Though I always dreamed of becoming a writer, I never planned on writing about my own life. Other people’s lives seemed far more interesting, and frankly, I was never convinced that a girl from the mountains of Honaker, Virginia, who had barely been outside her hometown, would have anything worthwhile to say. I escaped the Appalachian Mountains as soon as I could, and spent the next few years traveling and trying to find my story–the one I knew I was supposed to write someday. I traveled all over the U.S. and India in search of my muse, but the story I so desperately sought eluded me.
Seasoned writers and editors advised me to write what I knew, so I made it a point to become as educated as I could, as adventuresome as I could, and to push myself to have experiences far outside the realm with which I was familiar. I was convinced this kind of exposure was the only way I’d “know” something worth writing about. But still, I did not find my story.
I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2007–after years of beginning and abandoning a plethora of unfinished manuscripts. As I was unpacking boxes that unseasonably warm November, I came across a few poems I had written in college. I was startled by their rawness, and especially surprised that I found the subject matter so soul-stirring. The poems were about coal-mining and growing up in Appalachia–subjects as natural and commonplace to me as air. The writing was unsophisticated and novice–a world away from being ready for publication. And yet, for the first time in my life, I was moved by my own words.
I am grateful I possessed the maturity and the experience by then to know I was onto something. Perhaps the life and the culture I was born into, but had tried so desperately to shed, was worth a closer examination. It was the simple discovery of these poems that triggered a deep exploration of self–and of a history I thought did not matter. Though I could not imagine what was to come, these poems were among the first catalysts in the long process of learning to honor and to write my story–a story right in front of me all along:
Go Into the Earth
Go into the earth within the coal,
Never to come back again, lost within lost.
With sweat and dreams, remove your soul,
Make haste, make due toward the cost.
Go into earth not even God has seen,
Where darkness is poison in the company of devils.
It slurps the breath from little wings
And kills the spirit with its shovels.
Go into the earth, live to die,
Closed holes within closed dreams.
Where souls cry like souls cry,
Picked apart at the seams.
“I was born and I’ll die suckin’ up coal dust.”
Papaw used to sing the song he made up
As he twirled me around and around the room.
I did not know what the words meant.
Now I lean over his wheelchair
And guide his head toward a straw.
He spits black phlegm into a napkin.
There is no God here.