Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going. –Tennessee Williams
I have been a reader far longer than I have labeled myself a writer. I think it was Stephen King, in his non-fiction book called On Writing, who said we should study the craft, when we weren’t writing we should be reading. I’ve taken that advice to heart and try to read something every day, even if I don’t write something.
But when I am writing, I don’t purposely ask myself, “What can I do to make this feel Southern?” While Southern is a style of writing, it’s not about mechanics. Just as I have here, a writer could dissect the work of Southern literature greats, meticulously looking for those details that short stories or novels have in common. They could study the lives of the authors themselves and will certainly find the nuances they had in common. But all of those authors could have chosen to write about something else had they wanted to. But instead, they wrote what was in their blood and their soul.
I’m sure a writer from the North could pull it off if they wanted to, but it helps to be born in the South. There is a certain element of your upbringing that does instill the locale in your brain. It’s in the food you eat. It’s on the street you grew up on. It’s in your church and your school. It’s in your family, and the way they speak.
So, it’s easy to establish that Southern literature comes from the South, at least in a regional sense. I think the professor of my Southern Lit class even asked us once what makes literature Southern, and he wrote our answers on the chalkboard. Setting was first on the list. And I believe the background of the author, or where they were born, was a close second.
An outsider might ask that if a writer had such a horrible upbringing or might want to forget their past, why not write about something else? Now, as I approach forty-one years of age, I know that’s not possible. Any writer can run from their demons, but it doesn’t mean they can escape them.
Someone once said you should write what you know. I like to add to that sentiment that if you don’t know about it, then learn, and then write about what you know now. But as any writer knows, sometimes it is the pain that comes from what you know or from what you have experienced that gives your work its soul.
Flannery O’Connor wrote about those physically and spiritually conflicted. Carson McCullers concentrated on the themes of loneliness and isolation. Truman Capote wrote about youth, belonging, and relationships. Tennessee Williams focused on sexuality and family. And a look at each author’s life, just as I have done here, will show you their demons.
Tennessee once said, “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” And I agree with him. My angels are my muse, and without them, where would I go, what would I write about?
While our fiction might mirror our real lives, echoing themes of religion, sex, seclusion, love, family, loss, suffering, race, it is the parts that we get to make up in between that fuel us. Writing is one of the loneliest tasks I have ever undertaken, and yet I return to it again and again. A writer creates a world to get lost in, and yet that world mirrors the one we really do live in. And in the end when we have finished the last page, just as in real life, we seek acceptance and praise from others and are tormented by those who reject us.
But it is the places we go, both on the page and in life, that make us who we are, Southern or not. We might take a different path at times, but we cannot escape it.