Monday, February 20, 2017

My First Time: Bren McClain

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Bren McClain, author of One Good Mama Bone. She was born and raised in Anderson, South Carolina, on a beef cattle and grain farm. She has a degree in English from Furman University; is an experienced media relations, radio, and television news professional; and currently works as a communications confidence coach. She is a two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project and the recipient of the 2005 Fiction Fellowship by the South Carolina Arts Commission. McClain won the 2016 William Faulkner–William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress for Took and was a finalist in the 2012 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for Novel-in-Progress for One Good Mama Bone. McClain will be touring throughout the South as well as in other parts of the country. To learn more, please visit her website, her Facebook page, or connect with her on Twitter or Instagram.

The First Time a Story Chose Me
and What I Learned

It was June 1994, and I was living in midtown Atlanta. My next-door neighbor, a man named Ron, called me to his front porch. He was white-haired, deeply sun-tanned and drove a white convertible Cadillac. I had never had a long conversation with him in the nine months I had lived beside him.

He motioned me towards a white wicker chair, lit a cigarette and said, “I’ve been carrying around a secret since I was a boy, six years old. My mama made me promise I’d never tell a soul about what happened this one night outside of Birmingham. And I’ve been true to that.” He took a long drag and blew smoke into the air, so hot the smoke had nowhere to go. “But I can’t be true to it no more. I turned 60 today.”

I swallowed and wanted to tell him “Happy Birthday,” but I could not talk.

“I’m only telling you this,” he said, “because I know you’re a writer.”

I wrapped my fingers around the end of the chair arms and squeezed. It made a squeaking sound.

He proceeded to tell me his mother woke him from sleep that night and summoned him to the kitchen, where their neighbor was lying on their table. She was having a baby. Ron’s mother delivered it, made him watch, and then did something horrible, forcing him to be a part of it.

Sitting there on that porch, Ron did not cry, but I thought he would. I told him, “I’m sorry.”

This was the first time a story chose me, the first time I would write something not made of what is known as “whole cloth.” Before then, I had made up stories, let my imagination run wild. But here was this man handing me a story. And what a story it was.

I left the porch and told myself I should make notes, so I wouldn’t forget. But I dared not write one word down.

It would be six years before I did. I would be in Assisi, Italy, taking a writing workshop with acclaimed writer Dorothy Allison, who gave us a prompt to write about a mother. That afternoon I sat in the open window of my room, looked out over the 12th-century buildings still standing and wrote these first lines: One night my mama came to my bedroom door and said, “Emerson Bridge, you come with me. You come with me right now.” She was talking fast and loud.

I wrote the entire scene, just as Ron had described it, from little Emerson Bridge’s point of view. When I read it aloud in class the next day, Dorothy’s eyes on fire, she said, “Kick some butt, McClain.” I would write the entire book, spinning forth from that opening scene. I fell in love with the mother as I wrote, named her Sarah Creamer, and came to understand why she did what she did, which I will tell you now. She delivered the baby, then dropped the baby on its head on the floor, and then made the little boy help her bury it in the back yard.

No one else fell in love with Sarah. In fact, many called her a “monster.” I had written a failed novel. A brilliant editor told me, “We don’t see the love you have for Sarah on the page. We see her full of inadequacy. Show us her magnificence. In fact, begin with it.”

I realized I had to transform what happened that night. Ron never said, but in my heart, I knew the baby was the product of an affair between his father and the neighbor lady, whose husband was off at war. In writing that first version, I had come to know that Sarah felt inadequate as a mother. What if she delivered the baby, and her neighbor refused to take the child, fearing her husband would kill her and the baby when he returned. And what if Sarah had to push past her fear of inadequacy and do the right thing by the child and take him?

I threw out 95 percent of what I had written and rewrote the book, casting Sarah as the hero she did not yet know herself to be. That book became One Good Mama Bone, published this month by Pat Conroy’s fiction imprint, Story River Books.

I learned a valuable lesson. A story may have chosen you, but it doesn’t have to remain that exact story. It could be used as starter dough.

What a gift this man, Ron, gave me. Thank you, sir.


  1. I would never have fallen in love or even like with Sarah. To drop a baby on its head and to force a young child to watch is despicable and horrendous and I'm at a large ss of words. My heart goes out to Rn who carried the burden of those memories for 54 years.

  2. My heart goes out to him, too, Terry. Bless him. I hope I honored him with the story it became. Maybe it gave to him the mother he didn't have.

  3. David, I can't thank you enough for asking me to share my "first time" experience! Appreciate this so much. Brem