15 April 2013

YOU CAN'T GO HOME - Why I Write

by Fran Rizer

If you ever listen to radio, I'm sure you've heard at least one song called "You Can't Go Home Again" from performers like Lari White, The Judds, Bon Jovi, Sugarland, The Statler Brothers, Miranda Lambert, and many others.

Chuck Cannon
One of those songs was written by Chuck Cannon, performer and writer with hits recorded by many of my country favorites including Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, and Ricky Van Shelton.  To me personally, Chuck bears the distinction of being the person who made me aware that I'm short. 

Let me explain that I come from a family in which the women tend to be 4'11", so when I grew up to be 5'3", I looked tall when with my female family members.  I felt tall

At a songwriters' meeting where Chuck Cannon was the featured speaker, he performed his original "You Can't Go Home Again."  The host wanted a picture of the guests and said, "Taller people in the back."

I stepped to the back row beside Chuck.  He gently took my shoulders and moved me to the front row, saying, "You belong up here."  Sure enough, when I received a copy of the photo, not only was the front row the place for me, I was the SHORTEST person there!

Bet you're wondering, "Now where is she going with this?  It should be related to writing and/or mystery, but then, perhaps that's the mystery...what's she writing about today?"

Could it be about short people, even short writers?  William Faulkner was only five feet, five inches tall--taller than I am, but not especially tall for a man. 

Could it be about Chuck Cannon?  He wrote many of my favorite songs, including "How Do You Like Me Now?"

Could it be about literary techniques?  We've recently had blogs about constrained writing and frame stories.  (Actually the stream of consciousness technique is related to the writer today's blog is about.  He's classified as writing his Bildungsroman novels in stream of consciousness technique.)
"Dixieland"
None of those are right.  Some of you liked reading about my awesome moments in music.  Today I'm writing about an awesome moment in my teenaged years involving the person who made me want to be a writer.

The photo to the right shows one of American literature's most famous landmarks.  In an epic, autobiographical novel, this rambling Victorian building was called "Dixieland," but in reality the author grew up there when it was called "Old Kentucky Home."  I read the book when I was about thirteen.  When I got a car and license at sixteen, I took myself to Asheville, North Carolina, to see the house. 

There was a small card on one of the bedroom door frames.  On it was printed, "This is the room where Ben died."  Now, I was a pretty flip teenager, and Ben was a character in the book, but standing at that door brought tears to my eyes.  I thought, "If just the memory of a fiction scene can make me cry, then words are powerful stuff!  I want to do that."

While in Asheville that trip and many times since then, I visited the graves of O. Henry and, within walking distance, the writer who impressed me so --- Thomas Wolfe.
Cover of the first
edition, published
in 1929

I'm not talking about Tom Wolfe, who wrote Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and feuded with John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal.  I'm speaking of North Carolina's Thomas Wolfe who wrote Look Homeward Angel, which has not been out of print since it was first published in 1929.

Classified as possibly the most autobiographical Bildungsroman (a specific type of coming of age novel) by an American novelist, Look Homeward Angel follows the life of protagonist Eugene Gant from birth to age nineteen.  While I loved visiting the Asheville places Wolfe had used and renamed in the book, the people of Asheville weren't happy with his frank and realistic reminiscences. In fact,  Look Homeward Angel was banned from Asheville's public libraries for seven years. Today, Wolfe has become one of Asheville's most famous citizens, and his boyhood home is a National Historic Landmark museum in his honor.

Thomas Wolfe, 1930-1938
As an early teenager, I simply assumed that the title Look Homeward Angel referred to a stone statue of an angel that both Eugene and Wolfe's fathers used as porch advertisements at family graveyard monument shops each owned. (I saw the angel in a cemetery in Hendersonville, NC.) Wolfe's first title was The Building of a Wall, which he changed to O Lost before renaming it Look Homeward Angel: A Story of a Buried Life.  The title comes from the John Milton poem Lycidas. 

"Look homeward angel now, and melt with ruth; 
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth."
                                                            ---   John Milton


Asheville's reaction to Look Homeward Angel played a large part in Wolfe's next book--You Can't Go Home Again, that line so frequently used by songwriters.  (Chuck Cannon also has a song entitled "Look Homeward, Angel.")  I don't believe the inspiration for songs and other prose using Wolfe's titles came directly from Milton. Their influence is Thomas Wolfe.  Wouldn't each of us be filled with pride to have one or more of the titles of our writings inspire the work of so many other writers?

When young Thomas Wolfe gave his manuscript to Scribner's Maxwell Perkins, the editor insisted it be condensed to a more manageable publication size.  They cut sixty thousand words from Wolfe's manuscript before it was published at five hundred, forty-four pages. 

Why do I want to praise Thomas Wolfe to mystery writers?  In addition to being the writer who convinced me I wanted to write, I  believe good writing shares common features, whether literary or specific genre.  My words don't have the power of those of Thomas Wolfe, but I always aim to do for my readers what he did for me.  I want them to react with some kind of emotion.  I want to make them happy or sad or scared, but I always want to create feelings for Callie's fans.  (I cleaned up that last line.  At book-talks, I've been known to say I want my readers to laugh, cry, or wet their undies, but, as I've told you before, I'm trying to become more lady-like in my old age.)

The other reason is to give me the chance to share with you a quote from Thomas Wolfe in the event you have an editor who wants to cut some little darlings from your work:

U S Postage Thomas Wolfe
Memorial Stamp
"What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn , was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one wishes to publish."

                                                        --- Thomas Wolfe
                                                                                                       
How about you?  Is there a particular author, book, or event that made you want to be a writer?

Until we meet again... take care of you!

7 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Fran, the three books that made me want to be a writer were L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, Little Women, and Anne Frank's diary. But I confess the only thing I remember about Look Homeward,Angel (yes, I did read it) is that it was Maxwell Perkins who accepted the book and did that massive edit himself. They don't make editors like that any more!

David Dean said...

Though I grew up in Carson McCuller's hometown, it was short story authors that had the most inluence on me in becoming a writer: Flannery O'Connor (another Georgian), H.H. Munro, Edgar A. Poe, Ray Bradbury, and several others that I'll remember as soon as I submit this.

Fran Rizer said...

Liz and David, you both mentioned writers that also were great influences in making me want to read. LITTLE WOMEN was a big favorite as well as all of Poe and Bradbury's works.

Fran Rizer said...

Oops! I meant influences in making me want to write. Guess "read" was Freudian because I read these works over and over.

Herschel Cozine said...

An interesting question. I wanted to write for as long as I can remember and certainly before I read anything more than Dick And Jane.

When I was exposed to literature in high school, we read such authors as Jack London, Poe, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy. I remember wanting to have my stories eventually become "required reading" in school. Then it occurred to me that all of the abovementioned were dead. That, I thought, must be a requirement. So far, at least in my case, that's true.

Fran Rizer said...

Hershel, Interesting what our "dreams" encompass. I never thought of having my writings taught in school, though that's a great goal. I wanted to see my novels on the rack in the grocery store, which still hasn't happened, though I see them on book shelves and in libraries. Let's hope we both achieve our goals pre-mortem!

Eve Fisher said...

I always made up stories, but what made me realize I could be a writer was when (this is going to sound dumb, but I was a child) I realized that the Laura of the "Little House" books was the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote them. Wow!