Saturday, May 24, 2008

Honest-to-By-God Writin'

Bryan said he's loan me his copy of The Prince of Frogtown when I get to Minneapolis Sunday. I meant to take him up on it. I meant to wait. I did. But Bragg's words called to me, whispered from the aisles of B&N so loud, I couldn't do anything but follow them to the cash register like the cat followed the snake charmer's flute music in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons.

In my own defense, let me say that I need to own this book. For me, a Bragg book is like a how-to manual. When my own writing gets stuck or I lose the voice in my head, anything the man has written will jump start me. His people choked on cotton dust in mills, mine on coal dust in mines, but love for them and their history is a cable that transfers energy from his work to mine.

Bragg is a master of the specific, and so his stories are universal. My daddy did not drink and never got so much as a traffic ticket that I remember growing up, but Bragg's stories of his father on a chain gang rattle inside my bones until I can feel the town's eyes burn his back worse than the Alabama summer sun. When he lists the toys lost between the cushions of a sofa, my own children dance behind my eyes, playing with those same silly things. And when he writes of his fear for a boy too soft for the world he knows, my own fears bobble in my blood, tiny icebergs calving from an ancient glacier.

Anyone can describe a brother as driving like a little old lady. Bragg says of his brother's driving, "...most people who drive like him are wearing pillbox hats and pearls." Describing the last year his father lived with them, he says, "It was the year I realized TV preachers' rants on hell were all wrong, that the devil lives in Alabama, and swims in a Mason jar."

Maybe you need to have known people who drank from Mason jars to properly appreciate that sentence, but I did and I do.

Yes, I loved The Prince of Frogtown. Bragg's reporting is slightly less transparent than in previous books, but he was constructing his father's story almost entirely from the memories of others. And after a few chapters, I did scout all the way to the end, reading every one of The Boy stories before going back to read straight through. But those are minor quibbles.

When I first read All Over But the Shoutin I could no longer tell anyone I was a writer, even though that was my official job title at the time. It just didn't seem right to use the same word to describe Bragg and me. It feels different now, though. Reading The Prince of Frogtown sends me back to the stories of my own family with new eyes. It makes me promise myself to write every day, to learn more, to get better. I'll never be Rick Bragg, but I can be me, the best and bravest ways I know how.


Michelle O'Neil said...

You need only be you Jerri. You are it on a stick.

Go Mama said...

it's so exciting when we connect with inspiration. doesn't matter where it comes from, just that it moves us. if this is what inspires you, by golly, soak it up and then let your words rip. go, go, go girl! Let your words rip!

(sorry i've been gone for a while...just gettin out from under.)

Deb said...

I'm off to a book store! Yikes - you can make a girl die to read a story. I want you to know though, that my copy of your memoir will have much more meaning to me than any Rick could write.

Ditto Michelle. Love to you.