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What's so right (write) about Orange: On the prowl for the literati



Spelling is so jazzy, so improvisational. It has only been recently, human history-wise, that we've agreed at all on how words should be spelled, and even now texting is upsetting that basket again. Consider, for instance, "borough," as in Hillsborough, and "boro," like in Carrboro.

Same sound. If you heard someone say the names of the two towns, you'd have no idea there was any difference. But borough is all Regulators and tricornered hats, while boro is blue collar with a dash of hipster shortcut thrown in. You can almost hear Thelonious Monk say, "Yeah, that place beside Chapel Hill, it's a cool little boro."

That the two places could comfortably sit cheek by jowl is irresistible to a writer. We have a sense of history alongside some gritty, funky mill-town business. And the two keep each other honest. It's not like, say, Richmond or Charleston, where too many people spend too much time worrying about who be who and which boat you got here on. The Piedmont N.C. approach is more laid back.

That style gets into everyone, writers included. And that's another reason I think scribes find the borough, boro and Hill appealing: It's the other writers. Writers beget writers, and when you've got folks like Frances Gray Patton, Max Steele, Doris Betts and Lee Smith to set the tone, it's just plain pleasant. Their way was the helping hand and not the stab in the back, and it keeps getting paid forward.

When my first book of poetry was coming out, my publisher asked me to suggest some people who might be willing to write a blurb for it. Hoping against hope, I put Lee Smith on the list. One day I got home from work and saw the light on my answering machine blinking. I punched the button to hear the voice of a mountain angel. "Miiiiike (I thinks that's the right number of i's), it's Lee. I just wanted to say that 'Talking to Patsy Cline' is the best poem ever. OK, bye."

That she liked it. That she'd take the time to call me. I'm a little embarrassed to report that I kept the message for years, until the machine broke.

That's what it is about this area that draws writers like flies to honey. It brings them here and they stay.

Michael Chitwood teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill. His eighth book of poetry will be published next year, and he has two collections of prose.

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