Brushes with greatness: The New York Times bestseller list


UTPressLogo.JPGOne of my ongoing part-time side hustles is book editor, although that sounds somewhat more high-falutin’ than the reality of the situation. Nevertheless, since 2011 I have been one of several co-editors of the American Music Series at University of Texas Press. My job is to beat the bushes in search of potential authors and subjects, trying to get book projects going in the area of creative nonfiction (yes, it fits right in with this year’s Piedmont Laureate area of emphasis). Early on, the series was pretty heavily Americana-focused, in part because it was an outgrowth of the old No Depression magazine. But it has broadened considerably in recent years with books on Mary J. Blige, Chrissie Hynde and even Madonna.

I would liken the gig to being a freelance talent scout for a record company, the initial point of contact. When I bring in a proposal to consider, UT Press gets the final say because it’s their money. And since it’s a university press, alas, it’s generally not a ton of money. University presses operate on a much smaller scale than the big boys, and we have to find writers who are willing and able to work with us on labor-of-love projects for modest advances. It’s miles away from the J.K. Rowlings of the world, although we’ve done okay in publishing 14 books. It’s not like anybody expects university press books to hit the bestseller list.

HanifATCQcoverAnd yet lightning does strike, once in a great while. I’m pleased to note that the American Music Series has an actual honest-to-God hit on the New York Times bestseller list, the gold standard of sales charts in the book world. It’s the poet Hanif Abdurraqib’s phenomenal new book “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest,” a highly idiosyncratic critical biography of the legendary hip-hop troupe from Queens. After its Feb. 1 publication date, “Rain” blew onto the Times list at a healthy No. 13 in paperback nonfiction books last week. I’m told it’s the first UT Press title of any kind to make the list since T.H. White’s fantasy work “The Book of Merlyn” way back in 1977 — six years before Abdurrquib was born — which kind of blows my mind.


“Rain” has also picked up across-the-board critical raves, including glowing reviews in the Washington Post (written by my former N&O colleague Geoff Edgers, who long ago graduated to the big time) as well as the Times. I can take no credit whatsoever for any of this, because “Rain” is my UT Press editorial cohorts Casey Kittrell and Jessica Hopper’s baby. My only role was to add my thumbs-up to the proposal and then say, “Wow, this is awesome” to the finished product. And it really is an incredible book, expertly threading the needle between memoir and biography, deeply personal as well as universal enough to be relateable. I can honestly say that you don’t need to have heard a note of Tribe’s music for this book to resonate for you, because it really is that good.


As it happens, Abdurraqib’s book tour is going to bring him to Raleigh later this month as star attraction at the North Carolina Book Festival. He’ll be at Kings nightclub on the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 24. Unfortunately, tickets for that are all gone, although there is a waiting list you can get on in case space opens up.

I’ll be busy doing my Piedmont Laureate duties throughout the festival, starting with opening night on Thursday, Feb. 21. That evening, I’ll join Chris Stamey at Crank Arm Brewery, where he’ll do a reading/performance based on his 2018 memoir “A Spy in the House of Loud” (Another fine American Music Series title from UT Press). It’s a show I saw last year at Quail Ridge Books, and it was fantastic. Stamey tells me it’s only gotten better with practice and I can’t wait to hear it again.

The morning of Saturday, Feb. 23, I’ll be at CAM Raleigh to conduct an onstage conversation with the great Jaki Shelton Green, who was the very first Piedmont Laureate 10 years ago. I am honored to follow in Green’s footsteps, especially since she is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate nowadays. She is even more spellbinding live and in-person than she is on the page. I’ll try to keep up.



That Saturday afternoon, Feb. 23, I’ll be at Kings to do a presentation of my own called “A Life in Music Books.” I’ll talk a little about my past books, and also get into the in-progress history of North Carolina music I’m working on.

Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, I’ll be back at Kings again to take part in a panel discussion about A Tribe Called Quest’s landmark 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. I’ll be speaking alongside St. Augustine’s University professor Natalie Bullock Brown, an Emmy-nominated producer/consultant, and Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, who has published seven books. I’ll try to keep up with them, too.

Abdurraquib will follow our panel, so I guess you could say we’re his opening act. Which is as it should be. Everything’s free, so come on out and bring your book idea. I’m always on the lookout for the next lightning strike.

Hello in there

ralartsplWay back in 2011, in the early years of the Piedmont Laureate program, my best friend Scott Huler served as its first non-fiction fellow. I remember going to a few of his events that year, including a wonderful mini-festival with area writers and musicians, and thinking that I really wanted to be Piedmont Laureate myself someday when I grew up. I believe I told Scott something to that effect, too.

I’ve kept up with the program since then, doing a few stories on newly appointed laureates like poet Mimi Herman two years ago while waiting for the nonfiction category to come back around, which it did for 2019. I threw my hat in the ring, and here we are. It is an honor and a thrill to be the 11th Piedmont Laureate, following in the footsteps of so many people I admire so much — especially Jaki Shelton Green, now Poet Laureate for the state of North Carolina, and my dear friend Scott. It’s humbling and also daunting.


Photo by Teresa Moore.

So let me tell you a little bit about myself beyond what you see under my byline in the News & Observer. Long before I ever became a journalist or even started writing anything down, I already had the mindset of a writer. When I was a kid, the voice in my head sounded like an observer recounting what was going on in a given situation. Thinking about how I was going to describe something afterward and tell a story about it was an early instinct, one that has persisted into adulthood. Music was always important, too, somewhere between passion and obsession going back to the days when I’d tune in Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” every week to hear what was top of the pops.

Early writing efforts began with comic books, quickly abandoned because I cannot draw to save my life. So I moved on to straight prose, fiction at first but eventually mostly non-fiction. I did have a regrettable, mostly disastrous stretch of college where I took a stab at pre-law and pre-med (you know, the actual well-paying professions) before finally deciding to cast my lot with writing.

That was the summer before my senior year, at which point my transcript and grades lay in smoking ruins across multiple institutions of higher learning. It took summer classes and an extra semester to cobble together an English degree, and then graduate school at the University of Texas to figure out the beginnings of a career path. I came away from UT with a Master’s degree in journalism, not the most useful degree in the world. But grad school did allow me to learn the craft a bit at the college newspaper.

That led to my professional career at daily newspapers starting with the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo., where I spent five years reviewing concerts and writing features on everything from local bands to gun-toting mercenaries. It was highly educational and almost never dangerous, even the stories about mercenaries.

Boulder was lovely but expensive and I was pushing 30, so it was time to move on. I came to Raleigh as newly hired music critic for the N&O in January 1991, thinking it would be a good place to spend the next few years. It never occurred to me that North Carolina was going to be my permanent destination. But there’s just never been a good-enough reason to leave, especially because I quickly grew to love it here.


pldesk.jpgI covered music almost exclusively for a lot of years, which was a blast because it put me in the room with a notebook to watch the rise of everybody from Superchunk to Rhiannon Giddens. But as the paper’s staff has contracted over the past decade, my beat has expanded to the arts in general under the rubric “Things To Do.”

It’s not just my beat that has gone through a metamorphosis. Life at the N&O has changed tremendously since the early 1990s, especially in recent years with the move to more of an online focus. Writing for a real-time news organization is a vastly different beast from writing stories that appear on paper days or even weeks later. It’s not enough to just write the story anymore, you also have to package it with the right headline and keywords to achieve search-engine-optimization nirvana. It’s…a process.

We’ll talk more about that over the course of this year, and I’ll try to give you a sense of what it’s like to try and feed the online beast and reach page-view goals while retaining a sliver of sanity. I’m not gonna lie, it’s a tough racket. The media in general is under siege on multiple fronts right now, with newspapers struggling to survive even as those in power brand us as “fake news.” Anyone who claims to know how it will turn out is either deluded or lying or both. All we can do is try to change with the changing times.

that-old-state-radio-hourWhile the N&O remains my mothership and primary means of support, I’ve also developed various side-hustles because diversification is pretty much a survival strategy in the content-generating business nowadays. I do a little magazine freelancing and I started a radio show last year, “That Old North State Radio Hour,” playing the music of North Carolina (and I hope you’ll tune in, Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on WCLY, 95.7-FM). I also do some book-editing for University of Texas Press, where I’m co-editor of the American Music Series. We’ve put out 13 books, with title number 14 due out any day now.

I’ve written a few books myself, too, starting with a genuinely terrible, never-published novel I wrote in my early 20s (locating and burning every copy on earth while I’m still alive remains on my must-do list). Several years later I wrote my University of Texas journalism Master’s thesis, “Music, Media and the Metropolis: The Case of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters.” It was about the concert hall that served as spiritual center of progressive country music in Austin, Texas, a scene so bucolic that it created a media image that fueled the growth that doomed a lot of the very things that made the city special. And yes, the sequel is happening right now in the Triangle, which is hard for me to watch.

otrIn 2000, I took another crack at fiction by self-publishing a  novel, and it went better this time. “Off The Record” was a roman a clef set in the music industry, tracing the misadventures of a fictional one-hit wonder, and it got some decent reviews. In the thrill of a lifetime, the legendary grand old man of rock criticism Greil Marcus put “Off The Record” in his “Real Life Top-10” one week. It remains the high point of my career.

loseringcoverThen came “Losering” in 2012, a critical biography of Ryan Adams — who as it happens had been one of my real-life models for the unhinged rock-star main character in “Off The Record.” Ryan used to live in Raleigh, and I started writing about him when he was still couch-surfing down the street from where I lived at the time. He fled town and became famous long ago, and for reasons unknown (but much speculated upon) has not played a show anywhere in North Carolina since 2005.

crayMy most recent book was 2015’s “Comin’ Right At Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel,” although it’s not really my book. It’s the memoir of Wheel founder/frontman Ray Benson and I was his co-writer, which mostly involved trying to keep up with all his jokes and doing my best to put them in the right order. “Comin’ Right at Ya” was a great time, the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book; I think of it as the sequel to my old Armadillo thesis, since Asleep at the Wheel played there so much.

I have another book in progress and this one feels like my magnum opus. It has the working title “The Big Book of North Carolina Music,” covering about a century of Old North State musicians from bluegrass forefather Charlie Poole in the 1920s to the present-day rapper Rapsody. University of North Carolina Press is scheduled to publish it in 2020, assuming I get it turned in on time. So yeah, in 2019 I’ll be finishing a book while writing for the paper and also conducting the workshops, readings and other events and responsibilities of a Piedmont Laureate. It’s going to be a busy, fun and challenging year.

comehearncI hope to set up some cool, entertaining events involving live performance as well as writing, maybe tied into 2019’s “Come Hear North Carolina” year of music. And I plan to draft a wide range of other writers to put on programs where we discuss nuts and bolts and logistics, whether it’s about various aspects of the writing process or how to submit a book proposal.

Watch this space for details, and news about what I’m up to. My induction as Piedmont Laureate will be on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 4 to 6 p.m. at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. And then my first official event will by at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 30, at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books, where I’ll talk a bit more about plans for the year and also offer a preview of “The Big Book of North Carolina Music.”

I hope to see you around and about.

End of Year


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December 31st – and my year as Piedmont Laureate comes to a close. When I accepted the honor of serving as laureate for three counties, I felt uncertain whether or not I’d be able to keep up my writing this year. I’d heard from one emeritus that I shouldn’t expect to, that it might be best if I just focused on my laureateship and let the writing rest.

I believe in letting writing rest. I believe it’s beneficial to back away from it at times, and do other things. But I also believe that there is an ebb and flow to the work of writing, and that a writer knows when she should back away and when she shouldn’t. I was in a critical place where I shouldn’t back away. I needed to keep steadily working on the novel I was writing. I’d backed away from it enough. I’d stabbed at it and stabbed at it, like an unskilled spear fisherman, until finally I knew that what I needed to catch that glimmering plot just below the surface was a net, and that the net was simply work. I needed to show up and push through.

For the past year there have been two charts pinned to the wall above my desk. One is a timeline for the novel, spanning 1876 to 1896. It’s divided into three columns, one for each of two main characters and one for national events. The other chart pinned to my wall is the schedule I kept as Piedmont Laureate, divided into months. Scribbled into each month’s space were the events I was attending, and the readings and workshops I was giving. It’s been a busy year!

I’m proud of my work as Piedmont Laureate, and especially proud of the workshops I gave: “Costume Writing Parties” in which we used vintage clothing to explore character development, “Character Emotions” in which I presented thoughts and exercises on creating character emotions that live and breathe and don’t fall flat (sad!) on the page, “Postcards from the Edge of Fiction” in which we wrote using vintage postcards as prompts to explore story possibilities. I also held conversations with writers in each county: Our Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green on the importance of historical fiction, Lee Smith on the subject of mentoring, Nora Gaskin on the subjects of traditional and indy publishing and a panel discussion on The Effects of Social Media on Creativity with Anna Jean Mayhew, Ralph Hardy, Kim Church, Michelle Berger and Charles Fiore. It was lively and wonderful and we all came away thinking we should do this again. There’s so much to say. So much to explore.

And that’s the bottom line here I think. There is so much to explore. There’s so much to explore in talking with other writers, in meeting people, in writing with people, in traveling, and in my own (or your own) writing.

I am almost finished with this novel, almost ready to hand it off to readers and get some opinions. I may have completely failed at getting the story on the page, and honestly, that’s always a possibility for any writer, accomplished or not. We meet the story as dumb scribes. We know nothing until we go on the journey, and sometimes, after the journey is complete, we still know nothing except that we know we are changed. We have gone through something and the we feel differently for it.

Even if the writing fails in terms of publishing (and I have a few books and a lot of shorter work in my closet) it changes me. It shapes me. Writing shapes me as much as I shape it. I’m proud I kept on working on this novel during my laureateship. Accolades are important, but nothing, not even success, should get in the way of writing.

I send big love to all my supporters and friends I met along the way. I thank you for attending workshops and events. I thank the sponsors of the Piedmont Laureate program: City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. One thing I learned this year is how hard people employed in arts organizations work for the good of artists. I don’t envy them their jobs. Herding artists must some times feel like herding cats. We are an independent bunch. Most of us have worked outside of the norm for a very long time. Recognition from organizations like these feels important. It feels good. For me it felt like a gift to be celebrated and trusted this way.

I want to close the year by inviting you to please come to one of my free workshops held at Flyleaf Books the second Saturday of each month, 10 to 12. Even people who do not identify as writers come to these workshops. They are, in the words of one attendant, “a buzz.” I’ve been holding these free workshops for 15 years. Fifteen years! Another milestone that passed this year. I started the workshops in Borders Bookstore, and when it closed I kept it going by moving around to libraries. When Flyleaf Books opened, we found a home and I am grateful for such a strong independent bookstore.

I’ve met so many people over the years, and heard so many stories. Sometimes I feel like a story goddess. I give a prompt and people give me a story. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to know that I helped to launch a story into the world – be it my own or yours.

I said it when I accepted the honor of serving as Piedmont Laureate, and I will say it until I die. Stories are how we meet each other. Stories are where we live. Stories are what makes us human, and what gives us our humanity, compassion and empathy, three qualities I believe we all need to cultivate as much as possible.

Is Writing Revolutionary?


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Art is a difficult thing to believe in these days. Even though I insist on writing, I often wonder, given the state of the world and particularly the country I live in, am I just hiding behind my art? Am I, as artists have so often been accused of being, simply egotistical, self-serving, and shallow for wanting to continue what I started when I was in fourth grade?

Of course, in all that time since fourth garde there were years that I didn’t write. There were years in which I berated myself for not having “discipline.” Also years in which I stabbed at writing something, and looked at my work and thought that it wasn’t “real writing.” It is as difficult now as it was then to believe that my art, that what I create, matters.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Art always has be clawed out of some sort of life. The intensity of the world may change but the messages don’t, or they haven’t changed in my life time anyway.

A few of the messages I have received during the span of my writing life:

Don’t quit your day job.
Read Proust, Faulkner, Nabokov, etc.etc.etc.
Read The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, etc.etc.etc.
Get an MFA                                                                                                                                     Teach in a college
Have a platform
Have a brand
Have something important to say
And so on.

I have two things pinned on the wall above my desk. One is a piece of paper that says, “Rise up and figure it out for yourself.” The other is a button that says, “Writing is Revolutionary.”

The “Rise Up” quote reminds me that no matter what sort of difficulty I am tangling with in my prose, I will have to figure it out for myself. No one hands you answers when you’re an artist.

And the button, “Writing is Revolutionary,” reminds me that to carve out any sort of creative life is an act of rebellion. To insist on time to create, to insist on quiet and spaciousness, to clear psychic space for art are all acts that go against the grain. They are revolutionary, no matter what audience the art reaches or doesn’t reach.

If an artist reaches some sort of national recognition for her work, her stubborn insistence on creating time and space for herself is often labeled as brilliance. But don’t expect it while working alone in your studio. In fact, don’t expect it at all. Or even yearn for it. To do so will surely throw you off the rails of the track you must doggedly stay on. Most artists are simply dogged.

Art, in the end, publicly appreciated or not, is a gamble. Art is a crap shoot. Art is betting on the horse with the lame leg ridden by the 300 pound jockey. There’s not a chance of winning, but still, isn’t that jockey, that limping horse beautiful? Don’t they stand out? Did anything stop them from being in the race?



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I live in a culture that loves measurements. Resumes, job descriptions, salaries, developments – America loves to count. When I cleaned houses for a living my work was measured not just room by room and task by task, but in bathtubs leaned over and showers leaned into. Rags dirtied and washed and folded and dirtied again. Sponges falling apart, their yellow bits washed down suburban drains. Work was measure in blown out, leaking rubber gloves, and shredding mop heads, and the nubs of feather dusters. In backaches and sore knees and Epsom Salt baths and Tylenol and hours spent on the heating pad, on the couch.

Now my work is measured in how many books I’ve published, in awards received or not, in Tweets and blog posts and movie deals (present or lacking). It’s measured by Oprah and the New York Times Bestseller List, and Youtube channels. These are big, public measurements and there’s not much a writer can do or not do to achieve them. These sorts of measurements are the work of the Gods and Goddesses, and Fate with a capital F. All I can do is show up and write.

I don’t take daily measurements of my writing. I don’t count words or even pages. The daily question I ask myself during each writing session is: Have I moved the story forward? Yes could mean a paragraph or three pages. No could mean ten or more pages, pages that do nothing for the story, pages that stall it out and go nowhere.

I work with writers and many of them study writing in a way that I do not and never have. They study trends. They know the industry standard of word count for a YA book, or a literary novel, or a sci-fi book, and they write to meet those standards.

But asking how long a novel must be is like asking how long a piece of string must be. The answer of course is that it depends on many things – mainly what is the string to be used for. A string to tie one’s shoes will be shorter than a string to tie up one’s tomatoes. A string to tie a 10″ box will be different from a string to tie a 2′ box. A string to wrap around a story will depend on the story, and if the story is dependent on the string, then that string better be cut to fit. And so it is with page count and word count.

The publishing world is a place where you can find a definitive answer to whatever question you ask, but I don’t believe it’s good to look for definitive answers. Nor do I believe the book world should be a place for industry standards. The book world, the world of story should be a place of exploration. But writers just starting out are scared of all the nebulousness. They yearn for information, anything to help get started and keep going. I’m not trying to keep information from anyone, and I understand the urge to search for answers. It’s frightening to me too when I face a story I don’t yet understand, and haven’t yet written.

In answer to my own question of measurement: Have I moved the story forward? there’s an easy answer. Has something happened that is significant? If not have I written something that contributes to the character’s development, or to setting? Am I building a believable fictional world? Does this section contribute or is it just there.

I know the answers to these questions when I ask them, which isn’t to say I know the solution. But it does mean I can recognize a problem and not write into it, not dig post holes and build a wall around it. Acknowledging that the story is stalling is the first step to moving it forward.

Readers want stories that move forward and so do editors. Editors dare not say so though, because they work in an industry, an industry that has gone awry with measurements and bean counting and shiny objects. Pay no attention. Do your work and do it well. The most important measurement of all is how you feel about it, and how your character feels about you. In the end, do you and your character respect each other? If so, you’ve done well, and you’ll be in a better place to defend your work against random suggestions having to do with fattening a book for market.

In Praise of Teachers


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This is a talk I gave at a fundraising dinner for the Artists in the Schools Program sponsored by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. It’s about the teacher I had in fourth grade who turned my life around, and showed me that there was something to become that appealed to me. After the talk, a woman in the audience, a teacher who has had visiting artists in her classroom said that she a change in some of her children after the artists’ visits. She could see them light up, see new possibilities, and become more engaged. Art matters! It matters to children, but it matters to adults too. It matters more than ever now because we’ve all go to see new paths. Here’s my talk:


I was a withdrawn child. I was shy. I was awkward. I felt dumb. I couldn’t pass tests. And I am pretty sure that I tested out as having a low IQ. The reason I believe this is because when that first IQ test with the little squares to fill in arrived in my life, probably around first grade, our teacher told us we could not pass or fail, and a test one could not pass or fail did not seem very serious to me, so I filled in the squares to make patterns. And once I was committed to it, I kept it up. So, I don’t know how I tested out. I was probably brilliant one year and off the charts in the other direction the next.

I know though that I liked patterns. I noticed patterns. I noticed shadows and sunlight and tree bark and rhythm. But noticing patterns did not help me in school. It has however helped me with art. And I found this out in fourth grade when I met my new teacher. Her name was Mrs. Semonche.

On the first day, she wrote her name across the board in beautiful handwriting, in a straight line, underlined and she said, “Not Mrs. See-man-chee. Not Mrs. Comanche. Mrs. Semonche.” I was extremely impressed with her, not just because she headed off the butchering of her name right away, but because she was young and beautiful. She was slim, wore A-line skirts, stocking and heels, had fake eyelashes that I didn’t know were fake at the time, and reminded me of Jackie Kennedy, our first lady at the time. In short I could tell that Mrs. Semonche was fresh and new. She hadn’t been in the trenches long. She was not jaded and she had a lot of ideas about how to teach us, she was eager to try them out, and she was a big fan of the arts

During this one year of my life, we studied art. We studied every kind of art Mrs. Semonche could fit into our schedule. We sculpted, we drew, we collected color pictures of famous paintings, we learned about the Impressionists, the Modernists, Abstract Art, Surrealism. We’d never seen anything like Salvador Dali.

We also had a unit in theater. We put on a play: A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare. We were in fourth grade. We made the costumes. We created the set. We memorized the lines. Well, some kids memorized lines. I wanted nothing to do with a speaking part, so I signed up to be one of the fairies with my best friend Ellen. Our job was to drift across the stage periodically wearing some great filmy dresses. It seemed enough to me, but not to Mrs. Semonche. She needed an understudy for the main female role Titania, and there was no one left to do it but me, so Mrs. Semonche, in the way that grown ups do, coerced me into accepting the understudy role. But like the IQ test, I didn’t take it very seriously, and I never learned the lines.

One day Sally Hill, the girl whose role I was supposed to understudy was not in class on a day of performance. All morning long kids were hitting me on the arm and saying, “You’re going to have to play Titania. You’re going to have to play Titania.” And I nodded dumbly and mutely. I didn’t know any part of those lines. At what point I would have confessed this, I don’t know, because Sally Hill finally showed up, and I did not have to shame myself. I got away with it.

Mrs. Semonche was right that I needed to learn to speak up, but she was also wrong. I needed to find my own way to speak up. I needed something quieter. And I found it in the next art unit Mrs. Semonche taught called Creative Writing.

What a breath of fresh air Creative Writing was. I started receiving checkmarks on my papers. Nice detail, Mrs. Semonche wrote across my page, the part where I wrote about the smell of grass, the part where I wrote about the pattern of leaves in the sunlight on the ground, the part where I wrote about the filmy curtains in an old hotel room. Finally my penchant for noticing pattern was paying off. I started writing. I started seriously writing. Outside of school, I deconstructed movies I saw on TV and wrote them into stories, which is plagiarism, but I had no intention of publishing them, so really it was study. In the same way art students learn about composition by copying pieces hanging in museums, I was learning about plot and characterization and dialogue at a very young age.

Until Mrs. Semonche entered my life I had not known that writing and storytelling could be things, were things, adults did. I did not know I had a talent for anything. Stories were magic to me, and remain magic, but that magic was legitimized by Mrs. Semonche.

I took Creative Writing as an elective throughout public school. I wrote my first novel in 11th grade. I’ve written six books since then and published four. I’ve learned something from every single one of them. I learn something every day about writing and how to be an artist. It’s a daily education that began for me in fourth grade when I was lucky enough to have Mrs. Semonche as my teacher.

In 2012 I attended my fortieth high school reunion. I’d not really been aware of it at the time, but I went to school with the same batch of kids from first grade through 12th. When asked what teachers we might invite to our reunion, we named Mrs. Semonche. She only taught that one year. In talking to my classmates, I learned that she’d made a difference in their lives too. The arts, they said. She introduced me to sculpting. To painting. To writing. To acting. To a new way of seeing the world. To knowing I was smart. I learned I had a talent. I began exploring. I started reading. I visited museums. She expanded my world. That introduction to the arts was a lifeline. I heard this again and again.

Mrs. Semonche, that one teacher who celebrated the arts and taught her only fourth grade class everything she knew, did attend our class reunion. She had cancer at the time, although none of us knew it. We surrounded her and hugged her and told her what a huge difference she’d made in our lives. Many of us had found a niche because of her. We began to understand ourselves as important and worthy. We started expressing ourselves, and we kept it up through the sixties, through the turmoil of our own roiling hormones, through good decisions and bad ones, she gave us a tool to use for the rest of our lives.

This is what the arts do. They give a feeling of belonging, of expression, of value, of community, of humanity. The arts make us kinder, and we need that. The arts give is different points of view and we need that too. The arts give us empathy and self worth and self trust, and we need all of that. When you support the arts you support much more than that one individual who created something. Your support fingers out into places you can never know about.

I teach a free class at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. I’ve been teaching this free class for 15 years. Sometimes someone emails me and says, “Remember that story I started in your class. Well I finished it, and it’s going to be published.” Just yesterday a student, Don Basnight, emailed to tell me he’s been accepted into The Monti in Durham and to say thank you. And I feel so blessed when this happens. My own career may or may not be going well, but art is never about one person. Art is always about relationship. It is about how we can help each other. Artists are often seen as selfish, but we’re not. We just have different sets of priorities.

Mrs. Semonche passed away a few years ago. She’s someone I will never forget, and although I never fessed up to her about not knowing my lines as the understudy to Titania, I am sure she is aware of this now, and forgives me and is probably having a good laugh too.

So I want to thank you for caring about the arts, for supporting the arts. You never know who you’re touching, and that spread of goodness, even without knowing its exact trajectory, is its own reward. I hope you put your trust in that, because it’s a solid place to stand as a human being. The most stable of all.

Thank you.