in Jo March, Anne Shirley, Chris McNeale. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized what that meant and found words for it: I wanted to be a writer.

My mother always believed that since I loved to read books so much, I could probably write one if I wanted to, but when it came time to go to college, we thought journalism was the only way to make a living as a writer. A journalism degree and two years on the college paper at UNC-Chapel Hill gave me a great writing foundation to build on, but it also made me realize I didn’t want to be a reporter.

After college, I worked for a while at a bookshop in Chapel Hill, reading a lot, talking about writing, but still not doing anything about it. One day a coworker pointed to a customer and said, “Hey, you ought to read her books because she writes like you talk.” I immediately picked up Oral History and reading it changed my life. Here was a book about my people, people I didn’t think anybody would ever write books about, much less want to read about. After years of floundering blindly, looking for a way into the world of writing, Lee Smith’s work opened the door and turned on the light.

When I heard she taught writing at North Carolina State University, I knew somehow, someday I’d take that class. In the ten years it took me to get there, I devoured every southern author I could find, went to every reading in the area, subscribed to writers magazines, read interviews with writers wherever I could find them. I did everything possible to immerse myself in writing; everything, that is, except write.

I never wrote a lot growing up anyway, just bad poetry, random journal entries, attempts at romance novels, essays here and there. What I did instead, from the time I can remember, was listen. They were part of the very air I breathed, those wonderful storytelling voices of my family--and in particular the voice of my maternal grandmother--telling the stories of our lives, laughing to keep from crying, creating myths from next to nothing. Even near the end, when Nanny didn’t know she was in the world most of the time, she told stories. I remember lying in bed across the room from her, trying so hard to stay awake and listen, eventually falling asleep, only to wake hours later and find her still talking, still telling those stories, unable to stop.

When she died in 1989, I had no choice but to begin, finally, to write. She wasn’t there to tell me stories anymore, so I had to tell them to myself. Right after Christmas that year, I heard her voice clear as day telling me it was time to get busy or shut up (though she said it in a much more colorful way). I got the message. In January 1990 I signed up for my first writing workshop, terrified but determined, and at long last started learning how to write stories.

That first workshop led ultimately to the Master’s program (now a full-fledged MFA program) in Creative Writing at NC State. By the time I got there, I had several chunks of something I was too afraid to call a novel. My teachers, who believed in me before I was able to believe in myself, allowed me to call it chunks but insisted it was a novel. And they were right. In 1996 I finished my Master’s thesis, the first draft of my first novel, Moon Women, a story about mountain women like my grandmother.

While a student at State, a couple of talented writers who had graduated ahead of me came back to visit filled with bitterness and disillusionment. They’d left school excited and hopeful for their writing, only to run smack up against the brick wall of publishing, and that scared me to death. I’d naively imagined that writing the novel was the hard part and the rest would somehow magically fall into place. After a lot of soul searching, I decided to accept the hard truth, that my chances of ever getting published were slim and none, but even so, writing would still matter to me, and I would keep on doing it. To paraphrase one of my favorite characters, Ivy Rowe in Fair and Tender Ladies, it was the writing itself that signified.

As true as that felt at the time, I don’t know how long I could’ve kept it up without the validation of publication. Probably not forever. I’m not that noble. But I got lucky, not once or twice, but over and over again. The first and best luck was finding the program at State and studying with the amazingly talented and generous creative writing faculty there. They nudged and nurtured until I got the novel out on paper; they fed me names and leads until I found an agent; and they celebrated with me and for me when I got a book deal three years after finishing the program.

E.L. Doctorow said, “[Writing is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Life is like that too. As a child dreaming of becoming a writer, I couldn’t imagine being where I am today, just as I can’t imagine where I’ll be tomorrow. I try not to dwell on the destination because I don’t want to miss what’s right in front of me. Being a writer is a dream come true, being a published author is gravy, and I’m happy to report that I didn’t have to die or move to New York City to do either one.

(Novelist Pamela Duncan is the author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award Finalist, and Plant Life, which won the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of the 2007 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her third novel, The Big Beautiful, was published in March 2007. Visit her website at


Britt Kaufmann said...

Pam, I really loved your book "Plant Life"...

I read it a year or so after I had my own daughter and was newly between two generations, which causes one to understand her mother, and thereby oneself, in ways previously unknown. I know there are a lot of books that have been written about 3 generations of women; how one generation is a reflection of, a reaction against, an extension of "the dream" of one woman... but yours did so in a way that impacted me much more than any others.

(I recently read Marge Piercy's "Three Women" and thought it paled in comparison to it!)

Anyway, I just wanted to thank you and tell you what a fine job I thought you did.

I'm glad you took that plunge from listening to writing!

Sassy Sistah said...

Enjoyed this blog entry very much, Pamela! Thank you!

I just finished reading "The Big Beautiful" last week and loved it so much! (Come to think of it, I linked it on my own blog.) I'd read "Plant Life" and "Moon Women" so long ago that I immediately found them and am re-reading them now.

Your writing is wonderful - and it DOES remind me of Lee Smith - one of my all time favorite writers! Both of you write (beautifully!) about "my" people. Can hardly wait for you to write another book!

In the meantime, I hope you'll keep writing blog entries. I'll look forward to them!

ajmayhew said...

Pam, thanks for a provocative post. This past weekend at Southern Festival of Books was an amazing experience for me, one in which I truly began seeing myself as a southern writer. I've avoided that label because I felt it was in some way limiting, but after meeting you and others in Nashville, listening to what you have to say about the writing life southern-style, and reading the four books your group has produced, I know that I don't really have a choice...I can continue to resist calling myself a southern writer, but that won't change the fact that I am one. I heard one of your group say over the weekend: "A writer is a writer; an author is a writer who's published." Something like that. The notion stayed in my mind and today I realized that though my publications are limited, I can legitimately call myself an author...thanks to all the stimuli of the weekend and my posts, I've written more this day than I have in a great long while, and the theme has been labels.

I've picked up--once again--A WIDER GIVING: Women Writing after a Long Silence, Edited by Sondra Zeidenstein. Today's postings have helped me come to terms with the fallow period I've been in for what now seems too long.

Thanks again for a post that prodded me to get off my own back.