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You may have seen Tony Peacock’s name in the news a while back when he won the hollerin’ contest in Spivey’s Corner. But Tony’s talents go beyond his booming voice — he is also a published author and a teaching artist, helping kids learn the art of the narrative. I encourage you to read more about this multifaceted writer, who is helping kids find their writer’s voice, one story at a time.
Tell me about yourself.
I grew up in a farming community called Clement, North Carolina. It’s about 10 miles from Spivey’s Corner, which is famous for the national Hollerin’ Contest. I grew up working on a farm. I think we were the last generation where there were a lot of children who worked in tobacco during the summer. My first job was when I was 10 years old; I was paid a dollar an hour to drive a tobacco harvester. I did that all the way through school.
When I grew up, I wanted to go to Carolina so badly, but I was on the waiting list, so I went to Mount Olive, which was just a two-year school at that time. After two years at Mount Olive, I transferred to Carolina and majored in English education. After graduation, I taught for two and a half years on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, one year at Cape Hatteras School, and a year and a half at Manteo High School. I went into teaching because I felt like teaching was a secure profession and would make my parents proud. After two and a half years, I realized that teaching was not for me, so I packed up my car and moved to Asheville. I found work as a temp in a turbocharger factory, and in my spare time, I started writing and took a writers’ workshop there. In 1990, my father was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, so I left Asheville and moved in with my parents during his treatment and illness. After a couple of years, I thought he was doing well so I moved to Chapel Hill. Sadly, he died that October.
To support my writing interests, I had many jobs, such as working in a dry cleaning shop, Swenson’s ice cream factory and restaurant, and later as a waiter at the Carolina Club. With the help of some writer friends, I began doing writer residencies in schools, where I would go in for five days and teach narrative writing to students, mainly elementary students. I’ve been in the program for the last 20 plus years.
Before we talk more about your life as a teacher and a writer, I’d love to hear about the hollerin’ contest.
1999 was the first year I won it. I went back in 2006 after taking some time off. My wife said, “You should go back and do it. The kids don’t remember when you were hollerin’. They were too young.” So I won in 2006, and I kept going back every year. So that was sort of my claim to fame as a folk artist. When I am able to visit schools in person, I tell students that hollerin’ was an old timey form of communication. There’s no practical reason for us to holler anymore, but you do need to learn to write. So if the students work really hard with our writing exercises throughout the week, then I holler for them on Friday.
Growing up, I was aware of the contest, but we never really participated or went to the contest, even though it was close to us. I had a first cousin, Larry Jackson, who got involved and we would always hear about him participating. When I moved back home after my father got sick, Larry entered the contest many times, and I often went with him to help him get ready. He won his first title in 1991 and subsequently won nine titles — more than anyone else in history. So in 1998 I thought it was time for me to get involved. I did not place that year, but people told me that I had a good set of lungs. So I went back and started listening to recordings of the early champions, and read as much as I could on the history. I practiced a little bit every day and got my little four-minute presentation together. I think they were ready for new blood. When I won in 1999, I got quite a bit of press. I did a lot of radio and newspaper interviews and even got to go on The David Letterman Show in New York.
Tell me about working with kids on writing.
Working with kids is by far the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. For me, when I do a five-day residency, every Monday is like the first day of school, and Friday is like the last day. You only have five days with those kids; you don’t want to be too aggressive, but you have to try to get their attention that first day. I tell them I was blessed with many wonderful teachers and writers who have helped and inspired me, and I get this opportunity to share with them my love of writing. I get to work with so many great teachers in the schools. The students are fantastic to work with when they’re excited about writing, and the stories are so varied. It’s not always the gifted student who is the best writer; sometimes the ones who are struggling write the most powerful pieces, straight from their heart.
My philosophy is that writing is about making choices and focusing. You have to make choices about everything in writing — that’s what makes it challenging. The whole idea behind practicing the art of narrative writing is that we’re painting pictures with words. I tell the kids to think about when you were a child reading picture books, and you had to have those pictures because you didn’t know that many words. But once you start writing novels and stories without illustrations, the writer is painting that picture for you, then that’s hard, right?
I think art reaches people in different ways at different times, and that’s why we need to put ourselves out there. That’s how you have to think about your art, too. Sometimes you put it out there, and you can’t take it personally when somebody sees it differently. You can’t dictate what people see in your art; they might get something entirely different.
Tell me about your own writing.
I was always interested in writing. I worked for the newspaper in high school, and when I was in college, I had a teacher who was very inspiring, and later became the editor for my first novel. The novel is called Sidney Langston: Giblets of Memory; it’s no longer in print.
I didn’t really have a lot of opportunities to take creative writing courses with my education major, but when I got back to Chapel Hill years later, Doris Betts let me into her class. It was just one of those things she did for aspiring writers. I learned quite a bit about the short story with her. Most of my publishing has been in literary journals and magazines; I only have that one novel. I’m very into journal writing and working with students on writing their own stories. That’s the name of my program: Practicing the Art of Narrative Writing. I really consider myself more of a teaching artist. I wish I could say I’ve published a lot more, but my focus in recent years has been more on teaching. Right now I’m working on a children’s book about hollerin’. It’s something that I’ve been encouraged to do for a long time, but sometimes when you’re so close to a topic, it’s hard to put yourself into a character.
What do you find harder — the writing or the editing?
When I really start to work on a story, I am squirming because how it sounds is important to me, and I need to get the wording the way I want it. That makes the editing difficult because you know you worked so hard to get the sentences together. So it’s a fun challenge. But it’s also sort of like hollerin’ — you can’t take yourself too seriously. Doris said one time that if your work starts to reverberate, you better get out of it because you’re getting too close. I also remember hearing a writer say that you don’t so much write a book as you sit up with it, like you would with a sick friend.
How have things changed for you since the start of the pandemic?
I was pretty busy when we had the shut-down in March a year ago. I did one recorded program with Lacey Elementary in Wake County, just as a model with some other artists to see what was possible. Over the summer, many of us tried to adapt our programs for virtual learning, but most of the schools said we’re just trying to get through. So I didn’t really do anything again until January of this year, but things have started to pick up a little bit. The Arts Council has been wonderful. I was very fortunate to get an artist support grant this year, which helped me upgrade to a new computer and has provided support for me to complete the children’s book that I’m working on.
So you have a children’s book coming out, but what else do you see for yourself in the future?
I definitely think that I would like to keep writing, and depending on how the children’s book goes, I would like to maybe do more in that line of work. This will be my first children’s book. I’ve done a lot of journaling in my life so there’ll definitely be memoir writing. I do look forward to getting back in the classroom, and I’m going to do that as long as they’ll have me.