Leaving Southern Comfort

Leaving Southern Comfort
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My time as Wolff Cottage Writer-In-Residence, Fairhope Center For The Writing Arts is over

Alabama is the deep south. I am not.

What I am is a first generation US-born, raised in New York City, spent lots of time in Western Massachusetts, some time in Los Angeles, current Boston resident.

So, when I was offered the opportunity to spend time in LA, Lower Alabama, as the Wolff Cottage Writer-in-Residence at the Fairhope Center for Writing Arts, I did not hesitate to say yes.

I had read about how Fairhope was founded in 1894 as a Single Tax Colony with the goal of creating a utopian society that gave everyone a fair hope at life.

And I had read about how Fairhope’s literary and geographical landscape have attracted writers such as Fannie Flagg, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Clarence Darrow, Winston Groom, Rick Bragg, Jimmy Buffett, and W.E.B Griffin.

And how the Wolff Cottage came into being due to local writer and bookseller, Sonny Brewer who wanted to create a place for writers and that the cottage has been a mainstay of Fairhope writing since Pulitzer-nominated author Rick Bragg arrived for the initial resident in 2004.

Plus, I have always been drawn to the south. My first novel, Finding Bluefield, followed two women who sought love in 1960’s rural Virginia. The novel sought to explore what happens when invisible people become visible. Later I wrote a screenplay that followed two Confederate soldiers making their way home from Appomattox, a journey that forced them to continue killing despite their desire for peace.

But, while Virginia is the south, it was pointed out to me, it is not Deep South. Deep South often refers to those the six founding members of the Confederacy that met In February 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama, to formally establish a unified government: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. As a New Yorker and a Mets fan, I was also often made aware that the 1969 Miracle Mets world champions had an all-Mobile outfield — Amos Otis, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee. I am forever grateful for Mobile’s contribution.

But oh, the people I met and the places I saw when I settled into my refuge on the Mobile Bay. The people were fascinating and vibrant and vital and curious and generous. The place, that is a story unto itself. Alabama's natural heritage has long been overshadowed by decades of (well deserved) bad press as a center of civil rights protests. But, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is one of our planets greatest biological resources. I can only hope you will seek out the documentary America’s Amazon to learn more.

And then there was the much heralded-humidity. But, it turns out that it was really only humid when I was outside.

Still, beyond those welcome travel moments, my time was spent writing. After I arrived, I put some final revisions on a new novel, No Small Wonder, that is now in search of an agent. No Small Wonder’s central character is the high school son of Holocaust survivors in 1960s in New York City.

I like the re-vising, re-seeing, re-thinking, re-visioning process. It allows me to see what I was thinking. I get a do-over. When I revise, I try to see before I think. I read what I’ve written and look at the facts, look at what happened, before I start jumping or drawing or otherwise tumbling toward conclusions. Gradually I see the connections, some intentional, some accidental (my favorite), and I try to build on them, add to them.

With that project circulating, the real fun kicked in. I started a new novel. By design I need to keep the process messy, to let the irrational, the foolishness, the madness do their thing. Sometimes I use a map. Most of the time I don’t want them. I‘m okay getting lost. Most times I prefer it. It allows for the unintended story show up and stay.

My goal in the cottage was to find the big picture, the overall concept—flexible as it may be—as to what the novel might become. After a few weeks, my main character began to lead the way and I was on my way.

As I walked the streets of Fairhope or sat by the dock of the Bay, I allowed my mind to wander without purpose. I’m a fan of being bored and a believer in doing nothing. Being bored gets a bad name. Being bored is not the same as finding something boring. Certainly not the same as being boring.

And then suddenly, after my outstanding June and July in the Wolff Cottage in Fairhope, Alabama, a piece of paradise on the Mobile Bay it was time to head home to Boston.

I have left Fairhope. For now.

• • •

Elan Barnehama’s first novel, Finding Bluefield (2012) is a road trip through the 1960’s that explores what happens when society’s invisible become visible. His new novel, NO SMALL WONDER, (which is in search of an agent) is set in New York City in 1969 and narrated by a first generation US, son of Holocaust survivors, who navigates high school, the war in Vietnam, and finding an escape route for when the US starts rounding up its Jews. NO SMA You can follow him on twitter at @elanbarnehama.

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