ASPEN, CO -“That brook is…so loud. I can’t hear myself read,” said a student, just a little loudly, during the poetry workshop at AWF’s Aspen Summer Words. That pesky brook, also known as the Roaring Fork River, was indeed babbling far below the terrace outside the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center, home to this year’s “Crossroads: A Literary Intersection of the American South.” Even more distracting may have been the perfect Mediterranean climate and the abundant summer hillsides; it was a cloudless week of blue skies and dry, light breezes, vastly different from climate and landscape of the American South.
Thursday, two young men from today’s New Orleans spoke on their lives, pre and post-Katrina, captivating the audience with first-person accounts of violence, devastation, upheaval and ultimately, renewal. “I think there’s no such thing as a bad writer,” said James Jones, aged 17; “ as long as you put your heart and soul into it, it’s gonna be good. My uncle taught me that I shouldn’t use downfalls in life as a crutch; I should use them to move ahead, and become even stronger. After Katrina, I got to talking a lot about souls.”
Fellow teen Troy Simon shared his stage, talking about what he’s seen, where he’s been and where he wants to be. “I saw death, bodies floating by…but Katrina taught me about determination. Quitting is forever, but pain is only for the moment.” Simon went from a first grade reading level, at age 12, to gearing up for college, a career as a motivational speaker and maybe even a pediatrician. Both boys are aspiring writers, crediting poetry and narrative with helping them cope with ever-changing circumstances.
The week centered around poignant tales of writing, the writing life and the life of a Southern Writer, as well-known writers of memoir and narrative, fiction, song and poetry shared tales of their craft and their relationship to their Southern roots. “I think Southerners will discuss just about anything; things aren’t really buried,” observed the particularly animated Robert Bausch, on the subject of taboo topics. “But when they want to talk about ‘buried’things, they’ll start with ‘You know Mrs. so and so, well bless her heart…”
Growing up on front porches, listening to stories on hot, humid evenings was a common thread. This love of the spoken word inspired many authors to embrace the written word. “Southern writers share a love of saying something that’s memorable, a love of language and the rhythm of it,” said one panelist.
But what puts the “Southern” in Southern writing?
“Poverty, violence, conflict, liquor and taste for things that’ll kill you – mostly food,” said Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, with a twinkle in her eye and nod at the crowd. “We write a lot about outcasts, and outlaws. We’re a rich culture…we can hold a grudge for 200 years!”
Scholar and poet Dana Goia spoke thoughtfully, even poetically, on the craft of putting pen to page: “Out of the quarrel with others, we make politics; out of the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry. Music, rap, hip-hop…they’ve all changed the way we view, see and hear poetry. It’s a way for young people to capture the sounds of their lives.”
Speaking about the soul of writing, poet Nikki Finney thoughtfully responded to young James Jones’ question, “What makes a great writer?” Finney shared the importance of writing in order to “save” something. She recalled a student who wrote about his 5th grade teacher and her beehive hairdo, to preserve that moment in time; he wanted to remember that hairdo, just as it was. “Use details and sensory words, James, and write close to your subject. Use words to save something, to wear it around your neck as a charm.”
The topic of race was up front and center during the week’s most packed event, an Afternoon with Kathryn Stockett, author of “The Help” and the festival’s most talked about book. Stockett grew up white in Mississippi and like many households, the Stockett family had a black maid who played a large role in raising the children. “When people would ask how many children she had, Dmitri would say, ‘three,’” recalled Stockett, fondly, remembering how Dmitri would claim she and her two sibling as her own.
She was extremely close to Dmitri and thought of her often; it was only upon moving to New York at age 24 that Stockett realized she’d had a very different upbringing from the rest of the world. “I knew how much I loved Dmitri, but it was in New York that it occurred to me to wonder what Dmitri might have been thinking all those years!”
“The Help” takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1963 and the protagonist, a young white woman and aspiring writer, sets about secretly recording and writing about life from a maid’s perspective. She covertly interviews over ten maids and learns the truth about what they’ve been thinking, all those years.
Not quitting her day job, Stockett doggedly shopped the book around. “I received rejection after rejection, 59 to be exact. 60 was the magic number,” recalled Stockett, with a laugh. The book is a national bestseller, now being translated into 37 languages. Steven Spielberg is currently making the movie.
At Summer Words, Stockett reflected on the tremendous response to her novel and her own motivation for putting pen to page. “I think it’s so important, as a writer, to help people understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. To feel someone else’s bones and flesh… that’s my job.”
To the writers in the audience, she stressed the importance of carving out the time and the space to write, amidst a busy life and a full-time job. “I used to rent hotel rooms and write there, after work; if my husband ever looked at the credit card statement, he’d of thought I was havin’ an affair!” said Stockett, with a laugh and a true Southern accent. “But whenever you feel guilty or selfish about taking that time to write, remember - it’s crucial. It’s essential to the writing life.”
For more info on Aspen Writer’s Foundation and year-round, interactive writers programs, visit www.aspenwriters.org.