On Writing and Appalachia
When I tell stories about my family and its relationship to Clay County, Kentucky and the County Seat of Manchester, people tend to think I exaggerate.
I can understand why. The stories that come from that part of Appalachia tend to be wrapped in what seems to be hyperbole. You hear about poverty, feuds, grudges, anger at the government, lack of formal education, and a general desperation, but since most people aren’t around those things on a day-to-day basis they don’t seem real.
These stories must be fiction.
I always assumed the few stories that I’d heard about my family were true. There wasn’t anything in my upbringing to suggest that those telling the stories would lie.
Years later when I visited my family homestead for the first time, I likewise believed that when people told me to watch my back when I was traveling through Clay County, that meant I should watch my back.
This mentality related back to the days of the feuds.
Surely bad blood still exists between the Bakers and the Whites, but at a certain point a blood feud is just that and it’s destined to go on until there is nobody left. That it was 2008 when I experienced this had no bearing on the realness of those feelings.
The harsh reality of Clay County in the 21st century is that it faces more problems than just an old feud.
On several visits, talk of the feud felt weary to the residents. The history weighs heavy on the town, but history isn’t the county’s problem.
Poverty is very real. There are few new businesses, very little outside (if any) venture money, and almost no transportation infrastructure that might ease some of the burden of either of those elements.
This isn’t the entire story of the region, but it’s certainly a part of the story. Here are some facts about the County:
- Bachelor’s degree or higher: 7.9%
- Median household income: $20,206
- Median value of home: $56,700
- Decrease in employment: 3%
As I’ve worked on this book and spent time researching the region, I’ve had to try to put into perspective the strands of life that make up the region.
I’ve tried to understand what exactly bothers me about the way others have written about Appalachia, and the way its been portrayed to the outside world.
On one level, this is very easy. The stereotypes aren’t hard to find.
On a second level, this is very hard because elements of those stereotypes do exist when you look around.
The question becomes: How do I tell a story about the region that explores those stereotypes without letting them overwhelm the narrative. Context is everything.
The process of getting to know my family and its history is a strange one.
I have found myself trying to fit my personal story into the larger narrative of the Bakers, which is a fool’s errand.
I have been shaped by so many forces beyond my family and its legacy. When I tell the story of my life, the influence of Appalachia in a visceral way is relatively new.
This adds to my trepidation about writing a story about the area.
I have to consistently ask myself: Am I becoming one of those writers who is going to paint the region in an unflattering and incomplete way?
As I await the first edits on the main outline for the book, I have continued to pressing forward with the narrative. Whether the stories I’ve put together so far make it into the final draft, I don’t yet know.
I’ve considered this a metaphor for my relationship with Appalachia. I’m not sure what is going to become important to the story; I only know that I have to keep writing about until I get to the end.
I hope when I get to the end of the writing journey, I’ll understand…better.