My Writer’s Life

Published March 14, 2017

Mary Ann’s Mountain, based on tales of my postwar childhood in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia, was therapy for me. I came to an understanding of the mountain people’s pride in their land and their stoic adaptations to whatever life brought. It was a difficult life in those mountains. The author, Lee Smith, was right. Our “rings of mountains” did circle around to keep us mountaineers in while keeping the rest of the world out! It was not until I wrote Mary Ann’s Mountain that I came to appreciate that knowledge in its entirety and to finally consider it a gift.

My writing life began when Grandma Rose left Grandpa and moved to the big city of Richmond to live with Aunt Joyce. I wrote Grandma letters and she wrote back. None of those letters ever told what had happened between my grandparents to cause a separation. It didn’t matter—I had heard the whispers. That’s when I learned that my mountain had its secrets to keep, secrets to tell and secrets to write about.

In fourth grade, Mrs. Shortt had us to write brief descriptive paragraphs about some topic or another. I liked that. In fifth and sixth grade, there was explanatory writing. I liked that. My cousins and I wrote our own Christmas plays. I liked that. It was in fifth grade on Christmas morning that Mother gave me a beautiful journal in which I could describe the serenity as well as the harsh realities of life in our mountains. I discovered some truths for and about myself.

In seventh grade, there were recitations of many poems. Even better, we wrote poems. I really loved that! Mrs. Crabtree gave me a gift that year. I still remember those poems by Langston Hughes and Robert Frost. It was seventh grade when I fell in love with words. Mother, who taught English and Latin at Clintwood High School, allowed me to hang a clothesline in my bedroom on which to hang 3 x 5 cards with new words I had encountered. Those cards had the word, the definition, a synonym or an antonym and a sentence using that word. When learned, those words were filed in a box, and new words took their place on the clothesline.

It was not until I had Miss Jamie McCoy for English II that I realized the power of words. We wrote every week. Miss McCoy not only read it all but also reacted to what we wrote. (We were the “baby boomers” and classrooms were bulging at the seams—a lot of reading for my teacher!) Miss McCoy shared our writings with the whole class—no names given. Miss McCoy shared her love of literature and read aloud to us. I remember the first time. My classmates and I looked around at each other wondering if this wasn’t a bit babyish. It didn’t take but the first five minutes of hearing Miss McCoy read in her beautiful, melodic voice to erase our silly thoughts. Then came Mr. French for English III. We wrote profusely to get ready for college. I remember a note on a returned writing. Mr. French had written in his beautifully flowing cursive that I could become a good writer if only I dropped the flowery descriptions. Reluctantly, I did.

Senior English came and I had no other than our high school football coach, Ralph Cummins, one of the winningest coaches in Virginia. He had coached all three of my brothers, and it was from them that I knew about his huge personal library. The remarkable thing about Coach Cummins was that he not only had read a lot but also had committed to memory much of what he read. The day that he paced back and forth in front of the classroom, hands clasped behind his back, reciting in its entirety “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” was a day that I had to remind myself to breathe. When Coach finished his recitation, the long silence that followed was reverent. This man had lived through navigating several gliders into Normandy. This man had survived to teach us about a world outside our mountains, a world outside ourselves. Coach taught us to write our experiences as he had done before us.

Then came college. I was excited to enter my freshman English class, that is, until I received my first paper back with a D- and the words, “Plagiarism: No one uses words like this without plagiarizing.” printed across the title page. That good Christian teacher from that good Christian college would not even look at my research notecards. She told me, “This is a clear case of plagiarizing, and I don’t have time for this conversation.” I noted that she did have time to keep glancing at the newspaper in her hands the whole time I attempted to talk to her in her office. Funny how she never mentioned plagiarism again. Lessons learned—don’t show off with big words, don’t use flowery language and never treat my future students like this. I was going to be a teacher—a fair teacher!

After thirty-six years of teaching mostly “tweens”, it was my fifth-graders who inspired me to pick up my pen again and to give creative writing another “go.” Beaver Creek Blues will be out in April. I’m proud of the book. I’m even more proud of my fifth-graders who listened to and embraced it. I wanted my students to know they were gifts to the world.

I now know that living in those mountains in Southwest Virginia was another gift. Those mountains taught me to pay attention. Those mountains taught me to care. Those mountains gave me a culture to be proud of! Those mountains taught me the value of persistence. These are truths that I came to know only through writing! And … don’t judge me for writing the day away while still in my pajamas, cat on my lap. Amen!