Thursday, January 29, 2009

Work in Progress: Leaving South Carolina

For those of you interested in a more literary look on the world, please go check out the Editorial Ass blog and read her interesting take on how Jane Austen suffered many of the same woes we do in terms of getting her work published and dealing with publishers—found here. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

Enticing excerpt:

“The first novel she finished was First Impressions (which would later be retitled Pride & Prejudice, her most famous and beloved novel). Mr. Austen promptly and proudly sent it off to the prominent publisher Thomas Cadell in 1797. He didn't bother to write a diverting query letter, though, and didn't do much research on the marketplace or tailoring his pitch. (Of course no one who reads this blog would make a mistake like that!) First Impressions was sent back, unread, with the note 'declined by return of post.'"


And then for those of you willing to put up with some tidbits about my month of living and teaching in Spartanburg, South Carolina, read on:

I’ll be leaving on Saturday, which is about the right amount of time to have been away from my “real life.” One thing that never fails to fascinate me about life in the South (to make a sweeping generalization), is that the longer you stay, the more you realize that you have no idea of what’s really going on, what the real story is down here. It’s not an easy place to figure out, and I’ve enjoyed talking with students and others about life in the New South. I find it interesting that some people have a love-hate relationship about being from here, that some people like to claim they have no accent (ha!), that some people—at least on the surface—don’t appreciate the rich culture here, whether it’s food or a unique way with language. Yes, there’s a dark past (and present; while I was here, it was reported that racist materials were slipped into some delivered copies of the local newspaper), but where is a place that isn’t complicated in any number of ways? But as is so evident as I walk around town in my East Coast all-black attire, I’m not from here and I really don’t know anything about it. I accept that, and happily: I believe a writer should never feel completely at ease, as if there are no mysteries left to ponder and to tease out.

So thank you, South Carolina, for reminding me that despite Wal-Mart’s best efforts to homogenize the country (and there are two Wal-Marts here in Spartanburg) , there are places in the country that are richly different from and as mysterious as the places I come from.

And I would be remiss without mentioning some highlights:

--I’ve written about the joys of Converse College cafeteria food. I’m still a fan, though I can see that several years of it might wear on me (and make me fat). Still, I finally did get the famous Shrimp & Grits Bar during my last week, and though it wasn’t the best shrimp & grits I’ve ever had, I would have to say that it beat the hell out of El Ranchero, a horrid mystery meat coated with a slick of tomato paste and a slab of American cheese, which was my college cafeteria’s go-to meal. We seemed to get it every three days. Also, I've never before gotten cooking tips from an institutional cafeteria, but yesterday at lunch, I was so taken with the grilled hearts of romaine at the West Coast Caesar Salad Bar that I asked how I could make them at home (grill pan or in the broiler, quickly, with olive oil or Pam).

--The famous Beacon Drive-In still looks like a place from another time, with dozens of employees running around shouting, gabbing, and filling your order. Chili-Cheese-A-Plenty is as it ever was: a cheeseburger drenched in chili and smothered in four inches of French fries and stellar onion rings. After eating dinner there, I woke up in agony at 4 am, with major stomach pain, but it was worth it. The sweet ice tea is PHENOMONAL! And the peach cobbler was also fantastic. And I was touched by the continued employment of a long-time employee, now blind from glaucoma, who stands at the head of the line and repeats your order to a woman who then shouts it back to the crew. The Beacon sells bobble-head dolls of this guy, with the proceeds going to fight glaucoma…of course I bought one!

--I finished one of my half-finished books. I’m not sure if it was worth it, but I did find several notable passages amidst the dreck. I’m embarrassed to name the title, but by God, it’s going in my “books read” journal. Let the biographers wonder why I stuck with that one…

--North Carolinians may squawk, but the blue sky here is very intense, one of the prettiest blues I’ve seen.

--I met a woman who grew up in North, South Carolina. Isn’t that fascinating?

--Converse College has many lovely old buildings with charming, old building touches. For example, the building where my office is has a chandelier in the entry hall.

--Uncle Lee’s Famous Recipe Fried Chicken is pretty good, not as heavily seasoned and processed-feeling as KFC. Don’t tell Steve I ate any…we allow ourselves to eat fried chicken once a year, on the Fourth of July, and I don’t want to miss out on that meal because I jumped the gun with this secret January chicken.

--I got to witness a town that panics more at the sight of snow than the DC area. There was an inch at most, and it had mostly melted by noon…but all the schools in Spartanburg were cancelled anyway.

--I would be remiss in not mentioning the students I worked with. It could be tiring reading a pack of manuscripts every week and having back-to-back hour-long conferences...but it was truly a joy and inspiration to witness the advances people made in their work in this short time. And believe me, I would never complain about getting to talk about writing all day long with smart, challenging, perceptive writers like the ones I met here at Converse College (which, BTW, is now offering a low-residency MFA along with the BFA in Creative Writing for undergrads--more info on both programs at

--And finally, I’m sorry, but I LIKE people always telling me to have a nice day. I will miss so many things about being here, but maybe I will miss most of all how nice people are in their daily interactions with each other. Of course this observation is quickly followed by my friend’s warning: “They’re nice to your face, but then walk away and they’ll be talking about you…concluding with ‘bless her heart.’” (i.e. “She’s such a bitch. Bless her heart.”) So be it. Surface nice is better than the no-nice of big city life!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.