Living by Words

A celebration of 50 years of creative writing at the University of Kentucky

Join five of Kentucky’s best-loved authors—Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and James Baker Hall—for a celebration of creative writing.

Grade Levels:
Resource Types: Video

Living by Words

This 90-minute special features readings the five writers gave in the fall of 2001 as part of the 50th anniversary of the University of Kentucky’s Creative Writing Program.

Teachers will want to preview the program in advance. It is divided into “chapters” which allows for easier use in the classroom.

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Roots: The South

Essays and information about The South

Why Are There So Many Great Southern Writers?

by David Todd

R.W.B. Lewis, a major literary critic of [the 20th] century, once gave this evaluation of Southern literature: “It is impossible to name another region in this country with so massive and virtually unbroken a display of literary genius.”

What is it about the culture below the Mason-Dixon line that produces so much “literary genius?”

The unbroken line of great Southern literature started during the American “Southern Renascence” of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, when there began a brilliant outpouring of writing from such authors as William Faulkner, Allen Tate, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren.

Marvelous Southern writing has continued into the present, with fine writing by Walker Percy, William Styron, Lee Smith, Wendell Berry, Alice Walker, Marsha Norman, Peter Taylor, Bobbie Ann Mason, and others.

Still, it’s hard to define “Southern literature.” Some authors in the South, such as Guy Davenport, write of places outside the region. Other native Southerners, like Barbara Kingsolver, have moved away to write of other places, yet still tell stories that look and sound “country.” And there are still others, like Warren, who, though he left his native Kentucky after he graduated from high school, often said that he could not imagine writing a novel about any other region than his native South.

Much of the work of the Southern Renascence authors—especially Faulkner, the era’s leading writer—shares certain common themes. It evinced conflicting feelings toward the territory, an acknowledgment that Southern “gentility” masked a region deeply divided by racial injustice.

Also, though, in reading the Southern Renascence authors, we can absorb their powerful sense of the land, of its history, of small-town peculiarity, of long hot summers and biting cold winters: the sense of place.

But the images presented by Southern authors have changed since then. In the 1940s and ’50s, Southern writers began to confront the changes brought into their homeland by modern industry and political progress; communities were altered by the loss of small farms and by the migration of rural Southerners to cities or to the North. (Some of the tensions between the old ways and the new were powerfully portrayed, for example, in Warren’s most important work, his 1946 novel All the King’s Men.)

Still another big shift in Southern literature’s subject—the feel of Southern places, and the conflict between the old and new relations among races, sexes, and generations—began coming through in the ’60s. That shift continues into the present. In a recent essay, Lisa Alther, a contemporary Southern novelist, described the changed environment:

“My generation of Southerners has come of age during the civil-rights years, during the years of rapid urbanization and industrialization…. For me, the South of the Southern Renascence writers—the rural and small-town South—represents some kind of vanished golden age. My South is one of bustling industrial cities with crammed franchise strips. Southerners used to have to go North to confront the wonders of urban civilization, but now we don’t have to budge.”

As Alther says, the economy of the South has changed as the nation’s commercial landscape has become homogenized. Yet the region’s people still talk with Southern accents, walk more slowly than Northerners do, and make distinctively Southern music (Nashville, bluegrass, country, Southern rock, and Appalachian). They still think differently. And the place keeps producing well beyond its share of great writers.

Perhaps, then, we can still define “Southern” writing. Yale University professor Cleanth Brooks, a Southerner and friend of Warren’s, suggests that its “changeless aspects” include not only a sense of place, but also a sense of the past and an aptitude for oral as well as written storytelling. The South is the home of “a culture that loves to talk,” says Brooks, “to remember its roots … and to cherish its identity … family and homeland.”

Alther puts this idea another way: “If you’re a Southerner writing about the South … you are blessed with the tendency to mind everybody else’s business.” She observes as well that Southerners, having been taught good manners from birth, learn to express their feelings indirectly, “to slip them into conversations in the form of amusing stories.” And, she suggests, “It’s the only part of the country where people can sit still long enough to write.”

Flannery O’Connor also noted the abundance of Southern literature and suggested that “the Southerner knows he can do more justice to reality by telling a story than he can by discussing problems or proposing abstractions…. It’s actually his way of reasoning and dealing with experience.”

So, as for why the region produces so many good writers, perhaps it’s because Southerners especially value a good story told well.

This essay originally appeared in the teacher’s guide for Signature, a KET-produced series of documentary profiles of six contemporary Southern writers—including Bobbie Ann Mason and Ed McClanahan.

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Selected Bibliography

Selected Bibliography: Why Are There So Many Great Southern Writers?

Alther, Lisa. “Will the South Rise Again?” New York Times Book Review, 12/16/79, pp. 7, 34.

Castille, P. and Osborne, W. Southern Literature in Transition. Memphis State University Press, 1983. Includes essays on Southern literature by Cleanth Brooks, Elizabeth Hardwick, C. Hugh Holman, Noel Polk, and others.

Chappell, Fred. “A Good Listener in a Talking Country: Review of A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul.” National Review, 2/24/89.

Lewis, R.W.B. “A Confederacy of Geniuses: Review of The History of Southern Literature.” New York Times Book Review, 1987.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1969.

Percy, Walker. “Southern Comfort.” Harper’s, January 1979, p. 78-83.

Smith, Lee. “Shopping for Body Parts” (review of a story collection by P. Lear). New York Times Book Review, 4/12/92.

Smothers, Ronald. “South, in One Volume: Myths and Moon Pies.” New York Times, 5/89.

Ward, William. A Literary History of Kentucky. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.

Welty, Eudora. “Place in Fiction,” in The Eye of the Story. New York: Random House, 1978.

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Roots: Kentucky

The Kentucky Connection

Kentucky, ever the land of paradox, is not generally celebrated for intellectual achievement. Yet for its population, the state seems to have turned out more than its share of fine writers. And many of those writers have written about Kentucky, creating a rich and varied home-grown literature. In these pages, two of the writers featured in Living by Words and a man who is helping to catalog and preserve the state’s literary heritage offer their perspectives on that heritage:

  • Literary Kentucky—an essay by Gurney Norman on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the University of Kentucky Creative Writing Program
  • How Come There Are So Many Good Writers Working Now in Kentucky?—an article by James Baker Hall about the contemporary Kentucky literary scene
  • Curating Kentucky—an interview with James Birchfield of the University of Kentucky library system

And Elsewhere Online …

Some other resources for exploring Kentucky writers and writing:

  • Our own bookclub@ket is a series of televised discussions of books by Kentuckians and/or about Kentucky. The web site offers links and a variety of other information for every featured book and author.
  • KYLIT, from Eastern Kentucky University, includes biographies and more links.
  • Coal Black Voices is a Kentucky Muse presentation of the 2001 documentary about the Affrilachian Poets, a Kentucky-based group of African-American poets.

Literary Kentucky

by Gurney Norman

When I came to the University of Kentucky as a freshman in 1955, I quickly discovered the Margaret I. King Library. Work assigned by my professors sent me there on official study business nearly every day. As I became familiar with the library, I felt so comfortable in the general atmosphere that it literally felt like home. I had the sense that, even as a student, the library was something I was part of, that I was welcome there as a member. The reference room, the browsing room, the periodical room, the endless rows of books in the stacks, all drew me like a hungry person to a banquet table. Simply browsing through the card catalog was its own deep satisfaction.

Some time in my first year as a student at the University, I discovered Special Collections. I went looking for it after one of my professors told me the library collected materials by writers—such things as letters, manuscripts, photographs—and it was possible to go look at them. In high school I had read books by many Kentucky writers, including John Fox Jr. The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903) and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1908) had both made strong impressions on me. Encouraged by the professor, I made my way to an upper floor of M.I. King and spent an hour reading through a sheaf of letters John Fox Jr. had written by hand.

This was an uncanny experience for me at the time, and I’m not sure just why. I know it had to do with the handwriting. The hand that wrote those letters had also written words in books that had filled my mind with permanent pictures, images, and characters. The boy Chad and his dog Jack in Little Shepherd. Chad riding the log rafts down the Kentucky River to the Bluegrass. The beautiful June Tolliver leaning against the tall pine tree in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Fox’s handwriting made me feel that I was close to the source of something magical, something about art, story, literature that filled me with awe.

It has been nearly one hundred years since John Fox Jr. wrote The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come. The entire twentieth century has come and gone since that novel entered the American consciousness. What we have of that century now are human memories and material records of the time. In this new twenty-first century, life is lived at a pace that was unimaginable in Fox’s day. The tempo of modern living and our new means of communication do not encourage the processes of memory or of record-keeping as they were practiced by the older generations. Family storytelling is not strong in today’s society. Writers no longer produce “manuscripts” as in former times. It’s hard to know what a collection of literary artifacts might look like one hundred years from now. Already library collections include audio-visual and digital literary archives. Whether such materials will have the power to produce a sense of awe in those who view them remains to be seen.

One thing we do know, though, is that, as the decades of the twentieth century unfolded, writers in Kentucky did their work and so did the librarians. In the past one hundred years, UK’s Special Collections (now called Special Collections & Archives) has gathered a large and comprehensive collection of primary literary materials. The collection is still housed in the M.I. King Library, though in quarters substantially larger than the single room I discovered nearly half a century ago. While the primary users of these materials are scholars, the collection is a treasure belonging to all the people, a part of Kentucky’s true common wealth.

The “Literary Kentucky” exhibit focuses on materials from Kentucky writers of the twentieth century. It is not meant to be a comprehensive representation of all important writers from Kentucky. Far from it. All of Kentucky’s university and college libraries have collections of rare and significant materials by Kentucky writers. Most institutions of higher learning in the state offer creative writing courses and programs that have made major contributions to the cultural life of Kentucky and the nation. As the new century begins, the entire state of Kentucky is experiencing a moment of phenomenal literary ferment as books by Kentucky writers pour from the presses at the rate of several per week. Many of these novels, short stories, poems, essays, and autobiographies have received critical acclaim.

Already 2001 has proven to be memorable in the University’s literary history. One of the highlights of the year has been former UK student Kip Cornett’s substantial financial gift to support the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series. This gift has allowed the Department, for the first time, to do long-range planning for visits to the campus by prominent authors.

New books by former UK creative writing students Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Baker Hall, Leatha Kendrick, and Maurice Manning mark 2001 as an historic year. Mason, a 1962 graduate of UK, returned to her alma mater in 2001 as the new University Writer-In-Residence. James Baker Hall, a former UK student and for twenty-seven years a teacher of creative writing at UK, was named Kentucky’s Poet Laureate in 2001. His new book of photographs, A Spring-Fed Pond, will appear in October [2001]. A related event was the summer publication of Home and Beyond, a collection of short stories by Kentucky writers, edited by Morris Grubbs, who recently completed his Ph.D. in English at UK. Such a moment in any program’s history clearly calls for a celebration.

Special Collections & Archives has generously timed its “Literary Kentucky” exhibit to coincide with the first week of the UK Creative Writing Program’s “Half-Century of Excellence” celebration. Public readings and other literary events are scheduled monthly through next April. Creative Writing at UK is (with no pun intended) a storied program. There have always been talented students at the University who showed early interest in writing fiction and poetry. Novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, a Lexington native, is perhaps the best-known literary person to graduate from the University in the pre-war era. Hardwick graduated from UK in 1938 and stayed on to earn her Master’s Degree in English in 1939.

But the seed of the modern creative writing program we enjoy at UK today was planted in 1947 when Lexington newspaperman and fiction writer A.B. Guthrie Jr. began offering fiction writing classes on the UK campus. Following the success of his second novel, The Big Sky, in 1947, Guthrie’s third novel, The Way West, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950.

Guthrie left Kentucky in 1952, but not before influencing a generation of student writers at UK, including one young student named Walter Tevis, who showed Guthrie his short story about pool players. Tevis was a UK graduate who later went on to complete an M.A. in English at UK. With early encouragement from Guthrie, Tevis expanded his pool player story and saw it published in Esquire under the title “The Best in the Country.” Tevis continued working on his pool player story until it was published as the novel The Hustler in 1959. Paul Newman starred in the movie based on The Hustler, a role he reprised years later in The Color of Money, based on Tevis’s novel of the same name.

For some reason, I have always been fascinated by such literary lore connected to country places and towns I have lived in and identified with. There’s something about the convergence of story and landscape, of myth and reality that is meaningful to me in ways I can’t explain. I think many people who have strong place-identity share this fascination. For me, it has to do with tracks laid down by predecessors, and with evidence of their presence in such forms as literary archives. It meant something to me that my own creative writing classes in 1957 and 1958 met in the same McVey Hall classrooms that A.B. Guthrie and Walter Tevis and Billy C. Clark and so many other talented writers had inhabited only a few years before I arrived on the UK campus. Billy C. Clark was a young Korean War veteran who entered the University in 1953 and, under Dr. Hollis Summers’ tutelage, published a book of short stories while still an undergraduate student, followed by a novel the next year. It was meaningful that Dr. Hollis Summers had known Guthrie and had worked with Tevis and Clark and others, and now Dr. Summers was my teacher, too. Stories of my predecessors at UK who had found literary success fired my imagination and made me feel that I was part of a continuity, a member of something grand.

Established authors who occasionally visited the campus were part of this sense of membership. Hearing Robert Frost read his poems in Memorial Hall, shaking hands with Randall Jarrell in the Department hallway, having Jesse Stuart visit my writing class, all were important experiences.

As I took the full series of creative writing courses, I met other young students who took writing seriously and knew at an early age that writing would be a central part of their lives. Between 1952 and 1958, Wendell Berry, Billy C. Clark, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, Bobbie Ann Mason, and many other young writers came to the UK campus and found their way to the creative writing program. Prominent in my own life at the time was my friend William Moseley, a fine short story writer whose work appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review. A complete list of writers in the UK community in the 1950s would be long indeed.

The fact is, every decade since Guthrie taught his first fiction writing class has produced its own list of talented students who have gone on to publish significant poetry, fiction, and essays. One of my greatest satisfactions as a teacher of creative writing at UK since 1979 has been to witness the progress of my own former students. In 2000, Old Cove Press published a book of poems called Affrilachia by Frank X Walker, my student in the early 1980s. Through his poems about family relationships, issues of social justice, and feelings of connection to historic land, Walker asserts that African-American people in Kentucky have as strong a regional identity as anyone. “Indeed some of the bluegrass is black,” says Walker in his poem “Kentucke.” When Walker coined the term “Affrilachia” in the early 1990s, he expressed a sense of identity that many other young black writers felt, too, thus bringing into being the most dynamic literary group in Kentucky in the 1990s, the Affrilachian Poets.

For all our celebration of Kentucky writers who have, in varying ways, found a national audience, our “Literary Kentucky” project would not be complete if we did not acknowledge the many Kentucky writers whose work has been of the highest order but has not commanded national attention. The poet Albert Stewart of Knott County was such a writer. Soon after completing his M.A. in English in 1943, Stewart entered the Navy and saw action in the South Pacific. Some of his poems have to do with sea duty in wartime. In addition to his two fine books of poetry, The Untoward Hills and The Holy Season, Albert Stewart worked all his life to cultivate the literary fields of Kentucky so that younger writers might find opportunity. As poet, teacher, editor, publisher, and organizer of writers’ conferences, and as a personal mentor to young writers for fifty years, myself among them, Al Stewart designed his own literary career, a career equal in value to that of any post-war Kentucky writer.

Albert Stewart died in the spring of 2001 at the age of 87. Twenty-seven days later, his fellow writer in Knott County, the renowned poet and novelist James Still, died at age 96. The passing of these venerable men of letters in Kentucky is a somber reason why 2001 will be remembered as a watershed year in Kentucky literature.

We are in a new time in literary Kentucky. An older generation is passing as a new one emerges. A sense of connectedness among writers and readers, old and young, creates a strong sense of literary community. The readers and writers in this community do not feel bound in some naïve or false agreement on the worth of particular books and writers. But they do feel honest appreciation of the fact that literature flourishes in Kentucky, that it is diverse and ongoing, and that it is an indispensable element of cultural continuity and change through time.

The Celebration of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Kentucky and the Special Collections & Archives’ “Literary Kentucky” exhibit are retrospective looks at a literary tradition. While honoring writers of the past and present, it is hoped that these events will serve as a welcome to the emerging young writers, readers, teachers, and archivists who will shape the future of letters in Kentucky.

9 September 2001

This essay was written to accompany an exhibition of manuscripts, photos, letters, and other material related to Kentucky writers. Organized by the Special Collections & Archives department of the University of Kentucky’s M.I. King Library (see our interview with the curator), the exhibit was part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of its Creative Writing Program held by the UK English Department in 2001. Gurney Norman is the director of the Creative Writing Program.

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'How Come There Are So Many Good Writers Working Now in Kentucky?'

by James Baker Hall

In correspondence recently with a New York literary agent, I found scrawled across the bottom on a typewritten letter, “How come there are so many good writers working now in Kentucky? Isn’t this a subject for investigation?” The number of significant national and international reputations in progress hereabouts is indeed worth noticing. Translators the world over are trying to figure out the way Kentuckians talk because of the work of Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Wendell Berry, Chris Offutt, and others. Of the last seven winners of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the most prestigious award for first volumes, three have been Kentuckians, which means the next generation of exceptional accomplishment is emerging.

The numbers attract attention, and so does the fact that most of these “good writers” working now in the state are Kentuckians writing about things Kentucky. In my rounds as Poet Laureate I make sure to celebrate all this, ask those listening to take notice. Shiloh and Other Stories, The Memory of Old Jack, Come and Go, Molly Snow, Clay’s Quilt—I start naming names and titles, and people in the audience sometimes join in, The Natural Man, Kinfolks, and what about Crystal Wilkinson and Blackberries, what about Maurice Manning, T. Crunk, Davis McCombs? However many get named, the ones unmentioned constitute the weight beneath the surface that moves the tip in such an interesting way.

How could all this be happening in a state infamous for its illiteracy, where even the privileged are too often scarred by philistinism? Is it explained simply by the existence of limestone in the drinking water, or is it more complex than that? Does our proximity to the big caves work us in our sleep, leading us to dig deeper and stay under longer, to comprehend more readily that the rocking world rests on the back of a turtle emerging from slumber?

“When did it start?” I was asked last night at a meeting of the Harrison County Book Club. In the first half of the twentieth century Robert Penn Warren, the U.S.’s first Poet Laureate, winner of the Pulitzer in both fiction and poetry, gave the state something it hadn’t had before to be proud of, and there were other writers of lasting accomplishment in that era; Elizabeth Maddox Roberts and Harriette Arnow, to mention only the first two that come to my mind. But the story I’m alluding to is of the second half, and involves a lot more than place of birth. Although some of Warren’s stories are set in the state, and he is obviously and importantly a Southerner, his reputation attaches him more to Yale and such like than to us. His friends, the poet Alan Tate and the critic-scholar Cleanth Brooks, were likewise born in the state, but it takes a bean counter to claim them—it’s like the Jews wanting Jack Benny and Sammy Davis Jr. on their list.

Perhaps the most coherent and easily told part of the story, for sure the only part I’m qualified to tell, commenced in the mid-fifties at UK. Wendell, Ed, Gurney, Bobbie Ann, and I were students there, getting a fire lit by a real fire-lighter, the poet Robert Hazel, and by the community of ambition he created. Robert singled us out for special attention and encouraged us to think of ourselves as would-be members of the world family of art, with deeper ties to Chekhov and Flaubert than Jesse Stuart and Cotton Noe. Although Bobbie Ann wasn’t transformed on the spot by Robert and his teachings and delivered to the rest of her life straightway, we guys were, more or less, or so it seems to me now. Our continuing friendships have been important to our lives as artists, in matters large and small. We line-edited each others’ work on and off for years; we passed inspiration and challenge and confidence and support and encouragement back and forth. You’d be hard put to find four more different spirits, nor is there anything here the literary historians would call a “school,” but there is something of a family; the bond of our common heritage and formative experience has proven profound and lasting.

That we all returned to the state to live after significant time elsewhere, and to UK to teach the courses that had such an influence on our lives—with Bobbie Ann now among us, as UK’s first (non-teaching) Writer-in-Residence—is one of the more obvious episodes in the story now attracting attention in the literary world. None of us would have been the same, probably, without the others, nor without the direct and indirect influence of Robert Hazel. Which thank God doesn’t “explain” the first thing about Guy Davenport or Kristina McGrath or James Still. How could it be otherwise among cave-dwellers, on the rocking back of the turtle?

Or Normandi Ellis, or Nikky Finney, Chris Offutt, Jane Gentry, Chris Holbrook, Frank X Walker, Jeffrey Skinner, Silas House, Sena Naslund, Gayl Jones, Dot Sutton, Martha Bennett Stiles, Harry Brown, Mary O’Dell, Marcia Hurlow, Kathleen Driskell, Paul Griner, Lynn Pruett, Steven Cope, Kim Edwards, Cia White, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Erik Reece, Fred Smock, Jonathan Green, Frank Steel, Peggy Steel, George Ecklund, Sue Grafton, Sarah Gorham, Leatha Kendrick, George Ella Lyon, Richard Taylor, Jeff Worley, Joe Survant, Fred Smock, or any of the other working Kentucky fiction writers and poets publishing nationally whose names I’m sadly forgetting at the moment, or don’t know about to begin with.

This article appeared in the March/April 2002 edition of Blue Moon, a bimonthly arts magazine published by the Kentucky Arts Council.

© copyright 2002, Kentucky Arts Council. Reprinted by permission.

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Curating Kentucky

An Interview with Jim Birchfield

James Birchfield is the curator of books for Special Collections & Archives at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library. In the fall of 2001, he curated an exhibit entitled “Literary Kentucky” that complemented the series of readings given by Kentucky writers as part of the UK English Department’s celebration of 50 years of creative writing. (See the accompanying essay by Gurney Norman.) The exhibit included manuscripts, photographs, and other material related to the five writers featured in Living by Words as well as other Kentucky authors.

The interviewer was KET’s Guy Mendes, producer/director of Living by Words.

Guy: Tell me how this exhibit came to be.

James Birchfield:  Gurney had been eager to see a display of contemporary Kentucky authors come together, and with 2001, he thought this would be a great time to carry this out. So we got together and did some planning, borrowed some photographs, borrowed some manuscripts, pulled some things from our collection, and installed a very nice show. We have a survey of Kentucky writing from 1900 to 2000, and then with special emphasis on Kentucky authors who have been associated with UK: Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman himself.

Guy: Can you give me your take on Kentucky’s literary tradition?

Jim: I think Kentucky is very fortunate in its literature, and I think there’s great enthusiasm for it and great interest in it. I think in a way it comes from the tradition of literary realism. And 1900, where we begin, is interesting because it leaves what’s called a genteel tradition and goes into the field of realism, which comes through Mark Twain and the oral tradition of storytelling and making literature the way people really speak and think and talk. I think Kentuckians respond to that. And I think our writers are especially gifted at it, and I think we benefit from that sense of immediacy in discussion and storytelling. Gurney himself makes the point that Kentuckians have a tradition of storytelling, an oral tradition of literature and song, and that they do respond to that.

Guy: Would you list some of the Kentucky writers who have contributed to Kentucky’s tradition and whose work is represented in this exhibit?

Jim: Kentucky has produced some real jocks in the field of not just Kentucky literature, but American literature. We have people like Elizabeth Hardwick, for example, who graduated from UK, went to New York, married Robert Lowell, and was the founder of the New York Review of Books. We have a manuscript of one of her books on exhibit, and we have several of her published books to show as well.

There’s Allen Tate, who was from Winchester. We have a nice interesting letter from Allen Tate, an original manuscript, on display, with several of his books. His wife, Caroline Gordon, was from the same town as Robert Penn Warren. We have several of her books on view, and then we have several shelves of Robert Penn Warren, who was from Todd County. We have about half of Robert Penn Warren’s manuscripts, and he’s been here, read for, spoken at the University of Kentucky and has had a nice relationship.

We have, also, Walter Tevis’s chief book, The Hustler. We have the typescript here in the cabinet, which he gave to the library some years ago, and we have an edition of it published by the Oxford University Press. We have books by Pulitzer Prize winner A.B. Guthrie and books by Harriette Arnow, who wrote The Dollmaker. That was made into a movie with Jane Fonda, a TV movie. So we have any number of major figures who have come out of Kentucky and made American literature great in the 20th century. So those are things that strengthen this show and make it very appealing.

Guy: Why do a show like this?

Jim: A show like this is important to the community and important to the library because it shows the importance of preserving the materials that generate the publications that people use for research, for entertainment, and that preserve our history. And you can see that in something like the Harriette Arnow materials, where we have the little blue quiz booklets where she begins to write her book, and then we have a typescript, and then we have her corrected proofs, and then we have the final book—you can see a book in the making. You can see a book being created, just the way you can see with Gurney’s manuscripts, in his cabinet, paper that’s been typed and then that’s been written on in pencil and written on in red ink. It shows the creative process to the public and helps them understand how a work of art is generated with words.

Guy: Could you speculate on the impact of this particular group of five writers who came through UK in the ’50s?

Jim: I think it’s certainly fair to say that the UK writers that began here in the 1950s have had a lot of impact on the future of Kentucky literature because so many of them have been involved in education. And many of them, while they taught at other places, have come back to UK in a number of instances and have had students of their own. They’ve inspired other writers the way A.B. Guthrie inspired writers at UK like Walter Tevis, and the way Hollis Summers did. It’s kind of a regenerative process in that, I think, the success of these people will inspire others [who] will create new successes—as with the Affrilachian poets, for example, that Gurney Norman has been very eager to foster here.

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Roots: University of Kentucky

The UK Connection
by Tom Thurman

Southern American literature of the 20th century is dominated by the figure of William Faulkner, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author from Oxford, Mississippi. Many people, however, overlook the fact that Faulkner’s work was out of print by 1945, and that only through the efforts of teacher, scholar, and author Malcolm Cowley was Faulkner rescued from literary obscurity. (That scenario underscores the significant link between those who write and those who teach writing, a point to which we’ll return.) Writers like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty later became prominent contributors to the Southern literary renaissance, and today authors like Larry Brown, Harry Crews, and Lee Smith continue to explore Southern territory.

Kentucky contributed many authors to this collection of work held together by a strong sense of place. An abbreviated list of major Kentucky writers includes Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, James Still, Harriette Arnow, and of course Robert Penn Warren, the only person ever to receive Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry. A more contemporary catalog of writers with strong Kentucky connections would have to include Marsha Norman, Barbara Kingsolver, George Wolfe, and Chris Offutt, among many others.

The University of Kentucky has played a major role in the nurturing and development of literary talent within the state, particularly in the 1950s. Attention had already come to a creative writing teacher at UK through the work of A.B. Guthrie, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for his novel The Way West. Walter Tevis, a student of Guthrie’s, later developed into one of the country’s more popular novelists through works like The Hustler (1959), which was adapted into the Oscar-winning film starring Paul Newman. During this fertile period of the 1950s, two UK writing teachers emerged who would exert a major influence over their students: Hollis Summers and Robert Hazel.

Both men had achieved recognition through publications of their own, yet it was the guidance and inspiration they provided for five young aspiring Kentucky writers for which they may now be best remembered. Those writers are Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, James Baker Hall, Gurney Norman, and Bobbie Ann Mason.

These five do not constitute a “school” or movement of any kind. They do not think of themselves in this manner, and neither should anyone else. They do share a common background—all were born in Kentucky except for Gurney, who was born just across the state line in Grundy, Virginia, but was raised in Hazard, Kentucky—and a common point in time, having been born between 1932 and 1940. They all now live in Kentucky, after much coming and going (see our illustrated timeline for more about the complex, intersecting trajectories their lives have followed). And they all have at one time or another been employed by the University of Kentucky, in various capacities and for varying lengths. But it was their shared experience as students at UK during the 1950s that served as the foundation for their mutual friendship. There they encountered other young people who shared their literary ambitions—and teachers who made them believe that a life devoted to such ambition was actually possible.

Both Hollis Summers and Robert Hazel left lasting impressions upon those who came into contact with them. Ed says of Summers that “He was punctilious. He made sure you dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s, and he was a very good, sharp critic.” Hazel, on the other hand, “sort of went for the bigger picture. He wanted the language to come to life. He was hoping to get a kind of poetry out of us, even in the fiction classes.”

But the influence of these two teachers extended far beyond the classroom. Gurney remembers that Summers “was very cultivated and sophisticated. That such a person would accept me, it was very encouraging.”

Hazel, especially, left his mark in ways other than on the page. In fact, says Jim, “He operated completely outside the classroom. And you might say he would be better called a mentor than a teacher. He was our guide.”

Bob Hazel

Bob Hazel

Handsome and charismatic, Bob Hazel was a larger-than-life figure who dropped the names of famous writers as if they were close friends, talked about a glamorous former life in Greenwich Village, ran up beer tabs with students at the campus hangout favored by the artsy crowd, and invited them to his home to talk writing and to socialize with his beautiful young wife. “He fancied himself as young and mod and hip and on the radical side of things—a cutting-edge kind of figure,” Gurney recalls.

Though Bobbie Ann, as the young woman in the group, was not part of the “boys’ club” surrounding Hazel, she, too remembers him as an inspirational figure. “Robert Hazel was this personality that drew people toward him, people who wanted to say something and be an artist,” she says. “He made being an artist or a writer sound glamorous and important.”

Among Hazel’s specific advice to his charges: Leave. If you want to write, go away from Kentucky and experience something of the world.

And so, armed with a passion for words and a desire for exploration, all five young writers left the state for extended periods of time. But then, having established their literary reputations, they gradually returned, and today all five live in Kentucky again.

All five also have maintained ties with the University of Kentucky. Gurney and Jim both teach at UK, Wendell and Ed have each done so in the past, and Bobbie Ann is the university’s first Writer-in-Residence. The joint reading that was the basis for the Living by Words television production, in October 2001, was a celebration of friendship and an acknowledgment of the importance of Hollis Summers, Robert Hazel, and UK in all of their lives.

by Gregory A. Waller
Chair, Department of English
University of Kentucky

Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman form a peculiar sort of literary community that stretches over decades, tied by place and by a life-long commitment to writing as expression and profession, art and calling. Theirs is a community that in the 1950s—and in a place like Kentucky—could probably only have been formed around a university or college. We’re all lucky that their lives intersected in Lexington. All five of these world-class writers came through the University of Kentucky’s Department of English, had some of the same teachers, overlapped in and out of their classes. What’s amazing decades later is to see the ongoing weaving of their lives and to hear five voices that are so complementary and yet so individually distinct as they speak through a full range of literary genres: poetry, short fiction, novel, essay, and memoir. Together and individually, these writers are a testament to the enduring power of place and to the too-often overlooked diversity of Kentucky.

It is encouraging to think that these five authors could carve out a space at UK in the 1950s, finding inspiration and encouragement in what was no doubt a pretty straight-laced English Department. All, in turn, have at some point found their way back to UK. And thus it is with great pleasure and gratitude that the Department of English is able to help applaud the accomplishments of Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman—acknowledging their good spirits and their dedication to the writing life and celebrating their ability to draw from, attend to, chastise, laugh at, and evoke Kentucky over the last decades of the 20th century and now into the 21st.

Photo of Bob Hazel © copyright James Baker Hall. All rights reserved.

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Profiles and a timeline for the five authors Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and James Baker Hall

Wendell Berry

Of the five writers featured in Living by Words, no one is associated more with an anchored existence than Wendell Berry. Not since Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County has an American writer been more closely identified with a specific region than has Berry with his stories of Port William (i.e., Port Royal), Kentucky.

Yet Wendell has not always been planted on his own little postage stamp of soil. Like Ed McClanahan, Jim Hall, and Gurney Norman, he enrolled in the Stanford University writing program and worked under the tutelage of Wallace Stegner. He later accepted a fellowship to study in England, and he taught for a time in New York City at NYU.

Time outside Kentucky did not come as easily for him as it did for the others, though, and it was certainly more brief. In a letter he wrote to Ed in 1970—a point at which our other four writers were still scattered around the country—Wendell explained what he had discovered in his travels about his identity as a writer and its connection to a sense of place:

“I think the crisis of my life was the discovery that I was a Henry County poet, a kind of creature that, so far as I knew, had no precedent in creation and that I feared was contrary to evolutionary law. I think I went around for years suspicioning that I was the sole member of an otherwise non-existent species. It was like I began with one foot on the ground, very uncertainly balanced, and all my work has been the slow descent of the other foot. Now I think the other foot has come all the way down and planted itself in Henry County along with its mate. And that was the only way I could get my head free of the fear and the combativeness I used to feel. I mean, when a Henry County poet begins at last to see himself as one of the natural possibilities of Henry County and not an evolutionary accident, then he quits worrying so much about getting stomped out and begins going out grinning, saying over and over to himself ‘I am possible. I am possible.’”

—Tom Thurman

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James Baker Hall

James Baker Hall grew up in Lexington, KY, where he was a multi-sport star athlete at Henry Clay High School. With money he made from his paper route, he traveled to Paris at age 20. After finishing college back home at the University of Kentucky, he left for graduate work at Stanford, where he was later joined by fellow Kentuckians and UK alums Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, and then Ed McClanahan.

Jim squeezed in a stay in Seattle between stints at Stanford. Later he settled in Storrs, CT, where he was joined by Gurney for a time and re-established ties with Bobbie Ann Mason, then a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. Jim is quick to give credit to UK writing professor Bob Hazel for encouraging young writers to explore the world before settling down to write about it:

“The one thing that Robert Hazel insisted upon that had an immediate and lasting effect on us all was that we get out of Kentucky,” he remembers. “We had to leave in order to escape the provincialism of our heritage. And what leaving Kentucky at that time meant more often than not, if not all the time, was New York. So we went somewhere.”

After leaving Connecticut, where he bluntly states that his life was in turmoil, Jim returned to Kentucky in the early 1970s as a writing professor at his alma mater. As a poet, photographer, and filmmaker, he has established himself as a major creative force in many fields, and in 2001 he was named to a two-year term as Kentucky’s Poet Laureate.

“I came back in 1973, after having been gone for 20 years or so … and I found out after a number of years that I had very, very profound unfinished business here. But I didn’t know that when I came back,” Jim says. “And I stayed on because it’s my home. You don’t have to like your home, right? You only got one.”

—Tom Thurman

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Bobbie Ann Mason

While contemporary Kentucky writers and colleagues Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and Jim Hall all traveled west for extended periods, Bobbie Ann Mason took an alternate route after her tenure as a University of Kentucky student.

Born near Mayfield, in the western part of Kentucky, Bobbie Ann had come east to UK, and she just kept heading in that direction. Her post-undergraduate path took her to New York City, where she indulged her interest in films by writing for movie magazines. Later she received her Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut, writing a dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov that evolved into the book Nabakov’s Garden.

Bobbie Ann’s more academic-leaning writings eventually gave way to the pursuit of fiction. And even though her eastward journey took her far away from the path that led her four male contemporaries to the Stanford writing program and other Western destinations, she always felt a connection among the five of them:

“I developed independently, but there was always a bond between me and the others I hadn’t actually known at UK,” she says. “And now I feel that there’s a kinship—this cluster of writers that came out of a certain place and certain kinds of experiences.”

—Tom Thurman

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Ed McClanahan




Ed McClanahan, James Baker Hall, and Gurney Norman have shared a peripatetic existence. Wendell Berry once referred to the four of them as a “collapsible parallelogram.” And Ed may have collapsed more than any of them.

Unable or unwilling to conform to the rigid atmosphere of Washington and Lee College as a freshman, Ed bailed out after a brief stint there to attend—and graduate from—Miami of Ohio. After graduate work at UK, he left for the Left Coast, and it suited him just fine. The first stop was a writing instructorship at Oregon State, then enrollment into the Stanford Writing Program, a move shared by Jim, Wendell, and Gurney. There he cultivated, among other things, relationships with Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, and—most importantly—Ken Kesey. Ed didn’t just experience the 1960s; he wallowed in them. And he is quick to elaborate upon the importance of his travels on the evolution of his novel The Natural Man:

“I had to go to California, or the West Coast, to write The Natural Man. I had to be somewhere far, far away from Kentucky to write that book,” he says. “But I had to come back to Kentucky to write it correctly—to write what was really in my heart.”

The Natural Man began as a sort of exposé of small-town life—a young writer railing about the pettiness and provincialism of the town whose dust he has shaken off his boots. But a strange thing happened to Ed and his boots when he got to California:

“In my youth,” he recalls, “I had felt that I had to free myself from my roots in Kentucky. But oddly enough, once I got to California, I called myself ‘Captain Kentucky.’ While Daniel Boone turned over in his grave, I was wearing my cape and cycle boots and stuff and calling myself ‘Captain Kentucky.’”

And so, “I had to come back to Kentucky to realize what it was that I really wanted my novel to be about. I had written a novel of alienation and rejection originally, and what I ended up with was a novel about friendship and reconciliation.”

—Tom Thurman
Photos © copyright James Baker Hall. Used by permission

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Gurney Norman




The writer Harry Crews once called all writers “sedentary apes”—people who spend much of their time seated, mimicking other writers they admire. But no one can label Gurney Norman as sedentary. At age 15, he left Hazard, Kentucky to work in a factory near Cincinnati, and other summer jobs followed that often took him away from his mountain home. Later, journeys to Connecticut (where he worked as a babysitter) and Oregon (a year in a fire tower for the Forest Service) and a stint in the military punctuated an early adulthood during which he often crossed paths with the trajectories followed by Wendell, Ed, Jim, and Bobbie Ann.

The usual advice to young writers is to write what you know. And so Gurney’s first major published work was a sort of counterculture travelogue. The novel, Divine Right’s Trip, has been described as a quintessential 1960s road novel, a kind of Grapes of Wrath in reverse.

“I presented him [Divine Right Davenport, the lead character of the book] as a burned-out case,” Gurney explains. “He was exhausted from all of his excesses, and his life was in a shambles, and now he is driving his Volkswagen bus with his girlfriend called Estelle. They’re trying to make a trip from west to east—without a plan; they just know that they need to be on the road headed east. And so the story just follows their adventures, episodically. It’s a picaresque story.”

Gurney not only wrote about the road, he kept traveling it. His passion to reach California led him to make that journey in a 1951 Ford that was anything but road-worthy. In fact, he drove his car in reverse over a portion of the Sierras, one of many adventures into which he has backed:

“I said goodbye and got into my Ford car, which was loaded with my belongings, and started down the Main Street of Hazard. And I got exactly one block and stopped at a light. And when I started to go again—I had it in first gear—the gears just ground and broke…. And I put it up in second gear, and it ran quite well. And I just went on to California. I just drove with two gears, in the spirit of adventure.”

Even though Gurney has settled into a life of teaching at the University of Kentucky and is now married, the trip continues. He hosted several documentaries for KET in the 1980s, on his travels along the Kentucky River, the Wilderness Road, and the Big Sandy Valley, and estimates that he has driven across the country more than 20 times during his life.

“I’m still that way, which is just looking for where interesting experience is,” he says. “And above all, trying not to get boxed in with daily life.”

—Tom Thurman
Photos © copyright James Baker Hall. Used by permission

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Five Writers’ Journeys

Living by Words tells the stories of five writers, all from Kentucky, whose lives have intersected and interwoven over decades. Born in widely separated parts of the state—Gurney so far east that it actually happened in Virginia, though he soon moved to Kentucky—they first came together as students at the University of Kentucky. Their undergraduate years at UK were not simultaneous, but they did overlap considerably. And over those years and through their subsequent travels, Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman became fast friends, frequent neighbors, and lifelong colleagues in a company of writers.

Our interactive timeline is an attempt to track the trajectories of these lives as the five left home, explored something of the world, and then gradually came home again. It is certainly not comprehensive as to published works or even locales visited. And as you click through the dates, we would ask that you also keep this caveat in mind:

“Whatever dates and locales you come up with, don’t let it obscure the way bonds and friendships such as ours work: in the minds of each of us, and in our conversation. We’re very close neighbors in the world of art and in the world of history, wherever whoever was living, and that closeness is all the more remarkable because we’re so remarkably unlike personally. All these years Wendell, Ed, Gurney, Bobbie Ann, and myself have been keeping track of each other, increasingly invested in the increasing story, each according to his or her own style; there’s an intimacy among us that has been hinted at only occasionally in and amongst the facts and figures…. The connections, close here distant there, have always been cherished, protected, and kept active.”

James Baker Hall

October 5, 1932 Edward Poage McClanahan born in Brooksville.
August 5, 1934 Wendell Erdman Berry born in Henry County.
April 14, 1935 James Baker Hall born in Lexington.
July 22, 1937 Gurney Norman born in Grundy, VA.
May 1, 1940 Bobbie Ann Mason born in Mayfield. Gurney is growing up with various relatives in Perry County.
1946 At 11, Jim takes up photography, working with a commercial photographer who has the University of Kentucky Athletics Department account.
1951 Ed starts college at Washington & Lee in Virginia.
1952 Wendell starts college at UK. With neither his grades nor his social life as promising as he would have liked at W&L, Ed decides to transfer to Miami of Ohio.
1953 Jim starts college at UK, where he meets Wendell.
1955 Gurney starts college at UK, where Jim and Wendell are still students. Ed graduates from Miami and makes a stab at graduate school at Stanford.
1956 Jim and Wendell room together at a summer writing program at Indiana University. Jim edits an issue of Stylus, the UK literary magazine, that includes Gurney’s first published story. He and Stanford having mutually agreed it wasn’t working out, Ed starts graduate school at UK. Bobbie Ann, still in high school, is running the national fan club for the Western Kentucky singing group the Hilltoppers.
1957 Jim goes to graduate school at Stanford. Wendell finishes his master’s at UK and takes a teaching job at Georgetown College.
1958 Bobbie Ann starts college at UK. Wendell goes to Stanford on a Stegner Writing Fellowship. Ed finishes his master’s at UK and heads to Oregon State College to teach.
1959 Jim is now living in Seattle, and Wendell is teaching at Stanford. Gurney graduates from UK, where he also meets Bobbie Ann.
1960 Gurney joins Jim as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Wendell’s first novel, Nathan Coulter, is published, and he spends a year in Henry County farming for his father.
1962 Ed gets his own Stegner Fellowship and goes to Stanford. Wendell moves to New York to teach at NYU. Jim moves to Storrs, CT. Bobbie Ann graduates from UK and moves to New York, where she works for a movie fan magazine and meets Jim and Wendell. Gurney joins the Army and is stationed at Fort Ord, CA.
1963 Bobbie Ann enrolls in Harpur College, SUNY Binghamton. Jim publishes a novel, Yates Paul, His Grand Flights, His Tootings. Ed begins teaching at Stanford.
1964 Gurney takes a job back home as editor of the Hazard Herald. Wendell comes back to Kentucky and takes a teaching job at UK.
1965 Wendell moves back to Port Royal in Henry County.
1966 Having completed her master’s at SUNY, Bobbie Ann enrolls in graduate school at the University of Connecticut.
1967 Gurney moves back to California and goes to work for the Whole Earth Catalog as an editor and reviewer.
1970 On a commission from Esquire, Ed spends a year traveling with the Grateful Dead. Though Esquire doesn’t publish the piece, Playboy eventually does.
1971 Gurney’s novel Divine Right’s Trip is published in the margins of the epic last edition of the Whole Earth Catalog.
1972 Bobbie Ann completes her Ph.D. at UConn and begins teaching at Mansfield State College in Pennsylvania. Ed returns to Lexington to teach for a year. He also gets to know local legend Little Enis, the World’s Greatest Left-Handed Upside Down Guitar Player.
1973 Ed moves to Montana to teach. Jim has moved back to Lexington, and he and Wendell are both teaching at UK.
1974 Playboy publishes Ed’s “Little Enis Pursues His Muse.”
1975 Jim publishes a poetry collection, Getting It On Up to the Brag. Bobbie Ann publishes an academic study entitled The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Their Sisters.
1976 Ed moves to Port Royal—next door to Wendell.
1977 Gurney’s short-story collection Kinfolks is published. Wendell leaves UK to farm and write full-time. He publishes the essay The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.
1980 Gurney moves to Lexington and begins teaching at UK. Bobbie Ann gets her first story published in The New Yorker.
1982 Bobbie Ann’s short-story collection Shiloh and Other Stories is published.
1983 About 20 years after starting it, Ed publishes his novel The Natural Man.
1985 Bobbie Ann’s first novel, In Country, is published. Ed’s Famous People I Have Known includes both his Little Enis profile and a chapter on Bobbie Ann’s old heroes the Hilltoppers.
1987 Wendell begins teaching at UK again.
1990 Ed moves to Lexington. Bobbie Ann moves to rural Central Kentucky.
2001 Bobbie Ann is named UK’s first Writer-In-Residence. Jim is named Kentucky Poet Laureate. All five writers participate in the 50th-anniversary celebration of the UK Creative Writing Program.

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New Beginnings

Advice, Idea Starters and Writing Program

Advice for Students and Teachers

from our distinguished panel of writers

We asked the five Kentucky writers featured in Living by Words for their advice to students and teachers of writing. Their answers…


Wendell Berry
The best advice to both young writers and teachers of young writers is: Read and write. I mean them in that order. Teachers unquestionably can be a help, but one learns to write only by reading earlier writers who have written well.


James Baker Hall
For students: My general advice to aspiring writers is: Get into serious conversation with other aspiring writers. Respond to each other’s work-in-progress, and talk about your reading enthusiasms. Read, and then read some more, and when you find something that really speaks to you, understand that you are in the presence of a teaching and an inspiration. Work hard, write regularly. Talent without discipline is like a team without a coach and a practice field. Talent and discipline without commitment is like a ballgame without a ball, a team without sponsorship or a schedule. Until you’ve learned to work hard and regularly and committed yourself to the exploration of your gifts, you don’t have a chance to find out what you’re capable of. If you’ve got to know up front that your efforts will be rewarded, in whatever form or fashion, you’re probably in the wrong game. Trying to make art can be one of the most thrilling endeavors in the world, but it’s not for the timid or lazy or easily discouraged.

For teachers: Encouragement, not craft, is the mentor’s magic. Some wannabes need permission to write and take themselves seriously, others need the challenge of endorsement and expectation. Do not, of course, encourage indiscriminately. One’s garbage sniffer must be operational at all times, and the transaction must be honest. But encouragement is the gist of it, and its coin.


Bobbie Ann Mason
For students: If you are to learn anything about writing, you have to begin by reading. Read widely, voraciously, and beyond your grade level. Wanting to write can’t be separated from loving books. You have to be excited by language, stories, and the infinite ways a story can be told. The skills can’t be learned out of some workbook and applied like a formula. There has to be some sort of passion motivating you. Then you will seek out the techniques appropriate to tell your story. You will be familiar with many techniques because of your vast reading.

For teachers: I know nothing about teaching high school. But I hope the teacher would have a love of language and a desire to share it with the students. The teacher should encourage students to read widely. Ideally, everybody should get excited together over the sound of an extraordinary sentence or line of poetry.


Ed McClanahan
So here’s what I would tell your hypothetical young writer:

  1. Get control of the mechanics of the language; learn the rules and principles of grammar and punctuation, practice diagramming sentences, take Latin or French or German or Spanish. Learn to use the tools of your chosen trade; get a little grease under your fingernails.
  2. Read constantly, but not just for content or plot or purport; try to LISTEN to the writing, too; cultivate your inner ear; teach yourself to hear the cadences of the language, the drumroll of the sentences. Think of whatever you’re reading as a sort of song, and the language as the melody. Notice especially what the writers you like best do with figurative language, language that creates images in the reader’s mind, brings color and life and music to the writing, makes it sing.
  3. Remember that everything—absolutely everything—is grist for your mill. There are no boring stories; there are only boring writers. Keep your eyes open, pay attention to the world around you, listen to the things people say and the way they say them. Your novel could be going on this very minute, right under your nose.
  4. Run away and join the circus at the earliest opportunity.
    And then I’d tell that hypothetical teacher: Hey, you can go now; this kid already knows everything.


Gurney Norman
For students: I would say to the students that poetry and fiction writing are arts that have something to do with the soul. Writing is a calling more than it is a choice. For people who are summonsed, writing is inevitable. Writing chooses the writer. There is no age limit on receiving a summons to practice an art. There is no age limit on the human imagination. I think all creative endeavor is akin to child’s play where the imagination runs wild and free. It isn’t much encouraged in our society, but adults can be playful, too. With some luck and the right friends, they can maintain their playful natures across the long life-span. Young people inspired by writing may not always want to write “poetry and fiction.” They may want to use their creative talents and become technical innovators, creative teachers, inventors, designers, prophets, outer-space Star painters, original thinkers of all kinds. The early pursuit of any of the traditional arts can nourish the imagination and lead to new art forms no one has imagined yet. I hope all young people can keep their spirits free.

For teachers: In working with students interested in any of the arts, I would encourage the teachers to learn to see the students AS young artists. In creative writing classes, I recommend that teachers accent the positive. Look for the thing the student has done well and acknowledge it, praise it. For a long time in the beginning, forgive all errors. What counts is what the student has achieved, even if it is only a phrase, a sentence. At a later time, point out a few places where the student’s mistakes take away from what is promising. The point is to nourish and encourage beginning writers, and wait awhile to focus on a FEW of the things that could be improved. Also, in all my nearly 50 years as a writing student, a practicing writer, and a teacher of creative writing, I have never been in any writing group where there was competition among the students (or the teachers). There is no Number One. No one is “on first base.” It is an egalitarian situation where everyone in the group enjoys the group experience, even as they go about their individual work. Although this is easier to do at the college level, I believe that some such spirit is possible at all levels of study.

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Idea Starters: Writing Tips and Exercises

  • Bobbie Ann Mason keeps a notebook in which she records interesting bits of overheard conversation, descriptions of unusual people she sees, and other fragments. “Then, when I get ready to write a story,” she says, “I might glance through my notebook and pick out some stuff…. I use it as a catalyst.” Try this method yourself as a means of starting stories. You can start with a line of conversation, an image, a place.
  • Mason’s story “Love Life” opens with a description of a retired teacher watching a music video on television. The video’s images seem comic, even absurd, when described without reference to the music. Turn on MTV with the sound off and, without naming the band or the song, write a one-paragraph description of what happens on the screen.
  • Pick a town corner or shopping mall near you. Go there and sit and watch what takes place in one of the stores or the public walkway. Without naming the people or place you’re observing, write down what you see.
  • The next time you’re watching TV with other people, notice any conversations they have while watching it. Record those dialogues in your notebook, without mentioning that they’re taking place in front of the set. What sense does the talk make on paper? What can you add to it? Start a story from it.
  • Mason has often spoken of her effort to write objectively about people, without condemning or condoning the choices they make. “I have a very detached view of things,” she says, “so that I observe things [without being] strongly opinionated or involved in ego. I like to look.” Try writing a story from this perspective. Think of a big problem you or someone you love is facing, perhaps one for which no answer has been found. Writing in as neutral a tone as possible, describe what some people may have done to cause the problem; then describe their efforts to escape or solve it.
  • In In Country, Sam Hughes learns about Vietnam despite the apathy of some folks in her community. Think of an instance when you got at the truth of something, or achieved something, against the odds. Were there people who encouraged you? Others who didn’t? Write your story.
  • Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Ed McClanahan keeps three thesauruses at his writing desk. He says that, when he’s writing, he uses a thesaurus sometimes not just to find “the right word,” but to find synonyms, “to see what other nuances I can come up with. You can’t use a thesaurus haphazardly. But I find the thesaurus is like a little mine of ideas.” To discover the variety of expressions a thesaurus offers, look up these words: run, light, fair, green, tranquil. Thesauruses are arranged in different ways. You may find it easiest to use one published in dictionary form.
  • The protagonist of The Natural Man, Harry Eastep, loves sports writing for “the assonance, the alliteration, the sheer mythmaking hyperbole, the splendid excess of it all” [emphasis added]. Look up these terms and the term consonance. Try writing a paragraph that displays these qualities.
  • McClanahan describes an early draft of The Natural Man as containing language that was “jacked and pumped…. I had a lot of wind in my sails.” For the fun of it, try writing a paragraph that could be described that way. For instance, try using two or three similes where ordinarily you might use only one. In The Natural Man, for example, McClanahan wrote not just that Newton Ockerman was fat, but that he “was as ponderous as three hundred pounds of vanilla custard on the hoof, the sort of fat man whose girth was greatest just below the belt, like a gravy boat or a soup tureen.”
  • Using the first-person point of view, write a story about a time when you were treated unfairly by someone bigger than you. Write the story again, but from the point of view of that bigger person. Then write the story yet again, using the third-person perspective. In writing one of those versions, consider exaggerating what happened or how it felt to one of the characters. What other adjustments do you have to make—in someone’s personality, in dialogue or setting—for that version of the story to be interesting?
  • Practice reading what you write aloud to someone at home, then read it aloud to a group.
  • Once, in discussing her childhood, [playwright] Marsha Norman said she learned from her family to respond to serious problems by making jokes. For a time, later on, that habit made it “very hard for me to express anger directly. But I find that I write perfectly wonderful fights.” Is there someone or something you’re angry about? Try writing a dialogue in which the anger is shown but not spoken of directly.
  • Marsha Norman has often drawn her inspiration to write from “an emotional memory, a moment I was in great pain, or … desperately afraid, or … in awe of an act of courage.” She advises beginning writers to “pick an event that happened at least ten years ago. That’s enough time for all the insignificant experiences to have fallen away.” Think back to a time in your childhood when you experienced such a moment. Describe it from your point of view at that time. Where were you? What time of day was it? Who was around? What sounds did you hear? What happened?
  • List at least ten things you like about the place you live in, however you might define “place.” Draft an outline for a play that mentions at least three of those things.
  • In giving advice to writers, Marsha Norman says, “Save writing for the things you can’t talk about.” If you don’t already keep a private, personal journal, get a notebook and start one. Unlike a diary, a journal is more than just an account of daily events. It’s a place for recording hopes, fears, descriptions, questions, thoughts. What can’t you talk about? Write about it in your journal.
  • With a minimum of props (for example, a kitchen table, a fishing boat, a line of waiting people), write a dialogue between two people in which each has a secret from the other. Do not reveal the secret, but make it possible for the reader to infer it. For example, a wife who has just lost her job and hasn’t worked up the courage to tell her husband comes in the door right as he has finished hiding the surprise gift he’s bought for her birthday. Try to give each character an individual way of speaking. Let the dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed. And don’t forget stage directions—gestures can be revealing, too. So can the failure to answer a question.
  • If your class is studying a Marsha Norman play, break into groups of three or four. A week ahead of time, assign each group to perform the same scene from the drama. Let each group sort out among themselves who plays which part (actual gender needn’t matter), who directs, how the scene ought to be “blocked out.” The players need not memorize their lines, but each group should rehearse the scene at least five or six times before performing it before the rest of the class. When all have finished, let the class discuss each group’s interpretation.
  • Solely from memory, write down some portion of the most important conversation you’ve had this year. Write down one you had five years ago.
  • [Playwright and director] George C. Wolfe has shown us in his plays how ridiculous our stereotypes of one another are. Write a scene for two or three characters in which it becomes obvious how silly a particular stereotype is. Use humor and hyperbole to help make the point.
  • Wolfe has often been praised for his staging. His sets are meant to convey very particular emotions—by the objects he selects, by their arrangement, and by the way they are lit. Think of a place where something happened that produced strong feelings in you, and then write a description of that place that will reproduce those same feelings in someone else. What time of day was it? Were there certain smells in the air? What sounds could you hear? Remember: Don’t mention those feelings by name.
  • George Wolfe has written: “Every time I return home, my parents know that I’m plotting to abscond with some prized family possession. Two Christmases ago, it was my grandfather’s coat. Last spring it was one of my great-grandmother’s quilts…. I can use all the ancestral protection I can get.” What does he mean by “ancestral protection”? Are there family hand-me-downs or heirlooms that you feel so strongly about that you’d like to own them yourself? Why? Write a couple of paragraphs in which you try to explain your attachment to these objects.
  • Growing up in the segregated South was very important for him, Wolfe says, because it “forced me to develop an inner strength that has served me well.” Think of a time when you overcame an obstacle that once seemed insurmountable. Did overcoming it help you “develop an inner strength”? Write a scene for several characters that depicts your predicament and illustrates how you grew by confronting and overcoming it.
  • Different cultures have taken very different approaches to drama, and George Wolfe says that he’s drawn upon those differences to make something new. Split your class into three or four groups and have each group study a different kind of drama (for instance, Japanese Kabuki theater, Indonesian shadow puppet plays, or classical Greek drama). Then have each group report back to the class about what they learned. Try to include examples in your report, either by acting out a scene, demonstrating a unique style of stage makeup, or constructing an unusual prop.
  • Critics have praised [novelist] Lee Smith for her vivid descriptions of life in small towns of the South. Make a list of all the things you can think of that make the place where you live like no other. Avoid abstractions (“beautiful scenery,” “nice people”); be as concrete and specific as possible (“soaring palisades rise on either side of the river,” “old men sit on a bench in front of Carson’s Drug Store, laughing and gossiping”).
  • In several of her novels, Smith allows several narrators to tell the same story. Of course the story changes, depending on who’s doing the telling. Ask several family members to tell a story about your family, a story they all know well. Compare the different versions. How do they differ? Why do you think they differ? Discuss the results of this experiment in class. Then try writing the story from the various viewpoints you’ve collected.
  • The best writing comes from writing about something you love. Lee Smith grew up listening to bluegrass and country music; later she made a more formal study of the music, and the result was The Devil’s Dream, a novel about a family of musicians. Try writing a story that incorporates something about which you are passionate, whether it’s fishing, rollerblading, physics, or stamp collecting.
  • Lee Smith is known for her use of humor. Her very first story, written when she was a child, was about Adlai Stevenson (a politician) and Jane Russell (an actress) running away to Utah to become Mormons. Today, that would be like writing a story about Newt Gingrich and Sharon Stone running away to Tibet to become Buddhist monks. Try writing a humorous story about well-known people doing something that is extremely unlikely. Of course it will be unbelievable—but try to make it as believable as you can, too, because that’s what will make it funny.
  • Try keeping a journal. Don’t simply list the day’s events, like listings in the TV Guide. Write only about the day’s most important event or moment. Write about it in detail—and, again, avoid abstraction and be concrete and specific.
  • Barbara Kingsolver says it’s wrong to assume that fiction is autobiography—“I think it’s selling the artist short on imagination.” On the other hand, the writer has to use what he or she knows best as a basis for fiction. Try writing about an incident that produced a strong emotional response in you. But here’s the catch: Give it a different, but believable, ending.
  • Now try writing about that same incident again. Only this time write about it from someone else’s point of view—someone who was as affected as you were by the incident, but in a very different way.
  • Barbara Kingsolver says that she was a solitary teenager, but that she “had an excellent education in wallflowerhood. You learn more about people that way.” Go sit quietly in some public place—the mall, or a bus stop downtown—and watch and listen to the people around you. Then use some of what you observed to start a story. You might start with a specific line of conversation you overheard.
  • In The Bean Trees, Taylor Greer tells us that she took her name from Taylorsville, a town where she ran out of gasoline. Look at the town names on a map of your state and make up several characters’ names from the town names on the map (like Morehead Sharkey or Verona Crittendon). Then write a short description of each of your characters, thinking about what kind of person that name sounds like. For instance, doesn’t Morehead Sharkey sound like a wiseguy, a bit of a troublemaker?
  • In Heart of the Land, a publication of the Nature Conservancy, Kingsolver has an essay entitled “The Memory Place,” in which she advances an argument for the preservation of land that is less than pristine, even—to one degree or another—already despoiled. For her argument, she uses the example of Horse Lick Creek, which runs through Jackson County, Kentucky. Think of a place you would like to see preserved or returned to its original state. Then write a descriptive essay designed to convince someone else that the place is worth saving.
  • Kingsolver describes herself as a political writer and uses fiction as a way to explore the issues that concern her. What issues do you feel strongly about? In your journal, brainstorm ideas for a story and characters you could use to explore an issue of your choice. You could, for example, take the place you described in the previous writing suggestion and make it the setting for a story that will make your reader want to preserve it. If you decide to draft a story based on a particularly promising idea, the challenge will be to create a good story as well as make your case.

These suggestions originally appeared in the teacher’s guide for Signature, a KET-produced series of documentary profiles of six contemporary Southern writers—including Bobbie Ann Mason and Ed McClanahan.

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Writing Programs in Kentucky

Some Resources for Students and Teachers

Looking for a school or writing conference? The Association of Writers & Writing Programs is a membership organization for institutions that teach writing, writing conferences, and individual writers. The Member Writing Programs page lists affiliated college and university writing programs across the country.

Writing workshops and conferences are frequently listed on our Kentucky events calendar, as well as in the Kentucky Literary Newsletter edited by Charlie Hughes. You can sign up to receive the newsletter by e-mail.

Through KET ED on Demand: A variety of reading and writing programs for K-12 students can be found through KET ED on Demand. They include such KET productions as Everyday Voices: Adult Writers’ Workshop, a five-part series with Kentucky author George Ella Lyon; Write Ideas, a series of three-minute idea starters with poet Aleda Shirley; and the biography series Signature, which includes profiles of Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, and four other contemporary Southern writers.

Kentucky colleges: Here are some of the college and university writing programs in Kentucky:

The University of Kentucky Writing Program is, of course, the alma mater of the Living by Words authors.
The University of Kentucky
Department of English
The Writing Program
1221 Patterson Office Tower
Lexington, KY 40506-0027
(859) 257-7002
Fax: (859) 323-1072

Morehead State University offers a minor in creative writing.
Dr. Mark Minor
Morehead State University
Creative Writing Program
Box 645
Morehead, KY 40351

Murray State University offers several options in creative writing and administers the Purchase Area Writing Project for teachers.
Peter Murphy
Murray State University
English Department
P.O. Box 9
Murray, KY 42071-0009
(270) 762-2401

Northern Kentucky University administers the Northern Kentucky Writing Project, which includes a young authors program and a summer institute for teachers.
Northern Kentucky Writing Project
Northern Kentucky University
502 Landrum
Highland Heights, KY 41099
(859) 572-6618

The Spalding University Creative Writing Program offers a two-year, brief-residency MFA in writing.
Sena Jeter Naslund
Spalding University
851 S. Fourth St.
Louisville, KY 40203
(502) 585-9911, ext. 2423
Fax: (502) 585-5178

The University of Louisville offers various undergraduate programs as well as a master of arts in English, in which students can choose from three areas of concentration: literature, rhetoric and composition, and creative writing.
Jeffrey T. Skinner
University of Louisville
Creative Writing Program
English/Brigham Humanities 315
Louisville, KY 40292
(502) 852-6801
Fax: (502) 852-4182

Western Kentucky University’s WKU Writing Project offers workshops, an idea exchange, and other in-service programs for teachers in southcentral Kentucky.
WKU Writing Project
English Department
109C Cherry Hall
Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green, KY 42101
(270) 745-6587

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The Show

Information about Living by Words and Production Credits

About Living by Words


Living by Words, a 90-minute KET television documentary, is the story of five good friends who also happen to be five of Kentucky’s best-loved authors: Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and James Baker Hall. It is also a celebration of creative writing, and in particular of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Kentucky, which all five writers attended in the 1950s and ’60s.

Since their time at UK, the featured authors have lived in various parts of the country—at times as neighbors, always as colleagues and friends. All of them now live in the state again. And in the fall of 2001, they gathered at UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts for a gala joint reading in honor of the school and of Kentucky’s deep and rich literary tradition. That reading forms the core of Living by Words. In documentary segments interspersed throughout the program, the authors also reminisce about their experiences and teachers at UK and about their careers.

Both the program and the web site are illustrated with photographs by Hall that chronicle the lives of the authors. These photos are part of his recently published book A Spring-Fed Pond.

Living by Words is a 2002 production of KET, Kentucky’s statewide public television network. Guy Mendes was producer/director; Nancy Carpenter was executive producer (see complete production credits). It is available on videotape from KET; call (800) 945-9167 or e-mail for information.

This program was funded in part by a grant from the Kentucky Humanities Council.


The authors read from the following works in the program:

  • Wendell Berry: Jayber Crow
  • James Baker Hall: Stopping at the Edge To Wave
  • Bobbie Ann Mason: Clear Springs
  • Ed McClanahan: The Return of the Son of Needmore
  • Gurney Norman: Crazy Quilt

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Production Credits


Produced and Directed by

Location Director

Lighting Director

Set Design

Camera Operators


Make-Up Artist

Video Engineers


Avid Off-Line Editing

Avid On-Line Editing

Closed Captioning

Photographs by
from the book A Spring-Fed Pond

Additional Photographs

Film Footage

Original Music Composed and Performed by
© OM Music

Fiddle and Mandolin

Humanities Advisor

Production Assistants

For the Singletary Center

Special Thanks

Executive Producer

Web Site:




Additional Graphics

Production Photographer

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See more resources about:

Adult EducationK-12English Language Arts and LiteracyThe Arts