Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Living in North Carolina - Reading, Writing, Teaching

This post continues my thoughts on my three years in North Carolina following Hurricane Katrina, focusing on reading, writing, and teaching.

CITY LIGHTS BOOKSTORE. This is a wonderful local bookstore in Sylva, owned and operated by Joyce. Joyce brings in many interesting authors, who read from and speak about their works.

One of the first authors I heard speak at City Lights was Kit Bakke, author of Miss Alcott's Email, about an imaginary cross-time correspondence between Kit and Louisa May. Kit would email Louisa, and Louisa would receive the message as a hand-written letter in her mailbox in Concord, Masssachusetts, in the late 1800s! Louisa's hand-written replies, sent by post, would appear in Kit's email in-box! This sounds a bit cutesy, but Kit pulls it off very well, and her book is an insightful, in-depth look at Louisa May Alcott and the cultural context in which she wrote, as well as at the latter half of the twentieth century, particulary Kit Bakke's years as a member of the radical left-wing group the Weathermen (or the Weather Underground)!

City Lights also brings in many local authors to read. At these readings, the owner, Joyce, often gives away advance copies of newly published books that Joyce receives from publishers. As one enters the room for the reading, one sees that every chair has a different advance copy book on it, so one can sit on a chair that has a book one finds interesting. The idea is to take and read the book on one's chair, if one wishes, and let Joyce know whether or not one recommends that she stock it.

City Lights has a wonderful custom of inviting volunteers to help with the annual inventory at the beginning of January. I did this in January 2009. I had a fun time working with a partner to catalogue the inventory of the store. We all had lunch together, and we each received a book of our choice as a reward for helping.

READING. I read all kinds of books that I never would have read if I hadn't lived those three years in North Carolina. These were books by local authors.

Ron Rash is a wonderful author who teaches at Western Carolina University. He has written poetry, short stories, and novels. I am especially taken with Ron's four novels: One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, The World Made Straight, and Serena. My favorite is Saints at the River. This novel begins with the accidental drowning of a twelve-year-old girl on vacation with her family near a fast-running river in the mountains of northwestern South Carolina. The girl's family wants to dynamite the river to bring up the girl's body so that they can bury her, while the local people don't want their river disturbed. It's easy to see that Ron began as a poet because his descriptions of the area and the people are exquisite and poetic.

Pam Duncan is also an author on the English faculty of Western Carolina University. Pam has written three novels: Moon Women, Plant Life, and The Big Beautiful, each one about rural women in North Carolina. I have enjoyed all three of Pam's novels. She is working on a fourth one, The Wilder Place, which I am eager to read.

Joan Medlicott is the author of the Ladies of Covington novels, about three ladies who become friends and reinvent their lives in their late sixties and seventies. I met Joan at a book fair in Sylva, as she sat at a table surrounded by her books, which had caught my eye. Joan assured me with great sincerity, "You will love my books!" I thought, Well, then, I'd better get started reading them! And Joan was right. I believe that I eventually read all the eight or so novels in the Ladies of Covington series, and I did indeed love them!

Charla Muller lives in North Carolina and wrote 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy. This book is Charla's account of the year following her husband's fortieth birthday, the year during which she provided him with a very special birthday gift--sex every day for a whole year. And then she wrote about this in a book.

Thomas Rain Crowe. Thomas is the author of Zoro's Field: Life at the End of the Road. This memoir tells of Thomas's four years living on the land of Mr. Zoro Guice in southern North Carolina in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Thomas, in fact, had determined to live as Thoreau did, but to do so for twice as long, as well as more thoroughly. Thomas really stayed on the land, living in a log cabin without electricity or indoor plumbing and feeding himself with what he grew. His trips to town for supplies were infrequent. In Zoro's Field, Thomas tells what it was like to live so close to the land, following sun time instead of clock time. He is realistic about the joys as well as the difficulties of his life during those four years.

Haven Kimmel lives in North Carolina and has become one of my favorite authors. Her books (two memoirs and four novels) take place in small-town Indiana, where Haven grew up. Haven's memoirs are A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, about her childhood through age ten, and She Got Up Off the Couch, about her depressed mother's decision to get up off the couch, attend college and graduate school, and begin a teaching career that has lasted into her seventies.

Haven has four novels: The Solace of Leaving Early, Something Rising (Light and Swift), The Used World, and Iodine. The first three novels form a trilogy about women in small-town Indiana: a young woman intellectual struggling to relate to two orphaned little girls, a young woman pool hall champion and carpenter, and three very different women who run the Used World Emporium and suddenly find themselves caring for an abandoned baby. I LOVE Haven's first three novels and each of the main women characters.

Haven's fourth novel, Iodine, is in a category of its own. It is written in the first person, from the point of view of a young woman with an abusive past and a shaky grasp on reality. In reading Iodine, one follows the workings of this young woman's mind, but her mind slips between fantasy and reality, and one is never quite sure how things stand. I would say that Iodine is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of someone with mental illness.

Wayne Caldwell is the author of Cataloochee, a historical novel about the settlement of the Cataloochee Forest in western North Carolina. In the 1800s, a number of families established themselves on this land and then raised several generations there, but their homes were taken over by the United States government in the first half of the twentieth century to create a national park, forcing these families to leave the land they had become so much a part of.

I was once present for an interesting and slightly disturbing interchange between Wayne Caldwell and Hattie Caldwell Davis, author of Reflections of Cataloochee Valley and its Vanished People in the Great Smoky Mountains. Hattie is in her eighties and is very close to the events surrounding the removal of her people from Cataloochee. Her book is a historical account of these events, while Wayne Caldwell's novel is fictional.

The interchange between Hattie and Wayne took place during a writers' panel on the importance of place in novels, where Wayne was a member of the panel. (The panel was part of a day-long book fair in Sylva.) During the question-and-answer session following the panel members' presentations, Hattie raised her hand and criticized Wayne for fictionalizing the Cataloochee events. Her own book, said Hattie, was the true authentic factual account, and Wayne had no right to take a true event and fictionalize it. Hattie seemed to think that she owned the Cataloochee events. The panel moderator tried to explain the very legitimate role of historical fiction, but Hattie would have none of it.

This explained to me the odd feeling I had experienced upon seeing Hattie's book display in the book fair area. The information posted at her table declared that her book was the one true authentic historical accurate factual account of Cataloochee, nothing fictionalized. Okay, I thought, why are you protesting your factuality so much? The display definitely turned me off. When I heard Hattie criticize Wayne, I understood where she was coming from, though I think she's dead wrong. No one owns the events they lived through, and any author has the right to compose historical fiction.

THE AMMONS SISTERS. The Ammons sisters are two remarkable women in their sixties: Amy Ammons Garza (a writer) and Doreyl Ammons Cain (an artist). Amy and Doreyl are the founders of Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, an organization dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Appalachian Mountains. Amy and Doreyl's work includes the following.

  • Cultural workshops in schools: Amy and Doreyl visit schools and engage the children in cultural workshops that involve storytelling, artwork, music, writing, and drama.
  • Writing and art workshops for adults: Amy offers a writers workshop and Doreyl offers a pastel painting workshop.
  • Publication help: Catch the Spirit of Appalachia publishes books, often by first-time authors telling their stories. Amy works with the author through all aspects of the publishing process, including marketing the book.
  • Amy's novels: Amy has written a trilogy of wonderful novels about her family: Retter: A Novel of the Mountains (about Amy's grandmother Retter Coggins Ammons), Cannie: The Hills of Home (about Amy's mother, Cannie Owen Ammons), and Sterlen: And a Mosaic of Mountain Women (about many other women in Amy's family).

I participated in Amy's writers workshop and began writing about my experience of Hurricane Katrina. Amy invited me to be the Spotlight Personality for the monthly paper Fun Things To Do In The Mountains, for which she writes and which she edits, and each month for four months, I wrote an article about Hurricane Katrina for Fun Things.

I also participated in two public readings associated with Amy. Each November or December, the members of Amy's writers workshop read from their work at an event sponsored by Catch the Spirit of Appalachia. The first time I read, I chose "Baseball Bonanza," an imaginary account of a baseball game in New Orleans based on the bare-bones outline of a shaggy dog story that I embellished considerably. The second time, I read "Hurricane Katrina and Refrigerators," which I've posted on this blog. These public readings were quite extraordinary in that Amy created a meta-story that she narrated between our pieces, and Doreyl illustrated our reading in pastel painting on a large canvas as we read. The audience listened to the reading and watched Doreyl's spontaneous illustration at the same time.

WESTERN CAROLINA UNIVERSITY. Western Carolina University (WCU) is a mid-size (about 7000 students, I believe) state university in Cullowhee, North Carolina. I taught at WCU during my three years in North Carolina. Mostly, I taught First-Year Writing. My students were mainly straight-from-high-school first-year college students, many of them local. This was quite a change from the international students I had taught at Loyola University New Orleans. The number of students was also a big adjustment. In the Loyola Intensive English Program, classes often had about twelve students, whereas at WCU I had four classes of twenty writing students each. This added up to eighty writing students and involved a large amount of work.

Besides First-Year Writing, I also occasionally taught Writing for Careers and Introduction to Professional Writing & Editing.

My colleagues in the English Department at Western Carolina University were very friendly. I sensed no barriers between tenured/tenure-track professors and non-tenure-track faculty like myself. Faculty members often had parties at their homes and invited the whole English Department. I remember especially Beth's annual Halloween party, with a different theme each year. In 2006, the theme was monsters, and I went as a generic monster using normal clothes in my wardrobe that would make a monster outfit--black shoes, black socks, black slacks, black long-sleeve turtle-neck blouse, red gloves, red ski mask. In 2007, the theme was cult movies, and I went as Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings--white tennis shoes, white socks, overalls with vegetables sticking out of my pockets, gardening shirt, gardening gloves, straw hat, and gardening shears in my hands. In 2008, the theme was games, and I went as a chute and a ladder from the game Chutes & Ladders--regular outfit of slacks and t-shirt but with poster board made into a chute in front and a ladder in back.

Western Carolina University had a great library, good technology in the classrooms, and a vibrant Center for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. There was also a wonderful drama department, and I bought a subscription each year to the season of student productions.

My office mate, Lizzie, was a very generous person, a dedicated and skilled teacher, and a joy to know. I miss Lizzie. Although all in the English Department were wonderful colleagues, I especially miss Bill, Chris, Deidre, Julia, Lizzie, Maggie, Marsha Lee, and May.

NO MORE DISSERTATION. Finally, it was in North Carolina that I decided to discontinue work on my dissertation for the Ph.D. in English Composition at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I believe that I might have managed to complete the dissertation had there been no Hurricane Katrina and had I remained in New Orleans, where I had a stronger support system. But the adjustment to living in a new state along with the greatly increased teaching load, and dissertation work on top of this, just didn't work for me.

Thankfully, I didn't dither around but made a clear decision to stop. I communicated my decision to my dissertation advisor, detailing my reasons for discontinuing the dissertation and my gratitude for all I had gained at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In fact, my advisor appreciated this, having all too often worked with Ph.D. candidates who simply weren't going to be able to finish the dissertation but who kept clinging to what clearly wasn't working.

I also made a decision to view my Ph.D. work positively. I did not complete the dissertation or the Ph.D. degree, but I do have ABD status with all that this entails. Specifically, I accomplished the course work for twelve challenging and informative classes, wrote interesting papers for those classes, connected with great friends and colleagues, received stimulating teaching ideas, and completed fascinating reading and notes on the subject of story in the preliminary work for the dissertation that I didn't complete. I choose to view this as a success! Best of all, I do feel free of dissertation work that had become overly burdensome.

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