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Six years ago, when I first started work on the essays that would become Confederate Streets, I spent a lot of time in the Civil Rights Room in the downtown branch of  the Nashville Public Library. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, only that I had finished an analytical essay on busing for racial balance and that I wanted to, perhaps, write some narrative essays on the same topic. I was also interested in the outdoors and the Cumberland Plateau (subject matter I am pursuing now), and the room next to the Civil Rights Room was full of books on that topic, so I filled a few blistering summer days by wandering back and forth between those cool and pleasant rooms, reading about the sit-ins in one and Beersheba Springs in the other.

The Civil Rights Room is decorated with iconic photos from the movement in Nashville. I spent some time examining each one, but one photo in particular captivated me. You can see it at this link – it is the one at the top of the page. See the woman standing between the children and the crowd as she walks them to their first day of first grade? The girls holding hands? The white children lining the streets, barefoot, perhaps because they were being held out of school that day? I studied each face, each posture, wondered what everyone in that photograph must have been thinking at that moment – a late summer morning, September 9, 1957, the first day that blacks attended Nashville schools which were previously closed to them. However, the reason this picture really, really resonated with me is that exclamation point floating above the crowd – the sign which reads “GOD is the author of segregation.” I was born in the late 1970s and always thought of God as the author of the civil rights movement, of peace, of loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. The idea that someone would invoke the name of God as they harassed a couple of six-year-olds on their first day was school was both repulsive and darkly fascinating. Who was that person?

In another photograph, this sign shows up again and the woman holding it is visible, though the children are not. Her face is contorted. She is waving the sign and shouting.

One evening in the summer of 2005, I told one of my friends in Nashville about the picture and she said, “It makes me wonder what that woman must think now when she sees herself in that picture.” I’d been obsessing over every detail the photograph, but I had been thinking of it as something buried in the past, something encapsulated in the 1950s. Leila’s observation changed my perspective. I started wondering, “Where are we now because of where we were then?”

When I returned to Morgantown for the school year and started writing, I remembered those photographs as one in the same. As I wrote what would become the title essay of my collection, I pictured that woman shouting, the children mustering up an awful lot of resolve for six-year-olds, that sign invoking God and waving above it all. I devote about a page in the book to wondering where the woman with that awful sign might be today. I imagine that the sign is long gone, burned. Or, perhaps, it’s waiting in a closet, waiting to be used again. I imagine that the woman who held the sign is either completely mortified or silent and angry whenever she sees children of all races going to school together.

One thing I never did was actually try to find that woman, or the girls being walked to school, or anyone else in the photograph. I merely wondered where their lives had taken them since the morning of September 9, 1957.

Apparently, author David Margolick wondered the same thing when he saw this iconic photo of the day nine African-American teenagers began classes at Little Rock Central High School. Like my friend, Leila, he recognized that the lives of each of the women in that picture would have continued off the frame and forward through the ensuing decades. But, rather than hypothesize, he actually did extensive research, conducted interviews, and wrote a book – Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, which was just published by Yale University Press.

I have not yet read the book, but I did read the review in the New York Times on Sunday. It sounds like a book I should read, as should you, dear reader, if you are a fan of Confederate Streets. In the photo, the white woman, Hazel Bryan is apparently shouting, “Go home, nigger!” Her face, like the faces of so many white people in so many shots similar to this one, is contorted. Her ugliness in the shot is a manifestation of the ugliness of the time.  The black teenager, Elizabeth Eckford, has always seemed like the picture of grace to me. She’s smart and brave, with things to learn and no time for the likes of ignorant bigots like Hazel.

According to Margolick, however, Elizabeth was “terrified behind her dark glasses.” Although she did, ultimately, go to school at Central, she did not make it into the building that day. The governor blocked the door, the black teenagers were surrounded by a mob calling for a lynching. The National Guard had to be brought in to get those children into their classrooms. Once they were in, Hazel transferred out, but the Little Rock Nine bore constant abuse for the entire school year.

I’ll spare you all of the “where are they now?” details, but the essence of what I read in the NYT is this: By the time Kennedy was President, Hazel already regretted her actions. She apologized to Elizabeth, who accepted it, and went on to live her life. According to an interview I read in the Christian Science Monitor, Hazel has, for the most part, led a life of moral conviction for over 50 years. The depiction of the self in the photograph is, thankfully, not the self Hazel grew up to be.

Elizabeth, who clearly developed a sense of moral conviction before Hazel, has had a difficult life. She suffered from an undiagnosed case of PTSD. She’s had a hard time sustaining relationships in her life, even with her own children. In the 90s, after getting the PTSD diagnosis, things started improving for her, but there’s no denying that Elizabeth has struggled since walking through the doors of Central over half a century ago.

It hardly seems fair. I look at the pictures of Little Rock and Nashville and I want the bigots to be the ones suffering today. I’d like to think that the woman defiling a just and loving God with her sign in Nashville has been paralyzed by guilt, while those two black six-year-olds have gone on to lead pleasant and fulfilling lives. Then I think, “What good does it do me, or anyone, if that’s actually the case?” I should want what Martin Luther King wanted – “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” So, I feel guilty myself for wishing bad things on the woman with the sign.

The best thing, I suppose, would be that everyone in that photograph hanging in the Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library has found some sort of peace. True peace, however, won’t come without reconciliation, and reconciliation won’t come without people acknowledging the truth of what happened that day, as well as either the ugliness or bravery they were demonstrating when the photographer captured a moment in time. From the NYT article, I get the impression that Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryant have made such an acknowledgement. They’ve even become friends. Their lives are far from perfect and they currently are not speaking to each other but at least they did reconcile to a degree.

Margolick’s work with Elizabeth and Hazel has me wondering more about the people in the photograph I wrote about for my book. Does anyone know the people in the photo at the top of this page? I don’t know much more than the caption tells us – the shot was taken by John Malone for the Nashville Banner.  I believe the girls are being walked to Buena Vista Elementary, though I could be wrong. I’d like to find them and learn whatever they have to teach.

It’s easy to look at black-and-white photographs and think, “That’s over. That happened a long, long time ago.” What we can learn from books like Elizabeth and Hazel is that nothing is so tidy as to ever really be over. Good photographs capture the truth, but they can only capture a moment. Life, with all its chaos and sadness and redemption, spills over the frame.

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Last night, I spent about an hour Skyping with a good friend in California (grad student, genius, and fellow writer C.E. Tucker – keep an eye out for his work) on my fantastically fast and clear MacBook Pro. When I got off Skype and left Christopher to his scriptwriting, it was a little before 8 p.m. I decided to open my net browser and check email before heading off to read a book, and I saw the announcement on Apple.com – Steve Jobs, 1955-2011.

Stories about Steve Jobs abound across the various media outlets this morning. Two separate articles – one about his death and one about his vision – are the most popular on NPR.com.  The front pages of washingtonpost.com, nytimes.com, and cnn.com each boast about five separate articles about Steve Jobs’ life, inventions, health, and impact. Every media source is announcing his passing in an overly-large font.  The New York Times is inviting readers to submit photos of themselves using Apple products over the years.

Other front-page articles of the day? The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. Sara Palin won’t run for President. Occupy Wall Street continues. Cnn.com, which always strives to keep it classy, prominently features articles about Anthony Weiner Halloween costumes and Amanda Knox’s potential book deals.

If I hadn’t stumbled into my kitchen a little later than usual this morning (I’m on Fall Break), if I hadn’t had time to read the Editorial page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I would not have heard NPR’s end-of-the-hour broadcast or seen the tribute buried in the Local section of my newspaper – the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, tireless and vital leader of the Civil Rights Movement, passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Like Jobs, Shuttlesworth had been ill for some time, unlike Jobs, online memorials will not be pouring forth for the man who is credited with bringing the Civil Rights Movement to its largest and most influential battleground – Birmingham, Alabama.

Shuttlesworth was one of the “Big Three” in the movement, co-founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy. I first heard of Martin Luther King sometime around 1984 when my first grade class read about him in a Weekly Reader. I did not learn about Abernathy or Shuttlesworth until the summer before I began graduate school, when I read Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter’s excellent write-up of Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement.

McWhorter’s tome is over 600 pages long and filled with narratives about every major figure on both sides of the movement in Birmingham. It weaves the fabric of history and narrative seamlessly, but the sheer number of people involved, combined with their varying motives and degrees of involvement, can make the book feel overwhelming in places. Through all these fighters, all these characters, the one that rises above the fray, the one most memorable to me, is Shuttlesworth.  I devoured any portion of Carry Me Home in which he was a major figure, and that is a good percentage of the book. At times, he seems almost like a superhero – dashing in and creating good when all hope seems lost.  He was also completely fearless. Throughout the book, he calls out to those who would stop his movement or physically harm him. He loved reminding segregationists that they were going to lose. He openly challenged Bull Connor, often calling up the brutal segregationist to let him know where they would be demonstrating, inviting the public safety commissioner to come and “be a part of history.” He called the movement what it was: a war.  In an interview years later, Shuttlesworth said the goal of his work in Birmingham was “to have a war against injustice. Not against people – against injustice. A war against any system that sets up a thing where a man cannot be, cannot become.”

It was Fred Shuttlesworth who confronted the racist institutions in Birmingham long before the national spotlight turned there. Shuttlesworth convinced Martin Luther King to bring the crux of the movement to Birmingham. Shuttlesworth organized the Children’s Crusade that so galvanized the movement and horrified the nation. Shuttlesworth sheltered the Freedom Riders in his church after they had taken brutal beatings and it seemed they could not go on. It is widely acknowledged that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have been passed were it not for the tireless work of Shuttlesworth and the activists in Birmingham.

Shuttlesworth himself suffered tremendously. His own decision to become an activist in the movement had been brought about by the elimination of  segregated schools through Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. His most severe beating came three years later, when white men attacked him, his wife, and his two daughters as he attempted to enroll his children in an all-white high school.  Shuttlesworth was beaten with chains and brass knuckles. His wife was stabbed in the hip.  Over the years, he suffered other beatings, was injured by fire hoses, and was arrested more than three dozen times. He was twice targeted in bombings.

Through all the physical and emotional persecution, Shuttlesworth never cowered. In fact, I think one of the reasons I’ve been so drawn to him would have to be his fiery, indomitable spirit. He could preach love, yet wield words as weapons. After emerging, miraculously unscathed, from his dynamited home on Christmas night in 1956, a police detective told him, “If I were you I’d get out of town as quick as I could.” Shuttlesworth replied with, “Officer, you are not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could save me through this, I’m here for the duration and the war is on.”

We don’t often encounter Shuttlesworth in watered-down stories of the movement. Even McWhorter writes that “his personality did not invite the term ‘beloved’.” And, because Shuttlesworth forced us, all of us, to confront the uglier side of our own humanity rather than creating shiny toys, remembrances of him will be buried under the tide of memorials for Steve Jobs.

Now, don’t get me wrong – Steve Jobs brought some very cool things to life as we-in-a-certain-demographic know it. As I type this on my sleek MacBook Pro, I’m listening to classical music on West Virginia Public Radio (which I much prefer to Chattanooga’s station) through an app on my iPod touch.  It’s a lovely fall day and, at some point, I plan to sit on my porch and figure out what the latest version of iPhoto can really do. Next week, when I travel to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books, I will be able to carry my iPod touch in lieu of my laptop. With it, I will check the weather, send emails, and do a little conference networking, all from a device smaller than the palm of my hand.

One quote that has been floating around about Jobs today is that “he knew what we needed before we knew we needed it.”

Apple products are great, ingenious even, but I could have written this on a typewriter and sent it to newspapers in the hopes that someone would print it. I’d be fine listening to NPR through the radio. I could organize hard copies of my photos, get the weather through the newspaper, and network via business cards, address books, and ink pens.

If anyone gave us what we needed before we knew, it was Fred Shuttlesworth. His life’s work was not limited to people who could afford to buy gadgets. It has benefitted us all.  Shuttlesworth’s colleague, Martin Luther King, once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  In this country, at the very time that Steve Jobs was born, America was not a just place. Everyone – white and black – was aware of it. And whether they were willing to admit it or not, I believe most people knew that this unbalanced world, this institutional and vastly unfair way of being, was rending the fabric of American society.  Years before the movement really took off, Fred Shuttlesworth was challenging the horrible, horrible injustice of segregation – the injustice that was constricting everyone and preventing this entire country from becoming. He and the other members of the SCLC chipped away at it until Jim Crow was brought down and we could all be freed from its tyranny.

One of my earliest memories of using Apple products is of sitting in the computer lab at my elementary school, confronting a game called “Math Blaster” on an Apple IIE. As I recall, the game involved solving math problems quickly enough to allow a stick figure to be shot from a cannon at the circus. The problems came faster and faster until, eventually, everyone’s stick figure perished. My character died frequently, and we all thought this was hilarious. I remember sitting in that room full of white, black, and Asian first-graders, all of us laughing and laughing. Steve Jobs brought us the computer, but Fred Shuttlesworth brought us each other.

Much work remains, but the foundation has been laid.

We still live in a society that perpetuates a “system where (people) cannot become.” Perhaps the next great innovator will combine Jobs’s technology with Shuttlesworth’s vision.

But, rather than waiting for that singular person, let’s pull out our idevices and learn about the men and women of the civil rights movement who knew what we needed before we did. In his memory, let’s continue the war against injustice which the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth fought so boldly across seven decades. The work remains and innovations in all facets of American life must continue.

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The good folks at The Tusculum Review, which is based out of Tusculum College in Greenville, Tennessee, have given their thumbs up to Confederate Streets.  Incidentally, you all should really pay attention to the TTR and the Creative Writing Program at Tusculum. 2010 was a good year for them – contributor Irene O’Garden won a Pushcart Prize, advisory board member Jaimy Gordon won the National Book Award for Lord of Misrule, and a couple other contributors had some books published, too.

Plus, TTR Editor, Wayne Thomas, is a graduate of the West Virginia University MFA Program, which guarantees he’s running a high-quality operation.

Check out the Tusculum Review here: http://www2.tusculum.edu/tusculumreview/

The review of CS is here: http://www2.tusculum.edu/tusculumreview/2011/06/10/kirsten-eve-beachy/

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While news coverage has been awkwardly sandwiched between the royal wedding and the death of bin Laden, most of you probably still know that, last week, the South was hit with the worst tornado outbreak in history. At last count, 266 tornadoes rolled across the South over a period of about 20 hours.  The death toll is still in flux, but it’s somewere around 350, making it the deadliest storm since a similar incident in the 1930s.

Hamilton County, Tennessee, where I live, was hit  by about 8 twisters. 11 people died. At least 80 are dead in the Tri-State area of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, of which Chattanooga is the urban hub.  Every rural area where I enjoy road-biking was hit, with portions of Apison, Tennessee and Ringgold, Georgia wiped off the map so completely that emergency workers can’t use the street grid to find addresses. 

Since last Wednesday, those of us who were relatively unaffected by the storms (my part of town abuts against a ridge which served as a rather effective shield) have struggled with what to do in their wake. Do we take our bottled water and old clothes to area shelters and then go on as if nothing happened?

I am a writer, so I write. I am also a detail person (well, in some ways I am), so I take note of the pieces of debris I’ve found around me – shingles, insulation, bank deposit slips, children’s homework papers, receipts, pieces of paperback books – all blown in from Alabama, as far as I can tell.  I’ve been collecting it all in an empty flower pot on my porch. Expect an essay about that soon, but for now I’m not doing much. The words are there, somewhere. For now, I am thinking about destruction and wondering about redemption. I am wondering if the message of Easter will ever resonate again and, given today’s big news story, wondering how death, especially any death in the face of a brutal war, can ever be cause for unrestrained celebration.

There are ways to offer help to the tornado victims, however. The easiest and quickest thing to do is to text “Redcross” to 90999, which will set you up to donate $10 through your phone bill. If you’re in the area, the WRCB website has published a list of volunteer and donation opportunities.

Although some of my friends did suffer property damage, everyone I know is physically okay. My students are, too.  But many people are not, and those people require our thoughts and prayers. Thanks.

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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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Last Monday morning, I grabbed the almost-full box of books I’m still trying to sell. (Fortunately more like a quarter-box now) and headed off to Martin Luther King Magnet at Pearl High School.  When I went there in 7-9 grade, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet High School for the Health Sciences and Engineering. Being as I wasn’t much of a health scientist or engineer, I left in 10th grade to go to Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet.

Anyway, while most people probably don’t dream of the day they will triumphantly return to their junior high school clutching an essay collection, I kind of did.  I was actually a student at MLK when English teachers starting to pay attention to my writing. I was at MLK when I decided I would write a book someday.

That was almost 20 years ago. But, once again, I found myself in the sort of time warp one experiences on trips home.  As I say in my chapter on MLK, a lot has changed around the school – it has landscaping, the street is a thru street, the Hale Homes have been razed and replaced with HOPE VI Housing – but a lot is the same.  The hallways are still brown tile, the seventh graders still stick close together.

I sat in the hallway at MLK during lunch and watched the kids milling about. A couple old teachers came by and bought the book. After lunch was over, an English teacher invited me to come speak with her study hall group, and the kids were full of questions about what the school was like 20 years ago.  From our dialogue, we determined that the teachers were different, but the quirky,misfit spirit of the school was essentially the same.

After about 25 minutes with the class, it was time to go. I thanked them for listening, walked down the hall, and out to the principal’s office. Just as I was saying goodbye to her, a school resource officer came up and said, “We’re going to have to put the school on lockdown immediately.”

The principal and I agreed that I should get out before I was stuck indefinitely. Then, a couple boys ran in to the office.  They were frantic.  It seems they had been outside when they heard about 15-20 gunshots and  saw a car going up the street with its windows shot out, being pursued by an SUV.

I decided not to go out there.

When I was a student at MLK, we had a similar situation. There was a hostage situation in the housing projects across the street and we were not allowed to move around the school.  But it was a pretty primitive lockdown compared to the one I saw on Monday. Twenty years ago, we were told to get away from the windows (so we all ran to the windows), but we weren’t given any other explanation. I remember I eventually wandered out into the hall, found my soccer coach and teammates also wandering the hall, and asked if we would still have our game that day (we didn’t).    Shades were drawn, doors were locked, walkie-talkies brandished.  Every room was its own shut off little pod.  I sat in the main office with a motley crue of office aides, seniors, 7th graders, and a former French teacher. I tried to sell my book. 🙂 The atmosphere was pretty relaxed, really, and after 35 minutes, we were freed.

As far as I know, the police never found either vehicle. Just as I did twenty years ago, I think of the layers and layers and divergent lives converging on one space, interacting with and effecting each other, deliberately or not.

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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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