If, as John Gardner says, all stories have one of two plots (someone goes on a journey; a stranger comes to town), then I have two stories to tell. A couple of years ago, I was the someone, and I was the stranger—two unidentifiable nouns wrapped up in one person—packing up all my stuff, leaving my good friends behind, and headed north for a place where I knew no one.
Before making the decision to move, I had spent five years writing. When I got home from my line cook job each night, I would pour myself a glass of sweet tea, turn off all the lights, put on my headphones, and write. It was a comfortable routine. I read books about writing as a way to educate myself about the craft. I wrote a novel (the traditional first-novel-that-will-never-be-published). I wrote a few short stories. I wrote about my days at work, my co-workers, and my friends, all of whom called me Hart. If I wrote enough, I’d eventually “make it.” I’d make it out of the kitchen’s greasy heat, make it out of my small, second-story apartment downtown, and most important, make it out of Americus – a town so dead to me, that even the mid-spring dogwoods and azaleas looked as if they were trapped in a dusty photograph. I despised living in a place that was washed out. After 22 years, at age 31, I had forgotten how to see, how to experience anything at all, and that loss is the death of a writer. Familiarity bred a whole litter of contempts, and those bastards had me by the throat.
Despite the push of Americus, deciding to move to Asheville was still a risk. I had no job. I had no guarantees that I would be accepted to college after two previous failed attempts. I didn’t even know where to buy groceries. I had saved money to make everything easier at first, but it wouldn’t last forever. And besides, what if the belief I had in myself as a writer was nothing more than a delusion? I moved to Asheville to write, and if I wasn’t a writer, then I really was another someone, another stranger, and I didn’t have the friends of Americus to fall back on. Telephones and emails are convenient, but nothing says “I’m here for you” like a hug, a smile, and a pair of caring eyes.
But I did get accepted to UNC Asheville. I found enough employment to keep me afloat. And I found Ingles. (Though how could I not?) I’m still the someone on a journey, but I’m not the stranger anymore, at least not here, thanks to the many people who have accepted me as I am and encouraged me to keep growing as a writer and as a person.
When I stand on my back porch here in Asheville, I can see Patton Avenue through the trees. It is also known as Highway 19. I have yet to follow it farther south than the on-ramp for Interstate 40, but I know that if I were to stay on 19 long enough, it would eventually lead me to a small town in south Georgia called Americus. I still visit there a few times a year to reconnect with those friends who believed in me before I believed in myself. They still recognize me; they still call me Hart; and they still believe in me. But to them, Brian is a stranger.
Sometimes, the writer creates the place. Sometimes, the place creates the writer. And sometimes, for the very lucky, the writer finds a place where he belongs, a place that welcomes strangers and is not afraid to discover what interesting things he might be carrying with him. I have been lucky enough to find that place. But every time I’m on my back porch, watching cars and trucks headed south, I can’t help but think of the place and the people there who made me into the person now comfortable here.