You Must Revise Your Life, the poet William Stafford famously titled his book of essays on writing poetry. It’s more than a catchy title, and the 1986 book feels a little dated these days. But that title/advice has stayed with me. It’s something that I return to when revising poems, when I feel “stuck.” Maybe it’s not just the poems, maybe it’s the way I have been looking at the world.
Re-vision, to see again. To see anew. What does that really mean? It’s more than changing a word or a line break, more than rephrasing a paragraph or word order. Revision has always been my favorite part of creative writing, whether it is poems or prose. It’s something that I had little to do as a journalist writing for daily newspapers. Maybe that’s why I appreciate and enjoy the process of re-seeing a poem or an essay. It’s a messy process, like renovation or restoration – two terms that are often interchangeable, but have subtle differences when talking about architecture. The restoration of an historic building brings it back to a specific period in time, while renovation can involve cleaning, repairing, rebuilding and updating the structure.
Architecture, and the processes of revision, renovation, and restoration have a lot in common. Poems have structure and often in revision, that structure completely changes – from free verse to formal or words spaced across the page. And sometimes, after numerous revisions, I’ll restore the poem to its original structure, usually with many word and line break changes.
In the last few months, I’ve been following a different kind of restoration. Last year, a young couple, James and Amanda Keith, bought the historic Nu Wray Inn, the iconic cornerstone of Town Square in Burnsville, NC. Almost immediately, the couple began a complete restoration of the inn. Past owners of the inn have made renovations, repairs, and changes designed to keep the inn functioning and comfortable. But the Keiths are taking the structure down to the studs, and rebuilding the inn – restoring it to the days when it offered gracious hospitality.
Built in 1833 by Bacchus Smith, a ginseng merchant, the inn first had eight rooms and was used as a trading post. It was built of logs at the time Yancey County was formed and a year before the town of Burnsville was established. When Milton Penland, a wealthy slave owner and secessionist bought the inn in 1870, he established it as a permanent lodging. In 1870, Garrett Ray bought the inn and named it the Ray Hotel. Four generations of Rays owned the inn, which was renamed the Nu Wray in 1912 when Julia Ray married William Wray.
The inn has hosted some famous guests, including President Jimmy Carter and actor Christopher Reeve. Asheville native Thomas Wolfe spent the night at the Nu Wray in 1929 when he was a witness at a murder trial in Burnsville. Other notable guests included O. Henry and Elvis Presley.
In 1941, the journalist Jonathan W. Daniels wrote about the inn: “Everything is on the table in the Nu-Wray Hotel at Burnsville. Nobody waits to give an order. They bring it in, three or four kinds of meat, all the vegetables of the whole mountain countryside. There are dishes of homemade jellies and preserves. The country ham is excellent. The stout tables do not groan but the stuffed guest rising sometimes does. It is country plenty, country cooked and country served, but is proof that the persisting homesickness for country eating is not entirely based on legend.” (from Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains, by Georgann Eubanks)
The feast in the Nu Wray dining room was a part of my childhood. I am a native of Shelby, NC, just down the mountain from Burnsville, and Sunday afternoon trips to the mountains with my parents, and often extended family, are among my favorite childhood memories. The family style Sunday dinners at the Nu Wray were feasts. You might sit down at a table with strangers, but by the end of the meal you all left the table as friends.
The inn was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. About a month after I moved to Yancey County August of 1992, my dad’s youngest brother drove him, their sister and sister-in-law up the mountain for Sunday dinner at the Nu Wray. It was the first time in decades that any of us had eaten there and the joy of sharing that meal and the afternoon with my family remains one of my best memories.
Over the years, I’ve attended Democratic party fundraisers, private parties and receptions at the Nu Wray and sat before the wood burning fireplace in the lobby with my hands cupped around a mug of cider talking with friends. During the early years of the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival (the first festival was held in 2006), an author’s lounge was set up in the front parlor (also used as an additional dining room), and I felt deliciously wicked sitting on the porch in what then a “dry” county sipping a glass of wine.
The Keiths have brought a new energy to Burnsville through their restoration process. The Nu Wray is not just another inn – it’s a part of our town’s history, a part of our collective story. For many of us, it’s also a part of our personal stories. And, what would we be without our stories?
What will the Nu Wray Hotel be once the restoration is complete? How will this restoration revise and renovate our little town?
From the Fall 2022 issue of The Paris Review:
The New You
by David Orr
He’s not what you expected
As you might have expected.
Unkempt. Eyes bright but restrained.
Clothes damp from the steady rain
Of your most shameful and exciting thoughts
On the thatched roof of his tiny hut
In your underworld, the underworld of you,
The place where nothing hopeful goes.
But he doesn’t seem to mind.
Now that you’re met, he understands
What must happen. He hands you his key chain
And patiently, almost kindly, explains
How to open the hut, where to find towels,
How to work the casement windows.
Then he offers you his coat, takes
Your light, and walks back up the path
Through the open gate of the aftermath.