Archive | August, 2013
Aside

The Stories Behind the Stories: Clovis Clementine

26 Aug

The Stories Behind the Stories: “Clovis Clementine”

Jennifer Moore's conception of Clovis Clementine

Jennifer Moore’s conception of Clovis Clementine

Helllo all:

Writers are always asked “Where do you find material for your stories?” and “What ever inspired you to write this piece?” With the wild topics in “God’s Naked Will,” I have already received several such questions. I thought I would go through the table of contents and give the history of the inspiration for each story and how those stories came about. John Dufresne used to post on his blog “Today’s Short Story Waiting to be Written.” I guess I would call this “The Inspiration for Yesterday’s Drivel.”

These will appear as weekly entries on my blog going through the table of contents of God’s Naked Will in chronological order.

So that brings us to the first chapter of God’s Naked Will, the story  “Clovis Clementine,” and one of the wildest stories I have ever written.

The original inspiration for this story came from a newspaper article in the Atlanta Constitution that ran sometime after September and before December, 1997.  The article told of an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court of a denial of workmen’s compensation benefits. The claimant had been a groundskeeper of a cemetery near New Brunswick. The cemetery had been flooded by a hurricane–I can’t find the name of the hurricane, but it must have been sometime in 1995 or 1996 for this case to have worked its way to and through the GA appellate courts.

The hurricane had flooded the cemetery, saturating the grounds and causing the coffins to pop up and float off with the rising waters. The claimant had, as part of his job, been required to stuff the dead bodies back into the coffins and retrieve all of the lost bodies he could find for reburial. As a result of this traumatic experience, he became neurotic, having dreams and nightmares of bodies floating around him and rising from his floors, and even woke himself once as he shot holes in his chest of drawers trying to kill one of these zombies.

He had applied for workmen’s compensation benefits when he could no longer do his job, and of course, had been denied. The Ga Supreme Court also denied his claim, stating that the GA legislature had not provided for benefits to be paid for mental incapacity and urging the legislature to take immediate action if that was their intent.

Well, I had found me a story!

Along about that time I read a book that also provided a profound influence on the evolution of this story. The book was by Tom Wolf—The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. You gotta read the book. But Wolf created some fantastic images, and I became fascinated by the psychedelic world of LSD.

So I created a main character who was an acid-head and a Vietnam vet—yes, even I knew at the time it was clichéd but I used it to get started. I set him up working at the cemetery and dropping acid and having flashbacks. Then one night he walks outside after the hurricane and falls into an open grave and believes the rapture has happened. That was when the bodies all jumped up and started talking to him.

While I was living at Russellville Ar., from 1998 till 1999, I hired an MA student studying creative writing at AR.Tech to critique my stories. Although at the time I was far too narcissistic about my writing to realize it, he was an excellent coach, and I wish I could remember his name so I could thank him. He suggested the story was clichéd, and that I should “Drop the acid” (he laughed at his own joke) and concentrate on the real problems of mental illness.

I fired him shortly thereafter for being such a lousy judge of creative talent. My bad. This was 1998.

The story sat neglected in my archives until I started the MFA program at McNeese in 2002. I pulled it out, polished it up, and submitted it to workshop, once again to have my hopes dashed by the Portland Mutual Admiration Society (The PMAD”S, students all from Portland who believed they owned all of the creative talent in the classroom and everyone else sucked) and the Dead Poet’s Society (poets in the program who believed rhythm was all that was necessary—who needs story in the face of iambic pentameter) who believed the story a complete failure.

The story was once again set aside indefinitely.

I completed my MFA program, graduating in 2006 from the University of Memphis. Shortly thereafter, my younger sister died from complications created by her battle with schizophrenia. I also watched “A Beautiful Mind” with Russell Crowe and an episode of “Criminal Minds” where a schizophrenic criminal took hostages on a bus and the director included scenes that revealed the hostage-taker’s visions of the voices and people talking to him, telling him what to do. Of course, these people could not be seen by the hostages.

This got me thinking more about that old story I had titled “Acid Images.” I loved that story, but I had learned that the ones we love are usually the one’s we need to let die.

I had learned much about acute paranoid schizophrenia by then—dealing extensively with the illness as a result of the affliction of my sister, my duties as a prosecuting attorney responsible for civil commitments of the mentally ill in Arkansas, and a defense attorney with clients stricken with the illness. I had learned immediately there is no help, and little if any resources, available to the mentally ill and the families struggling to deal with mental illness. I had also learned that many of the Bible-thumpers in the Bible-Belt South attributed mental illness to demon possession.

Here I must acknowledge the influence of being raised in a Pentecostal church that firmly believed in demon possession. They taught and talked about demon possession incessantly—almost as much as they preached about the rapture—and they believed that you could be possessed by simply watching “The Exorcist” or attending a Kiss concert. To me, slasher movies are not scary, because I nothing that walks on two or four legs will ever frighten me. But The Exorcist was the scariest movie I had ever seen because I was taught all of my life that demon possession was real, and I would be possessed if I ever watched this movie.

I still have family members who claim watching that movie is what is wrong with me today.

I remembered the earlier critique where I was encouraged to “drop the acid” angle of the story. I started thinking I could revise the story and keep basically the same plot, only use mental illness instead of LSD. I could also drop the PTSD-Vietnam-Vet cliché. Few if any of our vets returned from Vietnam to turn into John Rambo. Although PTSD is a severe problem, after the death of my sister, my passion now was for those suffering from mental illness. The character was a flawed cliché that had to be dropped from the story. I just wasn’t sure how to replace him. I now had a potential revision.

Then within a week’s time, my mother and my younger brother both asked me about that old story of the cemetery caretaker. This was now 2011. They remembered that story after all of those years and wanted to know what I had done with it.

So someone else had been as smitten with the story as I was. Every once in a while you have those moments as a writer where you think, that just maybe, someone gets it.

A short time later I came across a call for submissions from Flying House. Flying House selected six writers and six artists and paired them together to create a new story and new artistic creation for the Flying House Anthology. At the time, this had nothing to do with the story, but eventually wound up completely changing the story.

I applied, as I apply for everything, thinking I had no chance of being selected, and was fortunate enough to be one of six writers chosen for the project. More importantly, I was matched with the brilliant Chicago photographer Jennifer Moore. Before I even talked with Jennifer, I went to her website and viewed her work. I was awe-struck. She had exhibits touring Europe and all across the United States. I was worried she would object to even being matched with me.

We finally caught up on a phone call and got to talking about our creative interests. Jennifer seemed to have a morbid, spiritual fascination with the macabre and grotesque, and I knew we would be like peas and carrots. We both agreed her pictures should reflect her own visions and interpretations of the themes of the story and not just illustrate the story.

While chatting with Jennifer, I thought of the old “Acid Images” story. I told her of the story and how I had considered completely revising the plot and approaching the issue from the point of view of an acute paranoid schizophrenic. I hoped to some day use the story to call attention to the plight of the mentally ill and to show just how much courage it took for them to live each day of their lives.

I have always believed my sister, Sheila, was one of the most courageous people I ever met.

Jennifer was fascinated with the idea and wanted to work on it, so our collaboration began.  I shifted the focus of the story to schizophrenia. I was also working on new stories for my collection and thought I might be able to use some religious themes within this.

This story could never have taken the shape it achieved without the incredible input from Jennifer Moore. She tirelessly read revision after revision, offering invaluable insight and advice that resulted in major revisions and minor tweaking and even individual word choices.

As the story took shape, I knew it needed a new title. I assigned a working title, “The Cloven Hoof,” but I wasn’t happy with that. I gave my character the name of “Clovis.” But I couldn’t decide on a last name. So I went on Facebook and asked for suggestions. A dear friend from high school, Jenifer Dodd Vanaman, suggested “Clementine.”

I had the name for my character, and the title of my story—“Clovis Clementine.”

I finished revisions of the story, and Jennifer Moore finished her photos for the story, and we all met at the Maes Art Gallery in Chicago, Illinois, in late August of 2012 for what proved to be one of the most exciting professional events of my life. My oldest son, Clinton Mitchell, attended the event with me. Having him as a part of such a fantastic professional event was priceless. My children have been made aware of my many failures-certain people in their lives have made sure to point these out—and I have made their task easy over the years. But for once, one of my children saw a side of their father no one else in my family had ever experienced.

Maes Art gallery, Chicago, 2012

Maes Art gallery, Chicago, 2012

When we write a story, we know our own vision and understanding of the story. When I finally observed the photographic essay Jennifer Moore had created for my story, I was speechless. My favorite was the one of the flies stuck to the paper, which s perfectly depicted the hysteria that is acute paranoid schizophrenia.  Her vision and interpretation of “Clovis Clementine” was simply amazing. Her photos for this story can be seen on her website by clicking here:

http://jmooreart.com/section/324722_Clovis_Flying_House_2012.html

When selecting and arranging the stories for the book “God’s Naked Will” I knew I needed a story at the beginning of the collection with a ‘WOW!” factor that would stir my readers to want to read more.

I knew there was only one choice for that position! “Clovis Clementine.”

Ms. Moore and I have continued to collaborate on other projects. We have a new manuscript titled “Original Sin” of stories and photos we are marketing in Europe. Jennifer continues to experience tremendous, well-deserved success for her visionary photographic work that now lines my living room wall.

And now you have the rest of the story, of an idea that evolved over fifteen years, from 1997 to 2012, of a story that became a collaboration and a testament—I hope—to the plight of the mentally ill

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For My Sister Sheila: An Elegy. From “Temenos”

20 Aug

 

Sheila: An Elegy

            Sheila was my sister. A year and a month younger than me, she was the best brother I ever had. My first memories are of her and the games we played together at the small house where we lived on Carmen Street in Flint, Michigan. Daddy always made sure we had a big yard to play in, and I remember the day he had the chain link fence installed to keep us in the yard and prevent us from playing in the street. But that fence couldn’t contain my sister and me.

            Not long after Daddy bought the fence, the vacant lot next to our home began to fill up. A construction crew had dug and poured a footing for the home a lady named Martha planned to move there. The mound of dirt lining the trenches provided a perfect battleground for us. Even at the ages of 4 and 5, we knew about war. We watched the movies and the news of Vietnam on television. I started Kindergarten in 1967, so we got to see plenty of footage about the war, about people dying, about people being bombed.

            We took our baseball bats with us to that vacant lot. Bats made perfect rifles. We also carried along a big bottle of Bayer’s Children Aspirin, the little orange tablets that tasted like orange sherbet to us. We roamed over the mounds of dirt, shooting little Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers as we moved strategically around our fortifications, and every time we got shot, we took an orange flavored aspirin to heal our wounds so we could continue to fight. Sheila liked those aspirins; she kept getting shot, and pretty soon the get-better pills had all disappeared. So we went home to see if Mom might have anymore.

            I don’t remember a whole lot about what happened next. I even called Mom to see if she might remember. She said she had wanted to take Sheila to have her stomach pumped, and Dad refused, saying it was children’s aspirin and she would be fine. We had no insurance because Dad was self-employed, so going to the hospital pretty much required us to be dying or severed from an appendage. Mom told Dad Sheila had better be fine. If anything happened because they didn’t take Sheila to the hospital, she would never forgive him.

I felt as if I was to blame. I don’t remember getting a spanking for our offense, but I do remember sitting next to the couch where she lay under a blanket and praying she wouldn’t die. I also remember that I never found another bottle of Bayer Children’s Aspirin where I could get my hands on it.

That was the first time I watched my closest friend endure something that I could not help her with, and the experience was the first of many where Sheila would endure travesty after travesty for which I could do nothing.

In Michigan at that time, kindergarten kept for a half-day. We lived close enough to the school for me to walk there and back. I missed my sister at first, but soon became caught up in my new world of education and friends. Sheila waited for me at the fence gate every day and insisted I tell her what happened at school. All she knew about school was what I told her, but I tried to share with her all of my new world: how we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day, how they taught us to count to one hundred, how we got to go outside and play at recess, and how I traded things Mom sent in my Superman lunchbox for really neat goodies that we couldn’t have. Sometimes I saved her Snickers bars or other things I traded for, and I gave them to her as soon as I walked home. She had to eat fast before Mom discovered us and took the candy away.

Coming home every day shortly after noon gave us the rest of the day to play and explore. Sometimes we even played school, where I served as the teacher and she played the student and I gave her homework and helped teach her the alphabet and numerals. I played the roll of a dedicated and stern taskmaster, always seeking to impress upon my student the urgency of learning all I could teach her if she were to ever graduate from Kindergarten and make something of her life–like I had.

Dad always came home late in the afternoons. He sat on the couch and relaxed as he watched Walter Cronkite tell of the Vietnam War, the anti-war protests, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and the battle raging for civil rights and equality. Momma cooked supper and then placed the food on the table. After Cronkite finished, we sat and ate.

All of those voices and all of that rage seemed to plant a seed in Sheila’s young mind. That seed lay dormant until she reached her late teens, early twenties. But then it seemed as if the rage sprouted and took control. Watching her was like watching all of the voices on television, and once again, just like when I was a boy, I did not understand. I did not understand the rage, or where it came from. And I did not understand what to do to help her deal with her rage, with the voices.

My family always came together at the end of the day for the evening meal. I tried to continue the tradition with my own children. But for many families today, this ritual is impractical. Both parents work and children attend daycare or go to school. Meals today are an inconvenience; meals are no longer a time when families come together, thank God for the food they have, and without any interruptions spend fifteen or twenty minutes as a family. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, which doesn’t mean she didn’t have a job. She had a difficult one, because in 1965 she had a set of twins, and in 1967, the year I began Kindergarten, she had Billy.

One day Daddy came home early from work. He arrived shortly after I got in from school. His presence seemed odd, but what he did next etched itself into my memory like a scar. I remember him going to his bedroom and bringing out a double-barreled shotgun, and a Winchester 30-30. I watched as he loaded them both and then stood them by each side of the door. The box of shotgun shells and the half-empty box of rifle shells he placed on the television. He then pulled the rocking chair away from the wall and over in front of the television and turned on the news.

I remember a bit about that day besides what I have already described. I remember Walter Cronkite being on much earlier than he normally was. I remember the words assassination, and Memphis, and Martin Luther King. I remember the words race riots and Detroit.

Now I know that King had been assassinated Thursday, April 4th, 1968, on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. I have even been by that hallowed ground. I know that race riots occurred across the country after his murder. In Detroit, 38 arsons occurred that first weekend, and black Americans rioted in Flint, Ann Arbor, and Lansing. I also know now why my father came home early that Friday after King’s assassination, and that I must have watched or heard at least part of the story as Walter Cronkite told of these events.

Like Martin Luther King, her dreams were never realized. Unlike King, Sheila never had a grand dream. Her humility in accepting her role as a second class person who didn’t matter still stirs my heart to sadness. Her needs and wants were simple. She yearned for friends, but could only find those who would use her for a place to stay or for a free meal. She yearned for children, but her pregnancies all ended with a miscarriage or a stillborn child. She yearned for a good husband, but he stole her prescriptions and sold them on the street, and when she became unbearable from being off her meds, he’d file charges against her and have her arrested so he could have her home to himself. When we evicted him he burnt her house down. After a court battle and an annulment, we took the insurance money and bought her a home that she got to see on an occasional weekend—a home the authorities released her to so she could die with her family. She would never own a car, never know what it was like to just go get in and drive away out into the countryside and turn up the radio and drown out all of the noise around you. I brought her cigarettes on too few occasions, and she would hug me like it was Christmas morning. She loved Christmas, not for the gifts she received, but for the gifts she gave, and she always found something for each of us. But like King, she left us too early. And like King, her memory still inspires and stirs to excellence the ones who knew her.

But all I knew then was that my sister and I were safe from the people who rioted across the country; that my baby brother in his crib and my twin sisters who also wanted to play school with us were in no danger. We continued to play kindergarten in our back room, and we didn’t worry about a thing. If anyone came to riot at our house, Daddy had his shotgun and would be waiting for them at the door.

At least until Momma called us to the supper table.

The news coverage of the Vietnam War scared me. I didn’t know what a war was. All I knew was what I saw in the movies. In the movies, which at that time were all about World War II, people lived in fear of being bombed. Nearly every movie I watched had scenes where the air raid sirens blared and planes flew overhead and bombs dropped and exploded, destroying the homes and lives of those in the movie.

I lay awake one night crying, waiting for the bombs to fall. Daddy heard me crying and came upstairs.

“What’s wrong, son?”

“I don’t know what we’ll do when they bomb our house,” I said.

“Who? Who’s gonna bomb our house?”

“The Vietnamese.”

He laughed. “The Vietnamese won’t bomb us, son.”

“But they’re the enemy. We’re bombing them. They’ll bomb us back. It’s only fair.”

“They don’t have the airplanes to get all the way across the ocean to get to us. And we live right in the middle of the country so they would run out of gas before they ever got here.”

“That’s what Sheila said.”

She hung her head over the side of the top bunk and looked down at us. “I told you so. Now can we go to sleep?”

I learned that day to trust what Sheila said.

During the next year, many changes happened. Ms. Martha moved in next door. I can’t remember much about her, except that she seemed to live alone, and anytime we were thirsty, we knocked on her door and she gave us a Dixie cup full of sweet, cold, Kool-aid. Her house became a first-aid station during our war games, especially since we could no longer acquire our get-well pills.

School started and I officially moved up to the first grade, and Sheila started Kindergarten. Even though she would only be attending half a day, she would still get to walk with me in the mornings. I will never forget that first day of school for her. Before we walked out the door, Daddy brought the two of us together.

“Son, your sister begins school today with you,” Daddy said.

“I know. I can’t wait to show her around,” I said.

“This is your sister.” He pulled Sheila and me both into his arms–up close where he could whisper into our faces. “As long as you are alive, she is your responsibility. As long as you are alive, son, she will never stand alone. You take good care of her, and I will always stand behind both of you.”

Then I was too young to understand what Daddy was saying about standing behind both of us. Later in high school, when Sheila and I stood and fought battles together, Daddy kept his word. As long as I stood by my sisters or brothers, I never had to answer to him for my actions.

I wish I could say I honored Daddy’s commandment. I can say honestly that I tried, although I can’t say I did the best I could. Sheila died on Valentines Day in 2008. Through the years that will follow my sister’s death, I will question my self and my actions, and I will wish I had done more. In all fairness, I did plenty. During the later years of Sheila’s life, as her brain succumbed to the schizophrenia that stole her from us, all of my family stepped up at times and stood by her. But, all of my family can also say they could have done more. Still, Daddy’s words have been repeated to my oldest daughter the first day her younger brother tagged along with her to school, and those words were repeated to both of them when my youngest son finally started school.

And I am proud that my middle brother Billy had the same talk with his son, Jake, when Paige, Jake’s younger sister, started school. My father’s words created a bond between my sister and me that would be tested severely by her sickness. But I tried, and to this day, I continue to try by sharing with the world the horrors of the way we treat our mentally ill and by trying to call attention to the need for more and better care. Maybe some day my actions can make up to Sheila the many times I failed to keep my promise to her and Daddy.

Other changes happened during the sixties that we didn’t quite understand. Our Grandpa Howard passed away. I remember how he always gave us dollar bills. Mother still has the last one. He always brought ice cream to the house and insisted that Mom give it to us while he was there so he could watch and laugh at us as we got it all over. My last memory of him involves his bringing ice cream and him sitting and laughing at the twins in their high chairs as they spread their ice cream all over their trays and then dumped their bowls on their heads.

Grandpa kept an apple orchard there in Flint, and I remember riding with Sheila through the rows of trees on a flat bed trailer pulled by an old 8N Ford tractor. Grandpa would stop and my cousins helped us load the bushels of apples, then we’d haul them to the front yard. The bushels were too heavy for either of us to move by ourselves, so Sheila grabbed one handle and I grabbed the other, and we managed together to heft them up onto the trailer where Lanny, our cousin, arranged them and placed them in order. I remember watching as people pulled into the driveway and bought those apples. More than anything, I remember the sweet smell of that yard as it filled with Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and McIntosh apples. No matter how many bushels of apples we moved to the front yard, they always seemed to sell.

I also remember sneaking around and stealing apples off the top of each bushel and eating so many that I became sick.

One day we went to Grandpa’s house and things seemed different. I watched my cousin Suzie break down crying as some of my mother’s family carried her to the back. I crawled up in Daddy’s lap.

“Why is Suzie crying, Daddy?”

“Your Grandpa died.”

I got down and walked back through the apple orchard. No one I knew had ever died before, and no one bothered to take the time to try to explain death to me. I understood Grandpa had gone on to be with Jesus, and that was good. But I also knew I would never ride on the trailer through the apple orchard again with him driving the tractor. I walked through the rows of trees and cried, heartbroken and alone.

Sheila found me at the back of the orchard. She put her arms around my neck and hugged me.

“Why are you crying?”

“We won’t get to see Papaw anymore,” I said.

“Yes we will. He just went to heaven. Mommy said heaven needed someone to take care of their apple trees. We can ride the tractor again when we get there.”

That suited me just fine when grandpa died; it suits me just fine now.

Dowler’s restaurant in Hooker, Arkansas.

11 Aug

 

I live in downtown Lafe, Arkansas,–that is if you can say we have a downtown. Maple Street crosses County Road 125 in front of the Lafe Volunteer Fire Department. There is a four-way stop sign there. On the northeastern corner of the intersection there used to be an old building that many years ago served as a general store for the Lafe Community. I wish those walls could have talked. Last fall we all came together and tore the old building down. I live in the white house next to that vacant lot.

In my backyard I used to raise chickens, but I got tired of feeding the chicken hawks, coyotes, and every stray cat and dog in the neighborhood with my birds. I couldn’t shoot all the predators, so I gave up and sold the birds to my son’s in-laws. Yesterday I bought eggs in a grocery store for the first time in nearly a year. They were not the same.

Lafe has one store–a little convenience store that sells gas, greasy food, excellent pizza, some fine flathead catfish, and cold beer. I remember the stink when they held the hearing at Lafe City Hall for the beer permit for the store. Every bible-thumper in five counties showed up to protest. I actually wrote a story titled “The Mayor of Delbert, Arkansas,” based upon that town hall meeting. The story was published in The Evansville Review.

Just a couple miles south of Lafe is a small spot in the road named Hooker. I remember as a kid there used to be a green sign just outside of Lafe that said Hooker, 2, indicating Hooker was two miles away. The local kids kept spray painting dollar signs on there faster than the road department could take them off, so I guess they gave up and took the sign down.

Hooker is just an intersection where an agri-supply store sits, but a jewel also sits there that all the locals know about called Dowler’s Restaurant.

I love this restaurant for many reasons. It is small, and the tables are long. On Friday when they are crowded with people eating the best catfish in northeast Arkansas, you will find yourself sitting with a stranger who will soon become a friend before the meal is over.

Another reason why I love this restaurant is how everyone knows all of the others who eat there. A conversation will be carried on between three or four tables. You will hear names like Beaver, Tug, Huckster, Bruiser, and Fish. You will hear talk of the weather, of ancestors, of people who need prayer, of shooting coyotes and chicken hawks, of old coon hounds and ex-wives, of children who have grown up and gone bad. You’ll hear talk of crops and plantings and harvests, of duck guiding and deer hunting and crappie fishing.

You will sit next to the Mayor of Lafe, whose wife works at Dowler’s. Our mayor is a good community steward, who last winter during the big snow storm was out in his 4-wheel drive, pulling people out of ditches and checking to make sure everyone had heat and filled prescriptions and food. You can even complain about something to the mayor, and it will get done. I recently mentioned that tree branches had covered the speed limit sign on my street so that you could no longer see “Children at Play.” The very next day the branches were cut.

But the best reason to go to Dowler’s is the food. Each weekday they have a different plate lunch—a meat and two or three vegetables. My schedule hasn’t allowed me to try them all yet, but I am working on it. On Thursday they have the best, I mean THE best fried chicken around. And on Fridays from around 11 till late they serve catfish. Their fillets are thick, well-seasoned, always cooked to perfection, and piping hot when they come out on your plate! I recently proposed to the woman who cooked their catfish, but she was already married and claimed to be too old to start over, but she said she’d keep cooking catfish for me if I’d keep coming back every Friday. So I try not to miss. They serve Arkansas catfish, and you can taste the difference with every mouth-watering bite.

On Wednesday they serve white beans and ham with fried taters. Last Tuesday they had meatloaf and mashed potatoes. The potatoes were smothered with brown gravy, and the serving covered half of my plate.

Breakfast is awesome and very affordable. I had the pancakes just recently, and they were light, thick, and fluffy, with a hint of vanilla. An order of sausage or bacon is less than a buck on the menu, and everything is cooked to order. The coffee is good, and your cup will be kept full, but usually by someone sitting at your table who gets up and grabs a pot and makes the rounds for the waitresses busy delivering food.
The hamburgers cannot be beat, but I have only had them twice, as I always seem to be there for the plate lunch or the catfish. The burgers are thick, loaded with condiments, and smoking hot off the grill.

On the inside, the walls are covered with varnished finish grade plywood and trimmed with stained one by fours. The walls are covered with old mounted deer heads, faded and dusty with time.  Duck prints in cheap frames truly mirror the fields that surround Hooker on any fall day when the ducks and geese start pouring back into the area on their way south for the winter.
I have eaten at Dowler’s often enough that the ladies know me by name, and they call me by name as they say hello every time I walk in the door. I get better service there than I do at my Momma’s house, and I always tip well, leaving an extra dollar or two besides the customary 20% in the community tip jar they have at the cash register.

They cook a different dessert every day. One day it will be chocolate cake, and the next it might be strawberry cake or a peach cobbler. While you are eating your meal, the waitresses will bring dessert to you on a tray and let you pick the slice you want that day.
Dowler’s closes around 2PM every day except Friday when they stay open until around seven, unless they sell out of catfish sooner. They open early in the morning to serve the farmers, who have gotten up even earlier and already put in a couple hours in their fields or shops before they come in for a late breakfast at 6AM.
There are restaurants like this all across the south. I remember an eats place in St Paul, Arkansas, a small town down the pig-path south of Fayetteville where we’d eat after a morning of squirrel hunting in the White Rock Mountains. The little lady who ran the place made the best cream pies, and we’d eat a late breakfast or early lunch and order every piece of pie she had cut and buy every chocolate and coconut crème pie she had in the oven. I think I proposed to her a dozen times or so. I have a weakness for redheads and great cooks, although I have yet to find a woman who is both and is available.

I believe it is important to support the small, local restaurants, businesses, bookstores, or services provided by your local communities. When I do have to eat elsewhere, I miss most the family atmosphere of Dowler’s. This atmosphere can be found in many small, local restaurants throughout the south, but won’t be found in the larger restaurants that only care about how much you spend while you are there. It seems as if the folks at Dowler’s are happy to see you there, and they work hard to make sure you will come back again. There are far too many businesses that could care less about earning your dollar a second time. The concept of a customer for life has disappeared from the big businesses that now dominate our economy.
If you know of any restaurants like Dowler’s, I’d love to hear about them. If they are close enough, I’ll drive by and give them some business.  If you’d like, write about them and send me a guest blog. Tell me about the place in a way that I can feel like I am there, see the walls of the dining area, smell the aroma of the food.
I’ll be glad to share your post with my readers!

CD Mitchell: Why I Write Southern Sacrilege

5 Aug

Why I write Southern Sacrilege

By CD Mitchell

 

I wrote my first story when I was ten years old. It sucked, but all first drafts suck, and I have several stories in their tenth or fifteenth revision that still suck. I have a book coming out soon, but that doesn’t make me a good writer. In fact, when I teach college composition, I always tell my students I am no different from them—I am simply a struggling writer seeking to improve every day—constantly trying to understand why I feel this urge to spell out my thoughts and feelings and to spill my guts to the world so they can judge and label me.

Growing up in the south has shaped me into that creature that many writers do not want to become—a southern writer. The proverb is that one should write what we know. I know life in the south, as I was born and raised there. That is what I write about. Unlike many others who would shun this title, I not only seek it out, but am proud of it. I am not worthy of being mentioned in the same breath with other southern writers before me, but to simply imagine myself as a “southern writer” is nearly as great as the dreams I had as a child of playing in a World Series for the Cardinals or flying F-15’s against the Communists.
Due to bind luck and sheer determination, I will have a story collection released in September, 2013. My stories are steeped with religious themes and sexuality—even a bit of erotica–and none of them have the kind of ending that would send a Bible-thumping Pentecostal shouting down the aisles over “Gawd’s” many blessings. In fact, I have been accused of writing these stories to piss off preachers, and one lady even suggested that to write stories like this a preacher must have really hurt me.

So I got to thinking and wondering why religion is so prevalent in southern literature and in my own work.

To my ancestors, religion is a family business, just like carpentry. Nearly as many of my fifty odd first cousins went into religion for a living as they did carpentry and the building trades. My mother carried us off to church every time the doors opened, and she refused to let us go to church anywhere else. As children we used to play “Church,” and being raised in a Pentecostal church is a bit different from any other religion. They are over-bearing, obnoxious, judgmental, condescending, loud, enthusiastic, and wonderful people. They believe that each soul has a special calling and work to do for the lord. At a recent family reunion, one of my “Christian” aunties grabbed me and pulled me off to the side.
“Son,” she said. “I have felt a special burden for you lately, and I have been praying for you every day. When are you gonna give in and follow the lord’s calling for your life?”

She was one of the many that believed I would make a great preacher. But like the comedian Rodney Carrington noted, I’d have been a great preacher, just a bad example.

“I have found my calling,” I replied. “And I am doing the lord’s work with a dogged determination.”
“Oh, thank you, Jesus,” she said. “And what is that calling, son?

“God has called me to go out and do shit on Saturday night to give you people things to pray about on Sunday morning.”
“Git away from me you rotten scoundrel,” she said. She laughed as she walked away, but I don’t think she meant it.

I should have told her God has called me to write about the insanity of religion.

My family believe in fearing God, and they believe in scaring children into worshipping God. Many nights I went home scared to sleep after a Sunday night service.
Recently I revealed this truth to my mother, who simply replied, “Well, if you’d been right with the lord, you wouldn’t have had any reason to be scared, would ya?”

They had a clichéd, one-line response, usually including some reference to scripture, for every situation

After giving a friend a copy of an anthology that published one of my stories to place in the waiting room of his office, I was later told he removed the book because the opening paragraph referred to an incident of incest. He feared the story might offend some of his more conservative clients. I am sure the last entry of my new story collection, where the preacher gets bent over in the baptism tank by his head deacon while they engage in anal sex after baptizing souls all Sunday, will not be placed in the waiting room either.

Someone even asked me why I had to write “such blasphemy?”

I wasn’t sure, but I think I found my answers in the essays of Flannery O’Connor.

While traveling recently I stumbled upon Andalusia, Miss O’Connor’s home. I immediately performed a U-turn and drove up the long driveway. I had visited Rowan Oaks and the Hemingway/Pfieffer museum, but neither affected me the way that walking on the grounds of Andalusia affected me.

I walked into the front door and grabbed a pen to sign the register. The historian began his speech, and I asked him to wait, as I was a bit star-struck at the moment. I wanted to remove my shoes, as I truly felt like I was walking on holy ground. The greatest insights I received from this visit came later as I read her essays collected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald into a book titled Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. On page 142 I found an essay titled “The Church and the Fiction Writer” that held all the answers to my questions.

In this essay, Miss O’Connor speaks of the Catholic Church, but any religion could be substituted. For me I substitute all religious organizations. My interpretations of Miss O’Connor’s words in this essay are my own—the same way that believers interpret and twist the Holy Scriptures to support their own beliefs. I welcome comment or dissension on my interpretations of these holy scripts.

Miss O’Connor seems to say on P.145 that the church believes that, whatever the religious writer CAN see, “there are certain things that he should not see, straight or otherwise.” She observes that it is supposed by believers that writers should write fiction in a way to “prove the truth of the Faith, or at the least, to prove the existence of the supernatural” (145).  This would require the fiction writer to substitute the “parochial aesthetic and cultural insularity” of the church for his own vision of his art, and is also one of the gravest forms of censorship.

This seems to be exactly the response I have encountered. Because my first story spoke of incest, someone may be offended. But as a former prosecutor and defense attorney, I can tell you that any southern circuit court docket is loaded with such cases. I suspect the same is true for the north as well.

But Miss O’Connor notes that “what the fiction writer will discover…is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interest of abstract truth” (146).

The artistic writer will reveal his truth as he sees it, and he will refuse to allow anyone else to substitute their version of the truth for his. If the reader is not satisfied with my version of the truth, they can always read a book by Joel Osteen. O’Connor explains that such a writer “in so far as he has the mind of the church, will see from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery.” But on P. 146 she notes that “to the modern mind, as represented by Mr. Phillip Wylie, ‘this is warped vision which bears little or no resemblance to the truth as it is known today.’”  She suggests that the problem for the Catholic fiction writer is discovering the “presence of grace as it appears in nature” and not allowing his faith to become “detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is.”
Hemingway spoke of writing true sentences. O’Connor speaks of writing true nature, and that grace must appear from these observations, not be imposed upon them by the writer—that is, if the writer seeks to create true art. When O’Connor speaks of writing “nature,” she speaks of writing as the real world exists—not writing subject to a superimposed religious aesthetic.

Her words further indicate a belief that the Catholic reader—substitute Religious reader here once again—has separated “nature” and “grace” and “reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché” and that he recognizes “nature in literature only in two forms, the sentimental and the obscene” (147). Here she makes an incredible comparison of the sentimental to pornography. She defines sentimentality as “an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence.” That overemphasis tends to distort sentimentality into its opposite, the obscene.   O’Connor notes that we come to grace because of our fall. I believe she is saying that sentimental writing omits the concrete reality of our sins in order to arrive at a “mock state of innocence.” She compares this process to pornography, which she claims separates “the connection of sex to its hard purpose, [reproduction]  and so far disconnects it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake.” O’Connor says in essence, that pornography is simply another form of sentimentality. However, although I believe the religious reader will embrace the pornography of the imposed religious aesthetic and the sentimental nature of the fiction forged by this imposition, they refuse to accept this writing—I refuse to call it literature–as being as obscene as any form of pornography!

“When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality” (148). Grace must be revealed, she seems to be saying, by the true situations we face everyday. I can tell you from my own experience, the one-line clichéd answers tossed at me whenever I questioned religion do not fix these situations. “A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it” (150).

Any good preacher would here, after offering his verses as authority and his explanations as guiding principles, announce he was closing before offering his altar call.
My stories pull no punches. Make no apologies, and respect no persons. I write about life as I see it, and I write about the people that religion has failed. “It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life” (151).

On the last page of her essay Miss O’Connor explains that “the serious fiction writer will think that any story that can be explained by the adequate motivation of its characters, or by a believable imitation of a way of life, or by a proper theology, will not be a large enough story to occupy himself with” (153). If mother’s one-line clichés can explain away the heart of the story, why write it? I believe in the last paragraph of the essay, that Miss Flannery O’Connor instructs the writer who aspires to write true fiction to go beyond the point where religion has the answers: “…the meaning of his story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted” (153).

After submitting Job to horrendous trials in order to win a bet he made with the devil himself, God replaced all he took from Job with excess and abundance. If God had not rewarded Job, the story would have been completely different. I write about those God forgot to reward after their trials, those whose mistakes have left them suffering from burdens from which they can find no relief, or who suffer from burdens that, like Job’s, were created from no fault of their own. These are the characters who are truly challenged to find grace. If the reader’s faith is not strong enough to read these stories and receive the messages contained therein, then perhaps the stories can somehow bring them, to a closer walk with God. If not, they will find themselves as lost as the characters I have created. Of course, they can always read a book by Joel Osteen.
Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof!