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We were walking up Hillsboro Street in Pittsboro last weekend when I saw Circle City Books and Music for the first time. The shop sits on a corner, and it has a row of giant books painted on the side of the building, visible from a block away. As we got closer, I saw that they were titles written by Southern writers, mainly North Carolinians. I had to stop and examine them all.

Two of the writers represented on the building were my favorite creative writing instructors from long time back:  Lee Smith and Fred Chappell. I had a class with Lee Smith during my freshman year in college, and although I also loved two of my other instructors at Chapel Hill, James Reston, Jr. and Daphne Athas, Lee Smith was my first class with a real writer, and she made a deep impression. She was one of the most charming people I had ever met, all beautiful curly hair and electric enthusiasm. She was kind, and encouraging, and funny. Listening to her talk was a lesson in how to weave personal experiences into stories.

In 1988, Lee Smith published the novel Fair and Tender Ladies. I had been reading her fiction for years by that time, but this book was special. I disliked it as soon as I opened the first chapter and saw the words, “My dear Hanneke….”  I had always hated books that were written in the form of letters. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I thought that the author needed to direct her attention to me, the reader, and that the insertion of some unknown addressee between myself and the narrator got in the way. But I stuck it out, and by the time I got to the end of that book, it had become a part of me in a way that few books have. It was like a garment that I had worn for a time, and then when it came time to step out of it and change into something fresh, I couldn’t. It had soaked into my skin and rested there, just beneath the surface. I used to think I would be a writer, the narrator, Ivy, wrote toward the end of the book. Oh, the end of that book.

My sister read Fair and Tender Ladies about the same time that I did. “How close are you to the end?” I asked her.

“Pretty close.”

“Well, you better watch out where you are when you get to it,” I warned her, “because you don’t want to be out in public.”

But that’s exactly what happened. “I came to the end while I was sitting at Jiffy Lube getting the oil changed,” she told me afterwards.

Oh, no. “Did you cry?”

“Did I cry? I wept like nobody’s business for ten solid minutes.”

“Was the waiting room full?”

“Packed.”

Here’s the thing:  It’s not really the words or the images that the words conjure that leave you a blubbering mess at the end of the book, it’s the punctuation. That’s all I’m saying, and if you want to know more you have to read the whole thing. (Skipping to the end to read the last page is evil and you won’t understand it, anyway, so don’t try that.) So one of the lessons I learned from Lee Smith, six or seven years after leaving her class, is that punctuation has real magic in it, at least in the hands of a master.

Fred Chappell was a master storyteller, too. He was my thesis advisor in graduate school, which you might think would make him too exalted a personage to  play a mean, dirty trick on his students. Such was not the case.

Writing workshops were, unless I am remembering it wrong, three-hour sessions in the evening. These sessions took place in a sort of dimly lit, smoky lounge in the building that housed the English department. Fred’s method was to read our work anonymously in his dirt-road voice, a voice that probably made the stories sound more complex and interesting than they really were. After the reading, we would discuss what was wrong with the piece. Theoretically no one knew who the writer was—although sometimes we suspected, as we did the night that a classmate’s girlfriend suddenly dropped by the workshop and then led the discussion afterward, finding much to praise. But the general anonymity left us free to be as critical as we wanted—all in the spirit of being helpful, of course.

One night, Fred pulled out a story and said, “This is not one of yours. It came to me by mail from a high school student, 18 years old.” He began to read it. The tale was of a father and his young son, and the teenaged orphan who came to live on their farm as hired help. Every word of that story clicked into place and fit perfectly with the next one, the characters were lively and likeable, the situation the characters contrived was funny and skillfully handled. We were enchanted.

When it was over, we literally had nothing to say. Finally, somebody cleared his throat and asked, “You said that was from a high school student?” Fred nodded. Little more was said, but a pall fell over the room, thick as the cloud of cigarette smoke, as we each contemplated our own unworthiness.

That was a low-down, shameful trick because the high school student did not exist. The story he had read was in fact the first chapter of Fred’s beautiful book, I Am One of You Forever. I realized this only when I bought a copy of the book when it came out two years later. Like Fair and Tender Ladies, it is always with me; certain passages are as clear and unforgettable to me as my name and much clearer than my mailing address, which has changed twice in recent months. It is a book with two endings:  One comes at the end of the narrative, and the second one comes at the end of an epilogue. They are both perfect. The narrative ends with a scene in which the narrator (the boy, Jess) is listening to his grandmother and her sister sing together in the parlor:

The piano was in disastrous condition since no one in our house played any more. The keys were chipped and broken, the strings green and rusty, and the notes that were not out of tune were mostly ciphers.

Nevertheless the bargain had been sealed, and my grandmother sat on the wobbly stool while Aunt Sam stood beside her with her fiddle and struck up “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies.” It sounded very strange, and not entirely beautiful.

Then Jess is pressed into singing a song, and though he fights against the idea like a wild dog, he finally submits. And that is how the story ends, with Jess singing for his family. He concludes:

My face burned like a comet; I mumbled and choked. I couldn’t sing then and I can’t sing now. If I could sing—sing, I mean, so that another human being could bear to hear me—I wouldn’t sit scribbling this story of long ago time.

That sums it up about right. In spite of the help I got along the way from Lee Smith and Fred Chappell, from James Reston, Jr. and Daphne Athas and Robert Watson and others, it’s hard not to read my own scribblings and notice that they are often very strange and not entirely beautiful.

But you sure don’t want to hear me sing.

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Woodland garden

…life is hard,
at times as hard as crucible steel.
It has its bleak and difficult moments.
Like the ever-flowing waters of the river,
life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood.
Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons,
life has the soothing warmth of its summers
and the piercing chill of its winters.
But if one will hold on,
he will discover that God walks with him,
and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair
to the buoyancy of hope,
and transform dark and desolate valleys
into sunlit paths of inner peace.

Martin Luther King Jr. – Birmingham, 1963
Eulogy for the Martyred Children

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