It’s no exaggeration to say I found my way to North Carolina because of Ben Dixon MacNeill. I read his beautiful book The Hatterasman for the first time while camped at Cape Point on Cape Hatteras as a teenager — and I’ve probably read it 20 more times since. He enthralled me with tales of heroic lifesavers and lighthouse keepers and instilled in me a lifelong admiration for those in the business of rescue. The deep love of place in his stories proved contagious, and I, too, fell in love with that austere island on the verge of the wild Atlantic. When I moved to North Carolina more than 30 years ago, I immediately became the beneficiary of the generosity of a wonderful community of writers, beginning with Sam Ragan and Doris Betts. I started to list them but there are just too many — and I don’t want to risk leaving out anybody. So I decided to reach out to some other North Carolina writers to ask them to share, in their own words, the writers and teachers who inspired them:
• Jill McCorkle (Life After Life): Do we have to pick just one? I had Max Steele, Lee Smith, and Louis Rubin (in that order), and I learned so much from each of them, it’s hard to imagine the progression without them. I have quoted Max (such an inspiring, funny teacher) and used his prompts in every class I have ever taught; Louis encouraged me to go to a graduate program and then was my publisher when he founded Algonquin Books; and Lee (mentor and dear friend of now over 40 years!) and I continue to collaborate, and I rely on her as a trusted early reader of new work.
• Christine Arvidson (Reflections on the New River: New Essays, Poems and Personal Stories): If I hadn’t had Philip Gerard as my first mentor in my MFA program, I probably wouldn’t have made it through. When I later moved to North Carolina myself, what fun to bring him to Ashe County’s On the Same Page Literary Festival — twice. He was a great hit there, too.
• Avery Caswell (Motherload): Cannot say enough wonderful things about my mentor, Abigail DeWitt, whom I met at a Duke Writers’ Workshop. She is generous with her time and positive with her feedback and coached me to successfully completing more than one book.
• Kate Sweeney (American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning): Doris Betts! I was lucky enough to take a fiction class from her in undergrad, and while I don’t remember a thing I wrote back then, I do remember her warmth and encouragement. Also, she was damn funny.
• Michael K. Brantley (Galvanized: The Odyssey of a Reluctant Carolina Confederate): I studied under Alex Albright — he perhaps did more for my writing than anyone I’d encountered. It was amazing how he could get into my work and just know what I needed, make me understand why I needed it. My inspiring North Carolina writer would be Dennis Rogers, a columnist whom I read growing up. He truly could find a story in anyone.
• Margaret D. Bauer(A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O’Hara and Her Literary Daughters): As I’ve transitioned from literary criticism to creative nonfiction, Philip Gerard’s books have been my guide, and his encouragement when I had the guts to send him an essay meant the world to me.
• Valerie Nieman (To the Bones; Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse): My first encounter with a North Carolina writer was a lasting one. I met Fred Chappell when he taught at the West Virginia Writers Conference in the 1980s. He and his books have mentored me, given me courage to work in multiple genres and forms. He blurbed my first little SF paperback when I did not even realize what an eminence he was. There’s no one like ole Fred.
• Carole Mehle (Writer, instructor at Edgecombe Community College): I must say that there are three contenders for who influenced me the most as a writer. By far, Philip Gerard and Luke Whisnant are responsible for who I am as a writer. Philip influenced me even after I graduated in 1993 — of course at Wildacres, but even through his published words. He was the first one who had faith in me as a writer. He was the reason I quit saying, “I want to be a writer” and replaced it with “I am a writer.” Luke just gave me so much. I still use concepts he taught to me. The third one I will give credit to is Sally Sullivan. During one of my classes at UNCW, she made the prose writers write poetry and the poetry writers write prose. That gave me confidence to explore all facets of writing. Without her, I would never have ventured into a poetry class with Janice Fuller at Wildacres. Wildacres has played heavily into my development as well.
• Michel Smoak Stone (Border Child): Luke Whisnant offered generous and thoughtful critiques when I first began writing short stories. Also, certainly, Ron Rash has encouraged and inspired me for years and modeled serious dedication to the writing life. The poet Tim Peeler in Hickory continues to feed my fiction writing with his inspired poetry as well as his willingness to read drafts of my work.
• Charlotte Hilary Matthews (Green Stars): Jill Gerard, dear friend, has offered thorough critique of my work and has opened up numerous opportunities like The Chautauqua Institution.
• Angela Love Moser (Managing Editor at North Carolina Literary Review): Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition and Philip Gerard’s novel [Cape Fear Rising] inspired my research into the Wilmington Coup, which was the center of my capstone project. From that research, I have continued to learn about events of which I was not aware, such as the Tulsa Massacre. I went to The International Civil Rights Center & Museum (ICRCM) in Greensboro and learned so much that I didn’t know. This has led me to delve into more research about social justice and racial oppression, especially in the education and judicial systems in this country. Beginning with these two historical novels about the Wilmington Coup, I have learned (and continue to learn) about racial oppression throughout the history of this country. When I do finally enroll in a PhD program, I want to focus on these issues in some form.
• Ray McAllister (author of a series of books about the Outer Banks): I interviewed David Stick for my Hatteras book at his home on the bay at Kitty Hawk. He promised us an hour but ended up giving us three. Even agreed to read over a couple of chapters, though his eyesight was awful. He was gracious … but thought I’d made a couple idiotic mistakes. I’ve shared that story with people who knew him. They said, Oh, yes, indeed, that was David.
• Philip Raisor (Outside Shooter: A Memoir; That Naked Country): Peter Makuck and I were graduate students together at Kent State back in the time of the campus insurrections. He was a steady fellow then, and has remained so. After joining the faculty at East Carolina University, he founded Tar River Poetry, which he edited for 25 years, while also building a substantial reputation as a poet, short fiction writer, and critic. A steady worker, remarkable production.
• Jesse Waters (So Let Me Get This Straight): Philip Gerard, Clyde Edgerton, and Mark Cox are three people I continue to be grateful for. Their mentorship, their kindness, their art — all of these things were factors in helping me find what I wanted to be in the literary world.
• Janna McMahan(OceanInside): The first time I met Lee Smith, she brought me to tears. I sat across a table from her at the Appalachian Writers Workshop, waiting for her analysis of my short story submission. I was certain my work was an embarrassment. Lee said, “Honey, this is really good!” I felt the press of tears. She gave me kind, constructive suggestions. She asked me about the novel I was writing and told me I had promise. I kept sniffing back tears of relief and joy. Her encouragement was all I needed to move forward.
• Alice Osborn (Heroes Without Capes: Poems): Sally Buckner. I first met Sally back in 2004 when I was a fiction student of hers in Meredith College’s weeklong Focusing on Form, a women-only creative writing program. She taught me how to integrate action with dialogue tags, and she was so kind to blurb two of my four poetry books. Every time I studied with her in subsequent workshops or classes or ran into her at a poetry/writing event, she was always so kind and generous with her encouragement. She passed in early 2018, and I miss Sally so much!
The late John Ehle inspires me with his storytelling, as well as his spot-on dialogue and tight setting descriptions. I came late to the John Ehle party after being assigned his novel The Winter People for an NC Humanities “Let’s Talk About It” discussion three years ago. I loved teaching his book now twice and sharing this wonderful writer with folks who are still new to him. He’s the Kenny Rogers of writing: I want to write like John, who shares a lot of detail in such an effortless way.
• Heather Wilson (Deputy Director of the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington): The summer before I started college at UNC Chapel Hill, I discovered the writings of Doris Betts, Elizabeth Spencer, and Lee Smith. I read everything I could get my hands on — and then imagine by surprise and delight when, as a freshman, I walked into a classroom in Greenlaw Hall and saw both Doris and Elizabeth sitting together and laughing. I saw Lee Smith reading in The Pit in front of Student Stores. I signed up for the first creative writing class I could get into and was lucky enough to make it into a small fiction writing class with Doris.
Doris was the best copyeditor I have even known. When she edited your stories, it looked like she took out every other word. I still have a file of stories with her beautiful handwriting curling in the margins. She helped you to find the heart of the story, to draw it out, to make in shine. She had no patience for characters who sat and thought about things, who had long internal monologues or stared out windows. She taught us to get as close to the fire as we could with our characters, to be painfully honest, and to be brave. Doris’s writing is some of the bravest I’ve ever read.
She encouraged her students in every possible way. If it weren’t for Doris, I surely would have never become an intern for the first NC Literary Festival. She encouraged me down that path, just as she nominated me for a student advisory committee for the English Department, and she wrote a stellar letter of recommendation that certainly landed my internship at the Atlantic Monthly after I graduated. She worked tirelessly for her students. She believed in us and taught us to believe in ourselves. I had lunch with Doris when I would come home to visit North Carolina when I lived in Boston, and we would meet at Fearrington Village and gossip and talk about books and writing.
I still think about Doris when I write. My writing now is different; I write essays about art, copy for brochures and catalogs, grants, and publicity material at the art museum where I work. But when I get lazy and don’t edit my work, I hear her voice, and I see her script, marking through words and phrases.
Doris taught me many things — how to tell a good story, how to be clear in my writing, and also how to support those around me by believing in them and letting them shine.
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