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Wow! So, I’ve had this blog up since my essay collection was published by Benu Press in March. Through Wednesday, I’d had about 2,000 visits to the blog, total, with the largest day bringing about 160 views to an essay I wrote in the wake of the April 27 Tornado Outbreak. Yesterday morning, before I’d even had my coffee, I heard of the passing of Civil Rights icon Fred Shuttlesworth. My breakfast ruminations over the deaths of Shuttlesworth and Steve Jobs occurring on the same day led to an idea, which led to me holing myself up in my study and going on a writing binge of sorts. Around 2:30 p.m., hungry and thirsty and bleary-eyed, I posted “Fred and Steve.” The last time I checked, over 1,000 people had read the piece.

If you are one of those visitors, I sincerely thank you for taking the time to read that essay, check out my blog, and tell your friends. If you are interested in learning more about leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, my book, Confederate Streets, explores the history of Nashville, Tennessee, through the lens of someone who was born in the late 1970s. I was born after the movement, but the work of desegregation was far from over and, like most Nashvillians (especially those of us who attended public schools), the work of the Civil Rights leaders and those who opposed them affected virtually every facet of my life. (The book’s title comes from the fact that segregationists named all the streets in my neighborhood after Confederate leaders and battles shortly after the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education) You can find my book on amazon.com or, conveniently enough considering yesterday’s post, read it on your i-something for the low price of $4.99.

Even before people started sharing my work on Facebook yesterday, I was looking forward to this month as it connects to my writing career. You see, this time next week I will be on my way to Nashville to participate in a panel discussion at the Southern Festival of Books! I first attended the Festival in October 1994, when I was a junior in high school. It was just a short walk from my high school, Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet. We were given free rein and little supervision, but, being good little nerds, we all stayed around. I remember it as a spiritual awakening of sorts. I walked from table to table there on War Memorial Plaza, spoke with authors, and realized they were real people. I remember wandering around in that slanting autumn light and thinking to myself, “I can do this. I can be here someday.”

Someday” comes next Friday, October 14, at 1 p.m. in the library of the State Capitol. I will be presenting with Ms. Carrie Gentry, wife of Tennessee State University’s iconic coach and professor Howard C. Gentry, about whom she has written a book. We will each read from our respective works and then there will be a moderated discussion on race. I’m really, really looking forward to the realization of this dream and the chance to meet Ms. Gentry and hear her take on issues that matter so much.

But really, regardless of your interest in the book or your proximity to Nashville, thank you all so very much for stopping by. I do write pieces here about ideas that interest me – mostly topics connected to the Civil Rights Movement, social justice, or cultural geography. On Wednesdays, I post photos. I hope many of you return to the blog, but even if you don’t, I appreciate you taking the time to read my tribute to the two very different kinds of visionaries we lost on Oct. 5 – Fred Shuttlesworth and Steve Jobs.

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Last week, I had the thoroughly new and interesting experience of sitting in for a radio interview. I had one of those big foam microphones right in front of my face and gave verbose answers to questions from WUTC’s own Julie Steele.  I was a little nervous and can’t exactly remember what I said, but I’ll certainly remember tomorrow, Wednesday, July 6, when the interview is aired on “Around and About,” WUTC’s daily program about events and people in the Chattanooga area.

So, y’all tune in! If you are in Chattanooga, you can tune in to 88.1 FM and hear “Around and About” at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If you live outside Chattanooga, you can find an mp3 stream here.

The interview is to promote the book, as well as my upcoming reading at Wild Hare Books on Taft Highway in Signal Mountain, which will be from 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, July 23.

Tune in and let me know what you think!

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I know you’re probably thinking, “What? No PhotoWednesday? Why am I even out of bed?”  I know, I’m sorry. But PhotoWednesday has been usurped by the exciting news that the good folks over at chapter 16.org just posted a review of the book.

I only just discovered Chapter 16 this year and I must say, if you love books and Tennessee, it’s a webpage you should become familiar with. It’s run by Humanities Tennessee, the organization which runs the Southern Festival of Books and the Tennessee Young Writers’ Workshop.

Chapter16.org is an excellent source for events, interviews (one with Nashville native Ann Patchett is currently up), and reviews. I sent them a copy of Confederate Streets in the hopes that they would come to believe it merited some attention….and they did.

So, please head on over there and read the review by Ralph Bowden.  If you’re so inclined, send the link to any potentially interested friends, colleagues, or news outlets. To be honest, I often have a hard time articulating what, precisely, Confederate Streets is about, but Mr. Bowden has done an excellent job with it.

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As the Old Man would say, “Tonight! Tonight! …. Hot damn! Tonight!”  Come on over to the North Shore at 7 p.m. this evening for the Chattanooga launch of Confederate Streets at the Winder Binder Folk Art Gallery/A Novel Idea Bookstore.  (It’s all called Winder Binder now, but we Tennesseans are adept at understanding a place by what it “used to be.”)  I will read, there will be food and drink, I will sign copies of the book. (I’m getting much better at this. In fact, I’m getting so accustomed to it that I recently signed “Erin E. Tocknell” on a greeting card to a friend). You can even go home with a nice piece of folk art if you wish.

The owner of Winder Binder, David Smotherman, has been great about promoting the reading as a part of the Faux Bridges Art and Literature Festival.  The Chattanooga Pulse and the Times Free Press both have write-ups this morning. Overall, between Faux Bridges, the Southern Lit Conference, Four Bridges, and David Sedaris, Chattanoogans who enjoy the arts are in for a wonderful weekend. So, get out there and enjoy!

However, if you can’t come, you can still get copies of the book at Winder Binder after the weekend. You can also order directly from the publisher or amazon.com. OR, you can get one from me. I deliver!

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If cities full of people really did spontaneously break into showtunes, the writers and bibliophiles of Chattanooga would currently be dancing in front of the Tivoli, singing “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.” Those of us who love writing and literature are getting ready to step out to breathe an atmosphere that simply reeks of literary class.  The excitement as we prepare to (metaphorically) suit up and geek out is palpable.

The main event that has us all tap dancing on Broad Street is the biennial Conference on Southern Literature, during which the South’s literary giants (Roy Blount, Jr., Dorothy Allison, Bobby Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, Lee Smith…the list goes on) will converge on the Scenic City for four days of panels, conversations, book clubs, readings, and gatherings.

But, as if that isn’t enough, the city will be celebrating more local writers (including yours truly) at the  Faux Bridges Art and Literature Festival.

In the middle of all this, David Sedaris is coming to town! (like Santa…or a Roman bell filled with chocolate).

As if these events weren’t enough, the all-boys’ prep school where I teach will be hosting a poetry night, featuring my wonderful, talented friend, Sara Coffman.

Here’s what the week will look like for me:

April 12 – Writing Center hosts Poetry Night with Sara Coffman (and many, many student and faculty readers) at McC.

April 13 – The Southern Literature Book Club will discuss In Country with Bobbie Ann Mason.  Oh, and who gets to drive Ms. Mason back from Winder Binder (where we meet) to the hotel? THIS gal! (so while I am only metaphorically brushing off my metaphorical tails, I need to literally clean out my car)

April 14 – Southern Lit. Conference officially begins. I will be catching my breath and probably trying to get my school’s literary journal to the printer. (oh yeah, that deadline is this week too)

April 15, 7 p.m. – Chattanooga Launch for Confederate Streets – the kick-off event for the Faux Bridges Art and Literature Festival on the North Shore. Reading is at Winder Binder/A Novel Idea.  Books will be available for purchase. Drinks and refreshments provided.

April 16, 11:30 – Southern Lit. Conference Keynote Luncheon. Roy Blount, Jr. will be speaking. Ernest Gaines will receive the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

Robert Morgan, a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, will be reading at Winder Binder/A Novel idea, at 6 p.m.

David Sedaris at the Tivoli, 8 p.m. (tickets still available, last I checked)

April 17, 2 p.m. – Faux Bridges continues with the launch of Southern Light – an anthology of 12 contemporary Southern poets. One of the readers for this event will be Bill Brown, who was my creative writing and English teacher in high school. His poems are absolutely incredible and I can’t wait to be there.

So, that’s about it. It’s a good thing that words feed the soul, because I’m not sure how much time there will be for actual eating or sleeping for all of us Chattanooga writers and readers.

In preparation for the big week, I will be posting work connected to each event over the coming days.  Keep checking back.  Also, look for more news in The Pulse and various other Chattanooga literary outlets.

And put on your top hat, if you have one.

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I’m back to the blog after a lovely weekend in Huntington, West Virginia – a city that gets some mentions in Confederate Streets owing to the fact that I have good friends there and have visited it a few times a year since I was about 16.  When I was younger, many eventful Greyhound bus trips began and ended in Huntington, and the most eventful of those was my first, which is chronicled in “Leave the Driving to Us” – a chapter in my book.  That’s all I’m going to say about that  – I’m trying to pique curiosity after all.

Back to Nashville.  My third reading of the weekend was at Rhino Booksellers, an excellent used book store.  I read at the store on Granny White Pike, not far from the neighborhood where I grew up. It was a much smaller gathering than the one at Glendale the previous evening, but that allowed for more of a discussion format.  I read from my essay about the history of Pearl High School/ my experiences in junior high. Overall, it was a nice mix of lifelong friends, folks who were just introduced to the book this winter, and some Pearl alums who had helped me with research.

But the most amazing/nervewracking moment came when I walked into the bookstore and saw folks I’d worked with at The Daily Herald in Columbia, Tennessee. I was extremely happy to see them again, after almost ten years away from the newsroom. However, one issue essayists must deal with that novelists escape (well, almost) is the fact that we’re writing about stuff that actually happened and we are not, for the most part, changing locations or names. So, as I watched my old editor, his wife, and the woman who had been the office manager take a seat, all I could think of was the chapter entitled “That’s What We’re Doing Here” – in which I question the value of being a journalist and reveal some of the behind-the-scenes gallows humor so common in newsrooms.

When the reading was over and my editor was writing a check for the book, I felt I had to tell him that chapter was there.  After driving all that way to support me, I didn’t want him to be blindsided.  So, Chris took his copy home and read it, and when I checked facebook the next day, this message was waiting for me:

Erin,

I thought the essay on your time as a reporter was terrific.

As far as the part about gallows humor, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the reason for it explained as well as you did.

Wish I’d known how hard you took some of those assignments — I’d like to have been able to tell you it’s OK to be both a reporter and a human and that reporters who don’t feel sympathy for the people they write about are crappy reporters, crappy people or both.

I wish I’d told Chris more, too. But I was just 22-23 while I worked there. It was my first job; I think I had the impression that jobs are supposed to push people out of their comfort zone and there wasn’t much I could do about it. However, one thing I should tell Chris, or anyone who finds themselves portrayed in an essay, is that the “creative” in “creative nonfiction” comes from the fact that essayists choose what they will portray. We don’t make things up, or change facts (At least, I don’t.) But we do take life and structure it into a literary format. I’m not writing straight autobiography or my life story, I’m adjusting focus, creating metaphor and theme. The themes I put in my essays aren’t necessarily how I saw my life at the time – in fact, they usually aren’t – but finding those themes in my life retrospectively is always illuminating.

The message from Chris continued, and I was struck by another reason I love creative nonfiction.  I love the fact that people tell me their stories after they’ve read the ones I wrote.  That kind of resonance is my entire goal, really. The chapter in Confederate Streets about my time as a reporter centers around three deaths I covered.  So, Chris told me about covering a trailer fire in which two young boys were killed:

What stands out most vividly for me is their young mom, sitting on a porch swing near the highway, keening. The sound made me frantic and nauseous. The part I don’t usually tell folks is how I wanted so much to go and sit by her and hold her hand or pat her on the back, but I knew I was the last person she’d want comfort from.

I, too, felt “frantic and nauseous” when I was a reporter. I could write another chapter just on those words and the feelings they evoke.  But Chris has already hit the nail on the head. I’ve always been impressed that writing can bring such connective feelings and ideas to light.

Chris went on to say that he has worked in print journalism so long because he believed in the importance of the truth. That’s also a feeling I tried to get across in my chapter about the topic.

There’s a lot of talk these days about newspapers being on the way out, but just in the process of writing this blog and reconnecting with the Daily Herald staff, I have been reminded that there are reporters out there every day, hitting the streets and putting themselves in all sorts of situations, just to get the truth out in print. I hope this inspires you to pick up your local paper. If you read something you like, shoot an email to the reporter.  Like us essayists, connecting with the reader is their goal.  And they’ve got a lot less time and space in which to make it happen.

 

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After bidding farewell to the folks at the Southside Family Charter School (who took a copy of my book back to their school library), I headed out from downtown, past my high school, and over to “my” part of town, the area around Granny White Pike and Radnor Lake which is depicted in Confederate Streets. All the major stuff I remember from my drive back and forth to high school is still there – Music Row with it’s houses and studios and banners congratulating songwriters, Belmont Blvd with its funky, urban feel and Bongo Java (the world’s most wonderful coffeeshop), and Granny White Pike with it’s long ranchers and wide, green lawns.  While the major stuff was still in place, I was thankful all weekend for that Nashvillian proclivity for giving directions based on “where the so-and-so used to be.”  The city has changed. It’s hip now, for one thing, and areas of town which were once just spots you drove through on the way to someplace else are full of bars and sushi restaurants and fancy high rise apartments (I’m talking to YOU, The Gulch).  Actually, it was the beginning of that trend in the early 2000s that brought about the idea for my book. The area where many of the African-American students with whom I attended Percy Priest Elementary had lived was in the early stages of gentrification; I started wondering what had happened to those children, where their lives had taken them.

Back to the reading, the reading itself, was wonderful for a variety of reasons. I have been taking my writing pretty seriously since I was about 13, and all that time I had a vision of reading my first book for a hometown crowd of friends and teachers.  That’s exactly what I got on Friday night.

One of William Faulkner’s more famous quotes is, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  I have seen this somewhere with the preface, “To a Southerner the past is never dead. It’s not even past,” but I can’t seem to find evidence of that anywhere on the web at the moment.  In any case, that line has often been interpreted as Faulkner writing about the South, specifically why this region has problems with confronting the Civil War and other issues pertaining to race. (my post from yesterday, however, reveals that even though we can’t let our past go with respect to race, we’re not talking about it like we should )

However, when I’m feeling sentimental (as realizing a lifelong dream in front of a group of treasured family, friends, and teachers is wont to make one do) I think Faulkner also meant that we Southerners are good at remembering things that matter, because those things never fade into insignificance. Maybe any place that is home feels this way, but I’m from Nashville, so that’s all I can speak for.  It’s why alumni from a school that was closed in 1983 still came out to my reading.  Because the past is never past in Nashville, I could knock on the door of my fourth grade teacher, invite her to the reading at Glendale United Methodist Church that night, and see her in the crowd.  Because the past is never past, Mr. Bill Brown, an incredible poet and a teacher who inspired me like no other (in 1994, which was a long, long time ago) introduced me on Friday night. Because the past is never past, everyone in the audience who’d had Bill Brown as a teacher half a lifetime ago was leaning on the edge of their chairs, once again wondering what knowledge and love of words he would impart.

I guess I’m trying to come up with a literary way of saying that time did a strange dance on Friday.  My friends and I are older and lord knows we’ve been through the struggles adulthood brings. But standing there in front of people who have known me since I couldn’t keep barrettes from going crooked in my hair caused everything to melt together. I was the adult reading the book and the kid depicted in the book. It was rather glorious.

Fortunately, the reading had the same effect on my audience. I read the first 6 pages of the book, which are mostly about Brown v. Board of Education, the Nashville Plan, and busing.  As I signed copies later, many of my parents’ friends told me their own stories about busing, about moving out to Brentwood or Forest Hills after Brown. These are stories which really need to be told.  I’m glad I got to hear them, and I’m glad my book resonated enough to bring those stories out.

The end of the night  found me sitting on a back porch, sipping good bourbon, laughing about the events of the evening (some of the toddler literati in attendance had struggled with paying attention and staying upright), and engaging in really good conversation about topics from the reading.  It’s not the first time I’ve ended a good night on a porch with bourbon and friends, and it won’t be the last, but that specific night is one that I will remember for a long while.

Thanks to all of you who came out. Oh, and check out Mr. Brown’s newest book of poetry. It will knock your socks off.

I will be back on the blog next week to give a rundown of the readings at Rhino Booksellers and Martin Luther King Magnet.  To keep the suspense up over the weekend, let me tell you that I am tentatively subtitling them “The Trouble With Lockdowns” and “Why Nonfiction Sometimes Makes You Feel Like a Total Butthead.”

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