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Cathartic Writing Experience: Tena Clark on her memoir Southern Discomfort

November 19, 2018

About the author:

Born and raised in Mississippi, Tena Clark is a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, music producer and activist. She has written and produced for music legends including Aretha Franklin, Leann Rimes and Dionne Warwick, and has contributed to multi-platinum soundtracks forMy Best Friend’s Wedding and Desperate Housewives, among many other films and television programs. Clark is also a civil rights activist and a crusader for women’s rights, with her strong sense of social justice formed during her early life in the American South of the 1950s and ‘60s. She lives in Atlanta, and her memoir, Southern Discomfort, is her first book.

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Congratulations on the publication of your memoir Southern Discomfort! What has been the most rewarding part of publishing your memoir? Were there aspects of publishing that surprised you?

The process of going back in time and looking at the events and people that shaped my early years has been illuminating and difficult. It hasn’t always been an easy process. Telling the truth about your own life—the good, the bad, and the ugly, never is—but it’s been very healing for me. It’s also been wonderful to be in a kind of conversation again with my mother, my father, and Virgie. Writing about them has brought them back to life in a way, affording me the chance to say things to them now that I couldn’t say when they were alive.

Publishing this book has also forced me to reckon with all of my complicated feelings about Mississippi and the South. It’s a love-hate relationship for sure. It’s a beautiful place; it’s a tortured place. It’s a place trapped in a different time, it’s a place where real progress is possible. I’m not sure if I’ll ever wrap my head around Mississippi—it’s like a puzzle I’m still figuring out.

I’ve definitely shed a lot of tears as I looked back on my life, but this is a story that I feel needs to be told, and I’ve been waiting all my life to tell it. So it also feels like a weight has been taken off my shoulders.

You recount how your mother told you, “You write that book, but just wait until I’m dead.” When did you begin writing your memoir and why did you choose to publish it now? What do you think your mother would think about your memoir if she could read it?

In 1990, my father said something to me about our family that I knew to be a blatant lie, and in that moment, something inside me just snapped. I was traveling for work at the time and I remember sitting in my hotel room and not being able to sleep. So I turned on my tape recorder and decided I had to tell my story to myself. The truth as I knew it. Eight hours and over a hundred transcribed pages later, I felt like I had finally started the process toward healing. At the time, I thought of it as something I’d done just for myself, but then I ended up showing the pages to my mother. She read them in one sitting through tears. That’s when she said she wanted me to write a book about my life, but she asked me to wait until she died to have it published.

I filed the pages away and didn’t turn back to them until several years after my mother passed away. My daughter and several close friends had been after me to write a book about my life. Finally, I sat down and went through the document I’d shared with my mother. It was very rough, but it was the start I needed. The book progressed from there.

My mother was always a big supporter of my creative endeavors. When I was performing as a musician she was always my balcony person, cheering me on. She was, and remains, my number one fan. Even though she’s physically gone from this world, I still feel her presence with me all the time. She’s still my balcony person. I know she’d be proud to see Southern Discomfort in print, and I know she’d be especially thrilled to know if my book inspired even just one reader to live a more authentic life.

Has the rest of the family read it? If so, were you nervous to share it with them? What do they think of it?

As of this writing, my daughter is the only member of my immediate family who has read Southern Discomfort and she is so thrilled and proud. She’s an avid reader so her approval meant the world to me. My two surviving sisters have not read it yet, and I’m not sure if they ever will. I’m sure it’s difficult for them to relive those years and to know what I went through. I know they wish I had just “let it be,” as they say in the South. “Just let it be” was the refrain from my childhood. Don’t rock the boat, don’t go diggin’ up old bones. I hope and pray that they’ll come to understand why I couldn’t just bury my story out in the backyard in a box—that there’s a redemptive power in telling the truth, and then sharing it with others.

Did you find writing your memoir cathartic? Were there any sections that were particularly hard to write? Can you tell us about them?

Writing the memoir was an extremely cathartic experience for me. It was sacred and holy. That’s not to say it was always easy or pleasurable. From start to finish, this has been one of the most difficult journeys I’ve ever taken. I had to look at the South through a new lens. I had to examine painful moments that happened in my family. I had to look at my own motivations and assumptions, I had to confront my own privilege, and I had to expose the prejudices of the world in which I was raised. There were so many times during the writing process when I had to pick up the phone and call my best friend, Burke, and ask: “Did this really happen? Was it as crazy as I recall?” And he’d always say: “Yes, Tena. Only it was even crazier!” I’m grateful to have close friends from that time who are still in my life and who have been supportive of me.

Writing this book has also helped me see that my childhood wasn’t all doom and gloom. There are many things that were magical about growing up in rural Mississippi. The smell of magnolia in the summer, riding horses bareback through the fields, the sound of Virgie’s gentle humming, the look on my mother’s face when she was singing . . .

That said, a flood of painful memories also surfaced during this process. I had to relive my mother’s alcoholism and confront my father’s dichotomies. My dad was the most complicated man I’ve ever known. Truly. I know he loved me, and I believe he tried to care for me the best way he knew. But he was the ultimate gaslighter. As readers will see, even his racism was extremely complicated, and not in the way you might expect.

I also had to go through the deaths of my parents and Virgie again and again while writing and revising this book. I still cry every time I think about their final days.

You’ve written and produced Grammy Award–winning music, worked with iconic artists, and written the theme song for NASA. Did your previous creative experiences help you when it came to writing Southern Discomfort? How was writing your memoir different?

Songwriting and memoir writing are similar in that in order to work well they need to be complete narratives with a strong voice and sense of rhythm, and a clear beginning, middle, and end. Other than that, they are two very different worlds and two very different crafts. A song is three to four minutes, and the lyrics usually spill out of me in one day. Writing this book took three years of active work. It took me a good year to find the right voice, one year to focus the narrative, and another year of revision.

You recount scenes from your childhood so vividly. How were you able to do so? Can you tell us about writing process?

In my experience, Southerners are natural storytellers—and most tend to be longwinded too! We can’t just tell you we went to the store to buy a loaf of bread; we have to recount every little thing that happened from the moment we left the house. Make a long story longer, that’s our motto.

I do have a vivid memory, especially when it comes to sensorial details and imagery. I can remember how our local cafe smelled for lunch everyday, and the way Virgie’s skin felt scratching my back. I can still see the color of the trees outside my fifth grade classroom the day Kennedy was shot. I can remember so much of what happened fifty to sixty years ago. Unfortunately, my short-term memory is shot. I cannot remember where my phone, keys, or glasses are, but I can remember exactly what I was wearing the day my mother left, on my tenth birthday. I wonder sometimes if childhood trauma causes certain painful memories to embed in our brains even more than the beautiful times and moments. I’ve always remembered with detail colors, smells, expressions, surroundings of moments.

As far as my process goes, I’ve never been able to just sit down and write on demand. Whether I’m working on a song or an article or a chapter in my book, the words have to come when they come, unbidden. I cannot force them. When they do surface, I find I can disappear into writing for days. I get in my groove and don’t come up for air. And then I hit a wall and put the work away for a week, and then go back to it. I know many writers who say they have to write every single day, but that’s not how I am. I go in bursts.

You’ve been an activist from an early age, from standing up to the Ku Klux Klan to insisting that Petty’s Cafe uphold laws that made segregation illegal. What did you learn from your early attempts at activism? Do you have advice for people who are looking to become activists?

One of my earliest memories was secretly watching, with great awe, President Kennedy’s landmark speech on civil rights on June 11, 1963. The whole speech resonated with me, but this part stuck with me in particular:

One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

I was ten years old, and I felt like I’d finally met someone who felt the same way about things that I did. I had never understood why Virgie wasn’t allowed to ride in the front seat of our car when my father drove her home after work. My parents had little interest in Kennedy, and absolutely no interest in integration or in the civil rights movement that was gaining traction as I came of age. As far as my parents and their friends were concerned, everyone in Mississippi was perfectly happy with the status quo.

Hearing Kennedy’s words had a profound impact on me. I looked around at the African Americans I knew and loved—my nanny, Virgie, her best friend, Beulah Mae—and felt in my bones that the legacy of slavery and racism was a poison that still infected our world. I was a little girl and couldn’t have articulated any of this at the time, but it’s what I felt in a visceral way. We were on the wrong side of history; we were on the wrong side of righteousness and justice. Kennedy’s words echoed through me and stayed with me. I was devastated when he was assassinated.

I’d always known deep down that I was different from my peers, and from others in my family. Part of it was circumstantial—I came out as a lesbian when I was twenty-one, but all my life I knew I was different. I didn’t have the word to describe what I was, I simply knew from an early age that I was attracted to girls, and I didn’t see myself as feminine or womanly in the same way my sisters did. I didn’t want to be a majorette like they had been—I wanted to marry one! Knowing I was different caused me to feel more compassion for those who live without the dignity they deserve, without rights that every human being deserves, on the fringes, and it laid the groundwork for my early activism.

I was also aware that I was a child of privilege, which gave me the motivation to take a stand on behalf of others who didn’t have the same advantages I did. I was white; my father was wealthy and powerful. I felt it was up to people like me to be part of the change, and to stand with my black brothers and sisters and resist the racism and bigotry that poisoned our world. I wanted to break the cycle that had persisted for generations. I still do.

Standing up for what you believe and being authentic is not easy and it is definitely not always popular, especially in places where outdated prejudices still linger. Your family may turn on you, some acquaintances or friends may turn on you, but doing what is right will set you free.

You grew up in a society where gender roles were clearly defined. How were you able to overcome the pressure to comply? Do you have any advice for others who are in a similar situation?

I look back on myself as a little girl, all dressed up in crinoline, my hair curled, and I wish I could hug her and say: “Don’t worry! This won’t last. You’re going to have a great life. Stay strong.” It was hard growing up a tomboy in a world full of petticoats. I remember seeing Idgie Threadgoode in Fried Green Tomatoes and thinking “That was me!” It was the first time I felt like I saw myself represented in a Hollywood film. In my town every girl dreamed of marriage, motherhood, the white picket fence. I knew I would not survive if I had to live that life.

For me, music was my savior. I fell in love with the drums when I was ten and then it just went on from there. Making music was an outlet for my aggression and frustration, my sadness and my fear. It was a safe place for me to be myself. And it was through music that I finally found the courage to embrace who I was. So my first piece of advice would be to find a creative outlet, whether it’s painting or writing or sculpture or music . . . whatever it is. Find a way to channel your feelings into something beautiful and meaningful and personal.

A second piece of advice is to surround yourself with people who love and accept you for who you are. I found those people in the most surprising places. Virgie was certainly one of the first people who silently and tacitly accepted my differences and adored me even more because of them. My friends in the music world did as well. Friends I’ve made through my church, through activism. You’ll find your tribe, I promise.

Finally, realize that a life lived as a lie will never be a happy life. As difficult as it may be, I urge you to find the courage to be your authentic self. Understand that it might be hard for the people in your life to accept it at first. Understand that there will be some people in your life who will never fully understand—and that that’s okay. You will survive, and you will thrive, but first you must be true to yourself.

What do you hope the readers take away from Southern Discomfort?

I hope people reading my book will see that there’s redemption in telling the truth. I also hope they’ll see the power of love and forgiveness. As dysfunctional as my family was, and still is, and through all the chaos, we have stayed close, and we love each other very, very much.

I hope readers will be inspired by my story to be kinder, braver, more compassionate, and more tolerant. And at the end of the day, that the message will be that love is what sustains us and unites us. Love is what heals; love is what always gets us through the hardest of times—love of family, love of community, love of the downtrodden and less fortunate, and, most of all, love of self. Love and respect. That’s what it’s all about.

Finally, I hope readers will be inspired to be an agent of positive change, to realize that one person really can take a stand and make a difference.

Are you working on anything now?

I’m busy working on a variety of music projects for film and television and of course I am as active as ever in social justice reform.


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