Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Guest Post: Sarah Sweeney and Best of the Web 2008

I'm still on August hiatus, but my friend Dan Wickett, creator of Emerging Writers Network and publisher of Dzanc Books, called in a favor for today's Best of the Web Day. I'm proud to join many other litblogs in featuring content related to Dzanc's awesome anthology Best of the Web 2008, which you should run out and buy from your local indie bookstore as soon as possible. Thanks to Dan for creating this, and to Sarah Sweeney for contributing this piece.

Sarah Sweeney's essay, "Tell Me If You're Lying", originally appeared in Fringe and was re-printed in Dzanc Books' Best of the Web 2008. The following is her thoughts on how living in the North affects her writing.


DRIVING DIXIE DOWN: A Writer’s Life Beyond the South

Growing up in North Carolina, I spent many hours and years dreaming about what lay beyond my humble state, the state I was born in, and the state that reared me in so many ways. From the time I could read and write I wanted to be a writer. I wondered what I would write about, the characters I would create, and I fantasized about writing all day, everyday, in a cute apartment overlooking the tall buildings and shops of New York City or San Francisco, someplace cosmopolitan that would shelter an unknown bumpkin like me. All my life I had dreamed of escaping. One of my earliest memories of this is memorizing roads and routes all around my town because I felt claustrophobic, stifled, and if I wanted to get out, I needed to know how. And I desperately yearned to drive. Cars were so much apart of my upbringing not only because my father collected and idolized them, but because they were a token of independence, a romantic piece of machinery that could take me to California. Wyoming. Memphis or Bust.

When I was a child, I obsessed over the music video for Free Fallin’, the classic song by Tom petty, and its flaxen haired star, a beautiful blonde girl who I envisioned would one day be myself, and that day couldn’t come fast enough. When I watched that video I cried. I cried for the palm trees of southern California, the convertible cars, and the glitz and opportunity that I was sure lurked at every turn. I convinced myself the only way possible to get to Los Angeles was to be a contestant on Ed McMahon’s Star Search. I begged my mother to move us westward so I may start my new life as a child star. But most heartbreaking of all is that I actually believed it might happen. “We’ll see,” she’d tell me, and I prayed it would be true.
I hated North Carolina. When I was in middle school, the sound of my own Southern accent made me cringe. I equated it with stupidity. I looked at my country, jail-prone family and it seemed the common denominator between us all. I tried to rid of it as if it were as simple as a tissue I might toss in the trash. It was evidence. It told people who I was, where I was from. I feared it might provide certain ideas about my identity and my family. I wanted to be untraceable and far, far away.

I didn’t leave until I was twenty-two years old.

All along, I told myself I’d leave the day I turned eighteen, as if that made a goddamn difference. Somewhere along the way I got scared and stayed. Then I got scared I would stay forever.

Life in Boston offers a perspective not available in the South. The winters are decidedly wintrier and, though cliché, the hospitality is lacking. I once took a bad fall while walking home with my groceries and as I moaned and wailed people walked past me and worse—they walked around me. As in avoided me. It was at that moment I realized how coddled I’d been in the South, how accustomed I was to its warmth and easier way of life. Like any bad boyfriend, I hated the South but I also fucking loved it. I couldn’t leave it. Being in the North made me scrutinize my home in a way I can only describe as healthy. In the South, we’re taught to overvalue the past, to even worship it. It’s as simple and as complicated as you’d expect—it runs deep from the loss of the Civil War to the boom the South is currently experiencing. The Old South is ever present and I helped perpetuate it. In Boston, I realized how I’d romanticized this region and turned into a sentimentalist Southern zealot, a nostalgic sap who now wanted to return to the place I had run from all my life.

Now when I do go to North Carolina, I mostly do it in writing. I never expected that the South would be my muse, or that I would ever write about my own life.

In the North, almost everything is startlingly unlike the South; but the most devastating disparity is that time moves much quicker. In the South, days are like syrup and they stretch on and on. Had I stayed, who knows what I’d be doing. I might even venture to claim that the North, in a way, saved me. How else would I accurately depict North Carolina unless I knew a life apart from it?

I’m displaced, and everyday I feel like an orphan, and every minute I miss it, ashamed at the things I’d do to get back there sometimes. Back to sweet tea, the countryside, and the stained smell of tobacco across a barroom of my friends. Home.

1 comment:

Linda Hewitt said...

I think most writers can be described as fish out of water, whether we roam or remain "at home." Perhaps that’s why we write, to see if we can find our way to the next pond, where (we hope) the depth will be ideal and the temperature perfect. My guess is that there is something in us that not only keeps us from fully fitting in, either in the home pond or any other, but also from really desiring it. If we fit in, as you point out, where do we seek the perspective necessary for our craft? I think the attitude of society reinforces this sense of “apartness.” It generally prefers that writers be either eccentric and irrelevant or omniscient and intimidating. Moving on does remove some of the home-intensified pressure to fulfill either expectation. Also, distance provides invigorating freshness in the form of new surroundings and, not incidentally, tends to smooth out the less-appealing rough spots in the place we left behind, making it possible for us to see beyond what bothered us most or at least to observe it more perceptively. The bottom line is that all of us work continually across boundaries both visible and invisible – it’s probably the tension between the two that generates the ripest creative juices.