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What We Keep

The Vernacular

It’s quiet at Hollins this week, with my grad students gone and the undergraduates not yet arrived, which means that thinking can be done, and possibly writing. One, alas, does not necessarily lead to the other. When you make your living with words, one way and another, writing, teaching, editing, it becomes a lovely time-waster to ferret out what things actually mean, and why. And lord knows the South is fertile ground for that.

I’m from Southern California, but my mother was from Birmingham, and clearly there was something latent in the blood that came out when I moved to Virginia. Occasionally it’s a matter of outlook, but mostly it’s a figure of speech — lots of them, acquired from Mama, who I had always assumed to be speaking a private language of her own, until I went South.

In Virginia, however, when my husband, exasperated that I call the refrigerator an icebox, says, “An icebox has a block of ice in the top; no one has had an icebox in seventy-five years!” more faces than mine will give him a wide-eyed stare. They all call it an icebox too, because their mothers did.

Mama also used to say that it was cold as flugens, on the rare California days when it was cold. I assumed it was a made-up word of her own, until I read Eudora Welty, and there it was, in Delta Wedding. What’s more, it’s not just a Southernism, it’s a Deep South Southernism. No one in Roanoke knows what it means. Mama probably got it from her mother, who was from the Delta.

Now I know why I was the only one of my California childhood friends who called her father “Daddy” and why no one else had relatives with names like Aunt Sis or Uncle Sonny. I know what “sorry” means when used as an adjective, and what a branch is, as in bourbon and branch water. In my youth I assumed it was water with branches in it. I never asked why. I know that acting ugly has nothing to do with your looks and everything to do with your behavior (see “sorry,” above). I know what a bottle tree is, and what’s more, I know what it’s for. I know why you should always paint your porch ceiling sky blue. I know what it means to snoot someone, and why my mother thought I needed a deviled egg plate. A raft of phrases and traditions from my childhood suddenly make sense. The first time I heard someone say “bless her heart” with my mother’s intonation, I knew exactly what was meant — as in “She likes a little drink, bless her heart,” which means, “The woman is falling down drunk by two p.m. and last week she set the biscuits on fire.”

Even my grandmother’s story about the yard man who shot the town bootlegger makes sense. This yard man had a way with roses, and four hours after he was arrested, he was out on bail. The judge’s mother, my grandmother assured me, and every other woman in town with a rose garden had called their husbands and made sure the fix was in. No one minded about the bootlegger (well, the men did) but the spring rose show was in two weeks and that was another matter. That is not how they do things in California.

When we teach fiction writing, we teach world building, but really all you have to do is look around, and eavesdrop.
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Life imitates art, so watch out

No one can gauge the power of a story while they’re writing it. My mother once published a serial in the Saturday Evening Post that made her little sister notorious because everyone knew where she’d gotten her material. I believe it took monetary considerations and something to do with a set of rhinestone earrings to smooth that over.

My least financially successful novel has had the greatest effect on my life. I write this in a household that arrived straight from the pages of that book.

It was (and is, reissued through the Author’s Guild’s backinprint.com program) called Pomegranate Seed, and it was published by a small press which promptly went out of business. But I had set it in my home town, thinly disguised, and written into it the character of an old boyfriend, also thinly disguised. I gave my main character, Liza Jane, a herd of pugs, and wrote an earthquake into the plot. The boyfriend reappeared before the book was finished (we have been married over twenty years now), as did the earthquake (I felt bad about that). It took longer for the first pug to arrive, but the numbers shortly got out of hand, as these things do, and now there are four, snorting at me to indicate that it is dinner time. Liza Jane had five, and we wonder if we ought to set some sort of spell on the door to ward off another one.

Having just finished another summer of teaching writing at Hollins University to a fine bunch of young adult novelists, I wonder how to warn them, or whether I should. Life will find you anyway, I expect. If you write about it first you are probably just pulling some mysterious thread of knowledge out of the weave of the universe. So go ahead, tug on it. You don’t know what’s on the other end.
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In the garden

At the end of another summer term at Hollins, I am always sad to see the Children's Literature students and faculty leave, but light of heart that now I can get into the garden or the flea market or whatever else has been calling my name over the last six weeks. But it was a fine summer. We had the usual student/faculty potluck gatherings at our house, with fireworks left over from a rained out Fourth, and the summer campers from Hollinsummer’s pre-college creative writing program. One of my tutorial students left me a bumper sticker that reads LIVE. LAUGH. LOVE. REVISE. HOLLINS MA/MFA CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, appropriate since we had spent the whole semester doing just that with their thesis novels. They were one of the best classes I’ve ever traught and I don’t say that lightly.

Back in the garden I am struck by how much time I spend trying to get things to grow.

The lilies of the Nile that I planted last fall and can’t remember where I put. Is that them, over by the poppies? And if it’s not, what is it? And for that matter, what is that thing by the clothesline?

My hair, which has reached an odd length. And an odd color as I try to get rid of the last of the natural herb-based dye whose only drawback was that it turned red in sunlight.

A novel manuscript, which instead seems to be shrinking. Every time I go at it, it shyly sheds another 10 pages. Soon it will be a short story.

How very satisfactory to see students grow. Personally they look just like they did when they got here, but their manuscripts – ah, those have expanded and solidified and acquired a whole new look. Read More 
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End of Summer Term at Hollins

We wind down the summer term tomorrow with the annual student/faculty potluck dinner at our house.
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Last Class Day!

Last day of classes for Summer 2013!
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