She approaches the podium gracefully, embraced in a moss-green dress of crushed velvet, despite a protruding belly throwing her center of gravity forward. Wavy red hair that seemingly exudes its own light source falls past her shoulders, framing delicate, milky-white features. A red-headed Tinkerbell with a bun in the oven.
I am in Oxford, Mississippi, stomping grounds of Faulkner and Michael Oher (“The Blind Side”) and home to the University of Mississippi, a.k.a. Ole Miss, at my first writers conference ever, perched in my seat in the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics on a crisp Friday evening, ready for the Conference opener entitled, “Curiosity as a Narrative Force in Creative Nonfiction.” The pixie is Beth Ann Fennelly, an Associate Professor at the University, published author of poetry and nonfiction, and tonight’s speaker at the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference.
“A writer should be as serious as a child at play,” she quotes from Nietzsche. “When we stumble over the truth,” she tells us, “as writers our role is to circle back and ask, ‘Why?’” and to use curiosity as the driving force to create a narrative that gives life meaning.
Anxiety is fear or uneasiness without a source, she tells us, but a writer’s job is to find the source, and as a short exercise asks us to write a list of things that illicit bizarre emotions in us, the kind that are way out of proportion to how a normal person would react.
At the top of my list is turtles.
On Mother’s Day three and a half years ago, my daughter and I walked the half block home from the big house at the end of our cul-de-sac with Littlefoot, a fist-sized box turtle who had outlasted his college-bound first owner. An expressionless reptile that spends half the year underground in his backyard enclosure and most of the rest of the year lurking under a palm trimming, he and his turtle brethren have for some reason loomed large in my subconscious ever since.
I have recurring dreams about turtles multiplying and coming out of the ground, turtles having baby turtles no bigger than a quarter and overrunning the enclosure.
Why the hell why?
Fennelly next tells us to use the items on our list as cues for what to write about — the things that itch in the back of our minds that we didn’t even really know we were thinking about. “Why am I troubled about this?” she advises us to ask, and to keep refining the question until it moves from the personal to the sociological to the universal.
But I can’t think why anyone else would care that I dream about turtles.
Afterwards we amble en masse over to a reception at Memory House, the former home of William Faulkner’s brother, John. A pre-reception directive from the conference co-director for us to mingle with everyone, combined with the open bar, emboldens me to introduce myself to any presenters I see. I am hoping I run into Fennelly when I nearly do, literally, as she is heading from the reception room to the back porch and I the reverse.
“I really loved your talk,” I blurt spontaneously.
“Why, thank you,” is the gracious response, lilting in the ever-present Mississippi cadence I will be immersed in the entire four days.
While I have her in front of me I must ask. “You said we should write about things that trouble us, and what I put on my list is my unexplainable recurring dreams about turtles. But I don’t know that anyone else would find that interesting.”
Without missing a beat, she tells me, “You’ve got to have the confidence as a writer that you can make it interesting.” And suddenly I am buoyed. And I remember the New Yorker piece I read for my workshop earlier in the day by John McPhee about a long-haul trucker, how the narrative pulled me, fascinated, through a 14-page piece on a subject I would never have normally read. And I have hope, and a mission.
It’s my job to make people interested in my turtle dreams.
This is the first in a periodic series about my life as a writer. I have so far avoided posting much about my writing life, for two reasons: I don't want Thoughts Happen to appeal only to writers, and I thought it might be a bit self-indulgent. But the act of writing is such a big part of my life that I was starting to feel self-conscious about not including it on the site. All posts will fall under the category This Writer's Life, as a blog-within-a-blog on Thoughts Happen.