Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why I write and the Sewanee Young Writers Conference by Kerry Madden

Some Sewanee Young Writers from this year's Sewanee Young Writers Conference
(Top Row: L to R - Devon, Marie Claire, Ryan, Allie, me)
(Bottom Row: L to R - Mallory, Summer, Amber, JillAnn, Patrick, and Viv)

I had my students from the Sewanee Young Writers Conference write "Beginnings" of stories and novels when our workshop started a few weeks ago. I decided that I would write them, too, because it's practically impossible for me to focus on any of my own writing when leading a daily three-hour workshop for two weeks of ten teenagers all writing their own stories. I had a budding Texas Stephen King, an apocalyptic Christian novel of angels and demons, girls who could fly and cross into other dimensions, a few murder mysteries, a whaling novel of a fisherman's daughter, a David Bowie tribute, a family's escape from Hurricane Katrina, literary fiction of a choir girl raging against her domineering choir director, historical fiction with a count and an evil father, a story of teen twins one with a split personality, and even some southern grotesque from a young writer who loves Flannery O'Connor.

They were a wonderful group - and of course, I am always terrified that it won't go well for any number reasons, but these young writers came to Sewanee atop Monteagle Mountain in Tennessee ready to write. They showed up early every day. They did constant revisions. They leapt into all kinds of new stories from the "writing sparks" I gave them. They showed up with their hearts open and ready and full of love and excitement. And being the mother of teenagers, I was wary of two intense weeks with teenage writers, but they reminded me why I love to write and why I love to tell stories.

So here are some of my beginnings inspired by the book WHAT IF by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays. I also had them write a "bossy, instructive" story inspired by Jamaica Kincaid's story, GIRL. I don't know if these stories will turn into anything, but I feel like they will, and WHAT IF is a great book for beginning writers.

* * *


Most Southerners will stop and wave at you and if you don’t wave back then there is something fundamentally wrong with you.


My grandmother ate a bowl of Campbell’s Tomato soup every day for breakfast at 11:00 and watched “The Young and the Restless,” “As the World Turns,” and “Guiding Light,” and then ate supper at 3:00. She also said three rosaries a day and went to daily Mass at 5:00 so long as the weather held up in Leavenworth, Kansas, and when it didn’t, the weather, that is, she had a home supply of the Holy Eucharist ready in a chalice near her statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.


“And then we were plunged into darkness,” the ten-year-old said when the mother turned off the light to go to bed.

"I tell you that dishwasher hasn't been emptied since Elwood Horton died more than two years ago. His son, who inherited the house, didn't even know there was a dishwasher. Then his momma, Elwood's ex, came to visit."


The football players stumbled off the nighttime field one by one toward the visitors’ locker room, clutching helmets and water bottles. The fifty-yard-line reeked of sweat and Gatorade and honest-to-God smelled so bad it was like the Fighting Irish had never left the turf at all.


During a break between New Year’s Day bowl games on the television, the family crowded outside to greet more visitors, but she lingered behind to wash dishes – a worthy effort and no one could condemn her for not wanting to greet yet another relative coming up the long driveway. Champagne glasses stood half drunk or untouched on tables and shelves, and midway through the pile of dishes she watched as her brother-in-law slipped back into the living room to knock back every single glass.


I remember the way my grandfather pushed five bucks into the hand of the priest and pleaded with him to bless our courthouse wedding. Father Karl, the priest, said, “No way, Jerry. Can’t do it. Bishop from Kansas City says no way.”


People think I get hot in my cap. I don’t. If I got hot in my cap I would take it off, but I don’t get hot. Okay? I like my cap. I don’t care if it’s July. I like my cap. I’m not hot. Okay? It’s just what people think.


First person

I have stared death in the face not once, not twice, but three times. How do you like them apples? Anyhow, that’s when I quit driving the public school bus.

Second Person

You know you're in for it when you have to fly with a baby to meet his great grandmother, and you wear him on your back through the airport where he takes fist-fulls of your hair like horse reins and yanks so hard tears pop into your eyes and you don't even know yet that when you plop that squirming child into his great grandmother's lap, she will say, "I'm not used to it. Take him."

Third person

Guy, the landlord, was letting his tenants have the house for cheap on account of the fact that he thought they were taking care of it. But clearly they weren’t. The backyard had gone to pot and a series of tiny earthquakes had knocked the doors all funny and now they couldn’t be shut. Sure the earthquakes weren’t the tenants’ fault but still…Then the oven busted and the repairman who came to check the problem refused to fix it. He called Guy up and told him that he’d never seen a filthier oven in his life. So something was definitely up, but the tenants paid rent on time and had lived in the house for ten years. They asked for so little – no painting, no new carpets, no nothing. So it was a holding pattern. Who or what would give first? Guy had grown up in that house. His father, a cop, used to slap his mother around in that house. But still, it was his childhood home. Good God almighty, he hated Bakersfield. He hated to have to even fool with driving down the 5 Freeway to check things out. He’d had enough.

A BOSSY STORY in the style of Jamaica Kincaid

This is the way you hold a golf club. Get your legs into the swing. Line up your fingers. Use your hips when you swing. You’ll get more power that way. Now focus. Concentrate. Eye on the ball. Pick you out a little tuft of grass and that will be the ball for now. Holy crap, I should have taught you to play when you were six, not sixteen. Then maybe we’d be somewhere. Sixteen is really too old, but you’ve got LPGA talent. I’m telling you now. Look at that swing. Now watch how you’re lining up your fingers. Lace them correctly around the club. You need a golf coach. I’m going to find you a golf coach to give you private lessons. We got a lot of catching up to do. Holy crap, it’s hot out here. Now swing. There you go. I said get your legs into the swing. You’ll knock it down the fairway if you follow my rules. Lace your fingers around the club correctly. Watch me. Pay attention. Are you listening? You should play every day even when school starts again. What’s your last class of the day? French Four? Who needs French Four when you have a tremendous golf swing like Nancy Lopez! Forget French Four. I want you going out to the football field to practice hitting golf balls every single day. I’ll talk to Sister Mary Whoever about you missing French on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays to play golf. That will give you a little time to catch up. Golf is something you’ll keep all your life. French Four, what the hell good is that going to do you? You going to live in France? This is America, by God, where we speak English and play golf. What’s that point of climbing a hill without a golf club in your hand? Don’t ever ask me to camp or shave out of a coffee can. That’s what I told your mother. I told her that. She hasn’t let me down yet. Lace your fingers. Legs into the swing! Get some power behind it. You can hit the ball in a minute. This is about practicing your swing. This is about doing something with your life. Holy crap, what was I thinking? I should have taught you to play when you were six but I had ball games to win. Never mind. We’ll catch up. No time to waste. Do it again.


Kerry Madden is the author of the Maggie Valley Trilogy published by Viking Children's Books set in the heart of Appalachia: GENTLE'S HOLLER, LOUISIANA'S SONG, and JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN. Her newest book is UP CLOSE: HARPER LEE also published by Viking. She will be a professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama Birmingham this fall.

Her latest essay: "OUR WEDDING VOW - TO MY MOTHER-IN-LAW" can be found at the following link: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-madden14-2009jun14,0,1046540,print.story



Anonymous said...

Loved these beginnings. Thanks for sharing.

Carol @ TheWritersPorch said...

Hey Kerry!
Great stuff, I really enjoyed this. That has to be great fun watching all this budding talent !


Lynne said...

Those are great. You have some talented writers there.

Augusta Scattergood said...

Great post. Also the link to the LA Times essay is worth following! Kerry, your writing is so good and those young writers are very very lucky.

Kerry Madden said...

Thank you so much for these lovely comments...The kids were great!! It was wonderful teaching at Sewanee and thinking of new story beginnings. And Gusty, Happy Anniversary, and thanks for your sweet note!