Do You Hear What I Hear?

A good writer must cultivate acute observational skills, and that not only of the eyes, although that certainly is important, but also of the ear and the nose and the fingertips. Then he or she must be able to transform those sensations into words that prompt the reader to see, hear, smell, and feel the same sensations the writer experienced.

The importance of a good ear was recently re-impressed on me as I thought back to my childhood and a certain sound I sometimes heard.

My grandfather had an International Harvester Farmall Model H tractor, which I quite often heard as he used it for various tasks around the farm. It sort of “purred,” as some Farmall aficionados call that distinctive sound. I seem to recall it as more of a gurgle, especially when it was idling.

Rather, my mind’s ear heard what was a less frequent sound in our neighborhood, a sort of putt-putt-putt-putt. As my mind echoed the sound memory, it also flashed a bright green-and-yellow visual image before me. The sound came from the other side of the hilltop at my grandfather’s driveway, and I soon “saw” its source slowly top the hill. A John Deere Model G. (I later learned that the experts call its distinctive sound a “popping”; hence, the John Deere’s nickname of “poppin’ Johnny.”)

It was rare to hear that sound in our neighborhood. Other than my grandfather’s Farmall, the only other tractor sound around was that of Mr. Coomer’s orange Case. I don’t remember how it sounded, but I can still “see” him driving it, pipe clenched in his teeth, across his fields. I don’t recall who the John Deere belonged to. Probably someone from another community who came to help Mr. Coomer with some farm task that required a second tractor. But I can still see it and hear it these many decades later.

As I recalled that sound, I caught myself trying to replicate it. Then, to doublecheck both my memory and my mimicry, I “googled” the subject, and I found a plethora of audio and video examples. And, lo and behold! The sound was exactly as I remembered it!

That made me recall a similar incident years earlier. For one writing project, I needed to know the make and model of an old truck like the one my Uncle Dillon had used in his well-drilling business. I texted my brother, and right away he replied with the answer. He followed that reply with a question of his own.

“Do you remember the sound you used to make with your mouth when we were kids and playing trucks? It sounded just like Uncle Dillon’s truck starting up.”

I had not “heard” (or made) that sound in several decades, but it suddenly rushed into my mind’s “ears.” I rose from my office desk (I was still working in an open-office environment at the time) and looked around furtively to see if anyone else was present. The office was still dark, except for my desk area, the other employees not having yet arrived. I sat down and replicated the sound to which my brother referred. Then I laughed aloud. For the joy of such memories. For thankfulness that no one was around to witness my momentary return to childhood.

When I was a kid, I had no idea that I would ever need to use those sounds, especially not in writing. But I was observant (although some people surely thought I was oblivious) and stored those sounds in my memory bank. At just the right moment, they resurfaced.

Jesse Stuart was once interviewed by a young, aspiring writer. Realizing that the young man was not “getting” his verbal points about the importance of close observation, he took him on a little “field trip” to a local old-time hardware/feed-and-seed store. As the interviewer walked quickly through the old store, Stuart told him to stop and observe through his senses.

“Listen to the floors. Hear that pop, that creak? Do you smell the various odors–the oils on the floor, the seeds and fertilizers, the leather goods?”

That is what it means to observe with all your senses. Store in your memory bank what you see, hear, smell, and feel. One day, you’ll be working on a writing project and need those small “deposits,” which are really investments. And they will give a good return in the form of a vivid verbal rendering of the sensations you want to communicate. Your reader will see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. And then you will know that your writing has been successful.

What is your memory bank hearing today? Write about it! Let us “hear” it, too.

Seeing One’s Parents as Children

Rummaging through stored boxes in search of something can be time consuming, especially when one gets sidetracked along the way to finding the thing that prompted the search. But it can also be fun and enlightening.

I decided to indulge my curiosity when my recent rummaging prompted me to chase a rabbit trail. I never did find what I was looking for, but I discovered something else, and it made me see my parents as they were when they were children.

I ran across my parents’ grade cards and my mother’s school autograph books. (I don’t think their school had yearbooks back in the 1940s.) The time I spent pouring over those historic (to me) documents allowed me to see my parents in a new light.

As for the grade cards, I got a couple of surprises. Mother was always a good student, both in academics and behavior. She was especially good at math, something with which I struggled from birth. That’s why I was surprised–no, SHOCKED!–to see that she had received for one grading period a D in arithmetic. And I can only imagine what she must have done that prevented her from ending one year with straight A’s because she got a B+ in conduct.

Daddy was never as good as Mother academically, probably because he had difficulties reading. He once told me that even in high school, he had to have his mother read his assignments aloud to him. He read so slowly that he never would have finished his assignments otherwise. He was an auditory and tactile learner; he did things well and learned quickly when working with his hands. But the fact that he grew up on a dairy farm and yet one term got a D in agriculture, of all subjects, was an eye-opener for me. Yet, he was president of the school’s Future Farmers of America program and senior class president. (Mother was class vice president.)

But it was Mother’s autograph books that gave me a lot of laughs and revealed her and her classmates as just typical silly and fun-loving teenagers. Witty and silly rhymes seemed to have been “the thing” back then. But a few entries (especially those from teachers) were prescient. Following are some examples.

Dearest Hazel,

When you get married and live across the lake,

Send me a piece of your wedding cake.

Dearest Hazel,

The higher the mountain, the cooler the breeze;

The younger the couple, the tighter they squeeze.

This entry was by the school principal, E. O. Clark, and dated March 5, 1941:

A beautiful behavior is better than a beautiful form. It gives a higher pleasure than statues or pictures.

Some entries, like the following two, left me wondering:

  • Remember the day in biology when you slid under the table.
  • Remember always Wednesday night May 16, 1945.

Daddy wrote the following on January 11, 1944, possibly unknowingly foretelling their future. (He seemed to have written the same thing every year. He was either unimaginative or determined!)

When you get married and don’t go to school,

Have a good education and don’t marry a fool!

A mathematician must have written this one:

2 sweet

2 be

4 gotten

This one highlighted the bane of the female students:

Yours till stockings quit running and start walking.

And this one made a self-deprecating admission:

When you get married and live down South,

Remember me and my big mouth.

Mother’s home economics teacher concluded her entry with these words:

Hope you won’t find this final exam you are about to take too bad.

One boy wrote,

Don’t it make you mad,

Don’t it get your goat,

To get in the bath-tub

And can’t find your soap?

A boy named Glen was destined to be disappointed (Daddy made sure of that) when he wrote,

Sure as the vine grows around the rafter,

You are the girl I am after.

A number of friends were wiser than they knew, writing,

Love many, trust few.

And always paddle your own canoe.

After graduation from high school, Mother and some of her classmates enrolled at National Business College in Knoxville. The girls who signed her autograph book seemed to have gotten more serious; most of the boys, however, were as silly as ever.

Many girls wrote something that closed with “Remember me as a friend from N.B.C.” One boy wrote, “When you get through with the clock in typing next time, let me know. I’ll try to beat you to it one of these days. Hope you get 60 [wpm?] pretty often.”

A teacher at the college wrote, “To a good student one that doesn’t cause any trouble,” implying that some other students (probably the boys) did cause him trouble.

I could share more such examples, but I think you get the picture. Whereas we often remember our parents as the providers, guardians, disciplinarians, and maybe even as the spoilers of our “fun,” it’s sometimes good to remember that parents were once children, too!

Daddy and Mother on their wedding day

For More Information. . . .

For readers of this blog who are interested in learning more about the Travelers Rest Historical Society and the Spring Park Inn mentioned in today’s regular blog post, visit the following link:

Be sure to visit the video interview of Mrs. Nell Anderson Gibson, who bequeathed her historic home to the historical society!

Lost and Found: A Soldier’s Prayer

It seems that the most interesting discoveries are made when and where you least expect them.

When Nell Gibson passed away a few months ago, she bequeathed to the Travelers Rest Historical Society her home, an historic structure formerly known as the Spring Park Inn, which dates from the early 1800s. A few years ago, the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Society is currently in the process of having it restored to its 1880s appearance when it was a thriving inn beside the Swamp Rabbit railroad line.

While going through the furnishings and other memorabilia that the family left in the house, one Society member discovered among the papers of the late Marion Neves Hawkins, which she had entrusted to Mrs. Gibson, an historic gem. It is a single sheet of paper that sheds light on the innermost thoughts and concerns of a soldier who was soon to face the horrors of World War I. A handwritten prayer (transcribed below the photo of it), it apparently had been left by the soldier in a pew of the First Presbyterian Church in Greenville.

The soldier’s name, home state, and unit are unknown, but he was most likely from North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, or possibly even South Carolina, and he had to have been in the 30th, 81st, or 20th Division because those were the units being trained at Camp Sevier in Greenville and its associated Camp Wing in Travelers Rest. Consider his thoughts and concerns as he composed the following prayer:

Our gracious Father in Heaven I come to you in humbleness asking forgiveness for all my sins and all my faults. I pray Thee grant what I am about to ask of Thee, please Lord above make the terrible war to end soon hasten the day when we can once again live in peace happiness and harmony with our brothers the world over.

Bless–my wife and keep her safe from all harm and evil bless mother and make her well again. Bless Dad and keep and protect him and bless all earths inhabitants. Father in Heaven I know I am not worthy of Thee but please help me to be a man [grant?] me the wisdom and courage and the strength I need not only for the present time I am a soldier but for all the days to come. Make me a Christian like Paul and Christ who travel the roads of Galilee. Bless this Church I am in today bless the minister and all persons connected in the work of it; I know no one here but I feel at home be cause it is the House of God

In closing, God I thank Thee, if it can done and through you all things are possible, grant and help me in the things I have asked of you

I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ who gave His life so that we might have life eternal.


I got goosebumps when I read that note because I was researching Camp Sevier and Camp Wing at the very moment my fellow Society member notified me of the find. Such discoveries truly bring history to life!

Now I find myself anticipating what other historic gems await us in that treasured structure!

Dr. Reid says, “Open Wide!”

Some of my grandchildren made their first trip to the dentist .the other day Their experience made me recall my own similar experiences of my youth.

Our family dentist was truly a family dentist. He was not only my dentist but also my parents’ dentist. Before Daddy, he was even my grandfather’s dentist, too. So by the time I came along, he was almost part of the family, and he was quite old. At least I thought so at the time.

Dr. Reid was not only old but also strictly “old school.” He didn’t always go along with the younger dentists in the local dental association. He didn’t always agree with new-fangled ways of doing things or of keeping his patients coming back to him. They were both unnecessary and a bit dishonest, he thought. His way was to deliver good service, knowing that if he did, the patients would trust him and continue coming back whenever they needed his services. No sleight required.

Whether I was going to his office as a patient or accompanying one of my parents, I liked his office, which was situated on a hillside overlooking the Fountain City Lake (or, as most people called it, the duck pond). It formerly had been located down the hill and on the other end of the lake on the second floor of the Fountain City Bank building overlooking Broadway, U.S. 441, the main drag through Fountain City and Knoxville. (In the photo, it’s out of sight just beyond the fountain.) But he had moved to a house that he had converted into a dental office. (Photo by Brian Stansberry;

Dr. Reid’s waiting room was plentifully supplied with various magazines for every age and interest. Good Housekeeping-type magazines, fashion slicks, and Hollywood gossip rags for the women. News and sports magazines and Popular Science-type publications for the men. (I recall seeing an article in one of the latter magazines that prophesied that by 1980 every American would have access to his or her own flying car. They’re still trying to get that idea off the ground!) But my favorite was always Highlights for Children, and the hidden pictures page was my favorite of favorites.

On the walls throughout the office were original paintings created by Mrs. Reid. I have no idea of their worth or quality, not having yet, at that time, taken a class in Art Appreciation. I had no idea what chiaroscuro, Expressionism, or other such terms meant. That would all come much later.

What I do remember was Dr. Reid and his mannerisms when I was in the chair.

He spoke softly and as though his jaws were wired shut and as though he had a mouthful of mush. One had to listen carefully to understand what he was saying. As a kid, I wondered if he spoke as he did because he didn’t want anyone to see his own teeth. Was something wrong with them? Going to a dentist who had bad teeth made about as much sense as eating at a restaurant that had a skinny cook. You just didn’t trust the service.

Dr. Reid also had a sneaky way of administering Novocaine. He never prepared the syringe in the patient’s sight, but always behind the chair. Then he snuck his hand with the syringe down between the chair and his leg and brought it up slightly behind the patient’s head. Before the patient saw it coming, the needle was in the mouth, sharp end into the gum, and then the pain! I don’t know which I hated most, the nervous anticipation of what was coming, the pain of the injection, or sitting in the waiting room and hearing the drill dig into other people’s teeth.

I vividly recall–can hear even now–two things that Dr. Reid always said to me. The first was, “Now you just hold Mrs. Holbert’s hand.” (Mrs. Holbert was his white-uniform-clad receptionist/assistant.) “If it begins to hurt, you just squeeze Mrs. Holbert’s hand and we’ll rest a while.” I always squeezed her hand until the bones were crushed and the blood drained dry, but Dr. Reid never stopped to rest.

The other thing he always said was, “Open wide.” After I had done so, he would add, “Wider.”

I did.

“A little wider.”

Just as I was ready to scream, “It’s open as far as it will go!” he would start cramming stuff into my mouth: mirror, suction apparatus, fingers, sink, and who knows what else. Then, invariably, he’d ask me how school was going or something else. How could I answer with so much junk in my mouth?!

I failed to realize that the wider I opened my mouth, even if it was a little uncomfortable, the easier I would make his job, the less likely I was to suffer unnecessary pain because I would be giving him more room to work, and how much more quickly the whole ordeal would be over.

As I recalled those childhood memories, I thought of a verse that David wrote in one of his psalms. Quoting God, he wrote, “Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Psa. 81:10).

How often we miss out on great blessings because we don’t open our hearts wide enough for God to give us the blessings He has for us. Good things. Things that comfort us in times of sadness. Strength for our weak times. Wisdom for our times of indecision and uncertainty. And so much more.

“Open wide,” He says, and we open just a little.

“Wider,” He encourages. We respond with half-hearted efforts.

“A little wider.”

We limit the quality and quantity of our blessings by not opening our hearts fully and enthusiastically.

Need a blessing today?

Then “open wide!” Give God room to work!

Remembering Poppa and Momma Graybeal

A newspaper article characterized Harvey Dolphus Graybeal as “one of North Knox County’s most colorful old-timers.” I knew him as Poppa, my great grandfather, the father of my paternal grandmother.

I am fortunate to remember Poppa well, but he was a quiet man, so much of my knowledge came from personal observation and the stories with which my father and his cousin Kyle regaled me about him.

Poppa was born in 1880. He had a brother, Walter, and three sisters: Minnie, Tennie (short, I think, for the unusual woman’s name Tennessee), and Dossie. I vaguely remember Dossie, but I don’t recall either of the others.

The earliest record I have found of Poppa is an indenture document stating that on December 7, 1907, “William Graybeal and his wife Cornelia J. Graybeal” sold to “H.D. Graybeal and Lula B. Graybeal his wife” a piece of real estate for $250 cash. This transaction was witnessed by M.H. Mynatt, a notary public, and Dossie Graybeal.

I also possess a certificate dated August 23, 1918, and signed and sealed by Tennessee’s governor at the time, Tom C. Rye. It acknowledged Poppa’s election as justice of the peace for Knox County on August 1, 1918. Poppa’s term of office ran from September 1, 1918, to September 1, 1924. It was probably because of this elected office that many people called Poppa “Squire.”

Poppa apparently moved to and lived in Colorado sometime during his term as justice of the peace. I have a deed that declares that on June 16, 1920, David Lay and David L. Lay of Baca County, Colorado, sold to “H.D. Graybeal of the County of Baca . . . in consideration of the sum of One Thousand and NO/100 Dollars” a 160-acre “parcel of land, situate, lying and being in the County of Baca. . . .” Baca County is in the southeast corner of the state and borders New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma. In 2018, the population of the county was only 3,561, so in 1920 it must have been a lonely, isolated place indeed.

Poppa apparently did not like living in Colorado because he was issued a Tennessee driver’s license on July 29, 1920. He was 29 years old at the time. Furthermore, on August 31, 1928, “H.D. Graybeal . . . of Fountain City, Tenn.” contracted to sell to “F.M. Peterson . . . of Springfield, Colorado” the same property “for the price and sum of $2,000.00” with $50 to be paid upon the signing of the contract and the remaining “1950.00 payable on or before sixty days from” the date on the contract. I speculate that F.M. Peterson might have been Field Peterson, one of the sons of Joshua Peterson, who was my direct ancestor. Poppa had amazing foresight because the Dust Bowl of the 1930s did extensive damage to the county.

In addition to being justice of the peace, Poppa was at various times (often simultaneously) a “stock trader” (i.e., he bought and sold cattle, horses, mules, and other livestock), a blacksmith, a farmer, a sawmill operator, and a storekeeper. Daddy often referred to him as a “horse trader” and a “knife swapper,” but apparently it was as a storekeeper that he was most widely known. When I was growing up, he had long been retired. I never remember his doing anything other than tinkering in his woodshed and sitting in his easy chair.

Daddy used to tell us stories about going fox hunting with Poppa. They would sit in the dark woods for hours, listening to the baying of the hounds as they chased a fox through the hills and ridges and valleys and trying to identify the dogs by their distinctive barks at various points in the chase.

Poppa married Lula Belle Weaver and together they ran a store at the corner of Hill and Fort Sumter Roads in Halls, a small farming community north of Knoxville. My grandfather, Blaine Garfield Peterson, ran that store for a time after he married Omega Graybeal, one of Poppa’s five daughters. Daddy was a child at the time, and he recalled living in the rooms above that store when his parents ran the store for Poppa.

The Graybeal home was an inn of sorts. Often, the family boarded overnight travelers who were passing through the area. One newspaper account at the time of Poppa’s death stated that the Graybeals “fed the travelers’ horses the best hay in the barn.” Many of those guests also were revival speakers at Salem Baptist Church, which was situated across the road behind the Graybeals’ home and of which Poppa was a member. In those days, churches often held month-long revivals, so many of their guests were long term.

Poppa grew a handle-bar moustache when he was 21. He kept that facial feature the rest of his life, although he trimmed its size a bit. I always recall its being rather bushy and yellowish. Daddy explained that he recalled watching Poppa drink coffee and then “wring out” his moustache. Perhaps that’s why his moustache was yellow.

Poppa and Momma Graybeal (as we called Lula Belle) were intelligent, well-read people. Mother and Daddy bought them a subscription to Reader’s Digest for Christmas every year, and they read each issue from cover to cover. The also read the daily newspaper and, late in life, watched the news on television.

We visited Momma and Poppa regularly since they lived only half a mile from us. Where we parked depended on how long we planned to stay. If we were only dropping something off or simply saying hello, we parked beside a high hedge that ran the length of their property along Hill Road. A narrow opening in the hedge allowed access to their yard. If we planned to stay longer, however, we entered on the upper side of their property along Salem Church Road and parked under the large oak trees there.

My memories of Poppa are of a quiet, soft-spoken old man who always dressed in khaki or olive work pants and a matching shirt. (I think my father inherited both his reticence and his wardrobe from Poppa. Both were quiet men and wore khaki work clothes.) Poppa’s moustache covered an ample upper lip over a wide, straight mouth. He had a strong chin and walked with a slight stoop.

I seldom remember his saying anything, certainly nothing of great length, other than a quiet greeting as we entered the house and a quiet farewell when we left. I can still picture his sitting through an hour or longer visit and saying hardly a word, perhaps chuckling softly or nodding at something that someone else had said. If asked a question, he answered in the shortest possible way.

Momma Graybeal was the talker of the two. My most vivid memory of her, though, was of how she treated me when we visited. As soon as I entered the door and she saw me, she would grab me in a big bear hug and smother me with kisses. Although that might sound warm and comforting on the surface, it certainly wasn’t for me because she dipped snuff, and the snuff ran out of her mouth when she talked or laughed and into the multitudinous wrinkles that crisscrossed her chin, and her spittle got all over me! She finally would let me go, directing me to a high cabinet behind the front door, where she kept a crystal dish filled with stick candy. My favorite was horehound, but I would choose a peppermint stick if horehound was missing. That made the snuff bath worth it.

Momma and Poppa vacationed in Florida every winter for as long as I can remember. Their daughter Mavis and her husband Blutcher (“Blutch”) lived in Ocala in a house that Daddy built for them when I was still too young to attend school. The house was located behind the Swift Motel, and we spent our nights there and ate meals in the adjoining restaurant. The Swifts had a grandson named Kim who was my age, and we played together with his pony, Index.

Momma and Poppa Graybeal were married for nearly 67 years. They died within a few months of each other in 1968. They are interred in the Salem Baptist Church cemetery across the road from where they lived.

Not many kids today have the good fortune to know their great grandparents. I’m privileged to have known mine.

Making Military History Personal

As a teacher, I always insisted to my students that the study of history was about much more than dates and elections and battles; it is about people. History is best learned, I think, through the study of people, biography. That is even more true when you know–better yet, are related to–those people.

I rediscovered this truth when I got sidetracked while doing genealogical research. I had begun following my uncle’s footsteps through World War II. Uncle Dillon was a tank driver for forward observers in the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the 3rd Armored Division, the famous “Spearhead” division in the drive across Europe, breaching the Siegfried Line and entering Germany. My quest was somewhat stymied, however, when I learned that most of his personal military records had been destroyed in the great fire in the St. Louis military repository in the Seventies.

But I soon found another avenue of family history to research when I was trying to find information for my wife’s aunt, whose husband had been in the U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force during the war. I got some basic information from the aunt and began delving into the online resources. Here’s what I learned.

Uncle Paul was a crew member on B-17s in the 384th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 546th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), operating out of Grafton Underwood Airfield in England. (He is second from the left, front row, in the accompanying photo.) During the course of the war, he rose in rank from sergeant to staff sergeant. He received credit for 31 combat missions, his duty designation being tail gunner, although on nine of those missions he was designated a waist (or flexible) gunner. I was exhilarated when I discovered a website that gave every imaginable detail about every one of the missions he flew, including those on which the plane had to turn back because of mechanical problems, weather disruptions, or inability to locate their formation.

Interestingly, I also discovered that he had been involved in several missions that indirectly involved my Uncle Dillon, who was either on the ground in France at the time or soon would be. On June 6, 1944 (D-day), while my uncle, with the 391st AFA Battalion, was preparing to join U.S. troops after they had established a beachhead in Normandy, my wife’s uncle was on a mission to bomb two bridges in Caen, France, helping to ensure that the Normandy invasion was successful. On July 18, the day before my uncle landed in France, my wife’s uncle was flying a mission as part of Operation Crossbow, a bombing run against V-weapons in Zinnowitz, Germany. V-rockets had been causing havoc for the troops on the beachhead, and the B-17s were supposed to end that threat.

Then, on July 24-25, Uncle Dillon was poised in his tank to participate in Operation Cobra, the offensive to break out of the deadly bocage region of Normandy and begin the drive toward Germany. But first, the German front lines had to be pummeled from the air. The ground attack would be launched before the ground stopped shaking from the bomb blasts. Uncle Paul was in a B-17 in the air above dropping those bombs. The sad thing is that the wind had picked up and was blowing the colored smoke from bombs that marked the drop zone across American lines. Many of the bombs fell on our own soldiers, killing many. The attack was delayed until the next day. Again a preliminary bombardment was ordered, and again winds blew the marker smoke over American lines. More U.S. soldiers were killed, including the general who had gone to the front to determine what had gone wrong the day before. Nonetheless, the attack went forward, and U.S. troops broke out of the bocage. The race to Berlin was on.

Uncle Dillon won two Bronze Star medals during the war. Paul and his fellow crewmen also won numerous medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. (In the accompanying photo, he is the dark-haired airman standing on the far right, waiting to to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.)

I discovered a similar incident of crossed paths during the war. My father-in-law was on the other side of the world, serving as a seaman aboard the heavy cruiser USS St. Paul in Tokyo Bay during the signing of the surrender documents. Flying overhead in a show of American air power that same day was a waist gunner in a B-29. Years later, I would attend church with that airman. He and my father-in-law met years later when my father-in-law visited us and went to church. They shared an immediate bond when each related where they had been on that historic day.

If you want to study history “up close and personal,” do so by tracing the steps and actions of a single person. It’s even more rewarding and instructive if that person happens to be a family member! It’s exceptionally exciting when individuals’ paths cross! And it’s especially important that we learn, save, and tell (and retell) these servicemen’s stories as more and more of them are passing from this life. We must keep that personal history alive.

Flannery O’Connor on Writing

Although I do not read much fiction and write even less of it, I am interested in learning what has made certain famous writers (even fiction writers) successful. Surely something they’ve done to be so well received is applicable to my own writing, albeit nonfiction. My objective was to find it.

One of my recent writing projects focused on a select group of Southern writers, so I sought advice from an acclaimed Southern author, although she was not a member of the group about which I was writing. Although Flannery O’Connor was a Roman Catholic, whereas I am Protestant, I thought that perhaps I could learn something from her advice to writers. I did.

I found her words of advice in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, a compilation of notes and manuscripts she had used, or had intended to use, in speeches to various groups of writers and students of writing. Following are a few poignant nuggets of wisdom for all writers, but they are especially applicable to Christian and Southern writers.

Concerning Writing as a Gift from God

“The Christian writer particularly will feel that whatever his initial gift is, it comes from God; and no matter how minor a gift it is, he will not be willing to destroy it by trying to use it outside its proper limits.” (p. 27)

“The writer, in order best to use the talents he has been given, has to write at his own intellectual level. For him to do anything else is to bury his talents.” (p. 186)

“It is always difficult to get across to people who are not professional writers that a talent to write does not mean a talent to write anything at all.” (p. 215)

Concerning the Dilemma for a Christian Writer in a Non- or Anti-Christian World

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural. . . .” (p. 33)

“Today’s audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental.” (p. 161)

“The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point. . . . Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin. . . . [A]ny character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is a general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time. . . . [T]he greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. . . . [N]ot as sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God. . . .” (pp. 167-68)

“[T]he chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.” (p. 175)

Concerning the Importance of a Sense of Place

“When we talk about the writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him.” (p. 34)

“It is a great blessing, perhaps the greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others have to go elsewhere seeking.” (p. 54)

“The best American fiction has always been regional. The ascendancy passed roughly from New England to the Midwest to the South; it has passed to and stayed longest wherever there has been a shared past, a sense of alikeness, and the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light.” (p. 58)

“Behind our own history, deepening it at every point, has been another history. . . . In the South we have, in however attenuated a form, a vision of Moses’ face as he pulverized our idols. This knowledge is what makes the Georgia writer different from the writer from Hollywood or New York. It is the knowledge that the novelist finds in his community. When he ceases to find it there, he will cease to write, or at least he will cease to write anything enduring.” (p. 59)

“A great deal of the Southern writer’s work is done for him before he begins, because our history lives in our talk.” (p. 105)

Concerning Prejudice Against Southern Writing

“I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” (p. 40)

Her answer to the assumption of outsiders that “Southern writers have a penchant for writing about freaks”: “because we are still able to recognize one. . . . [I]n the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” (p. 44)

Concerning the Quality of One’s Writing

“[V]ery few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. . . . They are interested in being a writer, not in writing.” (p. 64)

“The novelist . . . , if he is any good, . . . selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time sequence for a reason. ” (p. 75)

“There may never be anything new to say, but there is always a new way to say it, and since, in art, the way of saying a thing becomes a part of what is said, every work of art is unique and requires fresh attention.” (p. 76)

Now, my next task is to see how O’Connor applied these principles to her own writing by reading some of her fiction. (Yes, I must read some of her fiction!)

By the way, I did just finish reading a non-Southerner’s autobiography, or perhaps it would be more accurately categorized as humor or creative nonfiction: James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times.

Hey, at least I’m venturing to read beyond my traditional comfort zone. Are you?

Playing Devil’s Advocate

Playing Devil’s Advocate

In last week’s blog post (see, I discussed the benefits of “slow writing.” Today, I want to play devil’s advocate and present an example of a prolific writer who most definitely was NOT a practitioner of that technique.

Jesse Stuart is one of my favorite authors because of his twin loves: teaching and writing. He is an exemplar of determination and perseverance, both of which are demonstrated in the first book I ever read by him–The Thread that Runs So True. He knew how to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf,” for both his students and his readers. His juvenile books present timeless values of character that are sorely missing in today’s world: A Penny’s Worth of Character, Andy Finds a Way, Red Mule, and many, many others.

Stuart took advantage of every moment to engage in the writing process, whether that was observing nature or people when he was on long walks and thereby getting ideas for stories and characters, composing sonnets in his head while plowing a steep hillside behind a mule and then writing the lines on broad leaves when he stopped to rest at the end of the row, or transcribing those lines on paper at night after the day’s work was done.

Stuart had an unquenchable compulsion to write, and when he wrote, the words gushed from him. After he was first published, he averaged a book a year. James B. Goode described Stuart’s writing style in the title of an article he wrote about the man: “Writing Up a Storm.” Harriette Simpson Arrow said of him, “The only way he could go was under full steam. . . .” Stuart himself admitted that “it gushes, and I get furious when anyone or anything gets in my way.”

Naomi Dean Stuart, Jesse’s wife, said that he brought a writing tablet to the breakfast table every morning because “his writing never stops.” He was more interested in getting the stories that were inside him out than in analyzing what he observed or tweaking and editing to perfection what he had written.

Stuart seldom outlined. He wrote intuitively. He hated revising and rewriting. His wife recalled, “When he starts, he will work until he finishes.” Once that first draft was finished, he moved on to another project, leaving it to his wife and publishers’ staff to edit it.

To write thus, one project after another, Stuart had to have an endless supply of ideas. He got those from his own surroundings. He had taken the advice of his favorite teacher at Vanderbilt, Donald Davidson, who told him, “Go back to your people. Go back and write of them. Don’t change and follow the moods of these times. Be your honest self. Go back and write of your country. Your country has your material.”

Stuart took that advice to heart and wrote about the people, places, and culture of his native land, Eastern Kentucky. And boy, did he ever write! More than 60 books, 450 short stories, and “at least two thousand poems.” To do that, he had to write fast!

The moral of this post, combined with all that I wrote in the preceding post about slow writing, is that you should find which technique–slow writing or speed writing, such as Stuart practiced–works best for you. Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. Write your own story. And give it the best you’ve got.

Featured on Southern Writers Magazine’s Suite T!

I’m so excited to be a guest today @SouthrnWritrMag. Read about lessons I learned from doing genealogical research for my book “A Goodly Heritage”: A Peterson Family Legacy at You can also view my page in the Gallery of Stars at