Writing the South

Recently, I found myself working on a piece of fiction.   For reasons that aren't really important, a small portion of the prologue took place in Atlanta.   I found myself struggling, because while I have been to that city several times, I don't really "know" it.   Part of me said that I should just keep plugging along, because the setting itself didn't really have any bearing on the plot of the piece.  I could email one of a dozen friends -- a few of whom even contribute to this blog-- and familiarize myself enough with the neighborhood bars/restaurants/boutiques that I would need to populate the pages of the story.  And yet, it didn’t feel authentic.  It wasn’t set in a city like Nashville or Louisville – someplace where I had lived and that I knew well.  It wasn’t set in a city like Lexington—someplace that I had grown up visiting so many times that I didn’t need a map when I finally moved there.  The entire scene just felt flat, and I soon abandoned that portion of the story.

I am a writer.  I am from Kentucky.  Does that make me a “Kentucky writer”?  Does that mean that I need to give all my essays and short stories a Kentucky setting? I’ve struggled with variants of this question for years.  Is it absolutely crucial for me, as a writer, to limit my writing to Kentucky or the South?

Image via Garden & Gun.
Often, I think, a writer, painter, or songwriter’s incorporation of a region into her work is crucial to the work itself.  The August/September issue of Garden and Gun magazine was devoted to Southern Women.  It was a charming retrospective of the role of the postmodern Southern Belle.  As I thumbed through the pages of this issue, I noticed a portrait of a couple of Southern-based artists whose work I happen to know quite well.  There was Joy Williams, the female voice in the Nashville-based duo The Civil Wars, and Emily Giffin, the litigator-turned-chick lit-maven, who lives in Atlanta.  Because I enjoy the work of both Ms. Williams and Ms. Giffin quite a bit, I found myself a little perplexed.  Ms. Williams is a California-born singer.  Ms. Giffin is from Illinois, and lived for many years in New York and London.  Yet, I would classify Ms. Williams’ roots-Americana sound as perfectly in keeping with the funky, post-country ethos of her adopted hometown of East Nashville.  On the other hand, while Ms. Giffin attended some of the finest schools in the South and currently lives in Atlanta, her novels are generally set in New York, Boston or London.  Her only novel with a Southern setting is told from the point of view of a character who generally hates the South.  While I truly enjoy Ms. Giffin’s fun and romantic stories, this hardly seems the work of a “Southern Belle” to me.  At the very least, she's hardly the Southern writer that Kathryn Stockett (also featured in this article) is.

A few weeks ago, University of Kentucky professor Nikky Finney was honored with the National Book Award for poetry.  Her powerful acceptance speech referencing the advances made by African-Americans in the South in recent decades has become something of an online phenomenon, and rightly so.  As an alumna of the University, I was thrilled to see such an incredible award being presented to such a wonderfully deserving talent.  Ms. Finney’s works evoke the memories of her coastal Carolina childhood far more than her Lexington professorship.  Stories of shrimpers and tides are far from the Bluegrass landscape.  And yet, Ms. Finney plays a driving role in Kentucky’s current literary landscape.

As I look at the previous four paragraphs on my computer screen, I wonder if I sound like a hopeless pedant.  (That particular aspersion, believe it or not, has been cast my way a time or two…)  The labels “Southern” or “Kentuckian” really don’t matter as much as establishing a connection with one’s reader.  I’ve never been to Northern Sweden, and yet, Stig Larsson’s work is my guilty literary pleasure.  I’ve never lived in a North London council flat with an array of immigrant families, yet I adore the work of Zadie Smith.  On the other hand, as a writer, I’m far more comfortable with creating characters who work in big law firms (as both my beau and I have) or who live in the Kentucky and Tennessee towns where I have lived.  Maybe the key really is the old cliché of writing what you know.  Or, just maybe, it’s a blend of writing what one knows and writing something engaging enough to transcend setting or experience.

Do y’all think a writer needs a connection to the place she writes about?