Most recently, though, I’ve been pondering making a major shift in this whole self-affixed “not a writer” label (“hi, my name is I DON’T WRITE I JUST HANG OUT WITH Y’ALL” has long been scrawled in fat black sharpie on a white adhesive sticker on my chest for a while now) by putting fingers to keys and putting together something that may or may not end up as my memoir. Whether or not I actually have an interesting, compelling personal story to tell isn’t in question: I mean, god, my mom beat the hell out of me for ages and I used to eat chicken skin sandwiches with barbecue sauce, I don’t really think I have a problem dredging narrative in personal humiliation for the sake of good storytelling. Besides, if push comes to shove I can always employ that time-old memoir tradition of just effing lying my gums off. No, content’s no issue: whether or not I can actually bring myself to write any serious amount is what stands in between me and possibly having something of more than five pages that wasn’t written for an academic purpose in existence. I have absolutely no dedication to writing, and I have even less desire to develop one. Besides, isn’t it true that if you’re not hammering away on a laptop in public at Cawfee’s House or Joe’s Java Joint that it doesn’t count as meaningful Writing with a capital “w”?
This desire/thought of putting things from my head and my past onto paper or into a file to be saved has its’ very, very recent origins in a few places, but I can really point to one. I recently wrote a very, very short piece for Atlanta news and entertainment weekly Creative Loafing condensing my history with Ketchup. This, I thought, placed me firmly amongst those southerners who connect weird food concepts, ideas and issues with a very specific place and time (because, really, the American South has more food identity-as-history than anywhere else, and I will argue and fight this ‘til the last breath). This, I thought, made me a southern food writer.
Insert pounds and hours of laughter here.
No, seriously, don’t worry: if I had more than a momentary aspiration of being a Southern Food Writer (also all with capital letters), I had it taken away very recently.
Last weekend, I was privy to a panel on Southern Food Writing starring (yes, starring, as though ‘twas Southern Food: The Film) legendary, acclaimed etc etc John T. Edge and his Cornbread Nation alumnus of hot-as-hell-right-now poet guy Kevin Young, oh-yeah-that-guy-who-will-be-selling-Coke-soon-he’s-so-damn-famous Roy Blount, JR. and Candice Dyer. The sheer and utter seriousness with which they all took themselves, and this idea that Southern Food needs capital letters and utter silent reverence as though there was a church of it somewhere made me feel completely at odds. At odds with them, at odds with grits and cornbread, at odds with my birthplace. How many of them, I wondered, grew up in a trailer park? I was suddenly so struck with a feeling of inferiority that I didn’t dare tell Candice, whose essay “Scattered, Smothered, Covered and Chunked: Fifty Years of the Waffle House” appears in the newest volume of Cornbread Nation, that I had recently won third place in the “write a short essay about your waffle house memories” contest and was formally honored and recognized by Waffle House, Inc. That matters not compared to having the John T. Edge bump.
This threw me for a loop: what, then, had I come to ravenously enjoy about penning the piece for Loafing, if not the food? Then it hit me: the strange, crazy, freaky nature of my childhood and adolescence, the fact that I come from serious redneck heritage far too off-the-radar to yet be honored by weekly specials at Watershed. For me, my southern-ness lies in things like accidentally pulling the lawnmower onto property belonging to the neighboring doublewide and getting accosted for it, in growing up in believing that “Oriental Food” was a delicacy and also could potentially kill you and was probably made of dog.
That’s my upbringing. That’s where I come from. And that’s NOT the tip of the iceberg. Rather, said iceberg is inhabited by the sorts of culture that doesn’t get the gilded shine of being about screen doors and sweet tea, and it’s stuff that I think, probably very, very wrongly, needs to be talked about.
So, after being prompted by an old industry friend I ran into at a booksigning by CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta (do you enjoy the name-drop here? Yeah, don’t even think about it, Gupta couldn’t pick me out of a line-up), I have decided to abuse National Novel Writing Month, which is November, to pen as much of my messed-up, abused, trailer-park childhood and my even more insane and hazy adolescence into something that possibly, but not quite, might become a quarter of a half as good as what people pay Hollis Gillespie armloads of unmarked bills for. I know that real novelists, true writers, probably look on the idea of NaNoWriMo, and the conception that one can make something that will have anyone salivating to hear you read it in some bookstore somewhere, and laugh. “Haha,” they say, “hoohoo, whoo whoo,” ( because that’s how novelists laugh), “you can’t write a book in a month under duress”. I have this to say:
If it’s not under duress or constraint, I’m not writing a damn thing.
I have one sentence so far. Want to hear it?
“I can remember the smell of my grandmother’s lipstick-pasty, sour, a little sweet, hitting my olfactory glands with a sensation similar to the feeling of scraping candle wax off a glass table.”
It’s worth noting that the only other thing I know about where this whole thing will end up is what I promised Barbara Friend Ish, Sandy Springs, GA-based publisher of Mercury Retrograde Press, a newly-formed publisher of fantasy and smart Sci-Fi: I may include a chapter solely about dragons. I will call it "the chapter that has stuff about dragons in it". Because it's my memoir and I can do that.
We will see where this ends up. I realize I don’t have the talent, the discipline, the marketability, to get anywhere with this. But I still want to try. I’m not sure if I count as “southern” enough-I don’t like Eudora Welty, I don’t eat meat and frankly the only way I take my grits is with a healthy spurt of ketchup. I’m certainly not talented enough to put together something at once as effacing and affirming as, say, Dave Eggers. I’m also certainly not versed in the “southern that sells” cache that the Edges and Blount Jrs of the world traverse. I just want to write a story that happens to come from stuff that happened to me, coming what’ll soon be three decades into said story. The self-doubt’s almost crippling (“you haven’t done enough”), which is why I’ve tacked onto the NaNoWriMo gimmick (even though it’s not supposed to be for non-fiction; hell, if Kerouac can call his autobio non-fiction anyone can).
We’ll see how this ends up. Alternately, I may simply write 345 pages in Dingbats font and then blame the publisher.
Russ Marshalek is the Marketing and Publicity Director for Wordsmiths Books, in Decatur, GA. He usually puts a self-effacing comment here, but he's pressed for time.