Feb. 21, 2008

Mississippi is about the last place most New Yorkers would turn to for inspiration. Shadowed by its sordid civil rights history, dismal support of public education and rural poverty, Mississippi often brings up the bottom in any list of states ranked for quality of life. The latest report in the news here is that Mississippi does lead in one thing – obesity.

Yet, in a trip crisscrossing the state from Natchez to Yazoo City to Oxford to Jackson, your itinerant Write Stuff correspondent found inspiration in the words and places of native Mississippians like Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Willie Morris and William Faulkner. Perhaps because of their region’s past — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,’’ Faulkner once famously wrote – the state’s legendary storytellers have much to teach those of us interested in writing and how to improve it.

A visitor to these writers’ literary haunts becomes immediately aware of the importance of place. These writers listened carefully to the stories and histories and dialects of their beginnings, and observed acutely the customs and physical shape of their surroundings. Morris called his Yazoo City a “small, inconsequential place” but made it meaningful for anyone who drives down the long hill to the town and sees the Mississippi Delta spread out beyond. “Out in the distance, as far as the eye can see, the land is flat, dark, and unbroken, sweeping away in a faint misty haze to the limits of the horizon. This is the great delta,” Morris wrote in his memoir, “North Toward Home.”

In Natchez, one can tour the many antebellum mansions of the white planter class and imagine what it must’ve been like to grow up black here in the early 1900s as Wright did. Yet the author of “Native Son” and “Black Boy,” who would flee the Jim Crow South and end up an expatriate in Paris, still finds his origins have a powerful grip on him: “…There was yet hope in the southern swamp of despair and violence, that light could emerge even out of the blackest of the southern night.”

In all of their writing, it’s hard not to see the great reporter’s eye for detail. Consider Welty, in “One Writer’s Beginnings,” as she described her fearsome principal at Davis Elementary School in Jackson:

Miss Duling dressed as plainly as a Pilgrim on a Thanksgiving poster we made in the schoolroom, in a longish black-and-white checked gingham dress, a bright thick wool sweater the red of a railroad lantern – she’d knitted it herself – black stockings and her narrow elegant feet in black hightop shoes with heels you could hear coming, rhythmical as a parade drum down the hall. Her silky black curly hair was drawn back out of curl, fastened by high combs, and knotted behind. She carried her spectacles on a gold chain hung around her neck.

Faulkner created his fictional Yoknapatawpha County from his real-life setting in Oxford and displayed his command of his setting in almost everything he wrote, as in this description from his novel, “Sanctuary”:

The house was a gutted ruin rising gaunt and stark out of a grove of unpruned cedar trees. It was a landmark, known as the Old Frenchman Place, built before the Civil War; a plantation house set in the middle of a tract of land; of cotton fields and gardens and lawns long since gone back to jungle, which the people of the neighborhood had been pulling down piecemeal for firewood for fifty years or digging with secret and sporadic optimism for the gold which the builder was reputed to have buried somewhere about the place when Grant came through the county on his Vicksburg campaign.

This is not the first time in this space that the importance of reporting has been emphasized as the key to good writing, be it journalism, memoir or fiction. But this trip to Mississippi has underscored another important part of the formula for improving writing: Read great writers and how they do it.

No less than Faulkner affirmed this truth in advice he gave students at the University of Mississippi in 1947:

Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.

There’s no substitute for reading, all of these writers tell us. The rest of the formula is to than write, and write some more, and apply the lessons from what you’re read. Talk about what works, and what doesn’t. Then read and write again.

Shout Outs

Carl Winfield put the reader in the room and smartly used the specific detail of a man’s tie to tell us something important about a City Council member he featured in a story for City Hall:

Like many at City Hall, Council Member Kendall Stewart (D-Brooklyn) walks with his head high, taking long, purposeful steps across the white, marble floor. He carries his long, black overcoat over his shoulder like a man used to the midwinter chill. But his necktie—a mini-revolution of lush green palm trees, ripe melons, indigo blue and deep reds—screams out: “This man is not from here.”

A native of the small Caribbean island of St. Vincent, Stewart brings a level of personal expertise to his role as chair of the Council Committee on Immigration. Through that position, he said, he tries to remind New Yorkers that immigrants have been and remain the city’s strength.

Writing Tip

Jere Hester has noticed that not enough students are getting to the first quote quickly enough in their stories. He likes to see a quote no later than the third graf and, even in a longer form piece, he believes you lose readers if there aren’t anybody’s words but the writer’s in the first five grafs.

Svoboda, Svoboda, Svoboda

Or, as I was trained in my Catholic School to say: Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa. In other words, I’m sorry I managed to misspell the name of Professor Svoboda, despite having noted its spelling so many times in his email. Nothing hurts a reporter’s credibility more than a misspelled name or typo. The lesson: Never fail to check your work before you push the Send button.

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  1. Pingback: Write Stuff » Blog Archive » George Orwell is watching over you.

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