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.

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.

Imbrogno, McClain, Barnhill – oh, and last call!

This week I am sharing some of my favorite excerpts from contributing writers’ work for the Essays on Childhood project. Contributors range from experienced professional writers to first-time essayists.

TODAY is the LAST DAY to jump on board in 2013!

Click here to find out how to join us this year: http://essaysonchildhood.com/contact-the-project/

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Something has broken in me. I quiver head to toe, shaking uncontrollably for minutes. I do not to this day have the words to describe what broke, unless it was something like the compact between parent and child. It had something to do with the fact that never again could I look at my parents without complicity, a knowing and direct participation — both embarrassing and far too personal – in the magnitude of their estrangement.

via In a Man’s Voice: Happy Again by Douglas Imbrogno | Esse Diem.

Because we have all been children, we all have a physical place that is a part of our being, because it was the place of our becoming.  As children we are physical beings locked in the moment.   The sight, sound and scent of living, the tactile presence of it, embeds itself within us.  It is unnoticed but as constant and critical to our growing as oxygen that flows through our blood from breathing.  As adults, we live in layers of past, present and future.  When my adult present was rocked and cracked by death, sickness and separation until it split into a gaping rift, I found that childhood place.  It bubbled up, unbidden, and flowed liquid into the gap.  Some embedded tactile presence of living rushed into the emptiness that threatened to take my life and filled it.

This is a story about that place.

via The Simons House by Margaret Ward McClain

Photo courtesy of essayist Margaret Ward McClain

That love of being alone found its best expression in midnight walks during winter, the moon casting an eerie glow to the entire world, the snow reflecting the light in loving response, Endymion to Diana in every pale snow pile.  I would head out at what my mother called “the witching hour” and walk down the road until my nose got so cold it began to drip.  The silence was palpable and soothing, the world muffled with a snowy blanket, soft as a baby’s comforter.  I couldn’t have said it at the time, but what I experienced in those long winter walks belonged to the infinite–God, the imagination, time’s longing for itself–and those interludes gave me a hunger for the spiritual, an appetite that is only satisfied when I return to the mountains, those winding roads that lead to moments of mystery, found in the West Virginia hills.

via Winter Solstice by Anne Clinard Barnhill

They Did It. You Can Do It. | Essays on Childhood

Photo courtesy of essayist Melanie Foster Taylor

This week I am sharing some of my favorite excerpts from contributing writers’ work for the Essays on Childhood project. Click here to find out how to join us this year!

http://essaysonchildhood.com/contact-the-project/

Middle school started to show me that football could put a boy at the top of the popularity totem pole.  The players always seemed to have the prettiest girls talking to them and they got the most attention around school.  That was especially true when game day arrived.  The team members always had a tradition of wearing their jerseys at school all throughout that day.  The school would be dotted with light blue jerseys bouncing around campus.  Everybody got excited for the games, especially if they were playing at home.  Those days we didn’t have to ride the school bus home.  We could stay after school, watch the game, and have our parents pick us up after the game was over. But when you saw those blue jerseys around campus, they were not being worn by the players.

In a lot of cases, those jerseys were being worn by girls.

via In a Man’s Voice: The Jersey by Vernon Wildy, Jr. | Esse Diem.

We would meet in the parking lot of the Tech Center, a great, sprawling piece of property where most of our parents’ offices were located.  Parents and kids who were going and kids who weren’t going and kids who had already been but wanted to say goodbye to their friends all gathered.  There was always crying.  Kids crying from fear if it was their first year and frustration if their siblings got to go and they didn’t, always last minute dashes to the bathroom, and slightly controlled chaos abounded.  Parents yelling out the ever-embarassing, “Don’t forget to change your underwear!”  “Brush your teeth!”  “Use the bug spray!”  “Don’t forget to write!”

via Carbide Camp was Magic by Jean Hanna Davis | Esse Diem.

When we would spend the night with Mamaw, Shawn and I would sit up late at night and watch “Chiller Theater” on TV.  I was always such a big chicken and didn’t want to watch, so I would hide under the covers on the couch.  Mamaw would then shoo us into bed and the three of us would giggle and tell stories by the light of an eerie green colored night light.

When I was about ten years old, Papaw renovated the apartment above the detached garage next to the old homestead.  The double car garage served as Papaw Charlie’s woodworking shop and my uncle Ted’s garage band’s practice studio.  Since Ted was just a teenager when I was young, I always liked to listen to his band rehearse.  One Halloween, when I was in the third grade, I remember dressing up in my costume, a character from The Planet of the Apes, and standing in the garage door as the band practiced their rendition of CCR’s “Rolling on the River.”  To this day, every time I hear that song I think of standing there in my ape costume, wanting to just listen to the music as long as I could.

via Growing Up (part two) by Christi Davis Somerville

Essays! You In?

Next week is the deadline for jumping aboard this years Essays on Childhood project. All we need is a short bio and a head shot; you have another month to decide what you want to write, and even longer than that to actually write it. Click the link above or just click this photo here to redirect to the full project schedule.

In honor of previous essayists and to get your writing mojo flowing, I am going to republish some of my favorite excerpts from previous years over the next several days. Enjoy, and feel free to send me any questions at edg@longridgeeditors.com or just post them here in the comments. I hope to work with you this year.

Ours was the third house to be built in the ‘new’ neighborhood. A subdivision of homes was being built in the woods. THE WOODS. We moved into the house in the fall, and I played in the woods around the house beginning then and through the winter. When I turned seven in April my mother sent me outside to play.

“No really, you have to go outside… and play… Go…”

So I went. Outside. Into THE WOODS.

via In a Man’s Voice: Outside by Brent Aikman | Esse Diem.

When I went to college in South Carolina, I sometimes babysat for a young family.  The Daddy went to Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Virginia, and coincidentally was roommates with my cousin Will Carter.  He told me about his trip to Lewisburg once, his first to West Virginia, with Will to meet his family.  He remembers driving into a beautiful piece of property, open and lovely in the spring green, and as they pulled in closer to the Prichard house, two young men, not much older than he and Will, were standing naked in the field playing their stringed instruments.

via For the Love of Music by Lisa Lewis Smith | Esse Diem.

Nobody had been up the road for many months, probably since summer time, so the ruts grooved by any bad weather were deep. As we descended into the Rain Forest, the driver had to make sharp left and right juts, avoiding the big pits in the dirt road. I remember flinging right and left off the back of the Jeep as the driver jigged and jagged along the path. Sometimes we had to actually stop and fill in the ruts with brush and stones in order to create a passable road. Sometimes we would stop and pick blackberries on the way in!

via Going to the Farm by Melanie Foster Taylor | Esse Diem.

All These Things – E. B. White and Letting Go

            In his essay, “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” E. B. White uses two distinct tones toward his subject matter of the problem of human acquisition and inability to shed our possessions. By initiating the essay with a wry and occasionally sarcastic tone, White creates an expectation in the reader that there will be a humorous approach to his subject throughout the essay. This continued singular tone for most of the work makes his last-minute shift to a more wistful and vulnerable approach to his subject an effective, forced reflection for the reader on how we use – often unwittingly – our physical environment to protect our emotional and psychological worlds.

            Early in the essay, White suggests that the things in his apartment have a will of their own:

For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of ones worldly goods to go out again into the world.

The reader knows right away that this will be a tongue-in-cheek narrative; naturally, the narrator is the only one with a will in this series of events, but his suggestion that he is in some kind of battle with the objects in his life is funny. The narrator is in some form of denial. He suggests that he is a victim of some sort of universal scheme.

Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ball point pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I once had a man send me a chip of wood that shows the marks of beaver teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood.

This series of random acquisitions as preying on the narrator begins to raise the reader’s eyebrow. The gnawed wood chip is especially noteworthy, as one can imagine no purpose in retaining something like that; yet White did keep it. One might use a bank memo book, but what can one do with beaver-chewed wood chips? By throwing in that ridiculous item, White now creates suspicion that he is more culpable than he admits.

Another day, I found myself on a sofa between the chip of wood gnawed by the beaver and an honorary hood I had once worn in an academic procession. What I really needed at the moment was the beaver himself, to eat the hood. I shall never wear the hood again, but I have too weak a character to throw it away, and I do not doubt that it will tag along with me to the end of my days, not keeping me either warm or happy but occupying a bit of my attic space.

At this point, White decides to lock up the apartment and go to a fair, further enhancing the reader’s growing belief that the narrator is in denial. White meets that belief:

A fair, of course, is a dangerous spot if a man is hoping to avoid acquisition.

For multiple paragraphs after he locks his apartment, White writes about his experience at the fair. It is a seemingly strange shift, until he reconnects with the last lines of the essay, which open, “But that was weeks ago.”

As I sit here this afternoon in this disheveled room, surrounded by the boxes and bales that hold my undisposable treasure, I feel the onset of melancholy.

No more jokes. Now White is allowing himself to feel the pain and loss of leaving the familiar.

After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on.

Visiting birds, dogs, gardens, “the cat, the vine, the sky, the willow” – now White’s loss is shifting to life. The reader understands that the possessions have only been a cover for busying the narrator with things that are not important. What is painful and held at bay in his emotions is the living elements of his home that he must abandon and cannot take with him. This revelation makes the delivery of White’s final words devastating, when the reader realizes the entire essay has been a protective cover for another reality:

In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation to fortune, whim, and need. And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable.