By Alec Clayton
I have no formal education in writing other than a single class, which I vaguely remember as being called Creative Writing 101. Students wrote short stories; teacher critiqued them. I recall writing one story that wasn’t too bad and one that was terrible.
My first attempt at novel writing came between undergrad and grad school. I was living with my parents. I let my mother read the first few chapters. She commented on two things.
First, she said I should say what books were on the protagonist’s bookshelf because what one reads tells a lot about them. I guess she presumed everybody read. Everybody we knew did. Since then I’ve mentioned books on bookshelves in most of my books.
Second, she said she wished people who write about the South wouldn’t make Southerners seem like such ill-mannered louts, specifically mentioning a scene that involved people spitting on sidewalks. “It makes it seem like we’re all stupid,” she said. Ironically, she had a brother who was a writer, and he included some pretty dumb, loutish characters in his books. I’ve always tried to include a few of those myself, but also a few educated and sensible characters as well.
My next attempt at writing a novel came after my first divorce. It (the novel, not the marriage) started off as catharsis, but at some point it became an attempt to impress female readers with what a sensitive man I was. It was thinly disguised autobiography, and after working on it off and on over a period of years I threw it away.
In New York in 1973 I volunteered to help work on the newspaper published by a service organization called Everything for Everybody. We pasted typed copy with rubber cement and used rub-on letters for headlines. Soon after starting to work for them they asked me to edit the paper even though I had zero experience working on a newspaper. My only qualification was that I could paste copy relatively straight. I learned by doing.
In 1977 my wife and I started our own newspaper in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and later we turned it into a quarterly arts journal. Through that I got to know some fiction writers and began to pick up a little knowledge about the art of fiction through reading their work and talking to them. I’m particularly grateful to the poet Larry Johnson, who wrote book reviews for us, for introducing me to the works of great writers such as Jack Butler, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown and Cormac McCarthy. Butler became a good friend, and Mud Flat Press published his book Practicing Zen Without a License. Because of the influence of these great Southern writers I started trying my hand at fiction again, first by writing some pretty miserable short stories and then by writing novels, eight of them so far. I self-published at first because no “real” publisher wanted my books, and later because I liked self-publishing (maybe I’ll write more on the pros and cons of self-publishing for a later blog post).
At one of my recent readings someone said I had made it, that I was now an established writer. That made me feel good, but I still sometimes feel inadequate in comparison to writers who have earned their MFA in writing and have attended various writers workshops and conferences and are published by “legit” publishers. Still and all, I think maybe I have made it.