Saturday, September 30, 2006

How Many Ways to Go Back Home

When I left Saint Louis many years ago I left believing I had no reason to ever return, except perhaps for the occasional visit such as the one I made just this past Labor Day. With both my parents having been long deceased and childhood memories that are ordinary, embarrassing, occasionally haunting and questionable, I’ve never believed I left anything that would make me want to go back to live there. In fact, now that I have firmly established myself in the Atlanta Metro area, married and all, I was even beginning to fancy myself a Southern writer, particularly since I have one manuscript set very distinctly in Atlanta. But, recently it seems as though my heart is beginning to soften when I think of the place that I no longer call home, but that I know is inherently a part of me; it is in my soul and has made me the person that I am. It took me a long time to accept this. People from the south have such a distinct personality and culture, as do those from the west and up north. Midwesterners, in my opinion, are a little generic, bland; no well-defined mannerisms, or accents or traditions. I wanted to be connected somehow to the rich civil rights history of the south, to be a Georgia peach. I even began to bask in the glow of people commenting on my supposed country accent.

Last spring break, I took a day-trip to Monticello, Georgia for some back roads photo opps and maybe some stories about ‘how bad it used to be’. I met three people there who all seemed like they belonged somewhere else. One lady was the first black president of the Monticello Chamber of Commerce, one worked for the chamber of commerce but had been an extra in several movies, and one was a man who ran a family-owned restaurant. All of them had lived in various places: Atlanta, California, Houston… When I asked how they ended up back in such a god-forsaken place, every one of them came back because of an ill or elderly parent. Again my parents are deceased, but from that moment on I decided to stop saying and believing that I would never go back. My Aunt, who lived for many, many years (over 40) in Detroit, went back home to Saint Louis at the age of seventy, after the death of her husband. This is a woman who has traveled all over the place, and if she was drawn to return, who am I?

The one thing, without a doubt, that has kept me connected to the place I was born, (besides the fact that I still have two sisters there), is its architecture. From the two-storied, red brick flats of Hyde Park, the granite and marble of its municipal buildings, or the distinct style of the public schools designed and built by William B. Ittner and Rockwell M. Milligan between 1897 and 1925, I feel inescapably linked to this city through its history and my own.

And now through my study of American History and Literature, I am discovering new ways in which I am further rapt by this city named for King Louis IX of France (1215-1270), and purchased from the French in 1803, by President Thomas Jefferson as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Those names that I was introduced to by street signs and suburb markers come to life in stories about colonial Saint Louis: Choteau, Laclede, Bellerive, Lewis and Clark. Now, the stories of Africans who were part of that colonial history haunt me; Dred Scott, Jeannette Forchet, William Wells Brown. And, then there are those that came later like, Madame C.J. Walker, Cool Papa Bell, and Redd Foxx. And, of course there is a rich literary history established by T. S. Elliot, William Wells Brown, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and Sara Teasdale.

Now, characters from Saint Louis in the 1790s, 1930s, 1950s, ’65 are beginning to possess me with stories of Gaslight Square, Laclede Village, Mill Creek and the dairy farms of Harney Heights in the 1800s. My Uncle, who has transcended this life, and in fact has rooted himself firmly as one of my muses, I believe, is heading this influx of spirit and energy. In an email just before his death, when I was ranting about how abeyant, fragmented and ordinary St. Louis and St. Louisans were, he gently reminded me that I “was of Saint Louis stock, born and bred. So, don't knock it”.

"The City of St. Louis has affected me more deeply than any other
environment has ever done, I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London."

— T.S. Elliot on St. Louis

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Shooting Hooky and Aspirations of Becoming A Writer

The three moments I remember as being a realization that I was on to something with this writing thing were the time I overheard my mother on the telephone bragging to one of her friends that I’d written a ‘book’. I was in the eight grade at the time, and she found out about it because I’d gotten into trouble for working on my ‘book’ (a story about a fashion designer named Casey Wycliff) during class time. And, in my junior year in high school, I entered a national scholastic writing competition and won fourth place for a one-act play about a teen-aged boy molested by his mother. I also got a fifteen dollar check from NBC for my efforts. Then there was the time my sophomore English teacher asked me to write an essay at the beginning of class. By the end of class I’d finished it, and unbeknownst to me, he entered it in a district wide composition competition, and I won third place. My essay was about what I did when I occasionally played hooky from school. Now, call me what you will (nerd, geek), but when I played hooky I’d go to Forest Park in St. Louis with the guy I called my boyfriend and…no, not climb in the backseat of a car. We’d go to the Municipal Opera (MUNY) during the off season, sneak in under a padlocked fence and see how it felt to be on the stage of an amphitheater. I’d fantasize about receiving a fifteen minute standing ovation for the opening and closing of my award winning play. But, there was another favorite hooky spot that I relished even more. Don’t laugh. It was the St. Louis Public Library.

Ah yes, I have fond memories of walking up the grand marble staircase from Olive Street which was used in the past as a reviewing area for parades passing through downtown. And, of scaling the Maine granite and marble panels with relief carvings of early printers' marks, decorative medallions, notable authors and inspirational inscriptions as I approached its doors. Traipsing its marbled floors modeled on the floor of the Pantheon in Rome; inhaling the aroma of the aged oak tables, marble, dust and old books is a scent that is eternal, and I will always treasure it. I recently learned that in 1901, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie offered the city $1 million for construction of this central library. And, that architect Cass Gilbert, who was the architect for the Saint Louis Art Museum, the U. S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. and the Woolworth Building in New York City, was selected to design the building. It opened in 1912.
Perhaps it is that geek in me that compelled me, while on a mini-vacation over Labor Day to visit my peeps, to drag my beloved to the place where I fell in love with books. He sat so patiently in the car while I got out, much to the intrigue of the downtown vagrants, and photographed this building that all of these years later still enthrall me.

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Short Story Options

The short story is a form that I am committing myself to practicing more of, and of which require skills that enable you to get to the point quickly, but meticulously in order to leave a reader with the thorough and utter satisfaction, as they would have had they read a 300 page novel. You would think that in our society of immediate gratification that short stories and short story writers would be all the rave. Admittedly, of the contemporary writers I know of, I’ve only read a collection called The Dialogues of Time and Entropy by Aryeh Lev Stollman, who also wrote The Illuminated Soul and The Far Euphrates. And, also I want to get to ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Yet, it is in the harried environment of a college classroom that I am beginning to appreciate this form as never before. Having a different assignment every 50 to 75 minute class period is exasperating only because there is not always enough time to really focus on and contemplate the meaning an importance of a novel, (although I have about twelve to read before the end of the semester). So, it has been with great anticipation that I have recently commenced to sit down to the short stories of Kate Chopin (Desire’s Baby, The Awakening), William Faulkner (A Rose For Emily), Charles W. Chestnutt (The Wife of My Youth), Katherine Anne Porter (The Grave), Jack London (To Build A Fire), and Stephen Crane (The Open Boat). These stories have been wholly rewarding, though not appreciating enough that it is already a short story, I sometimes find myself rushing still to get to the end. But, it is only because there is almost always a payoff, thanks to the cleverness of the writers who manipulate and construct these micro novellas into stories of love lost and found, identity, integrity, man versus nature, coming of age and race. Of the few short stories I’ve written, I’ve been accused by professors of needing to finish them. They say I always seem to have more to say. And, they’re probably right.

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