Ryan Williams

Coming Back

This is goodnight and not goodbye
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This blog post has by far been the hardest one to write. I’ve spent the last week, opening the document on my computer and staring at the blank page. It is supposed to be reflective and supposed to encapsulate the last month that I spent in Southern Louisiana but I really don’t know what to say. It is impossible to put into words how incredible this past month has been. I traveled to parts of Louisiana that I never would have seen on my own. I met and became close friends with a group of people that I never would have met. Despite USC’s efforts to create a community, it is still a large school-mostly divided by majors or clubs and the diverse collection of people who were brought together on this maymester may have never had another opportunity to get to know each other. I learned so much about myself, my own culture and the experiences of people in Louisiana in a way that a classroom never would have taught me. I value education and I am grateful for the classes that I have taken at USC, however, none of them come close to this maymester. It is a luxury and an honor to be able to learn about such a unique vibrant city while living in that city. It changed how I read each novel and altered my understanding of their history. For example, I have watched documentaries and read about the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Prior to this trip, I thought that I had a deep understanding of what it must have been like to be there for the disaster-however, I was wrong. By seeing the lower 9th-a part of Katrina that was and still is deeply affected by the disaster, by peeking through the gates of the abandoned Six Flags- an amusement park that was destroyed and forgotten after the hurricane, and by walking through their museum I got a more clear understanding of what was lost during that storm. There is a piece of Southern Louisiana that feels lost and damaged. There is something missing yet, the people who we met and the celebrations that we were able to take part of exemplified their ability to smile in the face of adversity. This city has a resiliency that I have not found in the other cities I visited. This resilience, however, had to be brought to my attention. It simmers just underneath the parties, food and mardi gras beads. Our professor, Andrew, was able to bring to light the history that exists underneath the experiences that we were having. Over dinner, he could explain to us the differences between creole and cajun food. While standing in front of Huey Long’s statue, he could explain to us the significance of his death and his impact on Louisiana. While reading Dr. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, Andrew could show us the prison cell where Jefferson would have been kept and the schoolhouse where Grant would have taught. My point is that there is only so much the classroom can teach before experience has to step in. This Maymester has been an unforgettable experience and I am so thankful to have been a part of it.

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When my mom first brought me to the airport, I didn’t want to go. I had been excited for weeks and had been doing everything I could to prepare myself for the upcoming month but when we got to the airport the reality of what I would be doing kicked in. I would have to spend the next month with people I don’t know, in a city I don’t know, and be graded on my experience of that place. I had mentally planned for the worst-lots of awkward outings, ordering in food and counting down the days till I could go home and be with my friends but, about a night or two in, a few of us stayed up late, cooking brownies and sharing stories from our lives at USC. It was that night that I realized that I could be okay and that I could make friends here and enjoy getting to know these strangers for a month. That being said, I didn’t expect to be tearing up as I left two of my closest friends at the airport. I didn’t expect to miss them already. One of the most valuable parts of this experience has been getting to see everything with them. A big part of Maymester for me became discussing the food, the tours and the culture with people that I had become close to. It was important that we were all experiencing Louisiana differently at the same time and it gave me an even more vivid understanding of what this place is like for the people who lived there. In a matter of weeks, we developed a small community that looked to each other for understanding, laughs and a good time. It also just made that month more fun.

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I’m happy to be home. Despite wishing I could spend more time with our Maymester class, I wouldn’t have wanted this trip to be any longer or shorter than it was. It came to a perfectly timed end. There is still more to see, more to read and more to do but to dig even deeper into Louisiana would have meant staying for another month or year. It would have meant really moving in and getting to know what it’s like to live there, rather than living out of a suitcase in the Lafayette Hotel. I hope that in the upcoming months I can take with me the lessons that I learned while in New Orleans on how to live an experience instead of photographing it, how to relax and let life happen and how to let experience add to the learning that happens in classrooms or in books. I’ve loved this course and thank you Andrew for everything.



For seminar one morning, Andrew asked us to create a list of characteristics that we felt defined New Orleans.





The list continued on till we had arrived at approximately fifty adjectives-most of which contradicted each other. Is it possible for a city to not only be self aware but to also be chaotic? Could New Orleans be celebrated and displaced? For me, these contradictions became overwhelming and apparent during my time in Baton Rouge. We would spend the morning touring a holding cell for prisoners but by the afternoon, we were comfortably sitting in a conference room, listening country songs from the singing sheriff’s Spotify. We would spend seminar discussing what defines humanity and contemplating questions about how we receive love before lounging on a boat and looking at the riverfront houses that lined either side. We toured the capitol and learned about Huey Long’s murder before speculating whether or not a pencil had actually gotten stuck in the Senate ceiling.


In A Lesson Before Dying, the driving plot of the book is a school teacher Grant, who is asked to teach Jefferson how to be a man before he is executed for being falsely accused for robbery and murder. Grant’s aunt is insistent that Jefferson must be a man when he is executed, rather than the ‘hog’ that society has made him out to be. However, there is a complex irony in trying to teach a man how to live like a man when he is about to face his death. This book has vivid moments of love and happiness that are followed by stark descriptions of Jefferson’s jail cell and Grant’s inability to grapple with his own experiences in the south. This mimics Southern Louisiana’s ability to have a history that has immense tragedy alongside a celebration of life and happiness. For me, having both emotionally moving and emotionally freeing experiences existing in the same place, one shortly after the other, emphasizes the truth behind what it means to be human. We live in a world where we are laughing at memes while also reading headlines about wars around the world.


Additionally, I think seeing the prison cells helped me to put into perspective Jefferson’s experiences in A Lesson Before Dying. Several impactful scenes in the book do take place within the small prison cell, where Dr. Gaines describes the cramped quarters and the sound of the Jefferson’s chains. The cells that we were able to see in Pointe Coupee Parish are no longer in use. They are upstairs in the sheriffs’ office and are strictly used for storage purposes. Each one of the cells was filled with boxes and boxes of old files and cases that no longer had a home downstairs. Even with the files, I could still imagine what the prison could have been like. There was an eerie feeling within each cell that was enhanced by the peeling paint, the small notes written on the walls inside and the sound of all four cell doors closing. Despite no longer being in use, the prison felt lived in. It was not impossible to imagine the people who would have had to stay in lock down or who would have glanced up at the large brick clock that stood just above their recreational space.


Once leaving the prison, we went downstairs to see the court house and had a chance meeting with the sheriff. He had come in from work to find all of us observing the old pictures and documents that were placed on the walls of the Sheriff’s conference room. Tammy, delighted to give us the best tour she possibly could, sat him at the head of the table to talk to all of us. Within the novel, the sheriff is cold, abuses his power and is unsympathetic to Aunt Emma’s cause. He often expects for Jefferson to adhere to the racist hierarchies that have been set in place for hundreds of years. He is the anti-hero. However, Sheriff Torres comes across as being Sheriff Guidry opposite. He is a charming southern man who can trace his ancestry all the way back to their first voyage to Louisiana. His family has stayed here, planted roots here and grown up here. He smiles often, attends to us as though we are the only people on his mind and cracks jokes in the middle of his stories. To add to the Southern charm, he enjoys singing country music and has been recording songs in Nashville-some of which he plays for us. They are wholesome country songs about love, women and the South. He brings a smile to all of our faces but it is a rushed change in emotion after experiencing the prison. It reminds me of an exhibit that we saw on Hurricane Katrina back in New Orleans-within the exhibit, there was a section that addressed the reactions of the community following the storm. Despite pulling up to garage doors that had been notes spray painted on by search and rescue teams or seeing the damage inflicted on their homes on TV before they were even able to see it themselves, the town still had a fashion show that re-purposed blue tarp to create clothing and they still held comedic signs that allowed people to laugh in the face of tragedy. This city has a powerful resilience that I believe is specific to their own community. They are able to grapple with happiness and tragedy in a truly admirable way that allows both emotions to exist side by side. There is not an expectation that tragedy must end before happiness can begin, instead, happiness exists alongside tragedy.

Old Prints and Stale Popcorn

The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives
— Walker Percy

I grew up sitting in black fabric seats with my feet swinging just above a soda and candy covered floor. I grew up wearing oversized sweaters, looking up at masterpieces and contemplating why anyone would mix green and purple. I didn’t grow up playing soccer-I tried baseball but spent the entire game drawing in the dirt in the outfield. I’ve seen thousands of movies and have gone to at least fifty art museums in my lifetime, however, the experience of seeing art at New Orleans Museum of Art and watching King Creole in the Prytania was truly unique because it was defined by the books that we’ve read while touring such a celebrated city.

Ignatius ate his current popcorn and stared raptly at the previews of coming attractions. One of the films looked bad enough, he thought, to bring him back to the Prytania in a few days. Then the screen glowed in bright, wide Technicolor, the lion roared, and the title of the excess flashed on the screen before his miraculous blue and yellow eyes. His face froze and his popcorn bag began to shake
— John Kennedy Toole

The Prytania is exactly as Ignatius describes it in The Confederacy of Dunces-it is a small quaint theater that you could easily drive past if you are not paying attention to it. There is only one screen (at least from what I saw) and only about four or five people working the theater. The popcorn was already made, packaged and ready to go. We purchased the tickets and were freely able to choose our seats when we talked in. There is a glamorous chandelier hanging in front of the concessions stand and smaller ones lining either side of the theater. The movie did not start on time. The seats are low enough that the head of the person in front of me was typically in the way. A little old man welcomes the theater through a video that must have been filmed twenty or so years ago. The movie itself is in black and white and stops abruptly at the end without showing the credits. It is ten o’clock in the morning. I’m snacking lightly on stale popcorn and I am aware at how pleased I am to be a part of the movie going experience. The treasured moments that Binx refers to in The Moviegoer, as being experienced by other people, for me, is the joy of watching a film with an audience. It is about discussing Elvis’ choices after the film-or even better taking after Ignatius in Confederacy of Dunces and talking during the film. While watching King Creole, I understood why Ignatius felt so inclined to scream at the movie screen in exasperation. The whole film seemed to be aware of how problematic it was and had the freedom to ironically comment on itself. For example, after the owner of the bar asks a young girl on a date, he turns to her and asks “Now what is a forty year old man supposed to say to a twenty year old woman”. She wittily responds by saying, “He’s supposed to say he’s thirty-eight”. These upbeat interaction kept the movie light while still addressing the actuality of life in the fifties. It dealt with political correctness in a way that our films no longer do. However, this film also moved slower than movies today. Movies today are fast paced and action packed so that it maintains the audience’s attention for the full two hours. King Creole felt like it gave the audience an opportunity to relax and contemplate the events happening on screen but often, during these pauses I wanted to turn to my neighbors and ask what they thought or express my own exasperation with Elvis’ poor romantic choices.

What you see in his pictures is her mind jumping that far back to when she would dare to imagine the future, parading with love or money on a beautiful anonymous cloth arm. Remember all that as she is photographed by the cripple who is hardly taller than his camera stand.
— Michael Ondaatje

I’ve read Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje twice now: once during a creative writing class my freshman year and the second time during this trip. I’ve discussed the use of language, the presentation of mental health, how the book portrays the South and jazz and what it hopes to explain to its audience but despite all of that, it never really sank in that these characters did actually exist. I never thought about the fact that many of them could have gone on to get married, have families and kids or grandkids who are now working somewhere on this earth. It didn’t sink in till I was standing in the New Orleans Museum of Art, staring at the images that Bellocq, one of Buddy’s friends in the novel, had taken of prostitutes in early 20th century Louisiana. As described in the book, the black and white photographs had pictures of either half dressed or nude women with faces scratched out or covered. There were only a few but it was enough to gain a better understanding of Bellocq and provide even more context for such a powerful novel. It adds a weight to the story because I can better understand that this happened to someone. It also continues to add to the experience of being in New Orleans because I am exploring and living in the same spaces where these two historic figures once lived.  

Only in New Orleans

On into the night and into the blue mornings, growing louder the notes burning through and off everyone and forgotten in the body because they were swallowed by the next one after...sending them forward and forth and forth
— Michael Ondaatje

The city of New Orleans has a festive personality that does not compare to any other city that I have been to. The buildings could not exist in any other part of the world. The people, tourists included, become part of a vibrant culture that has been defining itself for hundreds of years. The food has a mixture of spices that could only have come together here. It is a city that asks you to pay attention to it-especially through music.


I am grateful that my first time hearing jazz was live. Prior to this trip, I would notice it playing in the background at coffee shops or in elevators but I would rarely pay attention to it. It was a hum that settled in the back of my brain while I thought about which Starbucks drink I wanted to order. It wasn’t till the musicians were on their feet, sweating and performing jazz that I understood why people love this genre so much. Jazz has a story, a vibrancy and a charm that I think can only be understood by watching a live performance. I imagine that so much would be lost if I didn’t get to see how these musicians allowed the music to have an impact on them.

Additionally, to truly experience jazz, I believe it is best to be completely engaged with the performance which means disengaging from your phone. For that reason, I appreciated that Preservation Hall did not let us take photos. I have spent a majority of this trip attempting to capture every moment, therefore, I often forgot to experience the moment myself. For that night, I was released from the burden of capturing the perfect image- instead, I could experience the feeling of jazz. I watched them communicate in between songs to ensure that everyone was on the same page. I would see them glance over their shoulders and tap their feet on the old wood floors to make sure that they were playing at the same time. They would give each member of the band the opportunity to play solo, to let them express to the audience how beautiful each of the instruments sounded. I could pay attention to how the trombone player’s eyes were closed while he played, making it seem as though he could feel the music in his bones. I could feel the music in my bones. I couldn’t help myself from bouncing along to the sound and clapping when I was asked to. We sat cross legged up front, looking up at the band, which allowed us to have an up close experience of the music but I almost wanted to stand in the back so that I could dance along.


I want to talk about the Divine Ladies’ second line parade because it is a distinct Louisiana experience that I don’t think could exist anywhere else but like seeing jazz, it is easier to experience it than to photograph and describe it. Throughout the week, our professor, Andrew, had attempted to explain to us what the second line parade was like last year. He told us about how everyone would be dancing and how lush their costumes were. He described how open the people were to being photographed and how much he looked forward to going. It was an experience that he knew we needed to be a part of, however, the actual experience of the second line parade was more rich and vibrant than Andrew could have ever explained to us. When we arrive, the streets were closed off and a group of around twenty or thirty people were waiting with water coolers at a small intersection. They kept peeking down the street, glancing at their watches and chatting with old friends to kill time.  Slowly, I started to hear the music play. I stepped off the sidewalk, into the street and watched as a line of four cars with huge trailers attached to the back began to come toward us. Each trailer was more decorated than the last. While the first car wore t-shirts, the last car wore these beautiful royal costumes. The marching band arrived shortly after and the streets were flooded with a few thousand people. They move up the street for a couple hundred feet before everyone climbs off the trailer and the marching band begins to play. The whole street erupts and soon everyone is dancing with or alongside the Divine Ladies. Despite the heat, everyone was smiling. There was a contagious joy in the air that kept everyone moving, dancing and happy as they made their way along the crowded streets.

I’d recognize you but in my mind you’re just an outline and music
— Michael Ondaatje

I look forward to thinking back on these experiences after the trip both with and without the photographs. I think there is something about New Orleans that deserves to be remembered in a way that is similar to the outline that Michael Ondaatje discusses in his book on famous jazz musician, Buddy Bolden. In the novel, while his friend, Crawley, is searching for him, Ondaatje often talks about Buddy as an indescribable idea. For example, when his friend, Crawley, is searching for him, he is barely able to find even a single image of Buddy and once he does find a print, the film that captured the image is destroyed. This allows Buddy Bolden and his music to be remembered from memories and experiences instead of photographs. It forces the characters to be dependent on their experiences with him. I feel that New Orleans should be the same way because for me, this city offers so much more. This city has an indescribable feeling that makes listening to jazz or exploring the French Quarter the perfect way to end the night. I think it is hard to engage in this kind of experience when I am always searching for a perfect picture. I do hope that my memory will be enough to help me write about this feeling in my book. For my book, I am choosing to write about a place that does not actually exist so that I can bring together my favorite parts of Louisiana. I want this town to have the simple life of Grand Isle but have big band music and second line parades. I don’t necessarily want to carry the burden of capturing New Orleans-instead I want to be able to capture the feeling of Louisiana.



Leaving The City

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clearing, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in the abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
— Kate Chopin
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Los Angeles, specifically downtown, is a disorganized cacophony of sounds. It is the roar of ambulances, the chatter of students, and the ring of car horns. These are the sounds of a city that is alive with moving, accomplished people but for me, these sounds remind me that I should be rushing off to my next activity. They fuel the to-do list that sits in the back of my mind. The to-do list that tells me that instead of watching Netflix, I should be working on my assignments or contacting bands for work. When we arrive in Grand Isle, I hear the roar of the ocean crashing against the sand and small bugs clicking and buzzing in the distance. There are practically no helicopters. The cars drive lazily down the streets. No one is rushing. No one is checking their watch. It is finally quiet and soon I feel more calm than I have felt in years. I awake on our first morning, enjoy coffee on the veranda and write in a small journal I brought for the trip. I realize that during this trip I will be able to experience luxuries like taking time to deeply read The Awakening. In other courses at USC, I can never find the time to enjoy the book because I am too busy thinking about my assignments for classes like neuroscience or anthropology. At USC, I often find myself reading for the sake of completing a book, not for the sake of enjoying it. This experience makes me reconsider the purpose of college courses. I am not there for the sake of getting an A, I am there to learn.

Even better, I was able to live through similar experiences as the main character, Edna, in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. I was able to walk down the beach the way she did and step into the Gulf the way that she did. I could look at the view and see exactly what Kate Chopin hoped I’d be able to imagine in her vivid descriptions. Through her descriptions, Chopin is able to give the reader a clear idea of where the setting of The Awakening takes place, however, I imagine a lot would be lost if I was only able to read her descriptions. It is a phenomenal experience to be able to compare the words on the page to the view from our window. It makes Edna an even more real and relatable character. I understand and can connect with the relaxed, luxurious lifestyle that she engages in during her time in the Grand Isle. Even more than that, I understand why Grand Isle is a place of freedom that she continues to ruminate on and think about.

‘I feel like painting,’ answered Edna. ‘Perhaps I shan’t always feel like it.’
’Then in God’s name paint!’
— Kate Chopin

Finally, Grand Isle became a source of inspiration that freed my writer’s block. I have recently been having trouble connecting to characters and crafting stories that were interesting enough for me to dedicate my attention to them. In Los Angeles, I would find moments on a free Sunday morning to brainstorm but often, these ideas would be pushed to the side so that I could work on another task. By being in Grand Isle, my mind was free. I had the time and the space to really work through the ideas that had been lingering in the back of my head. Additionally, I was inspired by the environment. Grand Isle is different from any other city I have been to. The air is hot and thick with soft breezes that serve as relief. The Gulf stretches on for miles with oil rigs dotting the horizon. The cypress trees that are rooted on the swamp land look endless from the perspective of our swamp boat tour. By staying here, I begin to imagine what it could be like for my character to explore this area. I wonder what life could be like for her in the Grand Isle. Once we arrive in New Orleans, I purchase a small blue notebook and begin to write in a quaint coffee shop not too far from our hotel. It’s inspiring to be able to start my novel the same way that hundreds of other writers have begun theirs-in the heart of the crescent city.