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Good fiction makes its own quirky way

by aec

Knoxville author Allen Wier was in Chattanooga on Tuesday to read to kids at Orchard Knob Elementary School and speak to the Chattanooga Writer's Guild. He will be back in town for the AEC Conference on Southern Literature on April 2-4, 2009.

We've decided to post Allen's entire speech to the CWG here on our blog:

I am pleased to meet with the Chattanooga Writers' Guild, a diverse group of writers and readers in a city that has such a versatile and vital literary community. Beginning years ago, when I taught in the writing program at the University of Alabama down in Tuscaloosa, I visited Chattanooga several times as a participant in UTC's Meacham Writers' Conference. More recently, I've enjoyed visiting the community college and several public schools here, and I was invited to deliver the Connor lecture. I've worked with some of your excellent teachers in workshops sponsored by the Arts & Education Council of Chattanooga. Cities much larger than Chattanooga cannot boast an arts support group nearly as active and effective as yours. I look forward every two years to the Conference on Southern Literature that the AEC puts on in collaboration with the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

I was honored by the Fellowship in 1997 as the recipient of its Robert Penn Warren Award in fiction. I was giddy anticipating that year's conference. I was going to get to hang out with a passel of Southern writers I had read and admired for years. I was fortunate to already know a few of these folks--George Garrett, Richard Bausch, Lee Smith, Barry Hannah--but some whose fiction and poems meant a great deal to me I had never met--Shelby Foote, Elizabeth Spencer, Allan Gurganus, Josephine Humphreys. And you know what, I did get to hang out with them. I sat in a little lounge in the Read House hotel and sipped Scotch and listened to (and said a few things back to) Shelby Foote late one night. That kind of open, friendly, family atmosphere makes this conference unique among literary events. There's no hierarchy, no gauntlet you have to run to talk to the well-known and famous.

Dorothy Allison describes it in this way: "The Conference on Southern Literature is like one of those visits home that I dream about--the one where we all sit around and tell stories and catch up on everything that has happened until someone starts laughing or crying or gets so inspired they start scribbling on the back of a napkin. Now and then the person scribbling notes is me."

This is a conference at which the participating writers--a larger number of writers than at any other such event that I know about--all of the participating writers, are available to every attendee. Not because there is any such "policy," but because the writers are coming back home, to this lively Southern city, and to see one another, in fellowship.

After I received that award in 1997, I was delighted to be elected to membership in the Fellowship of Southern Writers. I would not trade that honor for any other I have received. Membership in the Fellowship of Southern Writers gives me an invitation to be part of this writers' homecoming--part serious literary event and part family party--every two years. You all enjoy the privilege of proximity; you're all invited and the celebration is in your own downtown. This unique conference allows all of us who write and read Southern literature to talk with others who share our belief that the pursuit of art, in a utilitarian world increasingly interested in the bottom line, is still a meaningful and enriching undertaking.

Painted down the tall side of a brick smokestack in Eastern Kentucky--in Harlan, I think--are the words: Eat, Drink, Sleep, Think Coal. Each time I return to Chattanooga for this conference, I picture that smokestack rising near the Tivoli, but painted here are the words: Eat, Drink, Sleep, Think Southern Literature.

People give plenty of reasons why they love poems and stories and why they want to write their own. More important is why they keep writing, and the only answer is that writing (not being a writer) becomes necessary to them. But creativity is cheap; talent is never enough. There are creative, talented people who never write well. The seat of poetic inspiration is the seat of your pants in a chair before a sheet paper or a computer.

Those of you who write know how difficult it is to make a reader see. It is easier to state an abstract idea or emotion than it is to create a physical world we hear, smell, taste, feel--a world we clearly see. The world of fiction is the lowly world of matter, so writing gets your hands dirty. Writing is not so "grand" as being a writer may suggest. Our lives contain secrets, vivid imaginings, but we must do more than record our daydreams or report our experience, our subject matter. "Subject matter" is the raw material, the experience, a writer must transform into an entire world. This takes talent, technical skill, and stamina, but more importantly it takes great faith.

In an essay, "Poetry and Ambition," the poet Donald Hall makes several provocative observations about the state of literary art in America today. His main complaint is the contemporary poet's lack of serious ambition. "We never know," Hall says, "the value of our own work, and everything reasonable leads us to doubt it: for we can be certain that few contemporaries will be read in a hundred years. To desire to write poems that endure--we undertake such a goal certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail and that if we succeed we will never know it."

So, if making literary art is that difficult and the rewards either unlikely or intangible, why should anyone want to try to write? With so few readers, don't we have enough literature already? Anyone who's roamed a mega-bookstore lately might ask the same questions. Most of what is published seems superficial and predictable. Fashion, even literary fashion, can be seductive, it reassures the reader with what is familiar, recognizable, and safe. The French writer, Andre Gide, says "My function is to disturb." There are plenty of others, advertisers mainly, who are being better-paid to reassure.

Prevailing fashions like prevailing winds are subject to sudden shifts. Books that imitate and reaffirm the familiar will come in and out of vogue. There are popular, fashionable visions which are marketable and are as reassuring (but not as important) as good manners. Good fiction exists outside of fashion, makes its own, sometimes quirky, way. We should do away with best-seller lists, begun in America in 1895, because they substitute fashion for personal judgment. The writer must not set his heart on having his work published, or, even, appreciated; he must set his heart on writing fictions or poems that take him and his reader places they have never been where they may recognize things they have never seen. Remember the admonition of the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats: "Out of our arguments with others we make rhetoric--out of our arguments with ourselves we make poetry."

My life has taken me to live in different places, but I've returned home to Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico in memory and in storytelling. Those places, as I recall them, have for me a special sense of their own, what Henry James calls "a mystic meaning to give out." Possessed by the landscapes and voices of my past, I do not posses a Texas ranch to return to, but I own the territory in my imagination. A sepia birthmark, I carry my personal country with me. It is not language that makes a place, a person, an experience compelling, evocative, and immediate, but it must be language that makes it so in a work of fiction. It is not life on the Mississippi that we experience, it is Mark Twain's life on the Mississippi. And the country we know best in Mississippi is Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. The North Carolina we recognize is fashioned from Thomas Wolfe's rhetoric. Before I moved to Knoxville, I got to know the place by reading Cormac McCarthy's Suttree and David Madden's Cassandra Singing. Language is the place we all inhabit.

I spent my early childhood in a foreign land whose language I did not understand. After WWII, my daddy got a job in Mexico searching for ferns and flowers to import to Texas for the wholesale flower trade. Daddy was a good person, but he was never one of the "good people" one associates with religiosity. To paraphrase Mark Twain, Daddy was a bad man in the best sense of the word. He was witty, sassy, and sometimes profane. When he verged on blasphemy, Mother rolled her eyes, but her disapproval was not very convincing--the flicker of a smile gave her away, her countenance always about to un-frown itself. In Mexico, over Sunday dinner after we attended Roman Catholic mass, my daddy gave me sips of his beer and wisecracked about the priests' skirts while my mother asked me what the services signified. I complained that I couldn't understand the Latin words, but she didn't give an inch. "You aren't listening hard enough," she said. The next Sunday we went to Mass, I listened harder. Still, the Latin did not miraculously enter my ears as English. But, in the holy hush of the cathedral, the Latin chant danced with shadows cast by votive candles, rose and fell with light moving through stained glass, and, for the first time, I understood what it means to respond, to be moved--not by the thing said, but by the way of saying. As a writer, I recall that lesson almost daily.

Several years ago, I was enjoying a residency on a remote ranch west of Austin, Texas--it seemed the perfect time and place to write a western. I wanted the fiction to have the authority of authenticity, and I ended up spending the next ten years researching and writing Tehano.

Wright Morris (in his book, About Fiction) says: "History is a good solid subject, but we can print most of the facts on one flap of the book jacket. What happened and where is history--how and why it happened is fiction. If it is good fiction we accept it as history."

I don't believe that facts come as close as poetry and fiction to the truth. As a fiction writer, one who aspires to be a teller of tales, a maker of what Oscar Wilde calls "beautiful untrue things," I revere the incantatory, magical power of the poets who name all the things in our world, and, remembering my mother's admonition when I was a child in Mexico, I struggle to listen harder that I might understand better.

Read more about Allen Wier at AllenWier.com

Literature | By aec | 1:38 PM


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