West Virginia in Sunlight and Shadow: Writing an American Vignette

vignette (vɪˈnjɛt) – n.
1. a small illustration placed at the beginning or end of a book or chapter
2. a short graceful literary essay or sketch

I’m in good company having been rejected by Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction (see “Wooing Brevity”); nonetheless, I dream of joining that other, smaller party — the one with writers who have wooed and won some DInty W. Moore love. Brevity is where a lot of CNF types like me hang out and admire fine writing. The journal publishes writers working in the extremely brief (750 words or less) essay form.

My 750 words were bounced back about two years ago, and I can say with confidence that my work has improved since then. I have a long way to go, but when I look back at what I sent to Brevity, I see one of my most egregious writing flaws glaring back at me, the tendency to stay in my own head and talk to myself on paper. I struggle with setting, with scene, with grounding events and people in a tangible world. I am learning how to create a place that a reader can enter and experience.

In Andrea Badgley’s call for submissions on the Brevity blog, I saw an opportunity.

Andrea Reads America: A Literary Tour of the USA is Badgley’s  effort to read literature by authors in all 50 states. She writes, “I want to see the state from different points of view. Whenever possible, I would like to read authors who are native to or are longtime residents of the state they set their fiction in, for whom the land is a part of their psyche.” American Vignette is the creative nonfiction component of her journey.

My vignette is about some of my experience growing up as a West Virginian. My family spans generations of Appalachian people. I have a loyalty to the state and an affection for it despite its many flaws that is difficult to explain. I’ve blogged about my feelings and their complexities on Esse Diem before, but with American Vignette I captured some of my favorite elements from a longer work. I also tried to make the narrative more reader-inclusive — to “teach the reader something” as one of my professors said — and not be satisfied with an internal monologue that just happens to be written. The original essay had ragged emotional edges. I was in a lot of pain when I first started writing about West Virginia, and it shows in my the early drafts. Revising those drafts and consolidating them into a sharper piece helped give me closure in some ways. My experience is still there and unchanged, but it has been tempered with time. I am becoming able to reflect and engage outside of my own distress.

For me, my essay is about losing my grip on an important place. It’s about hard questions and unknowable answers. I anticipate some people might be unhappy with this vignette and think that it is unfair or unkind to West Virginia. This is about my observations, experiences, and decisions. It is in no way intended to be the final word on anything, or even the only word. I hope my essay will generate online discussion. West Virginia is complex and contradictory. At times it is an unbearable series of shouts off a mountainside, the caller waiting for a response that seems never to come.

But we linger a little longer.

(You can read my American Vignette on Andrea’s blog project here.)

Our life has beautiful moments, and they are often good enough to disguise the oppression. Maybe we are good enough to ignore it in favor of what we love.​ We ​are tied to the land, to the creeks​, to the​ sky and hills. ​We are bound by ​a birthright and burdened by a collective pain.

Waggener Essay Published in “Chicken Soup” Series

Congratulations to Esse Diem friend and partner Jennifer Blake Waggener for her essay’s acceptance into Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias: 101 Stories of Caregiving, Coping, and Compassion.

Jennifer’s essay, “Fade to Black,” first appeared on her own private blog in 2006. She generously shared it with Esse Diem in 2012 for the Essays on Memory and Loss effort to support the Alzheimer’s Association’s advocacy efforts.

The book may be pre-ordered now, and is available April 22, 2014. All royalties benefit the Alzheimer’s Association.

We are so very proud of you, Jennifer!

Editor’s Update: New Design, New Essay

Today I am pleased to introduce the new Essays on Childhood site format. It’s more writer-reader friendly than our original site, with lots of white space and the extra links greyed out or hidden. It is a much better format and visual experience, and showcases our writers’ work well.

In addition to the new site design, we will be slowly moving all of the full essay texts over to this site from Esse Diem. In the past, this site has served as a preview and link for the complete essays that were posted here; soon you will be able to read all of the work on one site, in one place, unmixed with the ramblings of a personal blog.

Our first writer to appear via the new approach to Essays on Childhood is the wonderful Susan Byrum Rountree. She is the author of Nags Headers, a regional history set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and In Mother Words, an essay collection. She blogs at writemuch.blogspot.com from her home in Raleigh. This is her second publication by Essays on Childhood. Her first essay, Pick a Little Talk a Little, appeared May 1, 2012.

Her essay, The Roost, turns over and over a great mystery from her childhood — the invasion of her hometown by millions of birds. The flocks of birds penetrated her subconscious mind, and years later began to swirl and form the shape of another plague on the community, one whose impact would far outlast the degradation the birds left behind.

Susan and I worked back and forth on drafts of this essay for several months. She knew what she wanted to write about, but she also knew that the connections she needed to make would be difficult and even painful. I wrote her this line in an e-mail this morning:

“When something powerful is right there, it can be very difficult to keep pushing to let it all the way out. It’s just scary to do, and you did it.”

I hope you will read Susan’s essay, and share with me the respect and appreciation that comes when you can feel how hard someone worked to tell the truth, not just the factual truth, but the known heart of a situation and a story.

#MyWritingProcess

Today is my day on The Blog Tour, where writers and authors answer questions about their writing processes. My friend Suzanne Farrell Smith posted about her work last week. She is a wonderful, thoughtful, intelligent writer’s writer, and I urge you to check out her process here: http://suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/my-writing-process/

An absolute must-read is her collaborative work with Cheryl Wilder in the journal Hunger Mountain: The 7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life. I can do no better describing The Blog Tour than to quote Suzanne:

Suzanne Farrell Smith

“We writers share these things, but informally during workshops and at conferences (and, for a handful of established writers, in printed interviews), but not so much through our open-forum blogs. With the hashtag #MyWritingProcess, you can learn how writers all over the world answer the same four questions. How long it takes one to write a novel, why romance is a fitting genre for another, how one’s playlist grows as the draft grows, why one’s poems are often sparked by distress over news headlines or oddball facts learned on Facebook… “

I am an enrolled graduate student in my second semester pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College; my concentration is in the Creative Nonfiction genre. You can read about my published and soon-to-be-published writing projects in detail here, Elizabeth Gaucher. My Twitter handle is @ElizGaucher.

What am I working on?

My MFA work is my primary focus right now. In my first semester I worked closely with Dr. Eric Waggoner, whose take-no-prisoners rock and roll style became a viral sensation nationwide when his essay about the Freedom Industries chemical spill appeared in The Huffington Post. This semester I am mentoring with Professor Richard Schmitt whose work, “Sometimes a Romantic Notion,” was chosen for The Best American Essays 2013. I am truly humbled by these opportunities.

I write personal essays throughout each semester, and I continue to search for the unifying element that will thread it all together.  I thought it would be experience in the natural world, but that hasn’t been it. I thought it might be some family history stories, but that isn’t exactly it either. I think I am avoiding something major, but that hasn’t shown itself. For now I keep writing and revising, waiting for the mystery to reveal itself; sometimes I think that’s all you can do, be patient and persistent and wait for The Muse to talk to you.

I am also working on my second River Town story. My first story, “They Hold Down the Dead,” centers on a 16-year-old girl named Lillian Conley who lives on the hill above the river with her wealthy family and finds herself drawn into a dangerous mystery tied to Indian legend. The story I am working on now is called “The Letter Opener.” This story is a prequel to the first and is about Lillian’s mother, Lorraine, not long after the Civil War. 

Me and River Town!

Me and River Town!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

A lot of my work blends childhood experience and spiritual awareness. I started an online publishing project called Essays on Childhood, and through that I help other writers find their voices for some of their untold stories.

I’m also digging into the experience of leaving my home state of West Virginia. I left it a long time ago to go to college and stayed gone for over ten years, but I came back. Why I did that and why I left again, for good, is the focus of some recent essays. This idea of place — what it means and why we return to it and why we let it go –fascinates me.

I’ve been told that my work is “unsentimental” and that that is a good thing. I wasn’t sure what to make of it the first few times I heard it, but then in one of my MFA seminars I heard this: Your work is sentimental when it gives the reader only one way to feel. 

I am glad I’m not doing that! That’s just plain boring.

Why do I write what I do?

This question was harder to answer than I expected; and I think it’s turned out to be very simple. I want to understand life, and I want other people to have moments of understanding and connection through my work. In a self-centered way I hope my writing will allow others to know who I am, and in the Big Picture I hope that my writing will add to a body of work that connects all of us through those recognition moments in human experience . . . those moments when you are reading and for awhile you feel less alone.

How does my writing process work? 

I do a lot on a laptop computer. When I wrote A Rebranded Life: Spirituality and Chronic Illness, I went down in to my parents’ basement to do the work. In that place I could be isolated and in complete quiet. It also had the unintended but I think powerful effect of putting myself, quite literally, in a place where I lived long before I became ill. Physically being in that place amplified my feelings of loss, of grief, but also of safety and love.

a-spiritual-life1

When I was writing “They Hold Down the Dead” for River Town, I started using the cloud computing available through Google Drive. Drive touts itself as “One Safe Place for All Your Stuff” and I have found that to be true. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the terrifying world of saving my drafts on a hard drive that may or may not want to work with me tomorrow!

I need quiet surroundings to write well. I love to be alone, but life rarely affords any of us not residing in a monastery total peace, quiet, and solitude. I like to get up early before the sun and I work as much as possible when I have my house to myself.

I’ve finally given myself permission to just write without self editing as I go, crazy random “mental shenanigans” to loosen up that part of the brain that has things to say that are so often censored. Here’s a brief insight into this exercise:

What if one of the things you can never stop doing is thinking about James and the Giant Peach? And how in the library of your mind the book cover is gone and that becomes your new hallmark of a great book and there’s a guy from high school who will never shut up about some animal he trapped when you try to tell him about the greatness of this book?

It’s like he is everything that is wrong with the world and doesn’t even know it. And your coverless book is everything that’s right, this worn out old crazy book about a peach carried by spider’s or was it silk worm’s strands high, high, high above the ocean by greedy seagulls who a little boy risked his friend to trick into being snared by the silk threads.

About how he escaped his alleged family who hated him. About how even though the peach was only a peach after all even though it was giant and would one day disintegrate or be eaten like every other peach in the world, this one was giant, and carried a child to a new and luminous and distant life. I can’t stop thinking about it.

This kind of early a.m. writing puts me more in touch with the parts of my mind that want to say things I don’t usually let them say. Those subjects, when drafted and revised and shared, can be elements in the most effective stories.

Finally, there is a saying, “The best writing is re-writing.” I’ve come to see revision as an act of love for my work, not as a grueling task. I believe it is a privilege to receive readers’ feedback and to earn their honesty when something is not working. I think it’s essential to listen and respond to those kinds of things in order to grow as a writer.

NEXT WEEK

Rachael Hanel lives and writes just outside of Mankato, Minnesota. She is a former newspaper reporter and copy editor and teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, is her first book for adults. She blogs about death and grief’s role in culture at www.rachaelhanel.me. You can find Rachael on Twitter at @Rachael18.

I invited Rachael to The Blog Tour because she is a dedicated professional writer, frequent blogger, and generous with her talents. We can all learn from her self-discipline and willingness to engage and share in the writing community.

Shauna Hambrick Jones is a native daughter of West Virginia and a proud graduate of WV Wesleyan College’s MFA program. She has been published in Vandalia, Wesleyan’s literary journal; Connotation Press: An Online Artifact; and Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Mothers and DaughtersShe’s a self-described grateful wife and mother; lover of words, Texas Hold ’Em, Prince’s music, and reading in the bath until her toes are waterlogged. Connect with Shauna on her blog, Mental Shenanigans, or on Twitter, @ShaunaGJones.

I invited Shauna to The Blog Tour because she is a personal friend and we studied together in the WVWC MFA program. She also has an attraction to baring her soul through her writing. She is devoted to her work, and she takes amazing risks that pay off. She’s someone to listen to, someone to read.

Vernon Wildy, Jr., is a resident of Glen Allen, Virginia. He has published his work on sites such as Esse Diem for the Essays on Childhood, The Man Cave Podcast, Intentional Walk Review, and his own poetry blog, I Got Something to Say. He published his novel, Nice Guys Finish Last, in 2011. Connect with Vernon on Facebook via his author page, and on Twitter, @VernonWildyJr.

I invited Vernon to The Blog Tour because he understands that writers need community. Every Wednesday (just about) on Twitter he tweets a Happy Writers’ Wednesday (#WW) to his writer friends and associates. It touches me that he is so loyal and so constant in his efforts to thread us all together, even in a brief occasional social media moment. He also brought up a story about his adolescence that was painful and real and honest for the Essays on Childhood project. Read his essay, The Jersey, and get to know this authentic storyteller.


The Water of Life

When the second prince had thus been gone a long time, the youngest son said he would go and search for the Water of Life, and trusted he should soon be able to make his father well again. So he set out, and the dwarf met him too at the same spot in the valley, among the mountains, and said, ’Prince, whither so fast?’ And the prince said, ’I am going in search of the Water of Life, because my father is ill, and like to die: can you help me?

– “The Water of Life” by Jacon and Wilhelm Grimm http://www.authorama.com/grimms-fairy-tales-51.html

Photo by Mabel Priddy

Photo by Mabel Priddy

Hunt’s Hole at Witcher Creek, West Virginia. Long, dark, leafless branches reach to the water’s edge, lines of ink against the untouched snowfall that blankets the woods and marks the creek margins. Heavy rocks, large and small, sit with all their weight in the same position for generations. Used to be you could dive from the biggest rock right into Witcher Creek from this place. Teenaged bodies, skinny from nicotine and hard work, flying like sinewy prehistoric birds into the air and hanging, just for a moment, in the sun above the water, off the rock, frozen in that perfect pose and moment of  everything being right. Nothing can touch them in that place, that sacred place where you are not held down to earth by anything. You fly out over the Water of Life of your own volition, and you are weightless, and everything below you is just that, below you, and when you land you are submerged in something holy.

White marble statues of a baby deer and a blessing angel watch over the ever diminishing water; someone placed the guardians there after a young man in the community was stabbed to death by his own cousin for not going out to get more beer; that’s what my friend and her friends who lived out there and grew up there told me. My friend said the murdered boy was about the sweetest boy you could ever meet. She said that exactly, “He was about the sweetest boy you would ever meet.” She also said the cousin had spent time in jail for scalping someone. Took a knife to another man and pulled his outer self clean off his head.

This was the swimming hole and the baptizing place for many local churches.  My friend was baptized there. There was a man who used to climb up on the rock and dive into the water; he had no legs. How did he get up there? No one could remember, but they remember him diving, diving off the rock into the water that made people disciples of Christ. They remember the water used to come all the way out to the road. It was deep enough to dive in. It used to be.

I take some whiskey up there in my mind. I’m at Hunt’s Hole, on Witcher Creek. It’s summer and I’m in a two piece bathing suit. I drink and watch the sky, pull leaves off of branches and throw them like little scrap messages into the water. Standing up I roll my neck, then my spine, and pull up the bottoms of my suit. It’s foolhardy to drink and swim but no one else is around and I want to feel the water around me, want to feel that moment in the air. I fly, and I feel the warm air and precious minute where the world can’t hold me, I am free. Then I’m falling, and I hit the water, and it rushes over my head and pulls my hair out long and far behind my neck. I push up and burst clean and free into the outside world.

From the rock above I hear a boy shout, “Hell, yes!” I look up to see him, all bones, a stark frame against the suddenly-night sky, white and linear and I realize the water is too shallow now. “Stop!” I yell as loud as I can but it comes out a whisper. The boy freezes in his perfect moment, and another voice says, “Aw, shit, let him go.” My eyes track the voice to a man sitting on the rock, smoking a cigarette and laughing, his legless torso long and straight, my own legs now just ankle deep as I stand up to walk out of the water.

The Fine Art of Catching a Firefly

I learned the Fine Art of Catching a Firefly when I was a child. I think it was the best way because I was at my most intuitive about magic. I would see their luminous nearly green yellow liquid light and shriek with delight, sometimes on the outside, but just as often on the inside. I knew it was kind of Philistine to just grab them, even though it was hard to resist. The best, most effective way, I learned over time, was an open hand and a willingness to merge.

bug,hand,light,firefly,cool-f046206fe921306a6db60e4264733497_hIt always started with a summer evening. Assessing the transitional time between afternoon and evening, as well as the time between evening and too-late night, was as much as part of it as how to hold your hand. Some people may tell you now that nets are permissible for capture, but that is not the art. You may hear that a Mason jar is allowed as well, for the midway release from first capture.

But these elements are not the art I know.

It would start with a spark in my heart. I’d feel a burst of light and heat inside. Around me I could perceive the summer air was buoyant enough to float the magic of tiny flying flames, glimmering under a dark heaven. There was a soundless hum that supported my procession toward mingling with these charming little mysteries.

I would walk among them then. Sitting still feels dishonest, and these creatures are all about having nothing to hide. On instinct you know not to try to trick them. Your walk must be slow and full of the pauses that allow the fireflies to orbit your damp skin and your natural breathing. Every now and then you reach out one arm, your palm open, fingers relaxed, falling in gentle curves. It’s the bend of your fingers that calls them to you. One will hover over that hand as if to say, “I am the one.”

Raising your hand slowly you make soft contact and the wings that have spun into blur stop and fold. Antennae you didn’t notice before now bend alternately to touch your skin and little feet, delicate and fast dance along your skin as the light quiets under two aligned and slender shields.

You learn what the mistakes are with time. Don’t hold them inside a closed hand. Don’t put them in a jar. Let them light and land and rise and fall as they choose. If you are practicing the fine art, they will choose you.

I found this out a long time ago. I would bet you did, too. But if you haven’t learned it yet, it is not too late to learn the Fine Art of Catching a Firefly. Come with me because, look! It’s that time. Leave the jar and net and bring your quiet calm and open hand. Bring yourself.