Everybody has heard that sometimes failure can serve as the best teacher. It can give a person the determination to persevere or give someone a new perspective on what’s important in life. No amount of talent makes a person immune to roadblocks and rejection, but he or she must learn to take disappointment in stride. Author James Whorton Jr. conveyed this message during his reading Tuesday night in Cooper Hall.
“I was writing pretty much every day for many years before I published anything,” said Whorton, who wrote for 10 to 15 years before getting published. “I enjoyed it, though, so I cultivated the attitude that I’m going to keep writing and sending stuff out. I’m not going to get discouraged if it isn’t published. The key is just to keep doing it.”
Whorton read a passage from his latest novel, Frankland, and a short story titled “Hattiesburg, Mississippi.” The Frankland passage featured the main character, aspiring historian John Tolley, in a dream sequence as a child in Disney World. He watches the Hall of Presidents performance go horribly wrong as an animatronic Andrew Johnson interrupts Teddy Roosevelt’s speech with a drunken and slurred version of his own inaugural speech – the same way Johnson gave his speech when he succeeded Lincoln in 1865. The drunken snippets of Johnson’s inaugural speech juxtapose history with fiction as Tolley pursues missing papers about Johnson. He hopes to unveil new information about the late president and in turn earn him the fame and notoriety he craves. Ultimately, a series of mishaps leads to Tolley’s failure in his mission, but the people Tolley meets along the way provide him with answers to more pressing questions about himself.
“A comedy of misunderstandings blooms to perfection in Whorton’s enchanting and erudite caper, set in hillbilly Eastern Tennessee … Whorton’s deadpan comic genius exploits misunderstandings for laugh-out-loud results,” a review from Kirkusreviews.com said.
Whorton, who is a professor at Northeast State Community College in Tennessee, spent two years writing Frankland. His first novel, Approximately Heaven, took three years to write with many unsuccessful attempts at novels in between.
“I want to write a novel – I’ve written two, but I don’t know how to do it,” Whorton said. “There’s no set formula. You just have to get really interested in the characters and words you’re writing each morning. There’s no shortcut that I know of.”
Before he sits down to write each morning, Whorton empties his pockets in what he says makes him feel more symmetrical. Aside from that, Whorton doesn’t follow any sort of rituals or methods for writing. To him, it’s a natural process without any defined structure, which can cause bouts of writer’s block.
“Frederick Barthelme, a man I studied with at Southern Mississippi, told me that, ‘When you’re making art, by definition, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what’s going to happen and whether you’re going to be able to finish it, but sweat it out – don’t give up. Keep sitting there and keep trying, no matter what mood you’re in,'” Whorton said.
Known for his rural settings, “Hattiesburg, Mississippi” follows suit by exploring the stifling nature of a small town and the pressure to conform. In this short story, which is set in the mid-1980s, the main character calls himself a poet but blames the blandness of his hometown for his lack of original poetry. In fact, his only poem is plagiarized. He swaps it with his friend Allison after they boycott his town’s whites-only dance. He later causes her to cry after criticizing her poem about pancakes and encouraging her to write about her back brace and battle with scoliosis, because that’s “original” and “authentic” – two things the town as a whole lacks.
Whorton’s background doesn’t just serve as inspiration for the settings of his work. His observations also mold the characters of each piece.
“You can bring a lot into your writing by going out and writing about somebody else that’s nothing like you. Instead of thinking, ‘What can I write about that’s interesting?’ find something interesting in the world and write about what you see,” Whorton said.
Whorton continues to write in his spare time and will teach fiction workshops as a part of the creative writing department at SUNY Brockport in the fall.