When I was a child, my father would sometimes mention The Great Southern Novel he’d always wanted to write.
I remember the protagonist as a poor, small-town man who’d somehow made a go of it in politics and risen to power in South Carolina. Maybe that character took shape from my father’s life. He was raised in the town of North, South Carolina. His mother was a nurse; his father farmed and worked at a screen-door manufacturing plant. My father eventually landed at Ole Miss, where he earned a doctorate in political science. Academia was so foreign to his extended family that some relatives assumed Dr. Livingston practiced medicine.
My father never ventured into politics, and I’m not sure what became of his protagonist. But I can’t forget the name he gave to the novel swirling around in his head: “A Voice in the Southern Wind.”
His would-be novel — its roots, my roots — has taken on new meaning for me as I’ve worked toward my master’s degree at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. So has the notion of a writer’s voice, particularly what I think of as a Southern voice. Two years ago I walked away from a tenure-track professorship to become a journalist. I worked alongside undergraduates more than a decade my junior as I learned the basics: crime briefs, festival coverage, business stories, features, sports writing. I knew I wanted to be a storyteller, and I found myself drawn to narrative nonfiction.
But I also wanted to be a Southern writer, one whose voice is mine and mine alone, but also distinctively from and of the South. But what does that mean? I didn’t know, so I used my final master’s project to set out on a quest: find the intersection between craft and culture, the path to narrative nonfiction writing wrapped in a Southern voice.
On some levels my quest is that of any serious writer: an exploration of the mechanics and influences that render voice, why a person’s writing is universal but sounds … personal. On another level, mine was a lonely journey, and my compass kept pointing South.
I had a direction, but I didn’t know the route. So, I turned to four expert guides:
Pate McMichael, Chuck Reece, Wright Thompson and Tommy Tomlinson are narrative nonfiction writers from the South. They write about things I’m interested in: sports, culture, food, people, history, home. They are, like me, white men who have reflected on the South’s beauty, and its blight.
They taught me a lot about narrative writing. They spoke to the South’s influence on their work. And they pushed back when I asked how to define — and develop — a distinctive Southern voice.
Wright Thompson was in New Orleans when I phoned him in June. The Clarksburg, Mississippi, native was in line ordering a coffee when I asked him how he defines voice. He, in turn, asked the barista.
“It’s your signature,” Thompson said, relaying the barista’s response. Then, coffee in hand, Thompson left the barista and contemplated the question himself.
He talked about “voicey writers” (naming John Jeremiah Sullivan and Tom Junod) whose work you’d recognize without their byline. But the question and its follow-up — How did you develop your voice? — seemed to irritate him. He said he doesn’t actively think about the voice of the piece; he just worries whether he can do the damn story.
During the past 17 years, Thompson has written about Michael Jordan and Ted Williams, the 2014 World Cup and the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He’s authored TV pieces for ESPN, and he edited “The Best American Sports Writing 2015.” He’s won awards for his narrative nonfiction but, he says, “none that matter” (meaning a Pulitzer or a National Magazine Award). He’ll tell you he’s written some pieces he’s proud of and a lot that he hates.
“I struggled for a really long time to just strip away everything” — he’d later specify simile and metaphor — “and when I go back and read it now, you can just see someone at a keyboard typing,” he said. “And I hate that. Where it feels like pyrotechnics for pyrotechnics sake.”
“I have literally never, ever, put in a single amount of thought to developing my voice, although I do always strive for sort of an authenticity … .” Authenticity, he said, is avoiding colloquialisms and “cute little jokes” and alliteration — stuff that’s “hack-ish.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, Thompson took a class on 19th century American literature. The class focused on sense of place as a character in story. That learning is evident in his stories, which makes sense, he said, as he’s someone “from a place with a strong sense of place.”
“It’s one of the very few places left in America where culture is defined inside-out and not outside-in,” he said. But Thompson took issue with the notion of a distinctive Southern writing voice. That’s something English majors would talk about, he said, adding that they’d probably say Southern writers “write like poor people.”
Which is “condescending and bullshit,” he said. And trying to write like a Southern writer? Well, that’s also “hack-ish.”
Toward the end of our phone conversation in September, Chuck Reece opened two books and read aloud the opening line of each. The first was William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” The second was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
The juxtaposition of Faulkner’s “florid” prose with O’Connor’s “straightforward” writing drove home Reece’s point: “There are so many different Southern voices.”
Reece is the founder and editor of The Bitter Southerner, an Atlanta-based digital publication that’s trying to reimagine the South. The Ellijay, Georgia, native worked himself into a sports-writing gig for his hometown paper in high school, and wrote for the Red & Black, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia. He’s written for trade publications in New York and freelanced for magazines. He covered the 1990 Georgia gubernatorial race, which led to a job as Gov. Zell Miller’s press secretary. Now, he’s back writing and editing narrative nonfiction.
And he’s struggling with the word “y’all.”
In his branding of The Bitter Southerner, Reece said he might overuse the South’s signature pronoun — a familiar cultural marker and one that invites stereotype. Yes, there’s an appeal to the word “y’all,” and there’s also an assumption that all Southerners use it. Reece intends his publication to challenge assumptions.
“Some of the worst shit I get, in terms of submissions, is stuff that’s just so self-consciously Southern,” Reece said. “You know, that, like, uses shit that people think we say, instead of what we actually say.”
For Reece, voice is less about the words that writers use and more about their points of view. Voice is rendered by the topics they select and the thoughtful way they take a reader through a piece.
Earlier in our conversation, Reece referenced a recent New York Times review, which applauded The Bitter Southerner for its “off-centered” and “vivid” take on the South. If people hold that view of his publication, he said, it’s because “they’re not used to people writing about the South that way.”
My takeway: There’s not a distinctive Southern voice. But Southern writers can make their voices distinctive — by challenging whitewashed history and mythology.
“I think in the South, maybe more than other places,” Tommy Tomlinson said, “we had to invent myths and legends of things, because the South has always been on the losing end on a lot of the history of this country.”
Tomlinson’s words echoed those of Reece, with whom he worked at the Red & Black in college. The Brunswick, Georgia, native has covered a litany of topics in his 29-year career, the bulk of which has been spent at the Charlotte Observer. He’s a Pulitzer finalist who’s been featured in the “Best American Sports Writing” and “America’s Best Newspaper Writing,” and he’s a freelancer and contributing writer for ESPN.
“In some ways our imaginations had to cover up some of the harsh realities of what Southerners faced, and some of the hands they dealt themselves,” he continued.
We talked about the South’s stereotypically strong oral storytelling tradition. That theme surfaced in all of my interviews, and Tomlinson answered many of my questions with stories. He also was the only writer of the bunch who could describe his voice to me.
When he was at the Charlotte Observer, a researcher analyzed the grade-level of various reporters’ writing. The analysis put Tomlinson’s writing at a fifth-grade level, the lowest in the newsroom. His colleagues gave him “some shit about that,” but Tomlinson took it as a compliment.
Tomlinson’s parents were sharecroppers, and they had to drop out of school to work. But they learned how to read, and when the paper thudded against the family’s door around 4 p.m. each day, Tomlinson would retrieve it, take off the green rubber band that bound it, and he and his parents would read.
He’s carried those childhood lessons forward.
His voice, he said, is characterized by simplicity: telling complex stories in a way anyone can understand them. The ability to explain nuclear fission to his mother, Pixar movies — “WALL-E,” “The Incredibles” and “Inside Out” — are sources of inspiration. They’re made with kids in mind, but they contain great emotion, plot twists and drama.
And, referencing a recent article he wrote for Our State magazine, his voice is intimate. Tomlinson had surgery for throat cancer, which damaged his vocal cords. He’s no longer able to shout above scrums of reporters in press conferences. Instead, he relies on observation and one-on-one conversations.
As I listened to Tomlinson, I realized the traits of his voice — simplicity, clarity, intimacy — don’t stem from anything distinctively Southern.
He theorized that as the world has become more connected — through television and the Internet — everyone is more alike than they are different. “A fusion of influence,” he called it. Rather than the presence of a distinctive Southern voice, he said, you might see “flavors” of the South in writing.
It’s like Southern cuisine, Tomlinson said, where chefs modify traditional dishes like fried chicken and collard greens. It’s like music, he added, how if you didn’t know R.E.M. was from Athens, Georgia, you wouldn’t think it was a Southern rock band — and even if you knew the group’s roots, you probably wouldn’t pair it with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
In 2005, Pate McMichael had just finished his master’s degree at the University of Missouri, and he was packing to leave. He said this to his roommates: “I’m going home — I want to be a Southern writer”
The Washington, Georgia, native has been a journalist for more than a decade, and he teaches journalism at Georgia College, in Milledgeville. He’s written for St. Louis Magazine and Atlanta Magazine and was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2009. In April, his book “Klandestine” was published, about a conspiracy to cover up James Earl Ray’s involvement in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
McMichael returned home to be “close to the land” and spend time with his father before he died. He came home armed with experience and perspective, the drive to do good journalism in a part of the world where it was needed.
I felt a kinship over the phone on that June evening. Finally, I thought, someone who actually calls himself a Southern writer. But the longer we talked, the more I realized McMichael was talking about writing in the South, about the South — and about topics (such as immigration) that might upset friends and family — rather than writing like the South.
And he pushed back against my notion that there’s a distinctly Southern voice.
“If you try to channel another (person’s voice),” he said, “it comes out phony … . Voice has got to be your own voice. And I do think … that one key to that is to pick topics that other writers don’t pick, because what that does is it shows your originality … .”
Sitting around and trying to become the next great Southern writer “is a waste of time,” he said, because it’s already been done, by folks such as O’Connor and Eudora Welty.
I was reminded of an essay that John Grisham wrote in The Oxford American in 1992. Grisham, the Mississippi writer of fictional legal dramas, recalled sitting in a bookstore during a book-signing tour and being bothered by a TV reporter. The reporter kept asking about Faulkner, whether it was stressful for Grisham to write in the legend’s shadow. Grisham noted that he was a commercial fiction writer — and that Faulkner was dead.
So, what of my quest? My conclusion: voice is ultimately about ego and authenticity.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines ego as “the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world.” For me, there’s a lot of ego in a writer’s voice: It’s how a writer contrasts himself with other writers and the larger writing world. It’s that “signature” Thompson and the barista talked about. Maybe voice is a selfish thing for a writer to consider, and maybe that’s why it was hard for some of my guides to talk about it.
But if a journalist hopes to be heard above the din, he has to be a bit selfish — to tap into the qualities that make him distinctive and use them to flavor his stories. To use a Southern metaphor, it’s similar to a pitmaster making barbecue: He knows there are hundreds of way to make ‘cue, but he wants you to appreciate, recognize and remember his product. And to come back for more.