More than one of my friends has commented that the first thing they do when their copy of Southern Living arrives is turn to the Rick Bragg essay in the back. Ditto for me. So when I saw the magazine had published a collection of those essays, I immediately bought the book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for me. It was for a gift, and as it was a little pricey, I didn’t purchase one for myself. But until I could justify buying my own copy, I made the best of the situation. I read the book before giving it away. I very carefully turned each page by the corner and not so much as drank a cup of tea anywhere near it. I also had to keep pens out of reach. Whenever I read, I underline words or ideas or clever or unique expressions that especially appeal to me. I knew if I had a pen anywhere near me while reading this book, every page would be covered in as much ball-point pen ink as printer’s ink by the time I finished. If “previewing” a book before giving it away constitutes re-gifting, so be it. It’s not like I haven’t done that before. (And don’t even try to tell me you’ve never done it!)
I love Bragg’s writing because something in his Southern experience resonates with my own. Unlike him, I wasn’t brought up in the “deep South,” but I spent many days of my youth in East Texas, which—according to the movie Bernie—“is where the South begins.” I know about red clay, tar roads, and practical, no-nonsense pet names. Good Dog, the name my dad gave to a stray he adopted, comes to mind.
Yes, I love what Bragg has to say. But, even more, I love the way he says it. His ability to “turn a phrase” is genius bordering on magic. I challenge even Yankees not to find intricate beauty in silver chewing gum wrappers placed between the pages of a grandmother’s Bible. There's a multitude of story possibilities in that detail alone.
I confess I usually hurry through book introductions and sometimes skip them altogether. But not in this book. I knew even in the intro there’d be words and phrases and imagery and “southernisms” I didn’t want to miss. I wasn’t disappointed. I laughed and cried and laughed till I cried . . . all before reading the first essay.
In addition to it being a pure pleasure, reading Bragg is a writing lesson for me. Unintentionally, I’m sure, he offers great instruction. I always keep an eye out for an especially creative technique to incorporate into my own writing. And on page twenty-one of this book, he offers an excellent piece of advice for writers. He confesses that whenever he finishes a book, he lets his mother read it first. He contends your first critic should be “in your pocket.”
I laughed when I read that because it goes against all I’ve read or heard concerning beta readers. Conventional wisdom insists such people should be tough and relentless. I like Bragg’s advice better. I bet if more writers followed it, we wouldn’t be such a frustrated lot!