Bridges and Things in Aiken, S.C.

One of my earliest SCWA friends and a reader (and reviewer!) of both of my books, Steve Gordy, organized the November 13, 2021 Aiken Book Festival and invited me to be the keynote. It was my first keynote ever. I crushed it. See the speech text below.

Aiken Book Festival Keynote

There’s a stone bridge in Virginia less than 20 yards from I-81. It’s covered in moss and foliage and stretches over a small creek. It’s visible from the road but has no road of its own, no path on either bank. It arches in a muddy, bulky way, as if it were constructed hastily, used, and then abandoned.

It cannot be seen on I-81 northbound and so, when I’m headed to Northern Virginia, I only imagine it when I near what I think is the general area. But when I’m headed home, southbound, I keep an eye out. And just when I think I must have missed it, I’ll catch a glimpse.

At 80 miles an hour. While I race by. Of the bridge that lives in black and white in my mind. 

Years ago, an artist I knew drew a pen-and-ink of that bridge. It had fascinated him, too, on his trip south, and he’d sketched it from memory. And I recognized it, upon seeing it, as that bridge by the interstate. The one so close it might have once been the road we’re now on. The one so old it no longer has a road to cross it.

He’d seen it. Just as I had. And in his mind’s eye re-created it. Just as I have in countless stories and scenes and ideas.

When readers say the book is better than the movie, it’s usually that their own mind had created a superior visual image with the clues the writer gave. Perhaps the reader made better use of details than the film maker did.

When MTV first aired in 1981, it was not the first medium to put visual art to stories. Before then we had picture books and film and theatre. It wasn’t even the first medium to put visuals to music, we had ballet and dance and movie scores. And yet, MTV’s bridge between film and popular music was so broad, so inviting, so available, that it led an entire generation over the gap between stories in song and stories in film.

MTV provided a vision for us of one person’s interpretation of a song and, in doing so, forever bridged for my generation the experience between what we hear, what we see, what we imagine, and what we know.

We need bridges now more than ever. We’ve entered an era of tribalism in this country where we are without a common enemy and so have turned on one another. We need empathy and books teach us empathy. We need compassion and books give us compassion. Am I saying books can heal our nation? Put us back together in pursuit of prosperity and happiness? Yes. Specifically mine. But you have to buy them, read them, and leave a review. It’s the review that’s so important.

Only kidding. But we are not the first society to wrestle with big changes in technology, social values, and gender roles. And the writers are who led those other societies through just as we will lead our beloved United States through.

Who? You want to know who has done before what we must attempt to do now? Let’s start with Tolstoy.

I hated Anna Karenina. In fact, my first book club experience was Oprah’s Book Club which I planned to join when she revealed her selection in January 2005. I was very excited and followed the build up and the drama around the announcement. It was after graduate school and I was free to read whatever commercial tripe the general public was consuming. Let me in, Oprah! Then she picked Anna Karenina and I threw something at the TV. Not my last altercation with a book club. But that’s a tale for another day.

This talk is about bridges and the thing is, as writers we are not always conscious of the bridges we’re building with our work. It’s nice to say, in retrospect, that we intended this theme or that but often, in the creation, we’re simply trying to make sense of something. Anna Karenina beautifully illustrates Imperialist Russia which is why I had to read it in my Russian Imperialism class at Clemson. So you know, the train is a significant symbol in Anna Karenina. To this day, the text bridges the gap between current Russian culture and the book’s historical context of culture, economics, and politics. But Tolstoy was writing what he knew. Betrayal, desire, sacrifice, and the complex relationship between city life and rural, pastoral life. He was working on understanding industrialization and the rapid social changes his contemporaries were experiencing.

He was metabolizing. Just like us.

And metabolizing, for authors, may be a kind of bridge-building. Between where we are and where we’ve been. Between what we know and what we wish we knew. Between who we were and who we’ve become. Between who we are and who we will yet be.

Every work starts out from an inner place, a kind of excavation and discovery. What is it that has us preoccupied? What is it we need to bare to the world so that we can live with it?

It’s in revision that we shape that dark secret into something other people can metabolize, too. It’s in revision we make that hole, that creek, that crevice passable. With a bridge.

Maybe the bridge is a character. Someone flawed but mostly good. Who wants something familiar like forgiveness or security. We make that character relatable and likeable and then we do mean things to them.

Maybe the bridge is a milestone. A birthday, an anniversary, high school graduation, something experienced by so many that the ritual is more important than the accomplishment itself. We build in the costumes and the songs and the feelings of joy and disappointment. Then we leave a dead body to be found before the cake is cut.

Maybe the bridge is a trope. A pattern. An expectation. In romance readers get the billionaire boss, enemies-to-lovers, a secret baby, and always, always the happily ever after. 

Maybe the bridge is structure. We build in the quirks of our characters, the details of the space and time, the beats of rising action, climax, and denouement.

Our books build bridges because we deliver on expectations. Readers pick them up with a variety of ambitions and we help them achieve their goals. Relax on your hammock with this summer read. Pass the time on a road trip with this family drama. Reconcile your own trepidation about technology with this sci-fi story. Escape into the worlds of faerie, werewolves, vampires, or wizards and maybe believe in magic for a little while. 

You’re safe here our books say.

Our books build bridges between what our readers thought they knew and what they know now. Because we tell the truth. Even in fiction. We tell the truth.

That artist, the one who drew the bridge? He was my high school boyfriend’s older brother. I wrote a short story about how I didn’t sleep with him. Sometimes we’re metabolizing things. Sometimes we’re confessing them. As writers, we have a responsibility to infuse our work with the authenticity that only comes from actually living through shit.

Even in fiction, it’s the true stories—the authentic struggles, the jealousy, the bitterness, the exasperation, the trepidation, the exuberance, the glee—that build bridges. We connect with our true selves, with our readers, and with one another.

We bring others onto the interstate to catch a glimpse of that hidden bridge, the one rendered in black pen by a boy I desperately wanted but couldn’t have. 

We tell the stories that made us who we are. And, if we’re honest, our readers see themselves in our work. 

And that is the ultimate bridge.

Thank you, Steve Gordy for organizing this and inviting me to be part of it. I hope you’ll all find what you need today and every day. Thanks to the Center for Lifelong Learning and the organizing committee and to all of you for your stories and your willingness to share them.

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