“Excuse me, my Kentucky’s Showing”: A Writer Sinks Her Toes in Bluegrass

I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky

–Abraham Lincoln 

 

Cliches become cliches because they’re true, and for me, “sometimes you can come home again” is that cliche. I’ve lived my entire life in Louisville, KY, and I spent a great deal of my adolescence and early adulthood despising my home state. Tired of my accent marking me as ignorant, and of saying “yes, I’m wearing shoes” to not-so-funny jokes, I tried to exorcise the twang from my voice and the bluegrass from my blood. Longing for a home to make my dreams come true, I thought I needed to flee. 

You see, I’m a writer. And when I was growing up, local history wasn’t covered in schools, and local authors were never read. I was in college before I discovered Robert Penn Warren, Wendell Berry, and Bobbie Ann Mason, and even then I thought they were anomalies. I thought that in order to be a writer, I needed to be where “culture” was, somewhere like New York or at least somewhere with an appreciation for the arts. I never moved, but I dreamed of the day I’d leave it all behind and find the place I was meant to be.

I didn’t realize I was here all along. 

A couple brief examples from my most recent MFA residency: in workshop, any time my accent “slipped out,” I apologized. “Excuse me, my Kentucky’s showing.” It was a joke, but not really. Another example: One of the faculty members, Fenton Johnson, related that when he travels throughout Europe and says he’s a writer, he is immediately given respect. In America, it’s the opposite–he gets the question “What do you really do?” As if writing is just a hobby, and one cannot really write as a lifestyle. There’s one exception to this, however–Kentucky. This is the only place where he has seen writing receive any respect in America. So I guess we’re doing something right!

I’ve also been fortunate enough to sit in lectures and readings by Kentucky writers like Crystal Wilkinson, Frank X. Walker, and Silas House, all of whom are proud of their Kentucky heritage. By hearing their Southern voices drawl out words that ring with beauty, I began to hear my own accent as less embarrassing. 

This past Friday night, I emceed a reading at Louisville’s Local Speed Art Gallery, “Spalding at the Speed: A Gathering of MFA and Community Writers.” The series was my brainchild but I’ve never emceed it before. It was scary, especially when there were so many writers who I deeply admire reading (Kirby Gann, Debra Kang Dean, Sarah Anne White Thielmeier, Bernard Clay, Sean Patrick Hill, Justin Dobring, Kimberly Crum, and Bobbi Buchanan). I should mention that any time I’m nervous, “my Kentucky slips out.” “I” becomes “ahh” and not “eye,” “get” becomes “git,” etc. 

Normally, I would cringe. 

Normally, I would be embarrassed.

I wasn’t. 

I heard my twang, and I realized something: I am proud. My state is not perfect. We’re blowing up mountains for coal, and there is discrimination here–but we’re also working to save those mountains, and I watched as a small Appalachian town passed a fairness ordinance. There is poverty and illiteracy, but there are grassroots organization, a concern for one another, and so much literature. 

My Kentucky’s showing, and I’m damn pleased that it is. 

Wait, wait, wait… Come back here!!!

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(Comic from http://phdcomics.com/comics.php–my favorite way to waste time, err, I mean, laugh about procrastinating. Something like that).

So, let’s talk about my biggest struggle lately–motivation. I’m not working on a thesis, per se–I still have two more semesters before my thesis semester–but I am working on pieces that may become part of my creative thesis. My MFA program is low-residency, which means that each semester, I work with a faculty mentor. Every three and a half weeks, I send her a packet of around 35 pages of creative writing, two short analytic essays, and miscellaneous assignments. This is a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it means I receive feedback from a well-accomplished, talented writer in my field, and because it forces me to write; a curse because it FORCES ME TO WRITE.

I’m a writer because I love to write. But sometimes, it’s so damn hard. And lately, I feel like I have a million things on my plate: work, MFA responsibilities, submissions for publication, organizing a reading series, an assistantship, running a writing group, and trying to somehow fit in time with my boyfriend (who is wonderful and supportive and understanding) and keeping the house in order. I admit, I usually fail at the housekeeping part. But recently, I feel like I am not giving enough of me to any of these things, and then my motivation to work on ANYTHING suffers. I have a packet due in less than a week, and I still need to draft one analytic essay (it is, for the most part, outlined at least) and finish the book for the second one. I also have a reading that I am emceeing on Friday that I need to prepare for. I am woefully behind. This is not like me–I am a perfectionist and am usually really motivated. I get everything done early and then agonize over revising it all until I turn it in. But the past couple weeks, I have found myself hating the sight of my computer or my notebook, because they remind me of everything I’m not doing. And I get farther and farther behind.

I know, rationally, that I will pull it together and get everything done. I just hate this feeling of wading through jello to get there.

Anyone out there struggle with a lack of motivation? I would love to read how you manage to stay afloat. Leave me a comment below!

And suddenly, it’s all worth it…

“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.”
― Annie DillardTeaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

 

For most of us who write, our “one necessity” is telling our stories. And eventually, we’re going to get to a point where it isn’t enough to just tell the stories to ourselves, or to our writing groups, or to our close friends. We’re going to want to reach a wider audience, to be published. For any writer, rejection is hard. For the nonfiction writer, especially someone writing from personal experience, I would argue that rejection is even harder. When I write a short memoir or personal essay, I am writing about ME–my story, my journey, my struggle, my experiences with the world–and a rejection no longer feels like it’s just about my technique or if I had inadvertent typos or if I read formatting specifications incorrectly. It feels like my very self is being rejected.

I’m a pro at rejection. At last count, I had received 48 rejection letters in a row. I joked about it, swore I’d throw a party once I hit fifty consecutive rejections, but each and every time I opened my email and read “thanks but no thanks,” it stung.

Which makes my first acceptance even more special. Stonecoast Review, a literary journal, accepted my lyric essay “Retrograded Mercury” for their second issue. It can be read at stonecoastreview.com. (I find it ironic that the issue came out last week–while Mercury was in retrograde!). The essay is about coming to terms with love and faith in the face of trauma, and relies heavily on water imagery and poetry. What is most gratifying about the acceptance is that I wrote the piece as an experiment. My first writing love is poetry, even though I’m not that great at it, and in writing “Retrograded Mercury” I was trying to push the limits of genre and merge an essay with poetic form. Experimentation is what I love most about writing nonfiction; to have an experiment be taken seriously by a national lit mag is the most blissful feeling imaginable.

I received the link to the magazine in my email right before work, and called everyone to tell them. I literally danced around my house, and I am NOT a dancer. Then, while driving to work, the reality hit me. I had to pull over and sob. I DID it. Finally, something I wrote, something that is at its epicenter ME, will be read by other people. I am a writer.

I’ve called myself a writer for a long time. I’ve written for as long as I can remember. But at that moment, seeing my piece in print, I fully felt like a writer. It isn’t just a necessity or a compulsion–it’s a verified aspect of my being.

I hope there is more to come. I’m working on a book and am hoping to send out other essays as soon as summer hiatuses are over. I expect more rejections, and more heartache. But at least now I know publication is possible. And it’s enough to keep me going.