On(line) Writing: Dispatch from Oxford, Mississippi

On(line) Writing: Dispatch from Oxford, Mississippi

Yesterday I paid my first visit to Oxford, Mississippi, one of America’s literary capitals. After a stop at Bottletree Bakery for fortification, Dana and I walked over to High Point Coffee, where she worked on curricula with a teaching colleague while I pumped out an open letter to Elvis Presley. It was not a particularly distinguished contribution to online letters for my first piece of prose crafted in the storied namesake of The Oxford American, but whatever.

After lunch, we walked through a quiet, very comfortable-looking residential neighborhood with the kind of houses that inspire my dad to say things like, “Wow, that must cost a couple of sheckles!” and “Think you could handle living here? Huh? Do you?” Our destination was Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner from 1930 until his death in 1962. “Seems very masculine,” said Dana.

Masculine, yes—and writerly. Set back from the road and approached by way of a path between tall rows of trees, the Greek revival mansion feels so authentically literary that if you licked a wall, you’d probably fall into an ecstatic trance during which symbols, allusions, and pithy dialogue would spill into your brain until you’d have to write a novelette just to relieve the pressure on your skull.

“Did you see everything?” asked the slightly desperate staff member as we walked out. “The study where he wrote on the walls?” We assured him that we had, and as we closed the door I imagined the staffer mopping his brow of the hard-earned sweat of stewardship. (“Hanging out in Faulkner’s house all day would probably make you a little loony,” said Dana.)

We walked out among the outbuildings, the paddock and the detached kitchen. We rested a while on a bench where we listened to the calls of the birds and the whir of the central-air compressor. (Faulkner disliked air conditioning, and his widow installed a window unit the day after his funeral.) Having soaked up all the literary legacy we could hold, we walked back to town and browsed for a while at Square Books, an independent bookseller on Oxford Square.

Dana laughed—affectionately, I think—when she realized that I was scanning the shelves to see whether they stocked any of my books. Nope, no Sociology for Dummies, no Insiders’ Guide to the Twin Cities. I wasn’t surprised, though: neither of those have much literary cred. My nearest claim to literary fame is this creative writing blog—but that doesn’t count. Or does it? Signed photos of authors line the walls of Square Books, and I imagined what mine might look like.

Maybe the day will come when they donate bloggers’ homes to universities and open them to tourists. First, though, we’d actually have to have homes rather than studio apartments—and even then, it would be a long shot. Writing online, however “creative,” is almost the antithesis of the approach favored by most Great Writers of the past century and taught in the average MFA creative writing program. Instead of holing away, composing complex plots by scrawling on our writing room walls (“writing room,” ha!), and crafting long, well-honed manuscripts, bloggers write in the way I wrote my letter to Elvis (and the way I’m writing this): sitting in a coffee shop, stealing time from the things we do to actually make money, and pumping out pieces that are good enough. I don’t even re-read most of my pieces before publishing them.

There’s a self-described “alt litster” movement that’s trying (quasi-ironically, of course) to earn respect for writing that’s more likely to be composed quickly and published online than to be composed in refuge, struggled with through multiple edits, and published in hard copy. The king and queen of that scene are Tao Lin and his wife Megan Boyle, whose forthcoming book Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee reads like a really good Twitter account. Lin’s book is in stock at Square Books, and it seems likely they’ll stock Boyle’s as well. Alt lit is totes relevant in Oxford, as long as it’s printed on paper.

We’re working (slowly but surely) on a Tangential book project; maybe that will gain us a toehold in the legit literary establishment. On the other hand, maybe the most we can hope for is a space on the book table at Urban Outfitters between Get the Fuck to Sleep and Shit My Dad Says. That might not make us relevant, and it might not earn us enough to buy a blogger party house (2075 tour guide: “Did you see the room where the wall is stained with uva-berry Four Loko puke?”), but it might buy us a few nights’ worth of Tornados and win us a few new readers who bring us into the bathroom with them. I think that would probably be reward enough for our literary labors…after all, who brings Faulkner into what’s surely the most-used reading room in the average American home?

Jay Gabler