January 2, 2009

Memoir & Writing: Author CD Mitchell

The Author

CD is the Blues Brother holding the beer bottle.

CD Mitchell has experienced the justice system as a prosecutor, special judge, and a defense attorney. For the Union Pacific Railroad he worked as a tracklayer and a bridgeman. As a professional boxer, he finished with a record of 45-5 with 38 knockouts. He has owned his own construction company and bar-b-que stand. In 1999, CD worked on the locks and dams of the Arkansas River from the Toad Suck Ferry to Ozark. He has also been a pallbearer four times although he has never been a best man. He is marketing a story collection, an essay collection, and a memoir. For now he teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Alabama. He can be reached at mitchell461961@yahoo.com. You can learn more about CD by checking him out @ his MySpace and Facebook pages.



"The Sheriff of Jester County" Forthcoming Spring 2009. Natural Bridge. University of Missouri, St. Louis.

“Additions or Substitutions.” Tartt’s Anthology III: Incisive Writing From Emerging Writers. Livingston Press. December 2007.

“Additions or Substitutions.” Arkansas Literary Forum, Online Journal. October 2007. [link]

“Job’s Comforter.” The Julie Mango: International Online Journal Of Creative Expressions. Fall 2005. [link]

Creative Nonfiction:

"Sheila: An Elegy." Temenos, Central Michigan University. [link]

"The Tree." Christmas is a Season: 2008. Anthology. Ed. Linda Busby Parker. Excalibur Press, Mobile, Alabama. Forthcoming November, 2008.

“This, Too, is Vanity.” [link]

“Exempt.” The Southeast Review. Volume 26 No. 1. [link]

“My Jericho March.” The Appalachee Review 58. 2007.

“Metastases.” North Dakota Quarterly. Vol. 74 No. 1, Winter 2007.

“Memphis.” Big Muddy Vol. 6.1. 2006.

“Fort Pillow.” Arkansas Review August 2004.

Planet Weekly Opinion column and archives [link]

On Memoir Writing

The Lure of Memoir

In the introduction to his "Art of the Personal Essay," Phillip Lopate says:

The spectacle of baring the naked soul is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader who is apt to forgive the essayist's self-absorption in return for the warmth of his candor. Some vulnerability is essential to the personal essay. Unproblematiclly self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied types will not make good essayists.

Is it fair to claim that the art of memoir belongs exclusively to the narcissist? After all, memoir is self-absorbed writing that says, "This happened to me." So why should we, as readers, care about a writer whose ego eggs him on to write something about himself--something that he assumes we may find interesting? What does Lopate mean when he speaks of the "warmth of candor" and vulnerability" of the writer?

The answers I give to these questions are my personal answers that apply to my work.

Memoir is not the genre of self-promotion. In memoir, we do not take a podium and say "I did this! I am great!" We instead take the podium and say, "This happened to me. Please forgive my ignorance. I have learned from the experience and am a better person as a result. Forgive me for what I was before; learn from what I am now."

Memoir does not attempt to exalt the writer or to elevate the writer to some lofty, unattainable status over his reader. Instead, we seek to find common ground with our misery and mistakes. Instead of creating envy in our readers, we seek to establish a universal moment where the reader can see himself in the author's words and can say "I understand how you feel." The memoirist seeks to create empathy, common ground, and a realization that we all can do better.

Perhaps the memoirist's code should be the scripture that "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

I write memoir to share with others my personal experiences, my personal mistakes, my personal failures. By writing of these, I hope to show what I have learned from the experience. By writing of these, I learn even more than I realized about myself. My writing deals with many different subjects—from racism to sex education in schools to how we care for our mentally ill. In those pieces, I have shamelessly exposed the mistakes and errors in my thinking and judgment; I have done so not to make me look superior, but to show that I am human and have failed. But I also attempt to show that even as failure is part of the human experience, so is the ability to overcome those failures.

I have written about being raised in an all-white community and not realizing that wearing Confederate emblems offended my students and friends; I have written about my naivety as a teenager faced with becoming a father; I have written of how I failed to support my sister because I did not understand her battle with schizophrenia; I have written of the mistakes I made while trying to deal with my son's battle with leukemia.

I have written of so many of my failures and flaws that I wonder why anyone would ever call me their friend! But I have also written of the epiphanies I had as a result of those experiences. An epiphany is a moment of enlightenment where we see or understand our world in a different way. Because of those moments, I am a better person. By sharing those moments, I pray I make the world a better place.

Although I write of the many mistakes I have made, I also write of the lessons I learn from those mistakes, and by sharing those lessons, I show that my hard earned knowledge is important to me.

I feel compelled to share my stories so that readers might see that others have had the same experience—and survived to see the sun rise another day.

I feel compelled to share my stories so that others may learn from my experience and find an even better way of dealing with their situations than I did.

Why Do I Write

Excerpt from a Planet Opinion Column

When I applied to the McNeese State University creative writing program in 2001, I had no idea of the path I would take that would eventually lead me to Louisiana, then to Memphis, and eventually to the University of Alabama. It is a path I am glad that I traveled.

Neil Connelly, the director of the fiction workshop at McNeese, called me one afternoon in December of 2001. I had applied to several graduate writing programs, and McNeese was the first to express an interest in my abilities. He was the only one to call.

Neil was professional and to the point. “Why do you want to write?”

I had never really thought of that, and the question actually caught me off guard. As a former attorney, I knew to carefully consider my words before I spoke, so I took a second or two and considered his query.

Of course, money would be nice. I have been to Anne Rice’s house in the Garden District of New Orleans; I have read of the millions of dollars that John Grisham donated to the hurricane victims in Mississippi; I know James Michener never has to worry about paying his rent or his electric bill.

But although I knew money was the wrong answer for Neil, more importantly, I realized it was the wrong answer for me.

So after thinking for a few more moments, I said, “I write because I have to. I have always written. I write because I want people to see things through my eyes. I want people to feel things through my fingertips.”

Neil Connelly said, “Good answer.”

The excitement I felt from the call kept me from remembering what we talked about for the next fifteen or twenty minutes. But after we hung up, I still thought of that question.

And I guess my answer is still the same.

I wrote my first story when I was ten years old, after watching The Dirty Dozen. Of course my story was about a commando raid into Vietnam to rescue some person who was really important, or something like that. But as terrible as the story was, my mother found something creative in it that was worthy of her praise and encouragement. That seed planted firmly, I have fancied myself a writer since that day.

Neil Connelly is still a trusted friend and mentor. He even stood as my best man when I married my fourth future ex-wife in Louisiana. And I hold no ill will for his not having talked me out of that mistake. For a year I studied with this young writer who had taken over a program that had lost a Pulitzer

Prize winning author to the big bucks offered by a larger program. At the time he began, Neil hadn’t even published his first book.

But I was soon to learn that publishing a book had nothing to do with Neil’s outstanding abilities as a teacher. Since that time, he has published two books and is now marketing a third. He has filled the shoes of his predecessor—a man who served as Neil’s teacher and mentor.

I remember sending him an e-mail and asking if I should wait till I got to Louisiana before I began writing, or should I have a thesis written by the time I got there. He had sent me back a message and suggested I wait, that he might have just a few things he could teach me. And he was right.

Neil taught me to appreciate the written word. I learned the importance of rhythm, and character and word selection. I learned how to craft a scene and to populate it with characters and to make them come alive and protrude right off the page.

I learned it at least. I am still trying to perform it.

I also began reading works by authors that at the time I could not appreciate. I have since gone back and reread those authors. Learning that Neil’s words carried wisdom, I began to trust his insight more than my own ignorance. Maybe that is the beginning of learning—realizing that we know little and that someone actually has something to teach us.

Sometimes I think that the students I teach do not consider how complex writing truly is. Since writing is a physical act, like walking, why should we study the art? We don’t study how to walk, we just walk. But after a while, I realized that writing truly is an art. I was introduced to the works of

Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Olen Butler, John Dufresne, Neil Connelly, Michael Martone, Terry Tempest Williams, and my all-time favorite, Scott Russell Sanders.

These writers showed me how to select verbs and images and themes. They showed me how a jealous husband could return in the form of a parrot, how the clan of one-breasted women would no longer submit to the misinformation of our government that caused the cancer that destroyed their bodies, how the curse of the Fontana clan had ravaged the last of an unfortunate family that settled the Louisiana bottoms, and how by committing suicide so that he could be forever joined with the brother he had never met, a surviving twin could atone for the mistake that left him on earth and transported his brother to heaven.

I learned of the beauty and poison of a buckeye, how one writer defines himself when writing his contributor's notes, how Alice Munro met her husband, how a blind man could truly help someone with sight to see something that they had looked at all their lives but had never truly seen, how a tattoo is never guaranteed to please a woman, even if the picture of Jesus it portrays is perfectly done.

Through my writing, I have learned to look deep within myself and peel back the layers of bravado that we as people show the world. In order to find that inner truth that lies so deep within, that inner truth that we try so hard to hide, one needs a keen eye—a writer’s eye.

In a world of internet quick fixes, tabloid gossip, and dime-store fiction, we are so fortunate to have literary writers who still know and realize that writing is an art. Through this art we will express ourselves and leave behind a legacy that will show others who follow how we felt about 9-11, how we felt about the war in Iraq, how we felt after Hurricane Katrina, how we felt after Virginia Tech.

One of my brightest students spoke of how she intended to use the written word as her weapon and express her dismay over our government’s refusal to fund stem cell research. Her rage is fueled by a helpless vigil as her grandmother succumbs to a disease for which a cure might be found if this research were funded. But this brilliant young lady’s willingness to take pen in hand and fight for something she believes thrills me.

Her words validated my desire to teach writing, to share writing, to expose everyone I come in contact with to the miracle of prose.

Our libraries and book stores are filled with priceless treasures waiting to be discovered. Our generation is blessed with writers whose works will stand the test of time. We will never know who of this generation will be the next Shakespeare, the next Chaucer, the next Dante. But they are there, waiting to be discovered. Their works will change your lives forever. I challenge all readers to find these works, select a quiet place, and enjoy a work of art that can transport you to another time, another place, even another world.

I thank you for taking your precious time and reading the words that I have so humbly prepared. My goal has always been to reveal a truth, to seek for knowledge, to share my frustration with our world and our government. And never to bore.

All I have sought to do was to make the world a better place by causing others to think. Once again, I thank you for reading my column. I hope I have caused you to laugh, to cry, to smile, to nod in agreement, to rave that I am a fool.

But most of all, I hope I have given you a reason to continue to read.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I love to come back and revisit this blog post! Much has happened since this first appeared online. I have published two story collections:"Alligator Stew" and "God's Naked Will." You can learn more about both at my website: