A four year old girl is lying on a rug on the floor, wearing hand-me-down clothes, sporting a bowl cut, with braces on her legs. Not the picture of joy and adventure, huh? But that girl was me twenty four years ago, and I couldn't have been happier, because in that floor is where I first met Jack, and others like him. That is, Jack and his infamous beanstalk were passed to me in wonderful detail by my favorite person in the world, my Granddad. We'd lie on that rug under the dining room table for hours, as we met giants, knights, fisherman, and toured castles. Things you don't see or do everyday in rural Southwest Virginia. I was hooked.
As I matured I sought other stories, those that challenged me and raised questions in my face that I couldn't run from or ignore. For example, I remember feeling as I had been knocked off a familiar building after a discussion on The Autobiography of Malcolm X in my senior capstone class. Even from those stories, those of people and places much different that my own I was able to feel that common thread of humanity weaving my life, my story, to their own. I knew then what Christ meant when he said 'neighbor.'
Through internships, projects, volunteer efforts and my first years as a professional, I continued to listen to the stories around me. My senior year of college, I organized an oral history project, preserving the collective memory of generations within a small town. I heard of their entertainment, their anger, their pain, the rising and setting of good lives. For some months, I listened to homeless men in Lexington, Kentucky. I listened to them talk of what was with the most bittersweet of airs, as if calling up a memory from another world altogether. In my first full-time position after school, I determined eligibility for the Medicaid and SNAP (formally know as food stamps) programs, smack in the middle of the Great Recession when those enrolled in such programs increased by 74% in a span of less than five years. It was here that I heard stories of addiction and loss. There was one mother who rolled out of the arms of her abusive mate during the night and fled the home with nothing but the child on her hip and the clothes on her back, driving through the night. I now work for Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, where we all make a living and a life telling stories.
Stories are all around us. They sometimes whisper to us, sometimes shout, and occasionally they even grab us around the neck with a grip that won't let go until we've faced them. Sometimes they are mirrors into ourselves, and sometimes they are windows to a broader world. Listen to them, take the time to respect the journey of others, you never know when you may travel the very same road. Share your stories, let them swirl around you, shaping you as you go, adding color and clarity to lives of those around you and your own.
Yet, for many writers "Appalachian" or "Southern" is a label to be avoided. Its a relegation to different, or other, or not applicable to the mainstream. But most every fictional story is a human story, and a opportunity to highlight that which we all hold in common whether we grew up in the mountains of Kentucky or the beaches of L.A.
Appalachian Stories I think you will enjoy:
- Oral History by Lee Smith
- The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman
- The Cove by Ron Rash
- The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
- Clay's Quilt by Silas House
- The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow
- Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina
- I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chappell
Lauren Musick currently works at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. She has received degrees from Emory & Henry College as well as Eastern Kentucky University, both experiences allowing her to dive deeper into the Appalachian story of which she plays a role. Lauren also happens to be my sister-in-law.