Listen to Your Elders
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.