Thursday, December 13, 2007

Being Still

I was a child of the woods. Growing up in Eastern Kentucky in the late 70s and early 80s, I was allowed to roam wherever I pleased.

My childhood best friend, Donna, and I spent most of our time on the high ridge that overlooked the little town of Lily. Atop this ridge was a clearing, enclosed on all four sides by thick woods. Spread out below us was the elementary school we attended, the winding Laurel River, the Lily Holiness Church, the Lily Baptist Church, Hoskins’ Grocery, the big sprawling nastiness of the coal mine. Also in our eye-range were about fifty homes, all of them populated by people were either kin to or knew well enough to consider them kin. We studied the homes, imagining what was going on inside each one. Often we guessed, plotting out elaborate soap operas for each household that were, in hindsight, most likely not too far from the truth. Or we lay back in the clover and watched for shapes in the clouds. More than once we were sure we had seen a UFO, and twice meteorites. Donna was prone to see falling stars in the dimming of the day, just as she was always able to spot a four-leafed clover without even having to look for one. Some people possess such talents naturally; they’re born that way.

Down in the woods on the far side of the ridge from our houses were the big woods. Here there lived stoic hickories and oaks, kind and good-natured dogwoods and redbuds, and comforting beech and poplar trees. There were also a thousand song birds, lots of squirrels, lizards, chipmunks, beetles, worms, centipedes, and all manners of little live things that went about their various jobs and joys and sadnesses without paying much attention at all to us.

Most of all there lived in those woods the little body of water known as God’s Creek, the good little stream that provided us with so many hours of entertainment. The creek’s banks were crowded with ivy and ferns and moss, all of which always seemed to be damp and cool, even on the hottest days. There were high banks in some places, a big pool bottomed with limestone that was perfect to sit in when we needed cooling off, a narrow stretch where we built a bridge, a wide place where we built a dam.

These woods were also occupied by various items of great curiosity. Often we found empty whisky bottles or crushed Budweiser cans, always situated close to where someone had built a little fire. There was the old hog lot that sat right in the middle of the forest, not far from where shoots of jonquils made their ways up through the brown leaves in the early spring. It took us a long time to figure out that this was an old house-seat, that people had actually lived here ages ago (probably fifty years before). We were children and therefore sure that the world really hadn’t existed much without us, despite what the Bible or the history books said. Best of all there were two Model T car-hulls in the forest, both riddled by bullet holes. We made up elaborate stories about these cars. They had belonged to Bonnie and Clyde. They had belonged to moonshiners. Perhaps there had been a road nearby and these cars had been in a fierce gun battle and had both plummeted off the road and into these woods, never to be found by search parties. The bodies had rotted away to nothing in the cabs of the cars.

We played with the cars, jumped the creek, waded, climbed trees, gathered rocks, collected leaves, dug for lost treasure, played Vietnam War, played Iran Hostages, played Olympics. We made up stories and told them to each other, spent long periods trying to read each other’s minds or having staring contests. Donna always won.

But most of all, amazingly, we were still.

I recall long bouts of lying up there on that ridge, listening to the wind moving down the field. Or sitting in the woods, listening to how simultaneously quiet and loud a place of trees can be. Below the silence there are the sounds that people forget about: birdcall, the creak of wood, scampering in leaves, the bubble of a spring that has popped up unnoticed. There is so much beauty that goes on in hiding. All the world is a secret.

Donna and I were strange little children. We were not what you would call normal, I suppose, which is why I grew up to be a writer, and Donna grew up to be a social worker. We both grew up to be what you might call artists. As I said, I’m a writer (and a musician) and Donna does the most artful thing of all in her job: she helps people, and often in very creative ways. Besides that, she’s a great painter and often her emails are better written than most short stories you’ll find in the New Yorker these days.

After those passages of stillness that we both found at some point in the day, we would eventually meet back up and talk. Looking back, it seems to me that our serious talks were most often about God, and religion. It’s easy to guess why: we were both Pentecostal children confused because we were actually feeling something of the spirit down there in the woods even though we felt pretty miserable in the church-house (maybe because we were going three or four times a week).

Donna, nine months my senior (a fact I hated then and am very pleased by nowadays), was years wiser than me. I once remember asking her if it was enough to just believe in God. Such a question bordered on blasphemy to my mind. After all, I was raised in a church that discouraged any sort of questioning of God and religion at all. But I swallowed hard and turned to her and said it: “Do you think that maybe that’s all it takes to get into Heaven, to just believe?”

Donna thought about it a long time, chewing on a piece of grass and looking concerned. “No,” she said, after much thought. “That’d be too easy. And life is never, ever easy.”

She was twelve at this time.

All of the above would lead one to believe that Donna and I were living blessed lives. Looking back on our childhoods, we can sometimes present it that way. But, like most people, our lives were complex, full of both joys and sorrows. I won’t speak for Donna here, but I can say that for myself, there was much in my young life that lay in contrast to the lazy days I spent up on the ridge. I was the son of a Vietnam vet who had not yet admitted to himself that he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. My mother’s brother had recently been murdered and this had marked my entire family—and me—forever, but was especially fresh when I was a child. I could go on. In short, the ridge, the trees, the sky, they were all balms that I needed, that I hadn’t been able find in the God that I was being told about in the Pentecostal church. But I was aware of something, some greater force than me—the feeling was undeniable—when I opened myself up to listen, to watch, to be still.

It took us a long while to figure out who we were, especially in the spiritual department. But we always knew that we were artists. And any kind of art is fostered by being still. By trees and creeks and skies, yes. By communities and stores and churches and schools, yes. But most of all by stillness.

This is something I am constantly trying to remind myself. We’re not a people who find it easy to be still. In fact, we’re taught that it’s downright bad to be still for even a minute. We always have to be working or watching or talking or moving.

When I was an even more na├»ve writer than I am today, back when I was in my early twenties, I attended the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky, where I met one of the all-time great writers, James Still, author of River of Earth, From the Mountain From the Valley, and many other treasures. Mr. Still was gruff in that charming way with which only very old men (he was in his early 90s at the time) can get away, but I knew that I had to be aggressive if I wanted to be a writer, so I asked him if he could tell me one thing to do that would make me a better writer, what would it be. He studied on this for a moment and never let his eyes light on my face, but directed his voice to me when he finally replied: “Discover something new everyday.”

Ten syllables. Four words. One sentence. Yet this simple collection of words changed my life. I still don’t ask questions unless I want to hear the answer, and that day I was prepared to take whatever advice Mr. Still offered. So, from that day forward, I did as told. I looked at the world through new eyes, challenging myself to discover something new every single day, to look at the world in a way that no one else had before, to study something: a person, a tree, an egg, a discarded gravel of chewing gum—no matter what, I would take in everything around me.

Naturally it was not possible to properly do this without learning how to be still. And the way to do that is to just make yourself stop.

The act of becoming still, of discovering something new everyday was given as advice to a writer. But I applied it to not only my life, but also to my writing. It is not too far off from one of my favorite Bible verses: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10). Whenever the preacher mentioned this verse—in between hacking yells about fire and brimstone—I didn’t get it. But when I’m looking at the world like a writer, like someone who has taken the time to pause for just long enough to see and hear and feel the world around me, I am able to see the beauty of this world, and of living, far better than the pain both those things possess.

In her beautiful book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes: “For me writing has always felt like praying…you feel that you are with someone.” (page 19). Obviously I could not agree more. In another favorite book of mine, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, her character Shug Avery says: “Everything wanna be loved. Us sing and dance, and holla just wanting to be loved. Look at them trees. Notice how the trees do everything people do to get attention... except walk?...Oh, yeah, this field feels like singing!”

It occurs to me that artists—writers, painters, musicians, anyone who observes and then creates because of the keen insights gained by their observations—all do what they do because they want to be loved, too. I don’t mean that they want widespread critical acclaim, or to be worshipped by throngs of adoring fans. I mean that many writers I know write as a way of prayer, as a way of thanks, as a way to become a child of God, in whatever shape that Being is for each person. I believe that many artists’ basic desire is to create something beautiful for the mere act of doing just that.

As a child, I was lucky to be among those singing fields, to see those trees doing everything they could to get noticed. I was lucky to have a friend like Donna, who allowed me to be still and was quiet with me as often as she was jabbering nonstop. I was lucky to be a child of the woods, where I learned about all the most important things. Listening, watching, feeling, those are the things that are of the most essential. Once we forget to do those things, we’ve lost ourselves.

So that is one of the responsibilities of the writer, to listen, to watch, to feel, and to remind the reader of the importance of doing the same. And in return, this writer arises from his desk every time feeling as if he has been to a good church. And those are hard to come by these days.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Writing Stores

I’ve been thinking a lot about stores lately. About stores and the way they make writers. Just about every writer I know of has a store of some kind in their past. Lee Smith—the Patron Saint of Southern Writers—often talks about the influence of growing up in her father’s five and dime in downtown Grundy, Virginia. Pamela Duncan talks about growing up listening to her grandmother, who was a wonderful store in her own right. Lots of Southern writers will tell you about grandmothers or Mamas or aunts being stores that taught them how to tell a story. One of my favorite writers, Thomas Hardy, soaked up much of the knowledge he would later use in his writing by attending the many square dances where his fiddler-father and uncles performed almost every week. Willa Cather’s most beautiful novels are the ones that were most heavily influenced by the store she lived in, a store populated by sad and beautiful immigrant women who would become the basis for such strong characters as Alexandra in O Pioneers! and the title heroine of My Antonia.

I had so many stores I’ve had to sit down and make a list of all of them, and it’s been near impossible to figure out which was the most important.

First, there was the literal store I grew up in, my aunt’s little jottemdown store that served the tiny community of Fariston, Kentucky. Dot’s Grocery. If you don’t know what a jottemdown grocery is, that’s the kind of store you never, ever see any more. It was called a jottemdown grocery because on the counter there always laid a big, ragged, spiral notebook. At Dot’s, it was usually one from the Dollar General, bought twenty for a dollar at the start of the school year, more than likely with a red cover. Each page was headed by the name of a local community member. When they’d come in and get their groceries, Dot would figure up their tally and then they’d turn to their page and jot down the amount they owed her, which would be paid whenever their paycheck came in. Jottemdown. That’s what everybody called such stores back then, which really wasn’t so long ago. This was in the 70s and 80s, before WalMart took over America, back when a widow woman like my aunt could start her a little store in a little bitty house close to the road with a few candy bars, cigarettes, a good cold pop cooler, and actually see it grow.

Lots of people never paid off their credit at Dot’s Grocery, but every day they offered their stories, which I was always eager to hear. I loved to be in Dot’s Grocery with the big Stokermatic stove that got so hot it sometimes glowed red and the shelves and shelves of diapers and canned soup and Zagnuts and the big, terrifying, gold-framed picture of the blonde-headed Jesus looking down on us with longing in his sad blue eyes, as if he too wanted to be part of the conversation. Here I learned about Mamie Spurlock’s kidney problems and Lester Conley’s many inabilities and Hy—short for Hyacinth—Shepherd’s affair with Vestal Stacy, who just so happened to be the preacher at the Holiness church where she was the choir leader.

But I learned more than just gossip: I learned about kindness when my aunt Dot grew sorry for poor mothers and gave them gallons of milk, erasing their marks in the notebook after they had left. I learned about boundaries when aunt Dot would run the same girls off if they had figured out she was kind-hearted and started to take advantage of her. I learned, by studying her in moments of silence, about being blue, which is something she went through her whole life, and is something people rarely talk about these days. In Dot’s moments of blueness I learned about silence—the nit nit of that red plastic clock that hang behind the register—even though she hardly ever stopped talking when she was in a good mood.

People in my family rarely stopped talking. We were raised to believe that it was impolite to let a silence fall. We told stories to survive. One of the few places in the world we ever hushed up—and rarely even there—was another store I grew up in: the Lily Holiness Church, where I spent two or three nights a week and every Sunday morning of the first seventeen years of my life. My brain and soul have the scars to prove it.

Despite how it messed me up to be raised going to church so much, I have accepted that that store was integral to my becoming a writer, and to my becoming a person. Here I learned how to observe, how to memorize, how to study people properly, and from different angles. There is not much formality in the Holiness church (one of its true qualities), so I was often allowed to stretch out beneath the pews, where I could closely—and unbeknownst to anyone else—study the lower parts of people. You can learn a whole lot about people from studying them only from the knee down. Some people never polished their shoes, for instance. Some people polished their shoes to a fare-thee-well. Some people come to church with mud caked on their shoes.

These are important details to writers.

The most fun was to be beneath the pews when everyone started “shouting,” which is when they would holler out and dance in place and speak in tongues. I laid there and imagined an earthquake had come, or that God was holding the floor at opposite corners and bending it up and down to have his way with his Children. Sometimes I would doze off and awake to silence—very rarely, but sometimes, usually only when someone had just finished speaking in tongues and was waiting for the translation—and I would be assured that the Rapture had come and I had been the only one Left Behind. When this happened I always raised up too quickly, knocking my brains out on the hard underwood of the pew, the hit plomping out into the quiet of the church like a baseball being struck by a fast bat.

I learned the power of music and the hugeness of words was reinforced to me every single time someone would get up to testify and poetry would mysteriously fall out of their mouths. These were good, hard-working people who didn’t have much else but going to church, and when they stood up to give their testimony, well, it could make a believer out of anybody.

As a Holiness boy, I did everything with the other church members. We went to Mammoth Cave together. We ate together at least once a week. We sought each other out at the junior high, desperate to find companions that would not cuss nor talk about sex all day long. We went roller skating together on Gospel Night, all of us wearing our matching t-shirts that said HOLY ROLLERS on the back while we skated to the Singing Cooke Family or the McKameys. And all the time all of these people were telling stories, using words in a beautiful way.

The most important store, however, was my own family. We Southern writers tend to always go back to them, sooner or later. They’re all the material we’ll ever need.

My family was—is—loud and fiery. They grow tender as easily as they grow angry. And they know how to tell a story. They exaggerate, they zoom in on the perfect detail, they establish a rhythm. These are three of the most important thing a writer can learn.

There was my Uncle Dave, who was also an accomplished quilter, taught by his mother during an especially bad winter when they couldn’t get outside to work on anything else. But he was an even more accomplished story-teller. He told epics. Often family gatherings turned into a listening session when Dave would hold court, everyone gathered near while he kept us on the edges of our seats, either telling a ghost story or a funny story or some adventure he had had at some point. My favorite was the one about him riding a mule in the house just to scare his mother.

“She was cutting a big hen up to fry,” he’d start out. “I believe it was Christmas. Or Thanksgiving one. I don’t remember which. But she was hard at it, son, cutting that hen up, and I rode that old mule in real easy, real slow, gentle as you please, and got him right up behind her and all at once she felt his breath on her neck and she turned around—real real slow—and then she was eye to eye with that big old nasty mule and she just throwed that hen right up in the air and run out of the house.” He went into a fit of laughter, and through his glee, puffed out the rest: “And. That. Little woman. Never was afraid. Of nothing. But that liked to scared her. To death.”

I knew that one was too good to pass up; I used it in my first novel and received dozens of letters about that scene alone.

He sang little songs:

Oh, I had me a little chicken and she wouldn't lay nary egg
I took and poured me some hot water up and down her leg.
And the poor little hen hollered and the poor little hen begged,
But then the poor little chicken laid a hard-boiled egg.

He had dozens of those.

There was, most of all, my aunt, Sis, who always had a Winston planted firmly between her teeth. Sis loved music better than anyone I have ever known. She must have had ten thousand record albums, which I was assigned to keep in alphabetical order even though she never put them back where they belonged. Sis was ten years older than my mother and had taken on the position of grandmother in my life. I stayed with her as much as possible—often to escape going to church—but mostly because she let me do whatever I wanted. With Sis I could set up and watch the Late Movie, or Johnny Carson, or reruns of “The George Allen Show.” She’d make chocolate fudge at midnight, let me drink coffee, had me read articles out of her True Story magazines to her while she rested her eyes with a washcloth across her forehead, the blue smoke of the Winston twirling between us.

Sis did not have great judgment, bless her heart. She took me to see The Exorcist when I was four, for God’s sake. But her bad judgment was my great fortune, because every Saturday she and I went “yard-saling,” her favorite and most oft-used verb. And on these yard sale and flea market trips, she let me buy any book that I wanted. She had bought me a guitar in the hopes that I might become the next Eddie Rabbit, but when that didn’t pan out she realized that I might not have the desire to be a country singer but I sure had the determination to be a writer. So she bought me books. One of those books was Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, which I found at the bottom of a greasy cardboard box at the flea market.

“Aye Lord, that’s a good’n right there now, I tell ye,” she said, talking around her cigarette, squinting at the cover of the book through the smoke. “I read that when it first come out, twenty year ago. It was a scandal, that book was. You’ll love it.”

I was nine.

So, that day she bought me two of the most important gifts anyone has ever given me: a tattered paperback of Peyton Place, and a ginormous Royal typewriter, which was solid metal. The typewriter was as big and brown as a small tank; it must have weighed two hundred pounds. Sis, the man who had sold it to us, and I had to carry it to the car. But I ended up writing the first draft of my first novel on it.

Even though Peyton Place was considered incredibly dirty when it first came out in the 1950s, there is no denying the beauty of the prose in that book. Its influence can be found in all of my descriptive writing and also in the ways I try to get at the operations of a small town’s heart. In a way, I’ve always been trying to write a book that Sis will love as much.

There was also Mamaw, who always sprinkled new colloquialisms into her tales. Among my favorites was when she told me the story of my grandfather coming to the boarding school where she was a student to whisk her away on a date against the schoolmarm’s wishes. Mamaw sat on the couch, wrapped in a sweater and hunched over the heat register in the floor even though it was June outside, and said: “I stood up there on the big high porch and seen him down there on his little horse,” she said. “That mountain was steep as a calf’s face but buddy he just rode right up there and got me. I wrapped my arms around his waist and never did look back.”

I could go on and on. Those are only three of the storytellers—or store-keepers—that I was lucky enough to hear throughout my childhood. And what made this store—the family store, you might say, if you choose to be as corny as me—so particularly wonderful was that it was always populated by loads and loads of people. There was always a big bunch of people in my house, streaming in and out at all hours, staying for supper, staying the night, staying for a week or two sometimes. And they all told stories, they all used language in a specific, beautiful way that I just absolutely soaked up.

I have an image of myself as a child that I have more than likely made up. But it probably happened at one point. Sometimes I see myself as a little boy--perhaps eight year old--standing in the middle of the living room, which is absolutely filled with every person in my family, all of whom are caught up in the act of telling a story. Some of them rear back and laugh, slapping their knees, probably laughing at their own jokes. Some dot Kleenex to their eyes, upset by their stories. Others are so caught up in telling their stories that they barely pause to breath or check to see if anyone is listening to anymore. A murmur that rises to a roar that threatens to blow the roof right off my childhood home’s house. The power of words, rising and rising.

That’s what is always present at these stores we writers remember, whether that store was the family or the church or a real little jottemdown store: words. Sentences. Stories. Language.

We survive because of stories. We live to tell our tale, to hear a tale told, to be part of a tale that is in the process of happening, just so it can be told later. People might think we Southerners are all ignorant and illiterate but secretly we’re all obsessed with words. I’m thankful for that, because otherwise I wouldn’t get to do what I love for a living. So every book I write is for the people who made me, the stories that made me. For the words.