My Monday Mentor: Rick Bragg

Rick Bragg

First, allow me to quash the ugly rumor that I kidnapped Rick Bragg at the Southern Festival of Books.

I did not. However, last year my friend and I came very close. We watched his handlers whisk him away to his signing table, and we followed him down the secret corridor and corralled him into posing for a quick picture. It was my friend’s idea, really. She once stalked Harper Lee.

But that’s another story.

Apparently, we are not the only people who have ever considered the friendly abduction of a Pulitzer Prize winner. I arrived in Nashville later than I had planned and rushed into the War Memorial Auditorium, just seconds before Rick took the stage. I marched straight to the front, betting everything on the chance there would be one empty chair upfront between two strangers. I didn’t mind squeezing in.

“Excuse me, mam,” I said to the Junior League lady on the left. “Is anyone taking either of these two seats?”

The woman to the right ignored me, her eyes intent on the stage, but the sophisticated lady stood, waving her arms, scanning the packed auditorium.

“Oh, no, that one’s not taken,” she replied, half listening to me while pointing to the chair next to the lady who did not acknowledge me. “But this one—this one belongs to my friend. I’m worried about her. She has already accosted Rick Bragg at our hotel on the elevator. I’m afraid she’s going to follow him on stage. I don’t know where she is.”

Hmm. I thought to myself. Maybe that’s why this party hasn’t started yet. Somebody else is cutting in on my writer.

So no, I did not rope him (literally or figuratively) into being today’s Monday Mentor. But as I sat there in the packed War Memorial auditorium with dozens of other women and their patient husbands and a few persistent photographers, I listened as he read from The Prince of Frogtown, and I savored each word.

He is my mentor, whether he knows it or not.  

Sonny Brewer

I also purchased Sonny Brewer’s new release, Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit, featuring Rick Bragg’s story. I have everything else Rick Bragg has written. I just didn’t have this one. Plus, I liked the title. I figured it was apropos for a budding writing, awaiting her turn in the literary sun.

All of us budding writers dream of the day when we can sit in a hideway coffee shop in some romantic location and sip espresso and tap on our keyboards and turn out million dollar bestsellers that take us away from our mundane 9-5 lives.

Fat chance.

But anyway, I had the gall—as my grandmother used to say—to wait thirty minutes in line for Rick Bragg to sign a book he didn’t even write, hoping that he wouldn’t be offended that I hadn’t boosted his own book sales.

But he signed it, graciously, and he listened to me gush about him being my favorite writer, and we chatted, briefly, and he endured a photo op, and I left. Satisfied.

What is this strange power that Rick Bragg possesses?

What is this power lures droves of sophisticated women to fawn over a man in baggy pants and an everyday shirt speak about a culture to which they certainly cannot relate, a culture they most certainly shun. How can women who have never eaten saltine crackers with Vienna sausages or Underwood Deviled Ham, who have never stepped foot inside an outhouse, who have probably never even seen a tar-papered shack, appreciate his stories of the downtrodden South?

Is it romance? Maybe.

I can only speak for myself. I am a happily married woman with two children, yet I persuaded my husband to brave the crazy Nashville traffic on a packed 1-24 to drive 70 miles so that I could hear him read from a book he wrote three years ago.

I appreciate Rick Bragg because he writes the way I want to write, the way I try to teach my students to write. There’s a well-worn quote from Walter Smith about writing: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.”

When Rick Bragg sits down at his keyboard and opens his vein, he bleeds Rick Bragg all over the pages. That’s what I like about Rick Bragg. His style is distinct, unmistakable. When I ask my students to write, I want their writing to be infused with their own distinct style and personality, not some “nice blend of vanilla tapioca,” as Ray Bradbury describes in Fahrenheit 451.

I like Rick Bragg because he’s honest. (Yeah, yeah, I know the naysayers will bring up the New York Times controversy over his questionable use of stringers.) But Rick Bragg writes like Rick Bragg. He writes like a man inspired by passion. He writes like a man who tells a story with purpose. He writes like a man who is the voice of a people who would never speak for themselves, not in a way that people of a higher culture could understand.

Rick Bragg is like a bridge between cultures. He has a foot in both the upper middle and the lower.

Charles K. Wolfe

Rick Bragg reminds me of my MTSU professor, Dr. Charles K. Wolfe, the man who taught me to appreciate and to preserve folk tradition and culture, particularly the culture of the blue collar laborers, the working class people, my people.

Rick Bragg is a champion of the blue collar laborer, the working class. Although we may not see eye to eye politically—or maybe we do, he paints a picture that is true. His words ring true.

But what I like most about Rick Bragg is that he remains humble—or at least he appears to be. He’s not afraid to throw the word “ain’t” out in a roomful of high culture literary elitists. He knows what he is, and he knows what he isn’t—or ain’t.

Rick Bragg hasn’t forgotten his roots. He hasn’t gotten above his raisin’. He sees the value of a people, of people, beyond their socio-economic worth. He peels back the layers of people and exposes them for what they are, respects, maybe even loves them, just as they are.

An honest picture ~ No coercion involved

Rick Bragg is the kind of writer I want to be.

I don’t know where Rick Bragg is spiritually. I think he knows where he ought to be. But he inspires me as a writer—and as a Christian—to see all people for what they are and to love all people as they are.

Time for romance and autumn reads

Wednesday is the big day. Fall arrives.

Ever since I was a little girl, autumn has been my favorite time of year. I think it’s because I am a romantic. When we discuss romance in my English classes, my male students squirm in their seats. But then when I explain what real romance is all about–from a literary standpoint anyway, my guys fess up to being romantics themselves. True romantics lean toward the idealized, the heroic, the adventurous.

I like autumn because I can feel the adventure in the air. There’s a random sprinkling of sinister deeds and mischievious pranks that keeps me looking around corners for what I’m not sure is really there.

The onset of twilight, the unexpected chill, a darting shadow and the glow of a blood-red moon create the perfect ambiance for a spooky tale around a campfire under the stars.

Autumn to me means cozy. Just mention of the season conjures up images of a fire, a blanket and a good book. Speaking of which, I have a whole list that I’ll share with you later–my Autumn Must-Read List! What’s really exciting is that I met several of these authors at ACFW! I bought their books! Now let’s read.

Autumn is a time just waiting for escape. I plan to start writing again. I have two books in mind. One, I’ve already started. It’s a stand-alone romance with a baseball theme. The other is a continuation of the TJ Westbrook series. That’s the one I can’t wait to develop. I’ll be heading back to Memphis. Nothing like a good road trip.

And speaking of road trips, it’s just about time for a retreat to the mountains of East Tennessee. Give me nature’s palette of color, a hide-away cabin, a hot tub, pumpkin spice candles and a book from my must-read list, and I’m all set.

The arrival of autumn also signals the arrival of the Southern Festival of Books. Mark your calendar for October 8-10. You can find a full schedule on the Humanities Tennessee Website:  http://www.humanitiestennessee.org/festival/index.php

I obviously can’t list them all here, but here’s a taste of whom you’ll see if you make it to Nashville. Again, you’ll find a full list on the website:

Rick Bragg — Pulitzer Prize winner for Feature Writing; author of All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, The Prince of Frogtown and other best-selling books and memoirs

Susan Gregg Gilmore — Author of the novel Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen and others

J. M. Hochstetler — Author of the American Patriot Series as well as publisher and editorial director of Sheaf House Publishers

Sharyn McCrumb — Award-winning author of numerous bestselling novels including The Songcatcher and She Walks These Hills

Ramona Richards — Award-winning editor, speaker and author of Steeple Hill novels

Jen Stephens — Author of The Heart’s Journey Home

Share your thoughts. What does autumn mean to you? What book tops your list of Autumn Must Reads? Let’s celebrate this season of harvest, a time when God’s fingerprints and brilliance of design are all over his creation.