Monday, May 13, 2013

Listen to Your Elders

I grew up surrounded by older people, and I stuck as close to them as I could.  I hid beneath kitchen tables, porches, and quilting racks so I could eavesdrop on their juiciest stories.  But I also piled into cars with them when they went to town and told stories about each house we passed, sat in John boats with them while they fished and gave tips on the best way to reel in a bluegill, walked the hills with them while they announced the names of trees and plants and tuned their ears to birdcalls so they could identify their songs.  Most of all, I listened to their stories.  Stories about hard times, old times.  Stories about ways of life that were gone with the wind.  But within those tales there was always something to apply to the right here and now.  There was always wisdom weaving itself in and out and around their words.

We don't mix generationally enough any more.  The young stay with the young, the old with the old.  And something incredibly valuable is lost because of that.

To become a better writer--to become a better person--talk to your elders.  Listen to them.  Ask them to tell you stories.  Or let them be.  You will learn something, no matter how you go about it.

In this picture is my aunt, Sis.  She is almost 80.  I have been listening to her tell stories my entire life.  She has informed my writing more than anyone else and my character Anneth, featured in Clay's Quilt and The Coal Tattoo, is loosely based on her.  She has worked hard all of her life.  She has laughed and cried and done everything in a big, beautiful, messy way.  That's life.  That's the way I want to live. And that's how I want my characters to live:  by giving it their all.  By experiencing everything they can and loving all of it while they are able.  Sis taught me that.

Last winter she and I visited the holler where she lived as a little girl.  Puncheon Camp, deep in the hills of Leslie County, Kentucky.  In this picture you can see the hill behind her where she took a shortcut across to get to elementary school.  The creek was twice as big when she was a girl, half of it pushed underground when the road was built.  Back then the creek served as road, too, with horses and even some trucks rumbling their ways over the rocks and little waterfalls to get to the top of the ridge.  Her family had some terrible times on Puncheon Camp.  But some great ones, too.  That day she told me dozens of stories I had never heard before, even though she's been telling me stories every since the mid 1970s.  She is an endless font of good tales.

If I hadn't been listening to my elders as a child, and even now, as an adult, I would have missed out on so much.  My writing would not have bloomed without them.  We live in a world where people know more about vapid celebrities than they do about their grandparents.  We live in a world where we never go over to visit our elderly neighbors.  Change that about yourself and it will make your life and your writing better.  I guarantee it.

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