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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Kathleen Thompson, M.F.A. - 3rd in Series

Kathleen Thompson shares a piece she wrote in the MFA workshop and some of the notes that go with it. Thank you, Kathleen, for your insights and your willingness to share your exciting trip, the MFA program, and now some of your Southern memories.

I had submitted a discussion on the possibility of writing/not writing a memoir. Ellie suggested she’d like to know more about a mention I’d made of Daddy and his putting me on the back of one of our large mules when I was a child. She wanted to know more about mules, so, I used the technique of adding to: I gave her mules in my page of revision.

We stayed in that house until I finished seventh grade. It is that time period that I wrote about in my first novel. In that house I remember listening to the radio, picking corn from the red field, watching Mama butcher a hog, eating two-fist sized Alberta peaches from our tree in the backyard, devouring watermelon hearts and abandoning the rest of the hillside of green striped beauties as a break from picking cotton in the adjacent field. I remember Mr. Hatchett and my poetry notebook, and, yuck, starting my period. I remember periods the way you remember grit in spinach salad. I remember elastic sanitary belts with little metal pieces with teeth to grip the sanitary napkin and the absolute dread of having a bloody spot leak through on my dress. And I remember mules.

The mule was an essential part of the small farm. Only a few landowners we knew had tractors to plow with, and one must cultivate the fields in order to plant and harvest crops. Without a mule one could not pull the wooden slide to transport bags of fertilizer to the various fields. Without a mule one did not have transportation except on foot. It was especially handy to have a mule and wagon to bring dry corn and fodder to the corn crib from a remote field.

We owned two big mules, but I remember only one name, George. Our mules were not pack mules, but big mules. I’m not sure of their breed (all mules are technically a mixed breed and do not produce offspring) but I remember how high a mule’s back is for someone about nine years old. It loomed as large as the sixteen-hand Tennessee Walker my husband owned in the 80s. My daddy hoisted me up on George’s bare back once to give me a ride—the first time I knew heights would bother me. Daddy had stopped George in front of the house with a load of guano in sacks on a slide to take to the corn field down the road. Probably he stopped to get a  drink of water from the well on our back porch.

Daddy’s directives to George were at once a plea and a command, and most of the time they escalated into a holler: giddap, gee, haw, whoa. The old saw about mules is true. Daddy could be heard for half a mile trying to keep him in line. That was one thing Daddy did well: he could plow a straight row. The vision of a field plowed into rows and furrows before the planting on the gently rolling hillside is a painting etched into my memory in the pinks and purples of sundown. Daddy in his long sleeved, sweat-soaked work shirt, holding a line in each hand, pulling back on the bit to guide the mule; George, sweaty and stubborn, swishing  horseflies away with his tail. The long straight rows curved over the hillside. Row after row of upturned red Alabama dirt with Daddy walking behind in a furrow. Daddy in denim overalls patched at the knees, raveling out at the bottom, his high top work boots run over to the outside of his heels. Daddy and his smile when he saw me, his Katarat, coming across the field, bringing him a fresh quart fruit jar of well water which he would guzzle down in one breath. And it was widely known that Jude Smith (he only had one name Jewell and somehow Jude became his nickname) was the best gravedigger in Tuscaloosa County. He could size it up and get the ledge for the casket just right without any tools except his shovel. He got plenty of practice digging the graves for four of his babies.

Daddy married a pioneer who never traveled much outside her birthplace in Fayette County, Alabama. Mama’s daddy had twenty-seven children by two wives and Mama was the oldest of the second bunch. She would sometimes catch a ride to Tuscaloosa (we never had a car) and then a Greyhound Bus over to Columbus, MS, to see her sister, Aunt Luvenia. Giving childbirth to twelve probably seemed like peanuts to her. Butchering a hog that looked as big as an elephant to me, scalded and hung up with a rope from a tree limb was a thing she was known for in the community. The single long distance trip she made was to visit my sister Ree when she moved to Charleston, SC, with her new Air Force husband. We packed so many people into my brother-in-law’s green Chevrolet that Daddy vowed never to take a trip that far again. There was my brother-in-law, Ralph, his wife and my oldest sister, Ann, Judy their child, Daddy, Mama, me, and my sister-in-law Bernice and her two babies who was going to visit my brother J. B. also stationed somewhere near Charleston. We were like canned sardines.

So that is one suggestion I have for you: clarify what you’ve written by adding specific details. The second is to be a stickler for pointing out changes that would benefit the writers in your group. But avoid being negative. It serves no good purpose. Let the ending of my workshop serve as something of an example.

I cried when I read my revision to the group. Nothing new about that—I tend to be nostalgic and quick to tears. But Ellie cried with me and reached out her hand to me. Such an affirmation from our leader! Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

I’m not suggesting you blubber the way I tend to do. In fact, I heartily suggest that you not do that. But you get the point. Go home, and start writing about whatever it is you’re supposed to be writing about! Nothing improves writing more than writing more.
Kathleen, I couldn't agree more. 


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