First, allow me to quash the ugly rumor that I kidnapped Rick Bragg at the Southern Festival of Books.
I did not. However, last year my friend and I came very close. We watched his handlers whisk him away to his signing table, and we followed him down the secret corridor and corralled him into posing for a quick picture. It was my friend’s idea, really. She once stalked Harper Lee.
But that’s another story.
Apparently, we are not the only people who have ever considered the friendly abduction of a Pulitzer Prize winner. I arrived in Nashville later than I had planned and rushed into the War Memorial Auditorium, just seconds before Rick took the stage. I marched straight to the front, betting everything on the chance there would be one empty chair upfront between two strangers. I didn’t mind squeezing in.
“Excuse me, mam,” I said to the Junior League lady on the left. “Is anyone taking either of these two seats?”
The woman to the right ignored me, her eyes intent on the stage, but the sophisticated lady stood, waving her arms, scanning the packed auditorium.
“Oh, no, that one’s not taken,” she replied, half listening to me while pointing to the chair next to the lady who did not acknowledge me. “But this one—this one belongs to my friend. I’m worried about her. She has already accosted Rick Bragg at our hotel on the elevator. I’m afraid she’s going to follow him on stage. I don’t know where she is.”
Hmm. I thought to myself. Maybe that’s why this party hasn’t started yet. Somebody else is cutting in on my writer.
So no, I did not rope him (literally or figuratively) into being today’s Monday Mentor. But as I sat there in the packed War Memorial auditorium with dozens of other women and their patient husbands and a few persistent photographers, I listened as he read from The Prince of Frogtown, and I savored each word.
He is my mentor, whether he knows it or not.
I also purchased Sonny Brewer’s new release, Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit, featuring Rick Bragg’s story. I have everything else Rick Bragg has written. I just didn’t have this one. Plus, I liked the title. I figured it was apropos for a budding writing, awaiting her turn in the literary sun.
All of us budding writers dream of the day when we can sit in a hideway coffee shop in some romantic location and sip espresso and tap on our keyboards and turn out million dollar bestsellers that take us away from our mundane 9-5 lives.
But anyway, I had the gall—as my grandmother used to say—to wait thirty minutes in line for Rick Bragg to sign a book he didn’t even write, hoping that he wouldn’t be offended that I hadn’t boosted his own book sales.
But he signed it, graciously, and he listened to me gush about him being my favorite writer, and we chatted, briefly, and he endured a photo op, and I left. Satisfied.
What is this strange power that Rick Bragg possesses?
What is this power lures droves of sophisticated women to fawn over a man in baggy pants and an everyday shirt speak about a culture to which they certainly cannot relate, a culture they most certainly shun. How can women who have never eaten saltine crackers with Vienna sausages or Underwood Deviled Ham, who have never stepped foot inside an outhouse, who have probably never even seen a tar-papered shack, appreciate his stories of the downtrodden South?
Is it romance? Maybe.
I can only speak for myself. I am a happily married woman with two children, yet I persuaded my husband to brave the crazy Nashville traffic on a packed 1-24 to drive 70 miles so that I could hear him read from a book he wrote three years ago.
I appreciate Rick Bragg because he writes the way I want to write, the way I try to teach my students to write. There’s a well-worn quote from Walter Smith about writing: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.”
When Rick Bragg sits down at his keyboard and opens his vein, he bleeds Rick Bragg all over the pages. That’s what I like about Rick Bragg. His style is distinct, unmistakable. When I ask my students to write, I want their writing to be infused with their own distinct style and personality, not some “nice blend of vanilla tapioca,” as Ray Bradbury describes in Fahrenheit 451.
I like Rick Bragg because he’s honest. (Yeah, yeah, I know the naysayers will bring up the New York Times controversy over his questionable use of stringers.) But Rick Bragg writes like Rick Bragg. He writes like a man inspired by passion. He writes like a man who tells a story with purpose. He writes like a man who is the voice of a people who would never speak for themselves, not in a way that people of a higher culture could understand.
Rick Bragg is like a bridge between cultures. He has a foot in both the upper middle and the lower.
Rick Bragg reminds me of my MTSU professor, Dr. Charles K. Wolfe, the man who taught me to appreciate and to preserve folk tradition and culture, particularly the culture of the blue collar laborers, the working class people, my people.
Rick Bragg is a champion of the blue collar laborer, the working class. Although we may not see eye to eye politically—or maybe we do, he paints a picture that is true. His words ring true.
But what I like most about Rick Bragg is that he remains humble—or at least he appears to be. He’s not afraid to throw the word “ain’t” out in a roomful of high culture literary elitists. He knows what he is, and he knows what he isn’t—or ain’t.
Rick Bragg hasn’t forgotten his roots. He hasn’t gotten above his raisin’. He sees the value of a people, of people, beyond their socio-economic worth. He peels back the layers of people and exposes them for what they are, respects, maybe even loves them, just as they are.
Rick Bragg is the kind of writer I want to be.
I don’t know where Rick Bragg is spiritually. I think he knows where he ought to be. But he inspires me as a writer—and as a Christian—to see all people for what they are and to love all people as they are.