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The writing life: Mentors, motivation and resilience

By Susan Shinn
For The Salisbury Post
CHAPEL HILL ó Other highlights from the North Carolina Literary Festival:
– Jill McCorkle, Sarah Dessen and Courtney Jones Mitchell spoke on “A Mentor’s Influence.”
Dessen was McCorkle’s student and Mitchell studied under Dessen. McCorkle will appear in Salisbury Nov. 19 at the Literary Bookpost to promote her newest book of short stories, “Going Away Shoes.” Mitchell read from the new “flash fiction” collection, “Long Story Short,” edited by Marianne Gingher, in which all pieces are 1,800 words or less. All three women have stories in this book.
The title of Mitchell’s story is “How to Roll.”
“Sometimes you have something that sits in you so long, and you don’t know where to put it,” Mitchell said.
It worked perfectly for the book.
“Sometimes, something has to marinate forever,” she noted. “You can’t push it.”
Dessen, the author of nine novels for young adults, read from her newest work, “Along for the Ride.” She’s the type of author you’d read no matter who her intended audience is.
McCorkle is the author of five novels and three short-story collections. She read from one of the stories in “Going Away Shoes,” in which a young girl keeps drawing her grandmother naked, much to the grandmother’s consternation. The rhythm and details of “Surrender” make it vintage McCorkle.
Having a mentor, McCorkle said, creates a bridge between what feels possible and what is possible. She had mentors in Max Steele, Lee Smith and Louis Rubin.
“It changed my whole life to have that kind of guidance,” she said.
The three authors suggested being in writers’ groups, although Dessen said she never shows anybody her work ’til it’s done.
“I do draw support from writers,” she said. “It is a strange sort of job.”
– – –
I was so excited about seeing Rick Bragg, whose latest novel is “The Prince of Frogtown.” Then totally bummed when he canceled because of illness.
Instead, I met two writers both new to me, Masha Hamilton and Robert Leleux, who spoke about “Writing Your Passion.”
Hamilton, a former AP foreign correspondent, has a new book called “31 Hours.” It’s her fourth novel. In the middle of the night, a mother wakes up, knowing something has gone horribly wrong with her 21-year-old son. The book is set in New York, where Hamilton lives, but she wrote it during a writing retreat in the Adirondacks.
She worked on revisions on the subway, where “alarming, amazing things happened.”
Hamilton said that each books she writes is different.
“When it’s done, I’m done,” she said. “Whatever was driving me to write, I did that. Now I have other questions and concerns pressing against me, dying to get out.”
Leleux is the author of “Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy,” which, judging by the excerpts he read, is a hilarious, laugh-out-loud romp. Leleux said he believes that objectivity is a myth.
“I don’t think you can ever achieve it,” he said. “I’m not sure you’d want to. The one thing you have to sell is a point of view. The story you have to tell is never as interesting as the way you say it.”
Hamilton said you should write about what scares you most.
“I love to write about what I’m (teed) off about,” Leleux said.
Leleux said he loves being from Texas. “It’s great to be a liberal in Texas. There are only three of us.”
– – –
Poets Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan and Jesse Graves clearly enjoyed one another’s company in the seminar “Teacher, Student … Stories.”
Morgan studied under Chappell and Graves went to Cornell University specifically to take Morgan’s classes.
The poets read to an audience in Hamilton Hall, and attendees clearly loved their work.
Graves read “The Upper Ridge” and “For Richard Wilbur.”
Morgan noted that writers come in pairs and clusters.
“You can’t be a poet until you have a true reader who validates you,” he said. “I went to Greensboro and there was Fred Chappell.”
Morgan writes novels as well as poetry.
He read three short poems, “Rearview Mirror,” “Audubon’s Flute” and “October Crossing,” the last of which was about woolly worms.
“Maybe they’re looking at us,” he said. “You never know.”
“October Crossing” is also the name of his latest book of poems.
Chappell, known for his deadpan, razor-sharp delivery, said that creative writing can be learned and inspired and edited and shared.
One of his teachers was Reynolds Price, a senior at Duke when he was a freshman.
Chappell, with the help of Susan, his wife of 50 years, read three poems from “Shadowbox.”
Their efforts drew quiet gasps from the crowd.
During the Q&A time, Graves’ young daughter, Chloe, asked the trio, “What inspired you to become writers when you could be anything else in the world? No offense.”
Graves said it was because of reading books.
Morgan said that a professor told him of a story he’d written, “I wept when I read this.”
“My calculus teacher never said that,” Morgan said. “I was hooked.”
“When I found out people sat down and wrote books, that sounded like a good idea,” Chappell said.
– – –
Elizabeth Edwards filled University United Methodist Church during her late-afternoon appearance with D.G. Martin.
“She’s the perfect guest,” said Martin, host of UNC-TV’s “Bookwatch.” “You can ask one question and she can take it.
Edwards’ latest book is called “Resilience,” and she continues to be resilient in the wake of the death of her son, her father and her disenchantment with her marriage.
Edwards said that her father was tested as the head of the ROTC program at UNC in the late ’60s, and tested again after a devastating stroke in 1990.
Both times, she said, he met the test.
While Edwards has received incredible online support in dealing with her son Wade’s death, what she wrote about in “Resilience” was what she did herself to cope.
“You’re gonna have to depend on yourself,” she said. “You can’t get his life back.”
Losing a child, Edwards said, is like having a scar that never goes away. And having lost a child, she said, she is not fearful at all of the prospect of dying.
Edwards said she always thought she could ask God for important things.
“So do you not have a God at all, or do I have a different God than what I thought I had?” she said. “We have the God we have, not the God we want.”
Edwards also said she agreed to write the book “before my life exploded on the pages of the National Enquirer. When bad things happen, do you bury your head in the sand, or do you form a new reality?”
Part of Edwards’ new reality is opening a furniture store, the Red Window, located in Chapel Hill at 400 W. Rosemary St.

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