As a child in Fitzgerald, Ga., way back in the middle of the last century (that sounds so archaic), I was struck with the power of the land. Always, I felt the primal potency beneath my black Mary Janes (polished with Vaseline). A tornado might lift me and the bathtub into the sky. Sinkholes swallowed whole houses. The air above roads shivered in the heat. But there was, too, the sharp sweetness of roadside plums way in the country, the fecund scent of cotton fields after rain, and 10,000 other ways that I felt the energy of the place slapping me into belle-hood, into history, into a sense of identification with our plot of earth. Clear as a saucer magnolia: my Southern instinct for place.
Then came the writers: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings--I'll never get beyond The Yearling--and that seminal monument, Gone with the Wind. Later, I found Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Wolfe, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, James Agee, and who-dares-breathe-his-name: William Faulkner. I already had the place inside, and when they came to me in high school, they named what was nameless.
East Coast, West Coast--first for schools, then for work, for life. Through peregrine years, tumultuous years, I wrote poetry. I loved every place I lived and traveled. London, Paris, Rome, Venice. I fell hard for Central America and Mexico. In each country, I had fantasies that I could live there. I wrote six books of poetry and a field guide, The Discovery of Poetry.
Then one July I rented a house in Tuscany with friends. Rural life in those ancient hills simply knocked me in the head, causing me to see what I needed to see. After several summers in those sun-drenched hills, I forked over my savings and bought an abandoned house. The life I formed there caused a tectonic neural shift. I began writing about everyday life. The place, I saw clearly, had shaped the inhabitants as surely as in creation tales when humans were formed from mud. I was riveted by Italian time--long sine waves of artists, farms, history, piazzas, vineyards, cuisine--but really what I loved was the lively intersection of place with people.
Suddenly, my poetry refused to break into lines; stanzas reverted to the actual meaning of the word: rooms. I bought a bigger notebook. My concept of time expanded and cubed. My innate fatalism subdued. The happiness that suffuses my Tuscan days drove my pen.
Neruda claimed there are only 11 subjects to write about. He doesn't say what they are, but one of them must be happiness. For a writer, the subject is hard to sustain. How to write a book that has no plot, an unforeseeable resolution, and not even an “I survived” motif? Well, I thought, let's just go a little against the grain. I quit worrying about conflict/resolution requirements. I'll try, I told myself, to re-create this place in tactile, evocative words. Try to catch elusive and fragile happiness in images. But I moved into memoir when I felt myself begin to be changed by the place.
At the end of writing Every Day in Tuscany, my third memoir, I think of returning to my original Southern home. Is there a book to write, now that I know so well: who you are is where you are.