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.