Arrives around midnight, an itch on the inside of the skull. A nag– a voice of a friend or professor, perhaps editor if you’re lucky. “You should be writing.”
So you drag your sorry corpse from the sheets and sit before a blank screen, fingers poised. Wait, you need to drink something, not anything too caffeinated. You still must work tomorrow, the “real work,” whatever that means; you feel less as if you’re producing anything there than spinning your wheels, making enough money to rent an apartment where you may write. Where you may store the books you buy and never read, neglected friends forlorn on the shelf. But of course it is past midnight, and the story or the novel or the poem remains unfinished. An aching empty, a white space suggesting brilliance but yielding nothing.
David Foster Wallace once said, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in…it’s actually kind of tragic because you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.” (Wallace interview here)
You worry about what it really is. Just words, your words even. A sad attempt at magic. You keep pulling rabbits from the hat, but they come out limp, dead. You envy the authors who make these tricks appear so easy, how they talk of their work as something natural. In their wizard presence, you’re a squib. But Ira Glass said something very similar about this terrible self-expectation.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
This sort of thinking lends me hope. When I was a younger, I was too stupid to question the validity of my work: of course I was a writer, destined to be a writer. I wrote a novel every year since the age of eleven, and while writing each manuscript, I never doubted it would be published. Now that I have my first novel published and some poems in journals, I am immobilized by the fear of not being good enough. My expectations for myself have drastically changed because I have the ability to perceive the gap between where I am and where I wish to be.
Sometimes the excuses come easy. I worked five months as a busboy in a fine dining restaurant following college graduation. I worked more than forty hours a week, often returning home exhausted. I would sit at the bottom of the shower, rubbing lotion on my calloused feet at one in the morning after working sixteen hour shifts, then wake up early again for another double. While I imagined this fast-pace life might have conjured stories, I became bloated with self-doubt. I didn’t write. I began and halted a few pieces. I gave up all summer revising my second novel, its direction unknown, the genre flip-flopping between magic realism and literary drama. I spent my days off in the library, typing at a school computer. I wrote first drafts for six or seven different stories over the summer, but still I could not forgive myself for not pushing myself further. After all, I had only become a busboy to create free time to write, to produce a schedule that would give me mornings to myself. And yet I found myself so often sleeping in, shirking all responsibilities.
When I quit being a busboy and began instead working at a used bookstore, I still didn’t use the free time wisely. Unlike in a typical job or even while at college, there were no concrete deadlines dangling over my head. It feels awful to be unable to recapture the productivity I embodied as a teenager or while I was in university; but I am learning too to forgive myself.
I am reading again. Mostly short stories. Returning to stories that shocked or changed me, stories that dug under my skin and remained with me. I sought out novels that had done the same. I have been spending entire afternoons on the Edge of America at Folly Beach, reading poems aloud to the Morris Island Lighthouse. I have spent entire days discovering discographies of jazz musicians to whom I’ve never before listened. I am unwrapping the world, and I can’t get it all down. Not all at once.
But I’m still trying. I have found a good new direction for revising my second novel and needed time away from it to figure out what to do. I am piecing together a poetry collection, which my publisher is currently reviewing. And I’m writing. Not always something I consider good or brilliant. I close my eyes and conjure something incredible in my head that never translates to the page. But I forgive myself for what I could not do, for what I could not write when I could not write. I forgive myself for waking late and sitting too long before blank pages before going to wash the dishes. Because it comes in the middle of the night.
I climb out of bed, something bouncing in the back of my skull. Insistent. An idea. A notion of where to take the story next. I sit down, and I write.
At first, I found his rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In” endearing, until I heard the same rendition, scratched out-of-tune against the violin’s abused strings, for the sixth time. He stands on the corner of Wentworth and King, battered case lying at his feet. I, of course, have witnessed street performances from around the world—the immigrant’s trumpet bellows in a walking tunnel in Tuebingen, the one-arm man’s accordion finesse in the city square of Krakow, the instrument-less lament of a Cuban opera singer at Havana’s rum-washed Malecon—and the man in Charleston, SC is not up to snuff.His repertoire is obviously lacking: he shifts between Charlie Brown and other pop standards before reverting back inevitably to “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
Although performing these songs on a broken violin seemed at first avant garde, a stab to establish an atonal surprise for the passerby listeners– the venue itself being remarkably fresh, music that takes place away from the hallowed concert hall. But I conclude that the man simply does not know how to tune his violin nor does he care that the instrument is missing its A-string.
Overall, three out of five stars.
“In the South everybody’s got a story, a long, elaborate, rambling, subordinate-clause-filled, bullsh–it-laced, possibly even entirely made-up story.”
—Diane Roberts, quoted in book review by Jay Watson in The Southern Register, Fall 2009
“Tell about the South . . . What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?”
—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
“The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country—fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.”
—Bill Maxwell, “There’s no place like the South,” St. Petersburg Times, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Huckleberry Finn floats down the Mississippi river on a raft. After Jim and Huck narrowly escaping slave-catchers, the raft runs up against a sturdy steamship, which cast Jim and Huck into the wild river. Somewhere northeast in Georgia, Flannery O’Connor sweeps through her front lawn and directs a flock of peacocks. Vibrantly colored, their feathers fan out like graceful spokes. South of her peacock sanctuary, a barn burns in Yoknapatawpha County. The history of southern writing is one of strange stories populated by ghosts and off-kilter characters. When one sets out to write a novel one considers “southern,” as I did when I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, the writer hopes to unsettle the narrative of the south.
Two interesting cliches emerge when I discuss The South (as a concept and place) with writers who did not grow up here. The first is the romantic view of The South borne of Antebellum dream: plantations lush with magnolia trees drip with beauty and Spanish moss. Somewhere down the road, a simple man plays a simple song on a homemade banjo as he sits on the front porch of a wooden shack he built with his own two hands. This version of The South is a quiet and wondrous place in which the potholes of the racist and violent past have been paved over. Sometimes southerners too conjure this vision of The South, though not everyone is self-deluded about the flaws of this place. Flaws flood unbidden the second popular fantasy of the non-southerner’s South: in this South, every person is a toothless hillbilly carrying sawed-off shotguns, driving too-big trucks, and fulfilling redneck cliches. In the second cliche of the South, houses fall into disrepair, tractors stampede through downtown, and cow-tipping offers the pinnacle of entertainment for any bored teenager.
Neither of these visions of The South prove true, which is why those who do not live in The South tend not to write about it. To them, it is a boring landscape of stereotypes. But read Faulkner. Read O’Connor. Read Toni Morrison. Read Twain. Read Pat Conroy. You will learn The South is a stranger landscape than it seems, a place that demands to be both criticized and celebrated.
When I set out to write Lickskillet, I wanted to write a “southern” story but rather than rely on the southern tropes of the past, I sought to draw from my own life. I grew up in the suburbs. Mundane hatred outweighed intentional racism. The neighborhood Bi-Lo parking lot offered a sanctuary for chainsmokers. The woods brimmed with promise of bonfire parties that never quite materialized. We lived lives informed mainly by imagination. Although violence became a footnote in personal and family history, rarely did these events occur in the light of day. Instead, everything is hidden.
Perhaps for this reason I chose to set my first novel in a fictional town, in which the dirty aspects of the town’s history could be contextualized as unreal. I don’t wish to tread on too many toes, though maybe that’s an unwise anxiety. One runs the risk, when writing anything incepted by personal experience and observation, of revealing too much. These days I live in Charleston, SC, a city made well-known in recent months due to the racist and horrendous actions that have taken place here. And this, I think, is an important consideration: in the same city as horror may appear, so may hope. So may love and family persist. Secrets litter Charleston like cigarette butts: the Starbucks across the road from College of Charleston was once the place where the gallows stood, the school library is built atop a graveyard of free blacks, and the charming downtown Market is referred to often as the Old Slave Market. Here the present interacts brutally with the past. Ghosts linger on every street corner.
In the second chapter of Lickskillet, a character named Aron King recounts a well-known local ghost story and laments that younger kids no longer carry on the tradition of sneaking into the so-called haunted house. According to lore, a rich Yankee recluse locked his mad wife in the attack until she eventually plotted his death– the details of where the authorities found his decapitated head, however, have been muddled by multiple re-tellings. In this geographical space, stories determine identity as strongly as do personality traits. Each character is haunted by the history of the space they inhabit. During this particular chapter, Aron develops a sense that the ghosts of his hometown have become irrelevant. Even the glorified past, often gilded in southern literature, is now falling apart; quite literally, the house is crumbling. Each time Aron and his friend Blaine return to the house and climb to the attic, their ritual smoking spot, the floorboards threaten to buckle. Always, disaster and darkness resides just off-stage.
If I were to attempt to describe Lickskillet in terms of genre, I would say Gothic Southern meets Young Adult Tragicomedy. I want an element of strangeness to rule the page and illuminate the lives of characters as they navigate their blooming lives. Each character is a teenager, young and eager to escape the dull town of Lickskillet, and yet they are still connected to the town’s irreparably southern past. One finds this strangeness in specificity: the peanuts floating in the Coke bottle, the kaolin sprayed on truck tires, the pop and sizzle of chicken frying, and the peculiar existence of characters who seem to belong nowhere else but here.
By here, I mean of course The South. The real South, a pulsing and writhing and alive culture. Southern stories carry a burden of unreality, the truth unfolding like some impossible origami. No human stands far from madness. No floor does not threaten to buckle. Illusions waver under the weight of old age. Haunted houses don’t stay standing; they burn down. Traditions do not remain constant; they slip and alter and grow anew. In these vulnerable moments, one may observe the center of strangeness to southern living.
I hope I have balanced the celebration and critique of The South, that I have struck some vein of truth in the stories that weave through Lickskillet. The place comes alive in my mind each time I revisit the novel, the town itself as significant a character as any of the people who live there.
I want my stories to hurt like a sweet tea toothache. Remember, they demand of the reader. Taste the blood-soaked dirt. Stick your face in it. And then sit on a porch at night in South Carolina and whistle in tune to crickets.
The following essay was written as part of a larger art exhibit curated by Roberto Jones called “The Contemporary Form,” which explored androgyny as a contemporary social and artistic concept. I provided the following essay as a plea to explore gendered expressions as not simply a political or artistic curiosity but rather a survival mechanism.
The Body Is Where We Live:
On the Importance of Questioning Gender and Embracing Androgynous Forms
A Short Essay
By Derek Berry
Gendered language is the sarcophagus but not the corpse within. You can
claw your way out of the coffin, sure, but how to escape the body? You live there,
every experience, every moment, every love, every thought filtered through the
reality of existing in that corporeal being, one you cannot escape except through
sleep or orgasm or suicide. Even dead, you cannot escape the tongues of
others—those who will name you boy or girl when you only ever named yourself
God or fairy or Leelah Acorn. The catch, that skin stretches around our
bones, a flesh-prison. A strange virtual reality video game, in which we sit rattling in
the consoles of our skulls, controlling human-shaped vehicles. In these vehicles, we
collide and crash and zip and brake—we live our entire lives within bodies. We do
not even understand what it means to live beyond the body, whether death be a
coda or refrain. So we have these: we own bodies, though several own the language
that describe our bodies. How can we own a name that does not belong to us, one
our tongues have never learned to properly speak? How can we own a body so
inscribed with meaning we did not choose, a library of misinterpretations that
mangle bones, that fertilize graves, and that trap us with organs, with body hair,
with blood. We do not properly understand the physical effects of gender, that these
transgressions do not only happen in discourse or in the classroom or in some
theory-ruled vacuum but rather on the body, in the body, to the body. Always the
body is the final secret exhumed, the final consideration behind the name on the
headstone or taste of the dirt. This is a cemetery we continue to dig.
In the past week, I have written 12,000 words. 1,000 of those words have been fiction, 0 words poetry, and the rest devoted to various academic projects. With the publication of my first novel fast approaching, I must consider myself more and more a writer, and yet such a title demands attention and effort. A writer, after all, must write. Not just blog posts like this one. Or Tweets, a form of which I am particularly fond. But rather, stories. Novels. Poems. Essays for lofty literary journals. And in the past few months, I have done little of this. Moored to the workload of senior year, I have neglected my holy and dreadful duties as a writer.
So what to do? What is a writer who does not write? Recently, my laptop crashed—kaput! The latest draft of my second novel, on which I’ve been working since my Freshman year at College of Charleston, was lost within a fried hard drive. The loss eliminated any motivation to continue working on the novel, and for the past four months, the story has languished in the purgatory of forgotten manuscripts. Where novels-in-progress go to die. Of course I still have the second draft for reference, and I can jump right back in with a new draft.
After all, my inspiration in writing has been replenished. This year I am taking my first ever fiction-writing course with Professor Brett Lott at the College of Charleston. What I expected to be a course crammed with trite advice and undergraduate pandering has actually been quite helpful. Several of the most basic lessons of fiction have eluded me until now, and I must return with a critical eye to my new material. Like all young writers, I am already terrified of my first novel (I wrote the novel when I was seventeen and eighteen), and yet I still have such pride in it. It is, after all, a fine work, especially for someone as young as I. But nevertheless, I intend to do even better next time, applying the lessons I have learned in the course.
But what of time? How does one grapple with the lack of time one receives in university? Some college students participate in Nanowrimo, and I long for the days I could spend hours in a coffee shop furiously typing. But no, that won’t do. It’s not that I don’t have the energy to write nor the ideas, but rather that other obligations have wrestled me away from the stories. Too often I wish to scribble ideas into a notebook and abandon whatever essay, presentation, or op-ed I am working on. Too often I find myself at the end of the day exhausted by the sheer effort of living, of academic rigor, of the expectations of professors and parents, of the black hole of social media that promises either publication success or ruin. Too often I find myself discussing writing with friends rather than writing. But I am finding my groove. I am writing on the toilet, on planes, in cars, in class, between classes, and in the library while I am supposed to be working on the two essays, three group projects, and poster presentation due in two days (as I am doing now).
So I must work without ceasing. I must work even when not writing. Always, a tiny elf sits in my head, scribbling down experiences, filing away gestures and odd phrases, and composing grand scenes. When I am in class, I am working: who needs to listen to a lecture on Benedictine monks when one has read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? When I am exercising (which means here riding my bike aimlessly through the decrepit and ruinous parts of my city), I am working. During sex, I am working. While eating lunch, I am working. While taking a shower, I am working. When I am out drinking with my friends, dancing a wild gig of youthful merriment, I am working. I am cataloging my life for the sake of my art. My mind is alive with stories.
I have taken a semester to step away from my second novel, hoping to return with renewed vigor during winter break. For now, I am perfecting my storytelling. I have written six short stories so far since August and I intend to write another two before winter crashes into South Carolina and forces me inside. And when it does, I will pour a hot coffee and keep writing.
Sunday morning brings a brief reprieve, a misty gray sunshine illuminating the still-flooded streets. As I walk to the coffee shop, jonesing for a rush of caffeine that might inspire my research and writing, I witness a small sports car marooned on smith street. Murky brown water reaches its window. The car has been long abandoned. It has become an island of rust and possible regret. The coffee shop is entirely empty, closing early for the day; we expect further rains to come later, and the barista must drive his bike through the cross-town where his daughters wait at home. As I walk back toward my house, Americano in hand, rain falls lightly.
But not rain like the hurricane has brought, great sheets of rain, waves crashing violently against the Battery. The pictures on the Internet are foreboding—streets become rivulets, gushing with sewage water. Trucks have become submerged in an aquatic traffic jam. Trees fell due to wicked winds. Overly irrigated front yards float. Enough rain to bring buried corpses to the surface. Worse still the news coming from the governor and president—a state of emergency! Enough fear to put your teeth on edge.
The rain will come again, tonight maybe. But for now I’m locked up inside. Day Four of lounging, reading, and listening to music.
I spent a good part of this afternoon lying in bed and listening to an album by the German composer Max Ricther called The Blue Notebook. The music is both classical and surprisingly subterranean. A melody that enraptures and envelops the body and mind.
I don’t mind the quiet. Friday night I attended a small get-together at a friend’s house, but last night, the rain proved too ferocious to bother. I stayed up until 3am, alternating between poetry books I want to re-read and episodes of Adventure Time. There is something calming, I think, about a storm. The hurricane forces one to stay inside, not fearing that some Apocalypse will arrive, that God will tear open the skies and snatch up the few believers yet. No, something else.
This is a makeshift baptism at best. The apocalypse will come later, maybe tonight, who cares? For now, I am learning to be alone, to be content with a pen and paper. To read more deeply. To listen more closely. Isolation both maddens and inspires. Outside, the rain slams against dirt, quenching its thirst beyond need; what gives life may also take life away. Inside I am lying in bed, enjoying exquisite absence, learning to hold no one’s body, learning to be in my own body and not outside of it. Learning to listen, to open the windows, to watch the skies split up and wonder what got God so angry in the first place.
I step out of the student secretary office into the sun and cross the street to the library in order to sit down and write my final thoughts on Tuebingen. I am leaving soon, spending the night at a friend’s flat before flying home tomorrow morning. As I pass across the street, I nearly stumble into The Naked Man.
The Naked Man stands in the park every day and has done so for the past few months, often half-naked. People say he’s crazy. He is a homeless man who dresses either in grass-streaked tidy-whities or a full suit. His favorite hobbies include snapping the branches off trees, assuming fighting stances, drinking beer, and laughing at strangers. He often walks toward strangers in order to laugh at them. That’s so strange, so unnverving.
When I bump into The Naked Man, he gives me a queer look, a cocktail mixture of anger and curiosity. And so I ask in German, “Hey, man, I’ve been watching you for some time now. Why do you do the things you do? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. You stand there and kick the air or talk with strangers? Why do you approach random groups of people to laugh at them?”
And that’s all I want to know, the underlying absurdity of his actions. A reason. A meaningful reason.
The Naked Man stares at me, his mouth breaking into a grin.
And he laughs. And laughs. And says nothing more.