Wednesday, April 8, 2015

An ink-stained wretch pens a novel, and thus a "long apprenticeship" comes to fruition

(To the right, Edgar Allan Poe)

It all started when my eighth-grade English teacher, Bill Watson, introduced us to Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and tales of horror. He told us of other writers, too, but Poe was my man.

When I got back home after school in my North Carolina town, I went immediately to my room and starting writing. Oh, the words that poured forth! Pages and pages of epic poetry! Story after story of Poe-like terror and mayhem so pitiably inadequate they deserved to be killed and buried like Poe’s “tell-tale heart.”

When my Poe fixation faded, I turned to Jack London. Here was a challenge. What adventures could I boast to a writer who had been a gold prospector, hobo, able-bodied seaman, oyster pirate and war correspondent? Working summers on a tobacco farm just didn’t compare.

(Jack London)

No matter. At my writing desk, I spun great long tales of frozen barrens with roaming packs of wolves, pirates on stormy seas.

Mr. Watson admitted to me decades later he never had any idea he was changing forever the life of the unremarkable-but-wide-eyed 14-year-old near the back of the room.

I’m reminiscing these days about those childhood years when I envisioned writing both the greatest epic poem since Milton and the Great American Novel. Today, this aging, ink-stained wretch, after decades of banging out true stories in newspapers, magazines and a couple books, can now claim a published novel.

Mine has been a long apprenticeship.

(To the right, the cover to my recently published novel, Casey's Last Chance)

Ernest Hemingway once said this about journalists writing fiction: “On the (Kansas City) Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”

Papa Hemingway had a good point. Newspaper work can be a wonderful muse. You write fast and hard against deadline, often under a tough editor’s stern eye, ridding your language of excess baggage, boiling it down to crystalline purity. That’s what I see in my favorite writing journalists, from A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Day and Ernie Pyle to modern-day masters like Charlie LeDuff.

Some of my favorite fiction writers got their training banging out newspaper stories, like hardboiled master James Cain, but Hemingway had another point when he said getting “out of it in time” may be necessary.

Making the transition from newspaper articles to magazine articles is no cinch. Newspaper deadlines can be just hours away. A magazine deadline may be six months in the future with publication six months later. Newspaper writers want immediate gratification. Waiting a year to see a byline is an eternity. Today’s online journalism makes old-style newspaper deadlines seem like a luxury.

Fiction’s biggest challenge to the nonfiction writer is that the writer makes most of the decisions. He can't always rely on the facts to make them. Another challenge is failure.

“If there are to be any claims to greatness, they are to be found only in the scope of the failure and persistence in the face of it,” novelist and journalist Stephen Marche wrote in the New York Times about the failures of great writers like Herman Melville. “That persistence may be the one truly writerly virtue, a salvation indistinguishable from stupidity. To keep going, despite everything. … To keep failing.”

For many years, I was the stereotypical newspaper reporter with the unpublished manuscript in the bottom drawer of his desk. I looked everywhere for models. Mississippian Eudora Welty talked about the importance of a writer’s “sense of place.” The great worker poet Philip Levine, who died this month, believed writers should leave their “place”.

“It’s important to get away from the place where you’re from,” he told an Oxford audience in 2000. “When you’re away from (such places), it is then that you can look back and see their beauty and their horror.”

In other words, writers disagree with each other.

Hacking away at an earlier, never-published novel many years ago, I’d get up at five in the morning and put in a couple hours before spending the next nine hours reporting and writing nonfiction. Got it finished, but 40-plus rejections and my friend, novelist and crime reporter Ace Atkins (no relation), finally convinced me to shelve it and start working on a second.

It was good advice. I later learned that’s what a lot of writers did and with success, including Ace Atkins and now me. Writing (and publishing) short stories also provided good training for that future novel.

Fiction and nonfiction share one thing in common. Both give you a joy that’s hard to describe when you finish what you’re writing and know it’s good. At that point, it’s not even important whether someone else knows it, too.

Except Mr. Watson. If he were still with us, I’d want him to know.

A version of this column was published recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Civil Rights Movement veterans, yesterday and today, wonder if America will always be "racially insane"

Let's take one more look at the recent 50th year commemoration of the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with a focus on one Civil Rights Movement veteran still active today and another, now-deceased veteran, both of whom wondered whether America will always be "racially insane."

(Macye Chatman above)

SELMA, Ala. -  Macye Chatman was a wide-eyed, Tennessee-bred, 19-year-old Tuskegee  student in 1965 who turned civil rights activist after seeing the level of racism and segregation practiced in the Deep South.

 “If you rode the bus back then, you’d have to go to back of the bus. My roommates from Mississippi told me you couldn’t even go in some stores and buy clothes. Clothes! You wouldn’t be riding with white people in the car. They would be following you, and you might be killed.”

Forget about casting a ballot to change things. “I felt it was wrong that black people couldn’t vote.”

So Chatman joined the movement in Montgomery, stood with Martin Luther Jr., and demonstrated at the state Capitol at the same time the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march was getting underway 50 years ago.

She spent her 20th birthday in jail. “I got arrested in front of the state Capitol. They didn’t want me there. We were staying, and we locked arms and sat down in an Indian-style protest. State troopers were all around us. The horses were circling. We stayed two-and-a-half days in jail, 12 to 20 in a cell. You slept on the floor. I never was charged with anything.”

When she got out, she knew that thousands of marchers were making their way toward Montgomery from Selma, and she was going to be there to meet them.

Chatman, now 70 and living in Jackson, Tenn., was one of tens of thousands who came back to Selma this month to commemorate the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965 that led to the historic Voting Rights Act of that year, including “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, when state troopers and local law enforcement authorities brutally beat and tear-gassed 600 peaceful protesters on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

President Obama and Georgia Congressman and “Bloody Sunday” veteran John Lewis were among those who came to the event, and many who were there pointed to the backtracking on voting rights, the economic inequality, and continuing racist behavior by too many uniformed police that exist across the nation today.

“Today we are right back to where we were in 1965,” Chatman says. “We are making so many steps backward. They’re trying to repeal the Voting Rights Act. They’re trying to repeal women’s rights, the right to protect her body. What about racial profiling?”

Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder decision essentially lifted federal pre-approval requirements for voting changes in places where blacks historically faced discrimination. Dozens of states, including Mississippi, where I live, have responded by implementing new restrictions on voting.

Modern-day Republicans, the spawn of erstwhile arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond’s 1964 campaign to change the one-party Democratic South to a one-party Republican South, pushed through those restrictions, tough new laws on voter ID and when and where people can vote. The target: Democrat-voting minorities.

The ruse Republicans use to defend voter restrictions is the claim of voter fraud. Yet little evidence exists of voter fraud on the part of voters themselves. “Where there has been election fraud in American elections, it is usually committed by politicians,” says Lorraine C. Minnite, director of urban studies at Rutgers University. “The most important illustration of outright corruption of elections is the century-long success of white supremacists in the American South stripping African-Americans of their right to vote.”

I traveled to Selma, Ala., during a South-wide journey in 1992 to report on the role of the black voter in elections that year. Selma’s late civil rights activist and attorney J. L. Chestnut Jr., a much-revered veteran of “Bloody Sunday”, talked to me at length about race in America.

“There is no way to escape white racism in America. America is racially insane. It affects politics and everything else. I can’t spend a lot of time worrying about how far we’ve come. I got to worry about how far we got to go. We’ve come a long way and probably got twice (as far) to go.”

Chestnut talked about “Bloody Sunday” on Edmund Pettus Bridge, a bridge named after a Confederate general and alleged Klu Klux Klan leader.

“I remember March 7, 1965, here in Selma when we came face to face on Edmund Pettus Bridge with the awesome might of the Alabama government. I remember John Lewis bleeding like a stuck hog.”

Yet Chestnut came out of that experience with hope. “I remember whites coming to Selma and risking their lives. A nation that will do that is not all bad. … I tell white Americans that I have more faith in America than they do. I believe if you give Americans the truth, they will do their damndest to be fair.”

Still, giving Americans the truth is a tall order, Chestnut admitted, when the goal of so many politicians is just the opposite.

A version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.