It's always tricky to write about writers.
Their job, after all, is to express themselves; to comment on the world as they understand it. It almost feels blasphemous to interject your own words on top of theirs.
But sometimes there's more to the writer than what they put on paper. Sometimes understanding the things they hold back — the ways they separate themselves from the words on the page — offers more than the stories or poems by themselves.
Such is the case with Josh Herring.
Herring is a junior in creative writing at Auburn, but he didn't start out that way.
Originally from a small town in the middle of Georgia, Herring came to Auburn as a computer science major. With square, metal-frame glasses, wide shoulders and a really easy smile, he kind of fits into a lovable computer geek mold. If you're attempting a heist, Herring looks a little bit like the guy with the computers who hacks the mainframe from the van and fires off one-liners before he tells you that the vault door has been unlocked.
But computer science got old. Fast. And after a little more than a year, he took a sharp turn.
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"I was in the C++ class," Herring said. "I did the first project, and it was fine. Then I got to the second one and was like, 'Yeah, I'm good.'"
At this point, he had been writing poetry for a couple of years, but he'd never anything with it. He said when he brought this new plan to his advisor, they were more than a little concerned.
"My advisor was very confused," he said. "They were like, 'You know this is a dramatic change, right?' and I was like 'Yeah, I'm well aware.'"
After this change, some of the people in Herring's life started to notice a change.
Kaylynn Wallace, junior in electrical engineering, is Herring's girlfriend of over five years. The two grew up together and have been dating since high school. Wallace said Herring found a kind of life in his writing after making the change.
"I don't think he realized at the time what it meant to him and how he could express himself in that way" she said. "Once he started writing more over this year and getting into the degree of creative writing, he's basically blossomed."
Herring's best friend since sixth grade, Holden Mathison, junior in musical theatre, said roughly the same thing. The two roomed together in the Hill for their freshman year, and Mathison said the hours of computer science homework took a toll on Herring.
"He was constantly doing something; he would go to class, and then he would do work all night," Mathison said. "And he was just really tired of that, and he wasn't enjoying the work. And so, I'm just glad he ended up finding that thing, that when he was doing all that work, it was actually something he liked putting his mind toward."
After reading some of Herring's work, you get a sense of what that mind is doing.
Last summer, Herring published three poems in the Auburn Circle's "Marigolds," edition. Each of the poems — entitled "Earth," "White Lies," and "Oink," — relates an anxiety with the world. Whether it's climate disaster, white supremacy or police brutality, Herring writes in a spoken rhyme that cantilevers a little bit too quickly to be comfortable.
"when They are born / They are taught They are superior / and the color of your skin makes you inferior / don't fall for this trap / just because They listen to rap / and They got a friend who's black."
The bleak outlook of the words mixed with this shambled rhythm that pounds from stanza to stanza doesn't let the reader rest anywhere. There's no hope offered at the end either — well, unless you count the end of humanity as hope.
"It's a harsh truth that had to be said," Herring said. "Because if things don't change now, they won't ever change."
But what's so interesting about Herring is that so little of this anger and anxiety finds its way to the surface outside of his writing. Talking to him is like talking to a friend about a day at the beach. He's got that easy smile, a couple of earrings and warm eyes that all work together to create a reassuring feeling.
Herring attributes a lot of this smooth demeanor to music. He's loved music throughout high school, and he writes for a blog part-time that analyzes beats and lyrics in popular albums. According to Herring, this is — like writing — a way to relieve stress.
"I listen to music every single day," he said. "A lot of that just relieves my stress and makes me just not think of anything."
A closer reading of Herring's work shows that musical influence on his writing. The slant rhymes and short, quick verses, the commons idioms and cultural references align closer to songs from The Weeknd or Joey Bada$$ than they do to poems by Dickenson or Frost.
But this kind of direct outlet has advantages. It's easy to understand; there's no hidden message the reader is supposed to find. It's honest, it's deliberate and it's effective, both as a way to communicate the realities of the world and as a way to cope with those realities.
Wallace said she sees Herring's calm demeanor as a direct result of him having this outlet.
"To an outsider, he is very calm, he's very content, he's very quiet," she said. "But if there is something on his mind, or if there's something that's pushing on him — on his heart — and he wants something done about it, he will make a point in his writing, send it out and try to get people to see the world through his eyes."
But Herring said he doesn't set out to change minds.
"I'm not looking to change anyone's mind," he said. "But if it happened to change your mind in the process while you're reading it, that's fine."
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