Finding My Story

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.


Papaw’s Waltz 

“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.

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7 Responses to Finding My Story

  1. Wislene John says:

    I salute you for meeting DESTINY! You have an awesome story to share with the world:-)

  2. Beth Hagedorn says:

    Looking forward to reading more about your soulful journey. Somehow I think if I follow along and listen closely enough to your story, I may find the courage to look at the chapters of my own story that are still too painful to examine. Wishing you the very best with this wonderful project.

  3. Jessica Fedelini says:

    What a courageous person you are to examine yourself so deeply and then be open to share your discoveries with the world. I am certain there are very few who would be able to do so. While we were not extremely close growing up, I considered us good friends, and I never had an inkling as to the world you were living in. You hid it so well. If I were a writer, I would be able to express my admiration more eloquently, but all I can say is I applaud your courage and can’t wait to read this book!!

  4. Pearl McHaney says:

    Just ordered your book, Chrystal, and am so excited and proud of you and your persistence. I am sharing your blog and book announcement with all!

  5. Melissa Shull says:

    I found this story on CNN and HAD to click on it. I buried my Dad, Tom, Jan 2012. He was in Vietnam in 69. I was born in 70. I know what you have gone through because I have been there all my life. Dad’s PTSD wasn’t “officially” diagnosed until 2004 (100% service connected) though we all know he had it for 30+ years. He finally drank himself to death.

    I commend you for finding a way to deal. I am still looking for mine. Possibly journaling is a good way??? I could never publish our life events, but, you have at least opened the door for folks to talk about this topic and maybe you will help make the GOV/MILITARY aware that they are creating generations of F***ed Up people – and Ativan is NOT the answer!

    I am not sure I can read your book…but I do wish you the very best. Please feel feel to write me if you wish.

  6. Jim Green says:

    Jim Green
    Dear Ms. Christal Presley

    Please allow me to introduce myself; I am Jim Green the father of one of your friends on Facebook; I am retired and living in South Alabama with my spouse of fifty years.

    I was on the other side from your experience; I was the one that spent two full tours in Vietnam and came back in a state of confusion, anger and regret. I gave my family hell and had no idea what was wrong with me. My relationship with my son and daughter was not a pleasant one and it would take me decades to get back to a semblance of normality. I am going to get your book and read it, because I know some of what you went through. We went to Vietnam because we were called by our government and ordered to go. Be strong, be happy.

    PS – You will find out who the ‘friend’ on Facebook is.

  7. Diana says:

    I am just now reading your comment. I just read the book yesterday. If you have not read it yet–I highly recommend it. I would read a few days and have to put it down then, I’d go back and read a few more. Each time, the tears flowed. This was my life. I’m really hoping by reading it–it is my first “out loud” step to healing. I hate others went through the same life but, I’m glad that I’m finally not completely alone.

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