R. S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

“Most just don’t know it.”

“Rubygene, if you didn’t even like Mr. Davis, why go to his funeral?” She never did make any sense, and this time was no exception. “Just stay home. Be content to read his obituary, especially with the weather hot as it is.” The inside of the car was a furnace, even with the windows down. Hell is real. It’s an old Pontiac at noon in late July.

My great-aunt shifted her girdle around in the oven of the driver’s seat, steering the massive automobile with just her knees. Surely we would hurtle to our own deaths within a quarter-mile. “Myrtle Mae,” she snapped, “there are some things in life you just do, especially when you don’t want to do them. Besides,” she said as she inexplicably rolled up the window, “funerals are never for the dead. They’re for the living. What’s that sticking out of your pocketbook?”

“Nothing.” I eased a hand over to stuff the racing forms back into my purse. The tires on my side of the car made a fierce rock-slinging noise as they rolled off the pavement and onto the too-soft shoulder. “Watch where you’re going!”

She nudged the car back between the faded white lines and cut her eyes again to the floorboard. “Great day in the morning. Bringing the devil’s playthings into the house of God. You ought to be ashamed.” And I was ashamed, but not for the reasons she was hoping. So we baked on down the road to the Primitive Baptist church, which was no more air conditioned than that tank of a car. Foot-washing, tongue-speaking, grave-digging, and oven-roasting all in one day. I don’t care what your McGuffey Reader says: there is no fun in funeral.

In the worn, sandy churchyard, the old ladies’ cars pointed out like a Detroit starburst: grilles to the road, and fins either to the church, the parsonage, or the clubhouse. Seasoned funeral veterans, they were no fools—set that bad V-8 in Exodus Mode, and let the rear axle throw gravel as soon as the last handful of red clay scattered across the top of the vault. Rubygene did them one better. She parked the Catalina at the farthest edge of the yard, half on the velvety carpet of moss under the last oak tree, and half on the grassy strip alongside the black gravel-dust road. I had to admit it was a pretty good getaway position.

Rubygene shoved the shifter into Park, cut the motor, and swung open the heavy door. “Pull down that hem. Button that dress all the way up.” I did as she said, then grabbed my bag. “Oh no, missy. There is not even a hint of gambling in the Lord’s abode.”

“Yes, Rubygene.” I stuffed my purse and what was left of my dignity under the front seat, then followed in her dusty footprints to the church steps.

The sanctuary was so full of floral offerings that, even outside in the churchyard, the smell of carnations hung thick in the air. They were “death flowers,” far as I was concerned. In the fourth grade, Otis Hardeman gave me a crumpled little bouquet of them for Valentine’s Day. I was giddy until third period elocution. That’s when Willie Ann Sprayberry pointed and laughed and said he snatched them out of his grandmama’s funeral wreath in the wee hours before the school bus careened down Butler Road to pick us all up. I loved Otis for six more years, but carnations and I were through. Now their sweetly numbing scent mixed with the tacky evergreens in the cemetery, swirled up my nose with the musty oil-soap perfume of the floor and pews. With all these smells, and with it being so hot, I just knew I would vomit by the last “Praise Jesus.”

Deep summer in Georgia means there is no reason for wearing sleeves, girdles, stockings, or dark colors. Yet here we were, in front of God and everybody, breaking every single one of these rules in the name of propriety, tradition, and good manners. Talk about a Lost Cause. Itching, sweating, soaking up every sunbeam, and not even enough sense to stand under the shade of the red oaks yawning out over the cinderblock picnic tables. After we signed the book and nodded to Mr. Quattles from the mortuary, Rubygene creaked on up the rickety front steps of the church. And her with that hat, good grief. It was black and iridescent green, made of moth-eaten felt and the rooster feathers she’d so carefully collected after the original plumes crumbled to dust. The color said “funeral.” The shape said “Phenix City whorehouse.”

Once we were in the door, Rubygene removed her now-sweaty black linen coat. “Had enough of this thing, now that we’re here…”

In the middle of the church, the red velvet-trimmed silk crepe number screamed louder than a Pentecostal party of twelve when Morrison’s runs out of dinner rolls. And sleeveless, when she made me wear this long-sleeved torture chamber of a dress. Right then, I swore to God and Rex Humbard that I would get her for this. But we had arrived so close to the start of the service that there was no time to plot my revenge.

The casket was still open. Miss Rainey, whose old maid piano teacher stylings underscored every funeral I had ever attended, wrapped up “He Touched Me” and segued into “Blessed Assurance.” Rubygene lurched up the aisle, dragging me along. Heads turned. Silk flowers practically vibrated atop Methodist and Southern Baptist hats. “But I don’t want to—”

“Didn’t nobody ask you what you want.” She scanned the congregation. “Come on. Let’s pay our respects.”

“Our respects? I didn’t even know the man.” This was the longest walk of my life. All these foot-washers staring us down, with their plain bare no-makeup faces and straight long hair and ankle-length skirts in this heat. Lord, if You’ll just get me out of this, I prayed silently, I will never ever ask You for anything ever again. Which naturally was a bold-faced lie, but good people do bad things under duress.

And there he lay.

Poor old Vote Davis. He was stretched out against the quilted powder-blue satin, as bald and waxy as ever, except now a sickly pale somewhere between buttermilk and pork brains. Heart attack, they said, but his face sure did have a shellacked, patched-together look. His wife must have hated him to let Quattles dress him in that double-knit number. The smell of carnations was extra-strong up here. I felt my stomach heave, and turned to Rubygene.

But she was staring hard, straight ahead into the casket. Maybe she was having another fit. Paw-Paw had warned me about this. Where did I put that syringe? She spoke in a low growl, low like the rumble of far-off thunder across swampland.

“Well. It’s a pleasure to see you again, Vote. But this time, the pleasure is all mine.”

“Rubygene?” Oh, God. I had left my purse, and the syringe, in the car, stuffed under the seat with my racing forms.

“Eyes closed. Mouth closed, for once. Legs out straight. Arms by his sides. And his hands—” She craned her crumpled brown paper sack neck to see over into the casket. “Folded over his pecker. Of course.” Over on the piano, Miss Rainey trudged through “Blessed Assurance” a third time, waiting for us to get the hint. Yet my grandmother’s sister stood there, immovable as Moses before the Red Sea, and perhaps was about to lift her own arms and work an obscene miracle here in the Primitive Baptist sanctuary. Lord, have mercy.

“They’re about to start! What are you doing?”

“Making sure he’s dead.”

Miss Rainey switched to “He Is Coming Again,” this time pianissimo to signal the start of the service. Someone made a half-coughing noise, and one of the deacons’ chairs groaned against the varnished floor. Rubygene sighed a loud, dramatic sigh and raised her voice so that even the old biddies in the back pew, with their near-dead hearing aid batteries, could listen in.

“I declare! He just looks so lifelike, as if he could set right up and sing along,” she said. “Poor, poor Vote. Gone before his time. He was a good one, yessir. Mighty, mighty, mighty good.” Her voice grew dry and cold at this last. Over the faltering piano strains, I could hear the whooshing rhythm of a hundred cardboard church fans speed up. In a normal world, I would be sitting in one of those musty pews, semi-cooling myself with one of those ugly fans. Suddenly, I missed Cardboard Paint-by-Number Jesus and His strangely blond hair so much I could cry.

Rubygene went on. “And he sure done a lot for this county. Laid a lot of pipe between here and Mobile. And Tupelo, and Columbia, and Memphis. Maybe not the smartest man, but good. Why, if you put his brain on the head of a match, it would roll around like a muscadine in a truck stop parking lot”—she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief—”bless his heart.” She spun us both around.

Inez Davis stood square behind us. Her boiling red face, almost as red as Rubygene’s dress, seemed as wide as the aisle. “Hussy. You brazen hussy.”

Rubygene said nothing. She kept her eyes locked with the beady little brown ones buried in the rolls of fat on Miss Inez’s face.

“How dare you disrespect my husband.” The woman’s face burned nearly crimson. “How dare—”

“How dare you defend him,” Rubygene said. “Of course, if you don’t know by now who he really was, you probably never will.”

“You whore!” Inez hissed. “Whore, whore, whore!”

“Never could quit talking about yourself, could you?”

Miss Inez dropped clean in the floor.

I can’t recall how we got back out in the churchyard. All I remember is seeing Inez Davis’s eyes slide up as if to look at her forehead, and four hundred pounds of Jesus freak roll out of my field of vision and into a puddle in the middle of the Primitive Baptist church. Bet they didn’t have that much excitement even at Revival. Before I knew it, we were back in the car. Rubygene was straightening her cathouse hat and draping the black linen coat over the seat so it wouldn’t wrinkle any more. She finally saw my face, and spoke.

“You all right? Sick to your stomach?”

“A little.” As with much of what had just happened, I wasn’t sure how true this was.

“We’ll have us a cold ginger ale when we get home.” She paused, looked over her shoulder at the commotion pouring forth onto the church steps, and frowned. “Remember when I said there are things you just do, especially when you don’t want to do them?”

I nodded.

“What you saw in there is a perfect example.”

“But—” My belly hurt so bad. “You’re not a—whore. You’re a decent woman. Whores have sex for money.”

Rubygene shook her head, rustling the defiant feathers that arched from her hat. “Every woman has had sex for money.” She turned the key in the narrow slot of the ignition. “Most just don’t know it.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first posted this piece on 14 February 2014. It appears here today with revisions.  With any luck, Myrtle Mae and Rubygene will soon return in a new scene.

 

Roadside Valentine No. 330

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Troup County, Georgia – 4 August 2012

One in a series of photos from “Roadside Valentine,” 14 February 2013.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Now at Country Universe: My review of Buddy Miller’s latest!

I’m delighted to have my review of Buddy Miller’s new album, Buddy Miller & Friends: Cayamo Sessions at Sea, posted today at Country Universe. I’ve known the folks at CU for eight years—their reviews and artist interviews are independent, well-written, and always interesting.

Check out my guest post and subscribe to Country Universe. Oh, and don’t forget to check out Buddy’s new album. I recommend it highly.

 

The Grid of Talk

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LaGrange, Georgia – 24 October 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 2/10/16

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“Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) with Bee”
Denver, Colorado – 6 March 2010

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Emergency

The piercing wail, the violent red-and-blue, the sharp-pointed icy white—oh, how they hurt. But I refuse to close the window, refuse to plug my ears, refuse to look away.

I remember.

They meet others at the intersection of unspeakable and profane:

The sheriff’s deputy, rolling out the long yellow POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS border between past and future.

The paramedic, doubled over at the back bumper of the ambulance, on his first call out of EMT school.

The investigator, calming bystanders and recording statements.

The state trooper, fishing I.D. from bloodied pocket, dreading the specter of his cruiser’s headlights in a stranger’s driveway right at suppertime.

The next of kin, numb and reeling, initiated into a club they never asked to join, while the cube steak and potatoes congeal into yesterday.

The noise, the lights—I remember.
Every time.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: I first published this piece on 6 December 2013. It appears today with revisions.

 

Hillside Monday: 2/8/16

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“From Globe to Gutter”
LaGrange, Georgia – 14 January 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Plums with Twine and Table

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Heard County, Georgia – 2 June 2010

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

The Little Peach Tree That Could

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In the mid-1930s, my great-grandfather planted this dwarf peach tree in the side yard of his house in southwestern Heard County, Georgia. By the mid-1950s, when my mother was old enough to remember the family’s yearly trips down from Michigan, the tree bore heavy yields every summer.

Pap would slice up quart after quart of fresh peaches, from which he and Grandma Edith would make ice cream in an old crank-handle freezer. It was the finest she had ever tasted, Mom would say years later. When she first moved south in 1968, Mom lived with Pap and Grandma while she saved up for her own apartment in LaGrange. Entering its fourth decade, the little peach tree was still producing as many peaches as the three of them could eat (read: a lot).

In 1988, Mom moved back to Heard County and began fixing up the old home place. By that time, the tree was just about dead. Sap ran sticky amber-brown from the peach borer holes along its trunk. Ice storms had broken off about half its branches. The other half, fiercely proud and unwilling to admit defeat, struggled to stay even halfway upright.

The kind thing to do, Mom supposed, would be to cut it down. No sense in letting it suffer. It had served its purpose for many years. Now it was time to plant something new.

But the saw stayed in the shed.  Mom couldn’t stand to cut down the beleaguered little peach tree while it was still half-alive, or even a quarter alive. “When it’s finally dead, I’ll cut it,” she kept saying. “In the meantime, we’ll just mow around it.”

Which she did—very carefully, with a rickety push-mower and a pair of yard shears. Mom mulched it. She sprayed it for insects and fungus. She watered it during droughts, and pruned away the branches split by the weight of snow and ice. For a dying tree, this one sure was getting a lot of care.

Year after year, the little tree hung on. Every spring, the familiar pink blossoms appeared. By early summer, fuzzy green baby peaches the size of jelly beans dotted the branches. By July 4th, the baby peaches would lie rotting on the ground, felled by some fungus or insect predator. At least the fire ants and yellow jackets were eating well.

For almost 20 years, we had hoped for peaches. For almost 20 years, we had none. I began to accept that peaches, as much as I wanted them, were just not going to happen.

Fast forward to 2003: a warm spring day at the old home place. My mother and stepfather had almost finished rebuilding the long-collapsed front porch. Useless with a hammer but still wanting to be part of the action, I stood nearby.

“Uh, Mom?” I said. “It’s about your little tree.”

“I know, I know.” She mopped the sweat from her brow and grabbed another fistful of 16-penny nails. “I’m giving it one more chance. If it doesn’t make fruit this year, it’s coming down.”

So the spring turned into summer, and the blossoms turned into fuzzy green baby peaches. But this time, the baby peaches stayed on the tree. And grew. And grew. And ripened.

And, for the first time in nearly 40 years, we had peaches.

I felt badly for having hoped we could cut down the elderly peach tree. I had doubted it, yet it had come back—perhaps to prove us wrong, but more likely because that’s just what trees do. This lonely, gnarled little tree suddenly bore two bushels of peaches just because.

That summer, we had the best homemade peach ice cream and the best homemade peach cobbler I have ever tasted. Since then, the tree has managed to produce at least a few desserts’ worth of fruit every season. It has survived nearly a century of drought, disease, ice storms, and straight-line winds—and, one time, a sweet, hungry, clumsy 2,800-pound Black Angus bull. This beloved little tree refuses to quit.

What will this year bring? We don’t yet know. The peach tree probably doesn’t yet know, either. No matter what happens, though, I will always be grateful to it for showing me what endurance really means.

Photo: “Green Peach, Black Cat” (Heard County, Georgia – 27 May 2014)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared at my former blog, Forgotten Plants & Places, on 12 April 2012.

 

Wednesday Photo: 2/3/16

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“Rain Bucket No. 1”
Heard County, Georgia – 29 December 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Hillside Monday: 2/1/16

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“Winter Fern and Friends”
LaGrange, Georgia – 14 January 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

On Inspiration

When I write, the worst part is when I can’t figure out my emotions, when I feel numb and disaffected. Of course, I know from experience that it’ll pass. It always does—otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. But the fear that whispers close behind the numbness can be mighty persuasive: “Give up. You can’t do it. You can’t make it happen again.”

Eventually, I do make it happen again. Always. However, this is not and has never been a matter of low self-esteem, poor self-image, or any other pop psychology cliché.

It is a matter of writing for a living.

At some point, every professional writer experiences this unreasonable doubt and fear. Every professional writer works around and through it. The key here is acknowledging the whispers while continuing to write, instead of waiting for them to go away first, or for a brilliant idea to pop up before writing again. Taking action—that is, writing while we feel deeply uninspired—leads us out of the darkness and toward something worthwhile.

Do not wait for inspiration.
Write, write, write.
The ideas will thaw, melt, and flow your way.

I doubt this process every time.
It saves me every time.

There is no such thing as “waiting for inspiration to strike.” It’s just waiting, and it produces little of consequence. Most people who are not professional writers fail to realize this. As such, they become dilettantes along the sad, sorry way. My students teetered at the edge of dilettantism. It was my job to pull them back.

Where young writers are is not their fault. After all, their ideas about how excellent prose happens have been shaped by romantic, highly unrealistic beliefs about writing. They are completely enamored with the idea of Being A Writer. They are passionately in love with the Idea Of Writing. And inspiration, they are sure, is what fuels this searing, delicious tinderbox of an affair.

For all his promises, Inspiration is a lousy lover, more wet kindling than lighter fluid. Inspiration is full of tease but never delivers: “all hat and no cowboy,” as a Texan friend says. Inspiration is sexy, charming, mysterious, compelling—on the outside. Get inspiration home and in the sack, though, and all we’ve got is a whiskey-dicked frat boy who, for all his looks and talk, gives our crotch half a clumsy rub before rolling over, puking in his own shoes, and passing out.

Well.

Wake him up. Don’t let him put on his clothes. Don’t give him a chance to rinse out his penny loafers. (Because you know Inspiration still wears penny loafers with his Members Only jacket.) Slam the door. Bolt it shut. Do NOT open it again, no matter how he begs. Don’t call him a cab. Call him what he is: a dud. No, no, he’s worse than a dud. He’s a charlatan.

So kick his drunk ass back out in the street with the amateurs, where he belongs. It’s for your own safety. As Carl Sagan once explained, “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

When we depend on Inspiration, he stops us cold. Hard as it may seem, we must guide ourselves. We must trust in the process, even when we’re angry and heartbroken and numb and completely blank. When we rely on Inspiration, he’s a no-show. And suddenly, we’re all dressed up and dateless at the Winter Formal, stuffing those racking sobs back inside our rib cage and pretending to enjoy ourselves. We’re scared, humiliated, devastated that The One We Love has crapped out on us at such an important moment.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Inspiration is out back of the Teke house, blasted on Thunderbird with our potential and our creativity. He’d much rather get schnockered on the cheapest poison around—and steal our dearest friends—than deliver what he promised. He lives for this. He controls us when we depend on the illusion that we cannot create without him.

How, then, to work around the seductive, greasy charms of Inspiration?

By listening—listening to everything and everyone, listening to tiny flashes of things and people and creatures and plants and moments. The way we get big ideas is by paying attention to the small ones.

Now, ideas are wonderful, but they need a while to grow on us, to get to know us better. By noticing the things nobody else does, we give the small ideas the time and space and care they need to become stronger ideas—to become sentences, images, story lines, characters.

A tuft of fur caught on a hydrangea stem, flapping helplessly in the wind. The daddy-long-legs crawling inexplicably up the truck tailgate in front of us as the traffic light turns green. The way Wednesday morning lights up the plastic rain bonnets of old ladies at the grocery store—all small, and all vast, all at once.

Write it all down.
Yes, even if it “sounds stupid.”

When I was still teaching, I’d hand back a set of papers and ask students to reflect on where they might have gone wrong. They’d often say, “Well, I was going to write about ______, but it seemed stupid.” And I’d clap my hands in wonder: “That’s not stupid at all! It’s what would make this essay work.”

And they learned, little by little, that Inspiration will not swoop in, all grandiose and deus ex machina, to save our writing asses. Good work happens in small pieces, and often almost imperceptibly.

In my first-year college writing classes, I’d often show students a portfolio of my work, from eighth grade to the present. Professional, academic, creative—it was all in there, the entire process. Some of it was under construction, some of it was pretty good, and some of it was capital-T Trash. “Look, dammit,” I always wanted to shout. “Look here and look hard. This is how we spin garbage into gold.”

Look, look, LOOK.
Soak it into your skin.
Soak it into your bloodstream.

This is noticing on the deepest, most profound level. This is where we build creative eye and ear and soul. This is where we begin: in noticing, instead of in waiting for someone or something to save us. In noticing the small, the insignificant, and writing down every last bit of it, we rescue ourselves from Inspiration.

And that is all I have to say today.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first published this post on 31 January 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

Please Be Seated

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Waffle House #1329
Columbia, Tennessee – 15 November 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Throwback Thursday: A Teaching Story

My first job out of school was at a small technical college. The previous year, as a University of Georgia graduate assistant, I’d taught all of four first-year English classes. I knew I could handle small-town students with finesse and aplomb.

Oh, yes. I would be the one to bring them the Good News of the Gospel of Literature. My students would gladly, hungrily devour all that my newly-minted American Lit MA and I could serve them. By midterm, their comma splices and run-ons would be a sad but fading memory. By finals week, their effortless prose would flow like the waters of the mighty Jordan. Hallelujah!

Fall Quarter 1999 found me thoroughly prepared. I’d done everything I was supposed to do. My textbooks had come in weeks before. I’d long finished my syllabus by the time I made thirty copies of it in the faculty mail room. I was so prepared that, days in advance, I’d chosen what to wear that late August evening. I’d even ironed my dress, and used extra starch. With a haircut, a little makeup, a manicure, and a pedicure, I was set. A new professor can’t be too careful.

On the first evening of the quarter, my students trudged into the musty classroom. Most had arrived directly from work, and looked a little bleary. A few, dressed in standard-issue Dickies uniforms, would head to late-shift jobs after class. Tired, sure, but overall a solid bunch. Half a dozen recent high school grads sat together in the back row. Everyone else, ages 25 to 70, sat as close to the front as they could. (As one near-retiree explained weeks later, the older students had long ago stopped caring what their classmates thought.)

The Showing of Books and The Reading of the Syllabus went smoothly, but the class still seemed nervous. (It would take me several more years to realize this is normal for the first class meeting—and even the first three or four weeks of the term.) I wanted to get to know them a little before the red pen and I became their sworn enemies.

Ah-ha! Perhaps an icebreaker game would help. I explained to my students that I’d go around the room and ask each person to introduce him- or herself. Students would tell us their hometown, where they worked, what they planned to study in tech school…and one thing that most people didn’t know about them. This would be fun.

Starting stage left, I worked my way across the front row. Grocery store cashiers, carpet mill workers, pulpwood cutters, receptionists, telemarketers, cable TV techs, and delivery drivers all introduced themselves, revealing cute, funny, yet safe personal details to their new classmates:

“My favorite foods are marshmallows and pickles. Together.”
“Growing up, I wanted to be a hip-hop astronaut.”
“I collect pink ceramic unicorns.”

The last student on the front row smiled as he introduced himself. Dressed in a polo shirt and khakis, neatly groomed, the earnest late-twenty-something probably had a job in customer service or sales. He told us his name, his hometown, his job title, his major—and stopped.

“Thanks, that was nice. But how about that one thing most people might not know about you?”

He hesitated, then mumbled an answer.

“Pardon?” I cupped my hand to one ear.

His face flushed carmine. “I—umm. I—I have—a foot fetish.”

One, one thousand.
Two, one thousand.
Three, one thousand.

He reddened more, cleared his throat. “I get turned on by ladies’ feet.”

I looked down. Against the nubby gray institutional carpet, my perfect candy apple red toenails peeked out from new shoes.

Black patent leather.
Open-toe pumps.
Three-inch heels.

I wore sneakers the rest of the quarter.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

This post first appeared here on 28 February 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

Wednesday Photo: 1/27/16

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“Reflections in a Kiddie Pool Frog Pond”
Heard County, Georgia – 27 September 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

On Work, Secrets, and Lies

“So, what are you working on?”

I stop, and stammer. Then I lie.
I always lie.

When I tell someone about my latest project, when I tell them what drives me all day and keeps me awake all night, I give away my power. The object of my written desire and affection and obsession is mineminemineALLMINE. Until it appears in public, published form, it remains my secret. It remains my forbidden love. No one else can know it even exists.

Unreasonable? No.

Ten years ago, I wrote the first 50 pages of a novel. It was creative nonfiction, based on stories I’d overheard my grandparents tell their friends when I was a small child. It was the first non-academic piece I had ever written. Still, something told me it might be worthwhile, that maybe it could turn into something special.

But I wasn’t completely sure. So I took a huge gamble: I attended a writers’ conference to sit down with an editor, a literary agent, and my manuscript. “Lord knows it’s not finished, or anywhere near publication quality,” I thought, “but they can give me some tips to make it better.”

On my appointed conference day, I waited my turn to talk with the pros. Ahead of me were two dozen other writers, all of whom had at least 25 more years of life and writing experience than I. One by one, they huffed out of the conference room, slammed the door, and stomped back down the hall in hurt, insulted rage.

And then I was next.

Stomach cartwheeling, I tiptoed into the room. Editor and agent—both worldly and sophisticated people who knew the business well—greeted me and reviewed their copies of my manuscript. I readied my notebook and pen. The editor spoke first.

“Miss Williams, if you do not publish this book, it will be a damned shame.”

He paused, looking directly at me. He would not let me look away.

“Do you hear me? A damned shame. If you do not finish this book and get it into print, you will have robbed the world of a precious, exquisite gift.”

I froze, pen in mid-air.

The agent nodded. “This is excellent. I’d love to see it when it’s, say, ninety percent finished. I know I can find a good home for it.”

“And it’ll have to be a much larger press than mine,” the editor added. “I’d love to publish it, but the demand would be too great. Aim for the big houses.” He took another sip of coffee, then slid his card and the agent’s across the table. “People are ravenous for books like this. Get it out there.”

Since 2008, that manuscript has lay in the bottom drawer of my desk.

Once the mystery had been revealed, so to speak, the power and beauty of the tale I’d woven just disappeared. Poof. GONE. The natural path that the story might have taken vanished under the glare of others’ expectations. People in the know had prophesied Big Things Ahead for Me. Everyone was watching. Like a child who falls silent when Grandma calls, “Come in here and sing your pretty little song for us,” the raging, rollicking, fiercely private work withered when I betrayed it. No matter that I had betrayed it to people who thought it gorgeous and strong. I betrayed it just the same: before it was ready, before it was whole.

Oh, I tried to get it back. I changed the plot, the narrator’s motivation, the setting, the characters. No use. The result was forced, lifeless, trite and clichéd in a world of trite clichés.

When I finally walked away, I cried for months.
The book refused to let me forget what I had done.

Three summers ago, in the face of devastating creative terror, I swore a formal, binding oath to my work. I take this commitment to my art as seriously and as solemnly as I would a marriage vow:

I shall stay faithful to my story, forsaking all others.
I shall write every day.
I shall write no matter my mood.
I shall notice every small thing I can.
I shall bear witness to everything I can.
I shall tell no one what my work entails.
I shall tell no one even my smallest ideas.
I shall tell no one where or why I travel.
I shall not show anyone my notes or my idea board.
I shall distract, subvert, and outright lie to protect my story, if I must.
I shall reveal my story only when it is ready—no sooner.
I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.

When my story appears in final form, on screen or on paper, it is no longer part of me. It moves, lives, and breathes of its own accord. Only when it leaves my grasp, strong and sturdy, may others see and taste and touch it.

So, ask away.
I cannot stop you.

I know you mean well. I am grateful and humbled that you are interested in my work. But please know that I will always, always lie when you ask—not to trick you, not to hurt you, but to give you the best gift I can.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first published this post here on 7 March 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

Hillside Monday: 1/25/16

CrapeMyrtleSeedsAndSky_2015-01-03COPY 17.06.32

“Crape Myrtle and Winter Sky”
LaGrange, Georgia – 3 January 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Fuel Door, Age 38

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Heard County, Georgia – 26 November 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 1/20/16

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“The Real House of Blues”
Denver, Colorado – 10 November 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Haiku for My Father, Buried 19 Years Ago Today

I asked my father
for a sign, in a dream. He
said: “That boy ain’t shit.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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