On Being a Southern Writer by Marla Cantrell

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.
I was born in Phoenix on a day so hot even the desert sighed. It feels like a small misstep, this beginning in Arizona, so far from
my parents’ people in the hills of Arkansas. They had moved to Phoenix a few years before so my daddy could find work, because times were hard in the South at that time. And they did prosper, but they did not thrive.
It was made right the year I turned six, when we moved home. By then my mama, an only child, was aching for her own mama, was overcome by the promise of snow in winter, blackberries in spring, and thunderstorms that blew up an afternoon, that punctuated a solitary night that had been unremarkable until the first round of thunder drove her from her bed, caused her to bound to the porch where she watched the lightning battle an invisible army in the inky, rumbling sky.

I have heard other people’s stories of finding home. Of how, after deplaning in New York City, they were able to navigate the great city as if they’d spent their entire life there. I have a friend who moved all the way to New Zealand to find home, there by the ocean, in a place so glorious she feels as if her life has been restored twelve times over.

My parents’ decision to return to the South brought me to my own home. I remember stepping out of the station wagon at my grandma’s house after traveling more than a thousand miles. I remember taking off my shoes and feeling the dew on the thick grass, seeing the bright blue sky above me, hearing birds call out from a nearby pecan tree. I don’t know what paradise is to you, but I have never come closer than that moment.

There is music everywhere in the South. Bluegrass bands show up on town squares, unbidden, and perform for passersby. Families get together on front porches to sing country music, to sing gospel. There are harp singers who congregate in wooden buildings, using nothing but their voices in an art form older than the hills. As a child, just after arriving in Arkansas, I sat amongst pews of worshippers at a tiny Baptist church. They sang with the gliding vowels of all southerners, with the languid ending to words, dropping “g’s” as easily as dropping quarters in the collection plate.

On the stereo late at night, my parents listened to Johnny Cash and Roger Miller and Tammy Wynette. On Saturdays when my uncle visited, full of liquor, his tongue loose, he’d tell stories so rich and full they seemed to play out as cinematically as any movie. Before he’d call a cab to leave, he’d try to climb atop our gentle horse, Candy, the attempt both slap-stick funny and heartbreaking all at once.

I spent my childhood summers, beginning when I was six years old, working on farms, picking strawberries first and then tomatoes and bell peppers, as the season progressed. I hoed soybeans before any of us knew how good they were for our health. There, in the fields, I met workers from deep in the hills, whose lives depended on abundant crops and backbreaking work. They told stories of love gone wrong, time in the slammer, the inescapable pull of get-rich-quick schemes. When they talked, I felt as if I was opening other people’s mail, as if I was eavesdropping, and it thrilled me to be privy to this adult world, to these great voices of the South.

These are the people I think of today when I write. The church people in their pressed clothes, the women in tight curls, the men with hair slicked back, solemn, hopeful. My uncle, wrecked by alcohol, and fueled by stories. The field hands, tied to the earth in a way I seldom see today, betting on a better day, even though the odds were against them. I close my eyes and hear their voices, that lyrical sound that is better than any concert. I remember, and I wait for inspiration to hit. It always does. This place, my home, hasn’t failed me once. I work every day to return the favor.
Marla Cantrell is the managing editor/lead writer for Do South Magazine in Arkansas. Each month she publishes a short story in Do South, along with several other articles. She’s won several awards, including a 2014 Arkansas Arts Council Award for Short Fiction. Her fiction has been published in several magazines and anthologies. You can follow her on Twitter at @SouthernPencil.

To read a few Marla’s short southern stories, click on the links below. (Each month she publishes a new short story for Do South Magazine. Be sure to check in regularly for those.)

Carry Me Over:http://southernpencil.com/carry/
As Long As You Remember:http://dosouthmagazine.com/as-long-as-you-remember/
Struck: http://dosouthmagazine.com/struck/

Writing the real stuff

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.I write about southern women in the decades from the Civil War up to the advent of civil rights,  and let’s face it, that was a deeply troubled period in Southern history.   So  when one of my favorite characters loses her way  in one of the many conflicts and controversies, I want to rescue her,  to keep her strong,  to make her story prettier than I know it really was.  I love these women!  I want everyone to know how wonderful they are.  What if I get hate mail?  What if my friends desert me? What if my family thinks I’m disrespectful of them?  Maybe just skip the hard stuff.  Write a feel-good story.

Of course, this is the worst kind of hypocrisy.  And just the kind of platitudinous nonsense about the South that I rail against to all my friends who will listen.  What’s more, it’s insulting to  readers to assume they would prefer a one dimensional character to one who is flawed, who hurts, who is real.

Writers don’t talk about this much, so maybe I’m alone in balking at dragging my favorite characters through the literary mud.   But just in case,  when the story takes you to a painful place, like me, you find yourself staring at the blinking cursor and hovering over the backspace, I say,  let’s suck it up, hit the spacebar and tell the truth.   We owe it to our characters, our stories, our readers, and most of all, ourselves.

Artwork by Angela Marie Henriette 

From the Fast Track to Appalachia, by Lissa Brown

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.After forty years of satisfying careers in teaching, marketing and public relations, I decided to follow my body parts and head south into retirement. I’d always imagined living in a log cabin in the mountains, so I unleashed my inner Heidi and drove to southern Appalachia where I’ve lived for ten years. It’s been an adventure, one that I had to document in my first book, Real Country: From the Fast Track to Appalachia. A fellow writer who is a native of the North Carolina mountains warned me not to put my picture or real name on the book because, “Them boys will burn you out.†I’ve since learned she’s prone to hyperbole, but I used a pen name.
I was born and raised in New Jersey and lived in the Washington, D.C. area for twenty years before this latest, and what I hope will be the last, move. My spouse and I live in a log cabin in a mountain holler surrounded by the best that nature has to offer. Most of our immediate neighbors are also transplants. The local residents down the dirt road are pleasant but rather reserved. We wave and occasionally chat about weather, but it’s clear we’re regarded as ‘foreigners.’ There’s a clear delineation between the ‘been heres’ and the ‘come heres’ in this part of Appalachia, but we share a love of the mountains.
Our urban backgrounds weren’t much help when we arrived. Despite three years of bluegrass banjo lessons that I’d hoped would help me adjust to this part of the South, I still faced challenges with the language, food and customs. But now, I’ve become so accustomed to this bucolic rural life that I dread going back to the metropolitan areas where I used to live. Being retired certainly accounts for some of my new relaxed state, but the slower pace of life in the region plays a major role. I’ve pretty much gotten over ignoring strangers and charging into stores intent on getting out without having to speak to anyone. Once in a while I still grow impatient when someone takes twenty minutes to get to the point of what they want to say, but I’ve learned to wait politely and smile. Depending on what they finally say, I might even reply with a heartfelt ‘Bless your heart.’
At age seven I penned a newsletter that antagonized half the neighbors in my New Jersey neighborhood, and writing has been part of my life ever since. I’ve been a columnist, speechwriter, ghostwriter and anything else that allowed me to earn a living. I still write because I need to, but now it’s for my own satisfaction and enjoyment. That’s so much more fun. Since moving to the Southern mountains I’ve found my muse. I’ve written three novels and several essays that appear in a variety of anthologies. I’m honored to have received awards for my books and am certain that I could not have written them in any other place. I use my real name now. www.lissabrownwrites.com

Patricia Neely-Dorsey: “Goodwill Ambassador” for the South

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.Patricia Neely-Dorsey shares her love of the South through her poetry. “I believe that we can bridge many gaps of misunderstanding across regional, racial, cultural, generational and economic lines by simply telling/sharing our stories,” she says.  “Through my poetry, I attempt to give a positive glimpse into the Southern way of life.”

In college, her nicknames were Tupelo and Mississippi. She recalls, “Whenever my friends saw me coming, they knew that there would be some type of discourse about Mississippi and the South soon to follow…hoping to clear up their many misconceptions and preconceived notions.â€

Patricia grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the red clay hill country.  Following her graduation from Boston University, she worked nearly 20 years in Memphis, Tennessee in the mental health industry. Patricia returned to her hometown in  2007 where she currently lives with  husband James, son Henry, and Miniature Schnauzer, Happy.

Patricia’s two books of poetry, Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia- A Life In Poems (2008) and My Magnolia Memories and Musings (2012), are available from Amazon. More information is available on her website, www.patricianeelydorsey.webs.com.One of her best-known, “Southern Life†is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.

Cameo: Natalie Baszile

Queen Sugar is an intriguing new novel about Charley, an African American woman who unexpectedly inherits a sugarcane farm in Louisiana. http://nataliebaszile.com/book/. The author, Natalie Baszile,  is not a Louisiana native. Her father was born in southern Louisiana, and much of his extended family still lives there. But while she often visited on vacations and holidA person sitting on the ground in front of water.ays, Natalie grew up in Southern California and currently lives in San Francisco. She comes to writing as a scholar, the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, having studied at UCLA and Warren Wilson College. So even though she writes about the South, she is not a “typical” Southern woman. When I asked if she considered herself a Southern woman, she replied, “I have a Southern Heart.” Indeed she does. And at the end of the day, that Southern Heart is what unites us as Southern women; that spirit not defined by zip code, politics, race, religion, socioeconomics, or any of a number of other tiresome labels.

In Queen Sugar, Ms. Baszile portrays the South as She really is. She has no truck with stereotypes and plows deliberately through to the underlying truths about the lives of her characters.  Through Charley’s eyes, we experience the  outlandish beauty of the South as well as its senseless injustices.   We feel the gravitational pull of Southern family bonds and the joys of unexpected friendships. We are outfoxed by the seductive Southern charm that blankets pain with an illusory veil.   We confront  our unrecognized prejudices.  And through Charley’s trials, we witness the outrageous persistence of Southern women in the face of hardship.

Here is one of my favorite passages from the book: “Because life should be as simple as a bucket of fish caught a few miles offshore and a van full of produce bought at a roadside stand. It should be as sweet as a cube of melon the color of your heart.” (Ch. 6)

This is not a book review.  But Queen Sugar goes on my list of favorites.  If you’re looking for a beautifully written story with an engaging plot that presents an authentic picture of the present-day South,  here it is.   It’s an honor to claim Natalie Baszile in the sisterhood of Real Southern Women.







Congratulations to Marla Cantrell, recently awarded the Arkansas Art Council’s Individual Artist Fellowship for her work in short fiction. These prestigious fellowships enable artists to devote creative time to their arts.A person sitting on the ground in front of water.

Marla grew up in the River Valley and writes about Arkansas’ people, heritage and culture. About the award, Marla says, “I am so honored to receive this fellowship and to represent Arkansas and the River Valley in our state’s artist community. Arkansas, with its beauty, culture and rich history, is the thread that runs through my fiction, and I’m so proud to be part of the art community of this great state.â€

Earlier this year, Marla also won first place in the White County Writers Contest at the 2014 Arkansas Writers’ Conference. A prolific writer, Marla has been published in Show Off Anthology, http://bit.ly/1qCCWWk, Deep South Magazine, http://deepsouthmag.com, Long Story Short, http://amzn.to/1n9YOpA , Word Haus, http://www.wordhaus.com and the Center for Writing Excellence, 3rd Annual Fiction Anthology. http://amzn.to/1xE7lbK Marla is Managing Editor of Do South Magazine, http://dosouthmagazine.com where she is often a featured author.

Congratulations, Marla. You do Southern Women proud! Keep your great stories coming our way!

More about Marla, her work and the Individual Artist Fellowship can be found at her website, Southern Pencil http://bit.ly/1qI921w.