The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Lis Anna-Langston: The Way You Come To The Writing Life (memoir)


Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born in the South she loves writing about misfits, screw ups, outlaws and people who generally don’t fit into nicely labeled boxes.

The Way You Come to the Writing Life

You think it’s all about write the words, write the words. But it’s really about get your mom off dope. Easier said than done. Endless paranoia will interrupt much needed silence. She will chase you in her car. Not technically a car. It’s a 1960 something puke green Volkswagon van. She thinks you’re stealing her furniture to buy crack. She actually screams this across the street.

See, looky there. You did some writing. It’s not much. Basic description, setting the scene. It counts. It all counts.

The hundred thousand hours listening to her rage through the night count, too. FARC. The Contras. The CIA is a pack of liars. That’s why she gets high you know. To quiet her nerves. Like meditation, you know.

You don’t know.

The endless scope of dope is a vast mystery littered with restless, violent dreams. A path of broken glass. The road to hell is paved with the wayward intentions of addicts. At night when the dope runs out she stays up late talking about all of the kids she never had.

“You could have had so many brothers and sisters. God, I’ve lost count of the abortions I had.”

You wonder who is luckiest. Them, the dead siblings sucked into a tube before they saw the light of day?

Or you?

It’s a hard call.

Aborted fetus or still alive in the nightmare?

You decide on alive because you are an optimist.

Also, being pragmatic, a word you just learned, you wonder where she got the money. If you’re being honest you know where she got the money. The guys. They come and go in an endless flow. A revolving door of men all named Mike.

A millionaire.

An architect.

A paramedic.

A lifeguard.

An ex-Vietnam vet who you find crawling around in the front yard on his stomach with his gun out. He puts it in your face. You stare right down the barrel of that shiny gun. Bugs chirp in the midsummer night. Frogs sing from the muddy bank of the lake. You are a fearless, tiny thing who has to beg for very meal, every new pair of pants but you are not afraid.

Not afraid of this gun pointed in your face, the barrel positioned right between your eyes. A crowd gathers under the porchlight, frantic adults speaking in whispers. When he turns the gun on them a collective gasp of soothing whispers begs him to put the gun down. When he slowly shifts the gun from you to them, you do not move, do not run. This single action defines you. You’ve never run from anything in your life. Not boys or bugs or mean fourth grade teachers.

Instead, you take a moment to look deep inside the man laying on the ground and realize he’s not in Mississippi on a midsummer evening. He’s across the world fighting a war that rages inside him. A war from long ago. A war that has nothing to do with you.

But somehow it has everything to do with you. Because you’ve been on the planet just over a decade but there under a mysterious star filled sky you’ve come to the writing life, descriptions and all.

You record these events in a journal with the Easter Bunny on the front. The bunny is brown and sweet looking with yellow baskets in dotted green grass. You write these things down and hide it.

There is dope.

Your shorts don’t fit and your shoes are old.

School is easy.

Life is hard.

Dope, shoes, easy, hard. There’s your motivational poster.

This is how you come to the writing life. It’s not a shelter or an escape. It’s a means to make sense of the crazy. All crazy, all the time.

Your mom is naked again. Dope. Booze. Sex. In that order.

You have a Social Studies test so you go to the woods to study. There’s an old piece of farm equipment. If you climb up onto the seat you can see anyone coming.

This becomes a theme. Watch your back. You have to see them coming. That’s what they’re doing back at the house right now. Coming with all that booty slapping you just don’t have the language to even describe at that age.

But describe it you will. A tangled mass of skin and broken promises bumping and panting in the half light of a warm afternoon.

Look, you did it again.

The writing life.

It comes like a drum beat in your head.

Your mom breaks up with another Mike. Worried and sensitive you plod along. Do not go quietly into the night. Stay up and listen to everyone fight. While everyone is getting drunk you sneak around and read magazines. An interview with an Author. The Author talks about how she pours a glass of white wine and pens her first draft, serene and organized. You laugh and laugh. People who sit at perfect desks and pen perfect drafts in perfect outfits might as well be from another planet. You’re only ten but you know bullshit when your eyes glaze over from reading it.

Men tumble in and out. The dog gets parvo. Your mom cleans up her act enough to get a job at a vet’s office. Gets high only on her lunchbreak. It’s her personal time. You can’t tell people what to do with their personal time, yo. You never really know what’s going on. You just write it down.

Write it down.

Someday it will all make sense.

Your former life fades. The one before this house. The one with the old boyfriend who took you to temples in South America and bought you cactus candy. Years pass.

Your grandmother gets cancer. You stay with her every second. Your uncle is there but he’s batshit crazy in the kitchen frying Spam. He’ll eat anything as long as it’s in a can. Cans are sanitary, passed quality control. Gotta watch those things. People put poison in everything but not cans.

He taps the side of his head. See where I am going with this, he asks? The future is in the can.

You prefer the term, I’ve got this in the bag. Because you are finally figuring out how to manage  insanity on a daily basis. Schedule it. Reign it in. Herd it like cats.

You spend your summer going back and forth to the grocery store to buy your grandmother cans of spinach so she’ll grow big and strong.

You pray she doesn’t die. “God,” you say, “we need to talk. Oh Lord of the Great Mystery, please let her get well. Pretty please. With sugar on top.”

Months pass.

One of the boyfriends tells you that you’re smart and talented and should try out at a school for the performing arts. He says you have to audition. Back then you had to look in the phone book. An operator helps you locate the number. You schedule everything on your own. All your mom has to do is drive.

Please don’t be high.

Don’t be high.

Not that day.

In a flurry of nerves, feeling like your whole fucking life hinges on that moment you go to the school and audition.

In what amounts to a small miracle your mother waits in the car.

You know it isn’t a simple audition. It is go big or go home time. Do or die. Sink or swim. Flip or flop. You know it with every fiber of your being. This has to happen. You have to get in. Look at you. This is your future. This is your ticket to the writing life. Take it. Grab it. Run. Perform with every teeny ounce of talent you’ve got. Grab them by the throats and sing, “Start spreading the news..”

A three to five minute audition is simultaneously the shortest and longest of your life. A performance piece of Edgar Allen Poe. The Raven. Live action. You were a weird kid.

Then you wait.

Scores. Notations.

You wait.

Sitting on the cold concrete floor in the hallway you think about the writing life. Lord Alfred and Keats wrote their hearts out. How you’ve memorized Edna St. Vincent Millay.

A woman walks into the hall. You don’t know it yet but she will be your teacher for the next three years. She will be harder on you than any teacher you’ve ever had. She will also be your favorite. She won’t take an ounce of your shit.

I’m pleased to announce that you’ve been accepted.


The shot heard round the world. Okay, maybe not. But close.

School can really fill up your time if you let it. You begin taking speech lessons because you sound like you’re from Mississippi. You find a copy of The Color Purple and read it. The most perfect book ever written. Shug Avery. You walk to the bus in the dark, walk home in the rain. You stare at the albino boy across the hall.

The dope is still there but distance blurs the daily landscape. A crack. A drift. Continents shifting. The boyfriends still come and go, still no money for heat. There’s a wood burning stove you feed sacrificed trees. Paper grocery bags from the church. Pinto beans. Sauerkraut. Hominy. The Lord provides the can from thus you eat. Cans are sanitary. Remember that.

One day you are excited to find something wrapped up in a paper towel on the counter. It could be anything. A delicate, special gift. An éclair. A half eaten burrito from a restaurant. Excited, you unroll it in a feverish flash. A dead, newborn puppy thunks onto the counter. A metaphor for your relationship with your mother. It doesn’t matter how excited you are. It’s already dead.

You roll the dead baby back into the paper towel and say a prayer. You don’t say it out loud but as you exit the kitchen you hope you don’t end up that way.

There’s nowhere to go and that’s the hard part.

Used condoms litter the floor next to the bed, the crotchless panties, the dope, the needles. At an age when everyone is curious to inhale or taste a wine cooler you’ll do almost anything to avoid that fate.

Some poetry, a few songs. Get a job at a gym which is called a health spa. You use your paycheck to buy new pairs of jeans. You wear them like a badge of honor. You’re closer to the writing life than you’ve ever been.

Your mother says you’re too much fucking trouble, talks to some guy she’s been having sex with about emancipation. “You cost too much,” she screams.

But then she realizes kicking you to the curb kicks her welfare check to. And she loves her welfare check more than anything. Government kickback because the CIA is a pack of liars. Instead of kicking you out she demands your paycheck. Cool as a cucumber your quit your job. You think God will save you. God will save you. But he won’t. Nothing is that easy, no matter what those church ladies say.

And boom, just like that, you wonder why women don’t have more abortions. Wonder how your mother skipped that last trip to the back room at the clinic. The expense of being born.

Step right up to the circus that is your life. This is what it sounds like when doves cry. Roller skate, go to the mall, try to be normal. If you stay away from your mother then she can’t beat the fuck out of you. #goals

It’s easy. You get the lead in the school play. You’re studying theater. You’re writing poetry. You’re dating a professional wrestler. He flirts shamelessly with you in public. You won’t kiss and tell. Most of the people you met are still alive. Some are dead. They were good men, funny men, men with ambition. Buddy Landell and Randy Savage. Yeah, you knew the Slim Jim guy. Insert your best impersonation here.

A gray, cool morning unfolds. You can smell the diesel from the highway. Eighteen wheelers. This is the writing life.  4 AM and restless. You slog through this, one foot in front of the other. Your best friend is gay. Your other best friend is from California. Nobody really knows you.

One night you go downtown with Quinten Parker to one of the tallest hotels. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. You lay flat on your back in the glass elevator, holding hands and ride up and down with the surge of your stomach bottoming out as you rise up in a single whoosh.

This is your life.

This is your life.

Years pass.

You think about how writing this essay in urgent, second person is odd but you had to because the message is so clear. This could be you.

One morning while walking your dog you find a dead squirrel on the sidewalk. A thin line of blood trails through the snow, tracing its steps back into the street. It fled to the safety of the grass and died.  A baby squirrel is in the branches above making the saddest chirp. You look closer at the dead squirrel, realize it is one that sunbathes on the branches of the trees over your driveway.

Never before have you heard such a lonesome sound.

You pick the dead squirrel up, feel it’s warm body limp in your hands even though it’s winter. A hearty, noble being killed under the cover of a dark morning. More squirrels gather in the branches above. You watch them come from all over like a fairy tale. Glancing up into the leafless Maple trees you see the furry faces looking back. Sad, inquisitive, they chirp and bark urgently. You hold the dead squirrel out to them like an offering, a prayer. You tell them you are sorry. Not knowing what else to do you lay the body at the base of the tree and offer a blessing to the god of animals.

Knowing the twitching tails want to come down to the ground, you go back inside and write. You pull the pieces of your life onto the page. You write stories from your past. You write this one.

The way you come to the writing life.

Distracted by grief you walk back outside to offer sunflower seeds. Like a miracle, you see the squirrels have come down from the trees and buried the body. You stand in slack jawed awe. You know, really know, in that moment, the way you come to the writing life is winding and treacherous but it is amazing. A place where even squirrels bury their dead.