I’ve been asked this question a lot: Why do you write? Or How did you decide to write a book about your father?
My answer is simple: I had a story to tell. By now, most of you know that I originally planned to write a book filled with funny stories from my childhood and growing up years, and I ended up writing about my father’s death, because that event completely changed my life. I had to tell that story first in order to “free” myself from the grief I was carrying around.
Once that book was published, I had no idea what I would do next. I didn’t know if I would ever have anything else to write about. One night in early 2018, I prayed about that specific thing asking God to direct me and help me decide if I should move on, or let go of this crazy dream of mine. The very next day, I received a message from a friend, asking if I was interested in writing a book about a man from Nacogdoches, Charles Bright. My prayer had been answered and that message, along with God’s guidance, resulted in the book, Creek to Creek: The Life and Legacy of Charles Raymond Bright.
And a weird thing happened along the way after I freed myself from the weight of my grief… One morning, I woke up after having a dream, and I knew the purpose of that dream was to spur me on to write a story. FICTION. Something I never dreamed I could write. My mother always told me to “write about what you know.” And I had done that. I always felt comfortable writing about my family, hometown, and even Mr. Bright, whom I had never met. I knew people who knew him, and their stories and research made it possible for me to write Creek to Creek. But coming up with a story on my own, and creating characters, and plot lines, and all that goes with it, always seemed like an impossible dream. But then I had an actual dream, and the rest is history.
And I found out I still have a story to tell.
I loved to write from the time I was in second grade, but I have to give credit to my favorite book of all time, To Kill A Mockingbird, for being the standard for me. I am absolutely not in any way comparing my writing ability to that of Harper Lee’s, but her choice of having Scout as narrator of her book has always influenced me, and made “first person point-of-view” my preference, for both reading and writing. Of course, being from the South has a lot to do with my love for all things Mockingbird too. And as a southern woman, I’ve always hoped to use my voice to capture my thoughts and reflections of life in the South. Here’s a little more information about the first time I was introduced to To Kill A Mockingbird.
I was twelve years old, and the new school year was about to begin. My mom was dropping me off at a party, and before I slammed the car door shut, I heard her say, “I’ll be back to get you after a while,” and then she added as she always did, “Remember to mind your manners.”
I rolled my eyes and in a put-out tone replied, “I always do.” The contradiction of the rude gesture to my mom in the midst of a reminder about manners flew right over me. I was excited to be attending Jean Walker’s party. I had known Jean and her older sister, Wendy, since my early years in Nacogdoches. This shindig was the perfect chance to visit with many of my friends whom I hadn’t seen over the summer, and we eagerly talked about being in the seventh grade and the fact that we would be considered the big dogs on campus.
The party was just reaching its height, and amid the teenage girl chatter and refreshments and laughter, I glanced out the window in the nick of time to see our pea green–colored Gran Torino station wagon creeping up in front of Jean’s house. My mother exited the car, her heels clicking as she walked up the sidewalk. The doorbell rang, and I heard Mrs. Walker say, “Sharon, your mother is here to pick you up.” I could have died. There was still an hour left in the party, and I was completely flabbergasted and embarrassed that I was the first to leave and that my mother had actually gotten out of the car to pick me up, something I felt I had outgrown upon my exit from elementary school. It wasn’t even 8:00 yet, for crying out loud.
Helpless, and knowing that being disrespectful in front of my peers would only add to my predicament, I obediently said my good- byes and walked toward my mother, after, of course, thanking Mrs. Walker for the invitation. I wasn’t even remotely pleasant as I dragged
my feet to the car. “Why did you have to embarrass me like that? Everyone’s gonna think I’m a baby and that I’m goin’ home because it’s past my bedtime.”
My mother waited until we got in the car before she responded.
“I picked you up because there’s a movie coming on TV tonight that you need to watch. I didn’t know it was on until I looked at the TV Guide after I dropped you off at the party.
One day you’ll thank me for this.”
Remember, this was at a time before VCRs and movie channels. When a classic movie made its way to our TV set, it was, indeed, a big day. But what movie could possibly be important enough that it had the potential of wreaking havoc on my social life? I tried to act disinterested, but the suspense was killing me. “What’s this movie called, anyway?”
As usual, my mother’s reply wasn’t succinct, and she answered questions I didn’t ask. “The name of the movie is To Kill a Mockingbird. It stars Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. It’s based on a book by Harper Lee. I didn’t know when you might get the chance to watch it again, and that’s why I picked you up early.”
Still aggravated and annoyed, I snapped, “Well, what could be so important about a movie that tells you how to kill birds? You know I don’t even like shootin’ a BB gun.” Who did she think I was? Annie Oakley? My mother calmly and firmly reiterated that years from now I would understand the significance of this movie and this night.
I did a fast change into my pajamas and assumed my position on the sofa, covered with my favorite blanket. As the movie started, I blurted out, “Oh, my gosh! You didn’t tell me it was in black and white. How old is this movie anyway?”
I was shocked when she replied, “It’s as old as you are. The movie came out a few months before you were born.” Her answer confused me because I knew color television was around way before I was. My mother added, “They purposely filmed the movie in black and white. It’s set in the South during the Great Depression …” Her voice trailed off because the movie had started. I was immediately lured in as Jean Louise Finch, a.k.a. Scout, was singing and humming and looking at a collection of trinkets that were in a box. I noticed immediately that
Scout wore her hair in a short pixie cut just like I did when I was her age. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, I thought, making sure I wasn’t too quick to let my mom know that she was once again right about something. I don’t think I blinked until I saw Scout, who was folded
up inside a tire, roll down the street, hit a bump, and crash into the Radleys’ yard.
I was literally on the edge of my seat, entirely enthralled and completely tuned in. As the movie progressed, I was drawn further into the people, places, and events of Maycomb, Alabama, and it was during one of the courtroom scenes, when the trial was over, that I began to understand the immense respect people of all colors and creeds had for Atticus Finch. As he walked down the aisle in defeat, Reverend Sykes and my mother simultaneously said, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
When the movie was over, I sat in complete silence. I didn’t utter a word about it for several days. School started right after that, and I was totally entwined in all things seventh grade, both academically and socially: slam books, ID bracelets, and “new math.”
Time passed, and though I still thought about Scout and Jem and Boo, I hadn’t put my hands on the book and just figured I’d get around to reading it sometime or another. A few months later, during one of the holidays, we visited my grandparents in Gonzales, and I made a tremendous discovery while out in the “teen room,” so named by my nana. When my grandparents bought their house, the previous owner was a beautician and added on a large space with a bathroom so she could fix hair. That space had since become a bedroom and a place Nana designated for the teens to hang out. The room consisted of two single beds and a double bed, which was in an area that used to be where the sink and hair dryers were. There was a small black-and-white television and some bookshelves, and that completed the accoutrements of this specially designated room for people of the teen persuasion. I’m not sure what the teens were supposed to do while in this room, but Nana had good intentions. Hanging out by myself in the teen room, ironically as a twelve-year-old, I perused the titles of the books on the shelf when one jumped right out at me. It was a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. I grabbed the book like it was the Holy Grail and clutched it next to my heart, urgently running to Nana and Papa and asking, “May I please take this book home to read? Pretty please, with sugar on top? I’ll take good care of it. I promise.” They happily agreed to give me the book, thrilled that I was interested in reading for pleasure.
After finishing the novel, I became a little obsessed with it and thought about the characters and story quite often. I mentally made a list of all the similarities there were between the book and my actual life. I, too, was a precocious young child, but not nearly as outspoken as Scout. Trying to compare myself to Scout Finch would be ludicrous. In my opinion, she is the most well-written literary character to ever live on the pages of a book. Scout and I are similar as narrators of our lives, though. Since I was very young, I have written and organized thoughts in my head as they happened, kind of like a game. I don’t want to say I hear voices, because people may think I’m crazy, but I do have an inner author voice, and because of that, I remember events from way back, with the narrative already written and stored safely away in my mind for a later time.
There were many examples of things my family had in common with the Finches too. Having an older brother helped me understand the sometimes cantankerous relationship between Scout and Jem, and Miss Maudie reminded me of a more outspoken version of my mother. Always ladylike. Always teaching a lesson. Always respectful, refusing to talk down to the children or water down the truth. Calpurnia, of course, reminded me of my sweet maid, Lovis, although Lovis never swatted my bottom. And Boo Radley. Well, he reminded me of the Wild Woman who roamed around in the woods at Camp Huawni, where I spent the summers of my youth.
I don’t speak of the Wild Woman often because she actually scared the holy heck outta me for the many summers I attended camp. Whenever we went for a ride on the Blue Goose, an old school bus with the sides and top cut off and the seats removed, I knew we were hunting down that crazy old lady who wandered around aimlessly, shrieking and crying, terrifying everyone and everything that came into her path.
Campers always eagerly piled on the Blue Goose, which took us down the lonesome, bumpy back roads of Shelby County, leading the way as we searched for this restless, witchlike shrew. I never knew what the plan of action would be if we ever captured the Wild Woman, but it was without a doubt a fun and scary adventure. It was not until I was older that I realized how coincidental the timing of her sightings was. Without fail, as we were headed back to camp, one of the adults would spot the Wild Woman eerily walking through an open field in a dingy and tattered white sheet, using an old tree limb as a cane. Sometimes we could hear her scream and cackle, and that’s when the speed of the bus accelerated and we started flying back to the safety of the cabins.
My first year of camp, I was nine and the Wild Woman invoked a fear inside me that I had never known; to put it bluntly, she scared the H-E-double hockey sticks out of me. That’s all I talked about after I arrived home. It became commonplace for me to awaken my parents in the middle of the night, frantically exclaiming, “I think the Wild Woman is outside my window! She’s scratchin’ on the screen!” I persisted with this narrative until one of my parents came to my room and checked it out. One night, there was a horrible wailing sound coming from outside. I flew out of bed to alert my parents. “The Wild Woman really is here this time! She’s outside my window shriekin’ and cryin’ like a banshee! I’m not goin’ back to my room until she’s gone!” With that, my dad got up, walked to my room, and opened my window shade. Outside on the window ledge were two stray tomcats, apparently in position to fight over a female cat who was in heat, for Pete’s sake.
While I watched the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, I was reminded of the Wild Woman whenever Boo was referenced. I was a big scaredy- cat, and those flashbacks made me believe that eventually Boo was going to do something even more dreadful than stab his father in the leg with a pair of scissors. As the story unfolded and I saw the secret kindnesses that Boo bestowed on the children, I realized he was an innocent figure, just like Tom and Atticus. These three men were all tested by the circumstances around them, and each, in a different way, demonstrated lessons about life, tolerance, courage, and conviction.
There wasn’t anything redeeming about the Wild Woman. She was nothing but a hateful old hag.
Out of all the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, I found the greatest parallels between Atticus Finch and my dad. They both always dressed in suits, even on the hottest of days. They were men of integrity, calm and cool under pressure, but their wisdom and beliefs rang out loudly for all to see and hear. My father never shot a rabid dog like Atticus shot Tim Johnson, but he always tried to do the right thing and often encouraged us to look at things from the perspective of others. Like Atticus, my father never said an unkind word about anyone, and he always believed in helping the less educated and less fortunate. But most importantly, like Atticus, my dad always let me sit in his lap.
Who could have known that the day my mom picked me up early from Jean Walker’s party would prove to be a turning point in my life? On that seemingly ordinary day, I learned about friendship, tolerance, empathy, and doing what’s right, even if everyone else thinks you’re wrong. In retrospect, we usually don’t know the significance of a particular day until many years have passed. From shopping for training bras to getting braces to wearing makeup to reading classic literature, life-changing days occur in the most ordinary of ways, or in ways that break you down to the core. As I placed the movie To Kill a Mockingbird on the shelf of the entertainment center, I had no idea that this would be the last normal weekend of my life.
(from Chapter 3 of Mockingbird Moments)
I’m so excited about my book, A Southern Girl Re-Belles and if all goes well, it should come out before Christmas. Since the book is in the final stages of the publishing process, I can now devote a lot of time to introducing you to the main character and her family and friends. (I will be doing that in future podcasts and blogs)
Abigail Anne Winchester (Abbie) is a MESS. And you will love her! The one concern I have about the book, is the language. Abbie uses profanity like some people drink sweet tea. It is a habit, and it not only appalls her best friend, Mary Grace (MG) but it inspires her grandmother to start a “swear jar,” to literally make Abbie pay for her vulgar language. I want to put the warning out there, because the language may offend some people. I believe in this book, and the characters, especially Abbie, and feel this is a necessary tool in the development of her as a character. Abbie goes through a transformation and this is one way I can illustrate that she is changing. I didn’t want to write anything “smutty, or nasty,” and the use of the language is a tool that not only helps to develop the character, but also brings up some other thought-provoking topics, such as judging others, and the “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy that many times we don’t recognize in ourselves.
I can’t wait for you to meet Abbie, and look forward to sharing more about lessons she learns about life, love and lipstick…
I say this all the time, but I truly appreciate those of you who continue to read this blog. I hope you will also tune in to my podcast. I am so far out of my comfort zone, and it is a chore, but I’m improving and growing, and will keep on trying to make it better, more relatable, and something that people look forward to listening to. In the next few months,
I hope I’m not too obnoxious with my pleas for you to read and share, because I really hope to build up my audience to help with my release of A Southern Girl Re-Belles and I need your help!
The podcast will continue to be an extension of this blog. It will be built around the same topic, but will be conversational, with many added comments and stories.
You may click on the podcast link that is on both the main page, and the blog page of rebellelikealady.com
The podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts, and iHeart Radio. https://www.iheart.com/podcast/269-re-belle-like-a-lady-50845659/