Caleb Ludwick: A Grassroots Writer

A few months ago I watched Caleb Ludwick read his story “Swim” at Chattanooga’s Hart Gallery on the Southside, for a local monthly reading series called Fusebox—just another thing solidifying Chatt’s burgeoning arts and lit scene. Another thing solidifying that scene: Ludwick’s self-published short story collection The First Time She Fell. Attuned with Chattanooga’s love of the Graphic Design culture, his book was designed, story-to-story, by ten of Ludwick’s buddies in the field. And these folks aren’t just coming from Chattanooga. Some are from Boston and New York, and that’s a testament to Chattanooga’s national notoriety as a “progressive” town—our arts culture isn’t quite as insular as you might think. Ten stories, ten designers. And not only is this unique from a publishing standpoint, it’s encouragement for us youngster writers who live with that deep fear of never being able to squeeze our work into the cutthroat, mainstream publishing industry. Chattanooga embraces grassroots entrepreneurship, locally sourced food, etcetera, and now: grassroots publishing is possible here, and with very positive results.

Ludwick had a chance to read at this semester’s Meacham Writers’ Conference, a conference that typically houses seasoned writers, accomplished in the publishing field—this year: Georgia Review’s chief editor Richard Corey, and author Rebecca Makkai, whose stories are frequently anthologized in Best American Short Stories; in past years: the late, acclaimed master of Southern letters William Gay, poet Philip Levine, and The Things They Carried author Tim O’Brien. So it’s an honorable gig, and I had a chance to talk with Caleb before his reading, and he’s as humble as you can be, just happy to be able to write, with a little recognition on the side.

Caleb says he was a late bloomer—and I like late bloomers, I’m one—though he’d always had that love of words, being an English major in college. He took a year off after college, and began reading constantly, being fueled more and more by each subsequent influence. “You come out strong with an influence with one writer, but then another,” he said. “I read all of Faulkner, then Hemingway as an antidote. Raymond Carver.” Caleb pursued an MA in Theology, and aspired to get his PhD in England, but he dropped it—what he ended up doing was going to France to study Southern Literature. During this time he and his wife had a baby, and after his studies he moved back to Chattanooga. But he quit writing for eight years. His new interest in Marketing and Copywriting took most of his personal time. His company 26 Tools—“like the 26 letters of the alphabet,” he says—deals with Creative Direction and Copywriting for companies like Rock Creek Outfitters, Easy Bistro, Chattanooga’s Create Here, as well as big national names like American Apparel and The Food Network. But this kept him ensconced in the field of creativity, and eventually Caleb began using some of his downtime crafting stories, which culminated in The First Time She Fell. Ludwick received a Make-Work Grant for his efforts, and then, he said, “the rest is just printing.”

He describes his collection as more of an art project than a typical short story collection. And if you leaf through The First Time She Fell, you’ll see why. Even the fonts, and their colors, are different for each story; the placement of words—some pages require you to turn the book horizontally to read it. Sometimes upside-down. So it sounds like Caleb just had a lot of fun putting this art project together, and that should be encouraging for young writers. The fun has paid off—it was cited as some of the best art in the Southeast by Print magazine.

Not to mention Meacham, which has thrilled and at the same time humbled Mr. Ludwick. “The outcome [of my work] is I’m here, teaching workshops with incredible people…being around people who love words has been encouraging.” Caleb and I talked about Chattanooga, how the arts and culture scene here is growing. “There’s a temptation to move away from Chatt,” he says. “People think to be an artist you have to move out to a big city. But there’s a lot to be done here in Chattanooga.” And I get the impression Caleb wants to be part of that growth, and really, he already is. I get the feeling he’s here to stay, which is good. Because how is the scene going to progress if every artist who finds achievement here then says “Well. Alright. Time to pack up and move to NYC, LA, Chicago, even Austin, Texas.” Caleb seems alright here, regardless of whether or not he gains notoriety. “My motivation was never to get published,” he said. “My motivation is to write…seeing things through others’ eyes, empathy, is why you write stories.” Caleb cares more about the craft of writing—“It’s all about the craft. No matter how good the story, the craft is what gets the point across”—than the idea of fame, the idea of getting out. He’s already found success. Writing and creativity has always been good to him.

So Caleb is here to stay, to lend his vision, his writing, and his flair for publishing innovation to a town that just keeps on glowing, brighter and brighter. And we’re damn glad to have him here.

On Throwing it into The Fire

Recently I was defeated. I spent a week and a half writing a story. It turned out to be junk. I spent three days trying to fix it, and ultimately came out defeated in the process.

Harry Crews, author of A Feast of Snakes, in an interview–you can watch the clip here:

–stated that he had burned half a novel. “I had taken a wrong turn,” he said. Crews says the amateur, or the coward, takes a wrong turn yet continues, because he or she doesn’t want to do that all over again. The artist, he says, takes the work and throws it into the fire, and does it all over again. I’m paraphrasing, slightly, but yes––how often do we try and take a story or poem we know is sorry and turn it into something, well, less bad? We take our joke amateur piece through about four workshops and by the end we’re left with a turd wrapped in gold aluminum foil.

I have a kind of nine circles of hell on my laptop for my writing. Three circles, really. The semi-occasional polished pieces go into a folder, very lamely titled Stories Turning Out Well. This folder is displayed on my desktop, in the buff before my eyes each day, to give me hope, I assume. Then there is the folder titled, simply, Stories. This is for junk I wrote when I first started, as well as writing exercises I’ve done on my own and in my various workshop classes. The third folder, which lies within the Stories folder, is also called Stories. Yes, it is not a very creative folder name, but consider it a testament to the lack of creativity of the work that gets tossed in there.

My new story is going into that folder. But I guess I’m no Harry Crews. I didn’t hit the delete button; I certainly didn’t burn it in a barrel behind my house like a madman, the way I picture Crews doing it. But as a young writer I like to hang onto my mistakes, so that maybe one day I can look back and read over the bad stuff, perhaps a way of gauging how far I’ve come.

And I guess my point is that young writers, or writers in general, must be willing to accept failure. If we can’t accept failure we’ll destroy our potential as artists.

I spent three days changing every damned sentence of a story that had no potential. After you do that kind of hasty editing, you come out with some creature of a very botched surgery job. Once I had exhausted myself, I couldn’t understand a line of my story. And failure, its liable to make you want to drink yourself to death. I felt the brief gust of melancholy when I realized it was hopeless. But a writing buddy had referred me in the past to the Harry Crews interview. I watched it again, and now the only thing on my mind is the next story.

So when you know its hopeless, just throw it into the fire, and think about the next story or poem. This may seem like a common bit of wisdom, but consider it a reminder. Watch the Crews video. Keep writing, dammit, and don’t be afraid to reject your own work. Because you’re better than that, right?

Have a Beer On William Gay.

William Gay died on Thursday, February 23rd, at 68 years. In case you didn’t know, William Gay was a massive bad-ass of the Southern literary tradition. Think of a Larry Brown type figure, but with more emphasis on the gothic side of things. Like Brown, Gay was the real deal, a writer who thrived, eventually (he wasn’t published until 1999), completely outside the academy. He spent his life hanging dry wall, carpentering, and worshiping William Faulkner. It paid off.

Gay spent most of his life in Hohenwald, Tennessee. I have no idea what happens in Hohenwald, but I hear it contains an elephant sanctuary. So I’ve ascertained that great Southern writing and elephants might be closely related. (More thought on that idea later – Flannery O’Connor did have her own peacock farm, for example.)

But my point is this: if you live in Tennessee, or fancy yourself literary, you should read William Gay. Now. Not just for the sake of tribute, but because he was a damn good writer. Gay came to the Meacham Writers Workshop in Fall 2010. I had a chance to meet him. He is just as creepy-looking as any character in one of his novels or short stories, but he was a very humble man. When asked in workshop why he didn’t use quotation marks in his stories, he replied: “Well, Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use them, so I figured it’d be okay.”

We value the academy for helping our writing. Gay just happened to be one of the few exceptions. But we can’t all be sixty-year-old hermit-looking hard asses from the boondocks, sitting by a wood stove reading Blood Meridian with scuffed up, calloused hands from a days hard work. The real deal doesn’t come along often, but when they do, we should be grateful.

Truly great Southern writing emerges less often than other great writing, it may seem (I mean, hell, it’s a small part of the world). But when it does emerge, it tends to be exceptionally fearless in its language and storytelling. William Gay was one of the few who got to the soul of his region and put the time in to make it speak. We lost two of the great Southern writers in the past two years (Barry Hannah passed in ’10). So I ask you all, you literary folks, that next time you get together with your reading buddies, your writing buddies, or go out for a few beers — pay tribute to William Gay, a new ghost of the Southern literary tradition.

William Gay, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown are having beers together right now, fishing perhaps, knowing of the beyond, what all artists want to know.

William Gay wrote three novels and one proper collection of short stories. If you’re into film, watch “That Evening Sun”, a great one based off Gay’s story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down”. Hal Holbrook, another ever-cool geezer, plays the protagonist.

So pay tribute to a great writer. Read him. Read Southern Lit; celebrate your region.

You know what? I don’t want to be preachy. Just have a damned beer on William Gay. I’ll be having several in his honor.