By Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate
As I reviewed the 2016 Piedmont Laureate press release summarizing all the books I have written over the past 25 years, I began to wonder how in the world I had ever been able to publish 15 novels in the first place. Granted, I had grown up in a household literally surrounded by stacks of books brought home by my father, the News and Observer’s book reviewer for many years. In fact, there were days I had to read several books simply to clear a path to the front door so I could get out of the house and head to school. But why had I grown up to be a writer? I could just as easily have become a voracious reader. Why had I been audacious enough to believe anyone would ever want to read what I wrote?
As I thought more about it, the answer was simple: growing up in North Carolina made me a writer. This is a state that nurtures its writers. And it’s a good thing, too. As one of my writing teachers once told me, “You could walk from the mountains to the ocean on the backs of North Carolina’s writers, and the sad thing is that most of them would let you.”
I cannot speak to the self-esteem of all of NC’s writers, but I can say that I am lucky to have been raised here—which is why I think it’s only fitting I spend the next year passing on the love for writing I learned growing up in Raleigh. It is equally fitting for my first blog post as this year’s Piedmont Laureate to be one of thanks to all of the teachers who got me here. They go back a long way, understand—all the way back to Wiley Elementary and my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Gilliam, who did not hesitate to introduce Victor Hugo to 12-year-old savages and whose poems I can still recite by heart. All together now: “Be like the bird who, halting in his flight…” Soon after, at Daniels Junior High School, Mrs. Esping (or Esping-pong, as we liked to call her) exorcised the lazy out of me, at least when it came to writing, thanks to her insanely high standards. Meanwhile, her colleague, Mrs. Chambers, taught me something even more important. What a high it was to be sitting in her class, plodding through a text book, and hear her un-teacherlike giggles give way to helpless laughter until she looked over at me, held up an essay I had written for her class, and said: “I can’t help it—this is hysterical!”
I learned two things that fateful day in 9th grade social studies: 1) writing about underwear always makes people laugh, and 2) I could make people laugh with my writing.
After that, I was hooked and there was no stopping me. The chief trait required of my writing teachers henceforth was probably endurance rather than enthusiasm. How many pages I rained down on them during my years in the Wake County Public School System! Many of you will recognize the names I am about to evoke: Carol Carter, Phyllis Peacock, and Sally Smisson, all teachers at Broughton High School and the first human beings willing to wade through my endless stories while telling me I could be a writer. Other people during my years there fueled the flames: an art teacher named Mrs. Erlich who warned me that, while I did many things well, I would have to focus on just one if I hoped to be really good at it, advice that proved crucial to my future sanity… my journalism teacher, Mrs. Keith, who stoked my lifelong joy in word count output and thoughtfully punished the entire class, rather than me alone, that time I went off the rails from overwork and painted Hitler mustaches, cowlicks, and furry eyebrows on my friends in the High Times photos while reviewing the proofs at the printers. (Yes, that was me. I can only pray the statute of limitations has run out.)
This environment of constant encouragement and time for literary exploration was all it took to send me to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where fabled names awaited me in the creative writing department there. I will always love Daphne Athas for teaching me that words have color, sounds, and even taste. She taught me to take joy in sentence construction as well as in the rhythm and cadence of words. I learned the art of the story arc from Max Steele, along with a warning to look out for the competitive urges of other writers and keep my ideas quiet until they were made real. Lewis Rubin taught me that life is too short to spend time pretending bad writing is good. Sure, he was intimidating—but he also believed passionately in the traditions of the southern novel and opened a whole new world of reading for me. Marianne Gingher taught me that there is a huge difference between having the potential to be a writer and being willing to work on the skills that elevate you to professional status. I took her class during her very first year as a professor in UNC’s creative writing department and am astonished that so many years have now passed that she has since retired as its head. And I would be remiss if I did not mention Bill Hardy of UNC’s Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures department. Bill taught me to respect my creativity, showed me how it could actually pay the bills, and introduced me to the thrill of watching your writing come alive. I will never forget a teleplay of mine that he produced, not only because I ended up with lifelong friends out of the process but because it taught me that writing is interactive—you never truly know what you have written until others have read it and brought their own experiences to it.
These are the people that sent me to New York, confident in my ability to write, and it was their memory that brought me back home to North Carolina 16 years later in search of a world filled with people just like them. I am so proud to be from a state that treasures the literary arts as a reflection of who we are as a society. I am so proud to be from a state that has committed its resources, for generations now, to ensuring that its young people have the chance to fall in love with writing in the first place, and then actually learn the craft that allows them to be part of that world and to let their voices be heard. I can only hope that future generations will be able to say the same. I can only hope that the great state I am proud to call home continues to support the literary arts as it has done throughout its history.
So when you hear me speak, attend one of my workshops, or read something of mine in the year ahead—and I truly hope you will do all of these things—know that I am here, representing all writers, only because I was lucky enough to be raised in North Carolina.