Monday, December 22, 2014

Ghosts of my Past, or Why I Can't Write Short Stories

Christmas is always about the past. Ebenezer Scrooge's first and most poignant visit is with the ghost of Christmas Past.  And Truman Capote 's "Christmas Memory" begins with fruitcake weather when he was a child.
I indulge myself today and strain the patience of my readers by recalling a bit of my own past, primarily for folks who know me.  My occasional readers may, with my apologies, skip over it and get back to the serious stuff I try to write about the short story as a literary form.
I used to amaze and appall my students with stories about my childhood. While they sneaked tweets and texts on their i-phones, they  smiled that we did not have electricity in our house until I was twelve—and, of course, no running water, or natural gas, not to mention no indoor plumbing. Carrying the slop jar out to the toilet and gouging small chunks of coal out of a snow-covered frozen pile in the yard were two of my responsibilities.
Now that I am seventy-three, I recall that pre-adolescent era of my life with a kind of arrogant pride, especially when I watch my seventeen-year old grandson transfixed in front of his laptop, ear bud wires stringing down his cheeks, playing video games involving the kind of super heroes I used to read about in limp and ragged comic books that we swapped with cousins who lived on the other side of the railroad track a mile away.
I was the oldest of five children and helped my mother care for my two brothers and two sisters, spaced, between three and five years apart, from the time I was four. My father was a truck driver and was usually gone on runs up to Cincinnati, Ohio or down to Knoxville, Tennessee except on the weekends, which he spent listening to ball games on the battery-powered radio. By battery, I don’t mean those little marvels of compression that I have to constantly recharge, but rather a heavy pack of dry cells that could have been used to start a car.
I always mark the beginning of my life with a memory I never really had of my maternal grandfather and grandmother.
I see my grandmother sitting in a small shack stringing and breaking green beans into her aproned lap. Her tanned hands, although young, are already cracked and wrinkled from washing my grandfather's clothes in hard lye soap and hoeing in the garden. She breaks the beans quickly with a sharp snap and looks at her wedding day portrait on the wall.
I look at a black and white copy of that picture today on the wall behind my computer screen and remember it hanging above the bed of my grandfather's living room, the string of flowers draped across my grandmother's brimmed black hat tinted a faded rose. She stands straight and proud, her round face solemn above the high white collar of her blouse. Beside her, my grandfather stares straight into the camera with  coal-black eyes and a thin moustache. He was twenty six at the time; she was 21. Although only taken the year before, already the girl in the picture must have seemed distant to the woman looking at her. Her husband was down the road playing cards with men he worked with in the mines.
Years after my grandmother died, when my grandfather, paralyzed by a stroke, lay in bed in his small living room, I would stare at that picture with the fire light flickering on the faces and be afraid my grandmother's ghost haunted the house. When I was five, I had clutched my mother's dress in front of her open coffin  before the cold fireplace in the same room, the sickly sweetness of the flowers mixing with the musty odor of the house. And didn't my grandfather once tell us that he had heard her voice speaking to him from a large rock at the corner of the garden up on the hill? He never told us what she said.
She might have smiled looking down at the beans in a lap, made smaller by the child in her belly. Then she heard the shot. A sharp crack that made her jump and spill the broken beans. She must have known immediately that it was Jarvey, for she grabbed a kitchen knife and cut the newspaper backing off the picture, removing it from the frame and rolling it up with a ribbon. Then she got the cardboard suitcase from under the bed and placed the picture in it carefully, packing her stockings and cotton underwear around it. She was gathering the rest of their few pieces of clothing when, red- faced with drink, he came through the door. "I've shot a man," he said. "We have to get out of here."
My grandmother told this story to my mother many times, and she in turn told it to me—so often that it took on a mythical quality, and I filled in with my imagination details that my mother's sketchy version left out. I don't think my grandfather really killed that man, for the law never came after him. But he was capable of it. He was known as "Black Jarvey" when he was young, and it was said (another mythic story of my family) that Devil Anse Hatfield asked him to ride with him in that well-known feud that the History Channel and Kevin Costner have made more famous. He turned Hatfield down. But I know he used to carry a small black thirty-eight revolver that always tempted me from where it hung behind a picture of my great-grandparents by the fireplace mantle.
Avoiding the main road, they took off  through the woods on foot and headed north toward Eastern Kentucky, my mother said, where my grandfather knew a man who might let him do some sharecropping. Somewhere in the mountains, my grandmother gave birth to a premature boy, and, to my grandmother's everlasting sorrow, my grandfather left it in a shallow grave. They walked, I don't know how many days, until they came to a narrow valley along the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River in Johnson County, Kentucky, where, indeed, a man my grandfather knew did take him on as a sharecropper and gave him the use of a hillside above the river where he built a living room and bought a cast iron bed. It was in that bed that my mother, their last child, was born. And sixteen years later, it was there that my mother gave birth to me, her first.
The house, which is just south of Paintsville, Kentucky in an area called "The Nars," had a living room with a fireplace, a narrow windowless kitchen, a concrete-floored dining room, and two small bedrooms. The Nars, is, I learned at some point in my childhood,  a mispronunciation of the word "Narrows." It aptly describes a long, lean corridor created by Levisa Fork, bounded on both sides by hills so high that, depending on the season, the sun came up late and set early. Just above the river was the C&O railroad line. And just above that, in front of my grandfather's house, ran U.S. Highway 23.
By sharecropping, my grandfather earned a strip of land about sixty yards wide, extending vertically from the top of the hill to the edge of the river. There was very little of the steep rocky hillside he did not cultivate. "If you can't eat it," he would say, "I don't see no use planting it."
The two-mile strip known as the Nars was anchored on one end by Depot Hill, at the top of which a bootlegger named Peg Ward with a white pine 2x2 for a left leg lived and did business in a small tar-paper shack. On the other end was Dead Man's curve, a hairpin, where my father always said you could meet your own arse going around it. These were the points where, no matter where you stood in the Nars, your line of vision ended. There were only half a dozen modest houses in between.
Coming up U.S. 23 from town, after you passed Peg Ward's place, there was a quarter mile of sheer rock cliffs, where the road was so narrow that the big coal trucks nearly blew me off on to the railroad track below. Then came what was called "the breakdown" and the black-looking house of old Bob Rice and his wife Sallie. Bob was a drunk, and when he couldn't afford Peg's bootleg whiskey, he drank Mennen After Shave. The branch between his house and Papaw's was filled with the squat, green empty bottles.
Just past Papaw's place was the little house where I lived with my mother, father, two brothers, and a sister. Perched on a rock cliff just above and beyond us was the house of Charlie Ray Baker and his wife Nannie, a big woman my tiny mother almost had a fight with once, and their four children. Just past another stretch of rock cliffs that lined the road was the house where my paternal grandmother lived, and just above and beside it a small house which for several years we rented from my Uncle Bill for twelve dollars a month.
About a half mile on up the road, where the river took a sharp bend, was Fred Price's big gray stone house with an elaborate fish pond in front. If the Nars had been a far and distant land in a fairy tale, Fred Price's place would have been the castle. Price owned the pasture land above the highway all the way up to Dead Man's Curve. He also owned the big red bull that chased my brother and me when we went to pick blackberries or gather paw paws--a story my children and my grandchildren never tired of hearing.
The last house, located at the sharpest point of Dead Man's Curve belonged to my uncle Bill's girlfriend. Most everyone thought she was a witch; she once took warts off my fingers by holding my hands, closing her eyes, and mumbling words I couldn't understand. Just past the curve was the Newsom Family Cemetery, where all my mother's people, as well as my parents, are buried. There is a place marked out for me there, where Jordan, my younger daughter, has promised to take my ashes. I have a small polished wooden box on my bookshelf, which originally held an expensive bottle of Irish whiskey, reserved for that purpose.
My grandfather's farm held a great deal for such a small scrap of land. A few steps away from the house was the smokehouse, where salted sides of meat lay on newspaper-covered shelves and brown hams hung from hooks in the ceiling. Next was the open-slatted crib filled with corn which I shelled for the chickens and threw in the pen for the hogs. The barn had three stalls––one for the chickens and one each for a horse and a cow, both of which were sold before I was born. The barn had a mysterious second floor, which once held hay, but now was used for storing just about anything that would not fit anyplace else. 
My Uncle George, a small mine owner, kept his black powder there, wrapped in heavy waxed paper in rough wooden boxes. I  was warned never to go near it. But who could resist its powdery pungency? Also there, hanging from cross beams, stretched on boards, were hides of muskrats trapped by my uncle Charlie. Beside  the barn was the hog pen, with one large old sow that Uncle Bill was fattening. In the fall, my grandfather would hit it on the forehead with a short-handled sledge, slit its throat when it fell to its knees, hoist it up on a tripod, and expertly gut and dress it. Finally, at the farthest edge of the property was the toilet perched on the side of the hill above the road––a three–seater well stocked with slick-paged Sears catalogues and corncobs.
From the time I was five years old until I was sixteen, the Nars was pretty much my whole world. I went to school in town––a county seat of a little over four thousand. No other children from school lived in the Nars, so it was often lonely. Town, however, filled with strangers, was frequently frightening, so I was always glad to get home.
My students at California State University, Long Beach, where I taught for forty years, would of often ask me, if I knew so much about the short story, why I did not write short stories. I have tried to write stories about my life for the last  sixty years and still have in my file cabinet ragged typed pages of material I wrote when I was twelve. I really would like to create a group of short stories from these experiences.  But what often happens is that I get bored trying to write them. Just moving my persona across the room seems so tedious to me. I really love sentences rather than plots, but am not quite sure how to construct a voice that captures the mysteries of my life.
Maybe my life has no mysteries; maybe that is the problem. Whenever I begin to write, I hope I will find some meaning in mere experiences, some central core in various anecdotes that will pull the piece together and make it glow with significance. Part of the problem is that I don’t seem to have that obsession that makes writers write fiction, that compulsion that drives them to carry on and on. I used to think I did, when I was young.  But now I know better. I am a reader, not a writer. 
Happy Holiday to those who stumble on this bit of personal background. I will get back to the real business of my blog right after Christmas.


The Bodkin Point said...

I really enjoyed the stories about your early years in this post, and would urge you to continue to write about those experiences.

As to format and all that other bothersome but essential stuff, could I suggest you look at the structure and techniques adopted by Laurie Lee in “Cider with Rosie” and Conrad Richter in “The Trees’.

Both are episodic, with each chapter focusing on a single moving experience designed to resonate with an empathetic reader. Chapter 1 of the Trees for example is built around the vision of the primeval wilderness of the Ohio Valley as viewed from on high by the Luckett family, who were migrating thru the woods (on foot during the late 1700s) in much the same way as your grandparents.

A somewhat more modern thematic technique is that used by Charles Lambert in “With a zero at its heart”.

Linked short stories seem to be enjoying something of a revival “Olive Kitteridge” etc

Dorothy Johnston said...

These stories from your childhood are extraordinary.

You don't have to worry about conjuring up the right voice, or sense of mystery - they are already there!

When you're bored writing something, in my experience, it's usually a warning sign, so, if moving your persona across a room bores you, don't do it. Children notice so much and are wonderful insider/outsider narrators, especially the kind of child you paint yourself as being. They don't have to move about themselves; they just have to tell the story.

And these stories are so wry and strange, and the dialogue so compressed - quite wonderful.

Jayaraman said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your childhood stories which I am able to identify with though I had my childhood in Kerala, the southern most state of India, in the 1960s. Though you are contend with the label 'reader' I think you are a great writer too. I have learnt and am learning (at the age of 58) many things about the short story from your writings. Thank you so much. - Jayaraman Kadambat, Kerala, India

barbara renel said...

From the Lake District, Cumbria, Christmas Eve
Thank you for this post which has reached across the water to touch me. I don't believe our grandchildren will see the changes that our generation has experienced. I wouldn't presume to say any more about whether you should write fiction - your story says it all for me - it bursts with significance. A very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Unknown said...

Well my dear brother you have once again helped others to visualize our grandparents way of life as well as your own. I have told you for years you need to write a book, taking all those while childhood memories and just tell the stories.
My favorite brother (we won't let Don) I love you and I know for a fact that you are a "dadgum story teller."

Thesis writing service said...

I really enjoyed this story

Marsha said...

Your account made me reflect on my grandparents, who also farmed, and the sometimes mythical elements about kinfolk and neighbours who were part of their world. I enjoyed the details.

The challenge of evoking a greater mystery and significance in a story about everyday events and memories is what keeps people writing stories.

Anonymous said...

Don't delude yourself into thinking you're not a writer, dear professor. All evidence points to the opposite. This is remarkable poignant and concise account of the life of three generations in old Kentucky-- a life apparently devoid of most of the amenities we enjoy today. I can relate to most of it, having grown up in the Depression in the Midwest. Perhaps your forte is autobiography, not fiction. At least, this account would point in that direction. I wouldn't fret if that is the case. Most fiction ends badly for its characters, and I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to those from that seemingly fairyland place called the Nars.

Lore Johnson said...

Please, I would like more Charles hear from that boy of what he felt and thought in Nars... Lore