By Gary Lloyd
I never knew that an elderly woman frantically filling a notebook with stories and tips in black ink could take me back in time.
She knew an iconic author when she heard one speak, and the cramping in her fingers was worth it. After all, it was Rick Bragg up on that stage at the Trussville Public Library.
I hadn’t seen Bragg in person since my last year of college, but we had stayed in touch via email and an occasional phone call. He taught a sportswriting class when I was at the University of Alabama, and I learned more in that short class than any other in my life. I still have my purple JN-491 notebook, which contains graded papers, tips and printed Sports Illustrated articles.
It was in college that I learned of Bragg and his first book, All Over but the Shoutin’. I bought it at a Books-A-Million in Tuscaloosa and read it twice in a matter of weeks. Another professor teased me about reading it so much. It’s the greatest storytelling I’ve ever read. When I finished the epilogue, I felt as if I had lived Bragg’s story.
The elderly woman sitting on the second row in the library’s auditorium must have felt the same. Bragg spoke for an hour about his mom, older brother, dog, books he had written and, famously, a story he wrote about a chicken named Mopsy that narrowly escaped the jaws of a bobcat.
He talked about biographies he wished he could have written (Hank Williams, Nick Saban) and about a modern-day fictional book he may write.
He fielded a half dozen questions about all sorts of topics, one of which came from a former full-time journalist who now writes a monthly column. One man told Bragg that he subscribes to Southern Living magazine, and when it arrives at his home, he tears out Bragg’s column to read and keep, and tosses the rest of the publication in the trash.
“Nostalgia is the single-most powerful force in the publishing world,” Bragg said to that man, and I don’t remember how a profound response like that came after such a bizarre story. “Nostalgia is powerful. People like to remember. And even if they think they don’t like to remember, they do.”
Bragg stayed after to sign books. I waited in a line that stretched out the library’s back doors to the Cahaba River. I was anxious. Would Bragg remember me? Would I have a chance to talk for any substantial amount of time?
When it was my turn at his table, I heard, “I thought that was you.” He remembered me. He signed two books, and we talked about writing and book projects. He asked me how my current project is going, and I told him that it was overwhelming, that there’s so much material to research, so many people to interview.
Bragg told me that when a project is kicking me or throwing me off, I must react like a frog in a well.
“You have two directions to go,” he said. “Up or sideways.”
As a reader of all his words, it’s admittedly not Bragg’s best metaphor, but it made sense. Essentially, he was telling me to keep moving in any way I can, to work as hard as I can to make this book the best one I can.
“Keep dancin’,” he said.
Gary Lloyd is the author of six books and is a contributing writer to the Cahaba Sun.