Journals, Writer’s Block, and the Magic of Rick Bragg

The benefits of journaling and the surprising places they can lead you.

New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing, but this year was different.

Rather than the usual goals of dropping some weight, getting in better shape, and not spending a stupid amount of money on fast food (as of this writing, I’ve put on roughly 10 pounds since last year, I pulled my back out two weeks ago from simply walking, and this week alone I’ve eaten Taco Bell three times, including twice in one day in which I ordered the exact same thing) my resolution for 2022 was simple and practical and something I wouldn’t give up on come late January: I’d start a journal.

I’d never kept a journal before, and my goal in doing so this year was twofold. First, I read somewhere a journal is a fantastic way to both chronicle and make sense of the events that unfold in life. And, because this writing isn’t meant to have an audience, you can go about the whole thing honestly, taking off the mask you carry in public and putting pen to paper all the thoughts you’re too embarrassed to share with anyone else. Or those fears that gnaw away at you when the world goes quiet, you can expel them onto the page. And trust me, the monsters don’t seem all that scary when they’re crunched down between the lines in a notebook.

Keeping a journal lets you dig into the real you, a person most of us rarely spend enough time with. And if you’re doing it right, what flows out of you should be equal parts surprising, terrifying, and hopefully humorous. Because it never hurts to laugh a little, right? Just speaking from personal experience here, but in the four months since I’ve been regularly keeping a journal, I’ve found I’m more present, more aware of my thoughts. There’s a clarity that wasn’t there before. And this feeling like my feet are planted on solid ground rather than floating above the earth, wobbling like an old person on their grandson’s hoverboard.
I think those closest to me have noticed a difference, too. I don’t know…I guess I’ll find out when my wife reads this.

Speaking of my wife, when I told her I was keeping a journal, her first question wasn’t why but “Can I read it?” To which I replied, “Sure…when I’m dead.”

This all but guarantees she will outlive me. That woman will hang on long enough to learn my secrets.

The second goal for starting a journal was to simply practice the craft of writing. This has been a success, too, though I’m not sure it’s all that surprising. The more you do something, the better at it you become – we’ve known that to be true for a long time. Writing is like a muscle. For it to grow (i.e., for you to get better at writing), it needs to be worked out. It needs to be stretched. And just like in the gym, as is the case in life, there are good and bad days. Which finally brings me to the point of what you’re reading now.

What follows is a journal entry I made a few weeks ago. Then, similar to now, I found myself staring down a case of the dreaded writer’s block. And instead of not writing – something the old, pre-journaling me would have definitely done – I took to vomiting words on the page late at night, hoping that something, anything, would come from it. Whether or not that happened, you can be the judge. I’m sharing it here because it doesn’t divulge any grand secrets, and it hits on a few things I’ve been meaning to write about here on the Alabama Take: family, Southern culture, the work of Rick Bragg. Whether it does this in an interesting way, again, you can be the judge.

So here it is, presented roughly as is, save for the countless spelling corrections I had to make because I am, perhaps, the worst speller the world has ever known. Also, along with my atrocious spelling, my handwriting was practically illegible for long stretches (it was late, and I was tired). So in those parts, what you’ll read is me guessing at what I was attempting to say. I think I got it close. And, hopefully, I ended up getting somewhere.

(If my long-winded introduction annoyed you, I suggest you quit now. It doesn’t get better…Still with me?)

Thursday, March 17, 11:40 p.m.

My mind is blank.

I suppose that’s both a good and bad thing. Good in the sense that my thoughts are quiet. And I’d venture to guess there are more than a handful of folks who would love nothing more than to switch brains with me if they were to read this. Those folks probably have minds that run ninety-to-nothing nonstop, all day, every day. It’s gotta be exhausting. I don’t know, though. A part of me envies those folks, at least right now. With those racing thoughts, I’m sure they could hop on one and ride it off into God knows where with one crazy idea branching off into another and another.

This blank, still mind of mine doesn’t take me anywhere. I’m standing alone at the train station, ticket in hand, bags packed at my feet, staring out over the empty tracks as I wait for a train that never shows.

It could be I am all out of ideas, which is too scary a thought to consider further. I mean, hell, I just got started on this whole writing thing. You know how uncreative you gotta be to have the well dry up so quickly before you even had a chance to reach down deep for the good stuff?

Does Rick Bragg have this problem? Does he ever sit down in front of his computer and just stare at the blank, white screen for hours on end, with that little bastard of a vertical line flashing at him, taunting him? I doubt it. Something tells me the words flow out of that man like a broken facet, all of them dripping in creativity and quality, flooding the page with a brilliant craftsmanship no other writer on this planet could match. I’d bet you that man couldn’t write a bad sentence if he tried. He’d get a few words in, then his fingers would kick into autopilot, resorting back to what they know best as they took to gliding over the keys like Beethoven at a piano. And in the end, what started as a deliberate attempt to be like the rest of us, which is to say a shitty composer of words, would have turned into the finest writing ever done on butter biscuits or old, lazy dogs or summer nights spent under a sheet of southern stars. Because Rick Bragg writes about those things better than anyone else. And many folks, myself being one of them, like to read about them.

I keep one of his books close by every time I write. In fact, there’s one beside me right now, just within reach. I’m hoping a little of the magic found inside those pages might rub off on me one day. And there is magic within those pages, buried in that man’s writing. Or at the very least, it sure is full of pretty words. Like this passage here…

“Our South grows from a stone garden, the cemetery where we have buried the treasure – the answer to what Southern is. Some of the names have worn away but not their language. It sings up from the ground…When I forget who I am, I will wander in the weeds among them all, till I find my way again.”

I remember putting the book down the first time I read that. I couldn’t continue, at least not right away. No, I needed some time to sit with it, to reflect on the words I had just consumed, or better yet, on the words that had just consumed me. Because I believe that’s what good writing does: it eats you up, with the words, the story, cutting right through to your very soul, burning you alive, setting you ablaze in the prettiest of ways like only a raging fire can. His writing reminds me of what it means to be Southern. Which today can mean seven different things to seven different people. But for me, like Bragg, the answers lie beneath the ground, to my people who rest there in the dirt

Like my great-grandmother, for instance, who we called Mawmaw. A woman who was perhaps the kindest person this old world has ever known. A woman who, when I was a child, would rock me in her arms and sing me to sleep while my mother worked. A woman who, once I was older and she found herself bed-ridden – her body ailing but her mind still sharp as a tack – would sneak me five, ten, sometimes twenty dollars from her social security checks every time I’d visit. She was slick about it, too. Or at least she tried to be. She’d wait till we were alone, just the two of us, and whisper me over. Then, when I got close, she’d put the money in my palm and pat the back of my hand, her skin so soft and fragile. And every time, she’d say the same thing – she’d tell me to get myself something nice. But what I remember most about it all was that face she made – it was a sly smile, a little wink she’d give me. Like the two of us were getting away with something we weren’t supposed to. The thing is, we weren’t, not even close. Everyone knew what Mawmaw was doing. It was the worst secret in the history of secrets. But no one ever said a thing to her about it. Partly because it was her money, partly because even little old ladies need something to lie about now and then.

And when she died, with me watching from the back of the hospital room as she took her final breath, the first thing I thought of as I wiped the tears from my cheek was how her hand always felt in mine. And how that wink of hers, that smile, always made me laugh. Thinking about it now, it still does.

Then there’s my grandmother, who we called Mimi. A woman so damn tough and fierce she almost killed a man when she was younger by shooting up his car while he was passed out drunk inside. She didn’t know the man was in there. At least that’s the story she’d later tell the cops. And considering the drunk walked away from the whole ordeal with nothing more than a bullet-ridden sedan, the law never put my Mimi in cuffs. I don’t even think they wrote her a ticket. Because the man who drew the almost murderous ire of my grandmother that night was an abusive sonofabitch, not to her but to one of her friends. And back then, abusive, rotten men could get what was coming to them without the law, or anyone else for that matter, so much as batting an eye. She’d tell me all this later in life when I was a teenager, her in her 60s, smoking cigarettes, pausing for a puff every now and again to heighten the drama. She was a storyteller, like so many folks down here are. It must be something in the water.

Later in her life, we’d watch as that once tough and fierce woman slowly faded away, her heart split in two after her mother’s death – my Mawmaw. We looked on helplessly as the life seeped out of her, year after year, till finally, that was it. Because a person only has so much fight in them, and once it’s gone, once it’s been used up, the end isn’t far behind.

When she died, with me watching from the back of a darkened hospital room with sleepy eyes, the first thing I thought of as I wiped the tears from my cheek was how I wished someone would have written down all her stories. Even now, when I’m alone, I’ll sometimes sit and try to remember all the tales she told me at that kitchen table. Because you should never let a person be buried with their stories. They’ve got no use for them in the ground, and those things are best left behind for the rest of us.

Bragg’s work often reminds me of my Mawmaw and Mimi, which is why I’ve found myself, as I’ve gotten older, so drawn to his work. Bragg’s South, and the South I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in, is overflowing with sweetness and tenderness, a kind of beauty you can’t find anywhere else. And it’s a kind of beauty you grow to appreciate, even despite its many flaws. And it does possess quite a few flaws.

Like Bragg, I find myself often frustrated with the stubbornness of this place. There are those who would be quite alright dragging us back into the past – these are the same folks who still fly the stars and bars, often citing “heritage not hate” as the reason for doing so. And for a place that likes to boast about its hospitality, it can sometimes be downright mean, particularly to those it deems different. Which these days is a pretty damn extensive list, and just might include yours truly, considering my Sundays are reserved for cheese dip and football and not the Almighty. But I’m lucky enough to pass off as one of them in appearances, and it’s only in prolonged conversation where I get myself in trouble. For some folks, they don’t have that luxury. And to those people, this place can be awfully cruel.

Still, though, you can’t linger too long on the bad. If you do, you’ll miss out on all the good. And like Bragg, I believe there’s plenty of good down here. You just have to know where to look.

You can find it in a grandma’s kitchen, where everyone’s on the guest list, and where delicious smells of fried chicken and pecan pie permanently dance in the air.

You can find it in the hard-working, blue-collar people who pack a sack lunch every day and put in a grueling 40 hours plus of back-breaking labor, going about it all with a dignity and pride unmatched by anyone else, never complaining, even when it hurts. And it always hurts.

You can find it in the natural beauty of his place, a beauty that sneaks up on you, most often on random drives down random backroads, where the scene out the window is so gorgeous it looks painted on, like someone took a brush to it. And as you drive through it all, you wonder if this is what people mean when they talk about God.

The bad parts of this place, they don’t need another mouthpiece. There’s plenty of those to go around, most of whom were born in places where snow permanently covers the ground for months at a time. But the beauty of this place, it needs a champion, too. I heard Rick Bragg say one time that all he ever tries to do is write in a way where readers can “get at it,” meaning writing with so much flavor, so much music that readers can feel it, see it, smell it, hear it, touch it. But the thing I admire most is that he does this all so effortlessly. Reading it, it’s as if none of the words were ever sweated over. Like writing about gorgeous things in gorgeous ways comes as natural as breathing. Thinking about it now, I suppose that’s what makes a great writer: when none of it looks or feels like work. Me…shit, you can feel the work. You can smell the sweat oozing out of the pores. Like I’m a mechanic toiling under the hood of a hunk of junk as the sun blares down on my back.

I mean, sometimes I’ll write and rewrite the same sentence over and over and over again till it feels right, or at least not wrong, which isn’t the same thing. Sometimes, I’ll delete entire passages – we’re talking hundreds of words here – only to turn around and write the same exact passage again, word for word, in hopes that the sheer act of moving forward might be mistaken for progress. Granted, this has never worked and probably never will. But that hasn’t stopped me from continually trying. I’m nothing if not painfully persistent.

Luckily, Rick Bragg doesn’t have this problem. Or he doesn’t seem to, at least. And if he does, he doesn’t let us peek behind the curtain to see it, which I appreciate. I still want to believe that geniuses exist, that there are those who walk among us to which excellence comes easy. I want my Oz to be great and powerful. I don’t want to find out it’s nothing more than an ordinary man using smoke and mirrors.

Bragg is, without a doubt, the finest writer the state of Alabama has ever produced. I realize this state has also produced one Harper Lee, who authored what might be the great American novel. But Ms. Lee and Mr. Bragg are two different beings.

One is an author, and one is a writer. There’s a difference.

He is Alabama and the South’s best poet. A man who sees this place for what it is and what it can be. And he’s writing it all down so the rest of us won’t forget. Even though he’ll have to leave us eventually, the words, thankfully, get to stay behind.

But here’s hoping all that’s still a long way away. That fire of his still has longer to burn. And I’m still waiting for that magic to rub off.

Well, damn, looks like I found something to write about after all. It’s funny how all that works, ain’t it?

1 comment on “Journals, Writer’s Block, and the Magic of Rick Bragg

  1. That’s one hell of a journal entry. Now I’m curious to see the rest of the journal.

    Liked by 1 person

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