Roger (& Jared & J.D.) and Me, or Breaking Appalachia

I started writing So Far Appalachia — or at least what would become the book — in 1998. I was twenty-six years old.

I didn’t have idea where the narrative, and the research, and my career would take me. I just knew that I needed to write this story. I needed to do that in the right way. And I was fairly certain that I wasn’t yet ready to do it.

I can’t — and couldn’t — articulate in words what that meant, but everybody knows the feeling I’m talking about. It’s that creeping feeling of inevitable despair that follows you around when you finally find something that you want and don’t know how you will survive if you don’t get it.

I also knew that I wanted something more than just write a book. I didn’t want to finish this, send it out into the world, and have it exist. I wanted to make a thing, and I wanted that thing to be part of something that mattered. I wanted the book to be part of a conversation. Part of a movement. Part of a wave.

But neither was going to happen for me in 1998. And so the years flowed by, sometimes silently and sometimes violently. Through it all, I wrote more. I got better at my craft. I tried to beat back that creeping despair with my words. Along the way: I found myself, lost myself, found myself again, and today find myself adrift in a storm and unsure how I will — or even if I want to — find my way back to stable ground.

In those travels and in that darkness, I came to find something more meaningful than the serenity I’ve glimpsed from time to time: my voice.

I have never been the person I’d hoped to be, but I’ve always know the stories I’ve wanted to tell. Even as the very real life I’d so carefully cultivate shifted beneath me and swallowed me whole, that instability brought clarity to my voice.

And this has always felt like a fair trade to me.

I have wondered if that is the price the writers — or storytellers — have to pay for that clarity of voice. I have wondered if this constant churn, this sense of doom, and these impending waves are the gifts that allow us find that singular voice that is our own. (My friend Jason says this is my sick obsession, although I have watched him struggle in his own way to find his path.)

But more than just finding my voice, that struggle has helped me find the community of writers who are telling the kinds of stories that I tell. We are not friends, this group. We are not the literary circle that I’d always envisioned I’d be part. But as I’ve found my way through So Far Appalachia, I’ve had the chance to meet, talk, and read the work of others who have found their voices in the wilderness.

This is the gift of the churn, and the voice, and the story.

Voices in the Wilderness

I first met Roger May first through Kickstarter where he launched his Testify project, a love story in photographs of Appalachia. I backed his project (and he backed mine; only one of us has completed work as of yet but So Far Appalachia is coming soon) as part of a decision I made to back as many Appalachian projects as I could find. But his, by far, was the most polished, haunting, and beautiful.

In my younger days, I had little appreciation for the aesthetics that go with words. I’m a writer. The pictures live in my head, and they come out on the page as something else. I like that something else. And for years I thought the something else was all you needed. But then I worked with amazing designers at national magazines. I began to see how those images and picture and designs could move — or destroy — the story.

All that is to say that while I have no talent for making the design, I have a pretty good idea for what excellence in that area looks like. And Roger had that.

He went on to launch the Looking at Appalachia project, which has grown into a curated multimedia storytelling project that puts the Appalachian people at the center of the storytelling experience.

Just short time later, I had met Jared Yates Sexton when he appeared — and won the night — at one of the readings my writing collective The Geeky Press held. In fact, he’d recently left Ball State — where I taught at the time — and he was working on a project that would become his forthcoming book, The People are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, his first-hand account following the Trump campaign.

He was — and is — a gracious dude, one who grew up a little rougher than me but with backgrounds similar enough that I was fond of him. I think the feeling was mutual, but neither of us ever really bothered to ask. That’s not really how I’ve ever trafficked in life, and I appreciate the silent acknowledgement of kinship without all the messy words.

But where you’re probably most likely to know him is on Twitter (@JYSexton) where his tweetstorms about Trump and the political right have become legendary (at least inasmuch as such things become the stuff of legend)!

Time passed between Jared’s departure from Indianapolis and my next encounter. In the intervening time, my world began to crumble and shift.

I’d lost the will — and desire — to continue working as a professor. The work had dulled me, muted the writing. David Foster Wallace once said that the first three years of teaching were when you learned the most about yourself (and thus were the most interesting). Year one you learn that you don’t really understand how to break down your craft into small pieces. Year two you begin to dig into and understand exactly how you work. And Year three is when you teach. After that, you cease to grow in the classroom because the students no longer push you (as each new crop comes in with the same basic set of questions the first crop had.)

As I headed into year nine, something broke inside me. The world’s colors turned grey. I moved through the world, but I wasn’t connected to it.  For two years, the fissures within me grew. But when it — I — broke, I found the colors again. I retreated into my words. In just six weeks, I banged out 30,000 new words to go with the 30,000 I’d written slowly, and painfully, over the previous four years.

Which is when I came to meet the last Appalachian voice. This time it happened Twitter. I’d gone on a tweetstorm about colonialism and Appalachia, delving into the historical constructs that have shaped the region when a mutual friend tagged J.D. Vance (@JDVance1), the author of Hillbilly Elegy and a fellow Buckeye.

Of course, I was thrilled to see a book about Appalachia hit the cultural zeitgeist, but I was equally annoyed to see a book about Appalachia hit the cultural zeitgeist. Still, the Twitter tag was a provocation, someone who thought that I’d taken umbrage with Vance’s portrayal and analysis of Appalachia. His story about growing up in Middletown, Ohio (a town just a stone’s throw from where I grew up) had caused quite a stir, particularly from those on the political left who have largely rejected the analysis he laid upon his story.

But I have a rule about Twitter fights: they are dumb. And they are particularly dumb when they are about important issues. And I find the issue about how we tell stories about Appalachia to be important.

We shared a pleasant conversation about Appalachia for a series of tweets, and we connected again after Jared wrote a post in Salon called “Hillbilly Sellout,” which felt — if I’m feeling generous — like clickbait. Dave Tabler, who runs a large Appalachian Facebook group, posted the article and after reading it I tagged J.D. when I wrote that I didn’t find the piece a fair representation of the book or its intention.

And with that, I ducked back into my writing room to put the finishing touches on my own book.

And So

The irony of this journey is that when I began this book I was positive it would be difficult to sell. Nobody, I thought, wants to read about Appalachia.

And now: I’ve found just the opposite. I finished my first round of agent pitching, something I hadn’t planned on doing when I launched the So Far Appalachia Kickstarter. My plan was to publish through my collective, which also has a small publishing arm.

Then the Appalachian wave hit the media, and I felt I owed it to the project (and myself) to see what might become of this.

Early returns have been good. Thirty pitches, and eight agents have asked for the full manuscript. While five have rejected it, they’ve done so with long emails. Some offered editorial suggestions, many of which mirrored what my early readers said (which is a good thing). But each of them took time to praise the voice, the point of view, and the narrative, rejecting the book only because they didn’t feel like the project was right for them. (That, of course, could mean, “It’s not them, it’s me” but I choose to think otherwise.)

The rejection has been disheartening because the project is so personal and has been so long in the making. And the wave is here.

But that isn’t the point for me. It’s never been the point even as I’ve strived for such success. (And, in fact, I wonder how much self-sabotage I’ve undertaken in my career given the opportunities I’ve had.)

The things that have always sustained me, and carried me through the darkness, and given me a world with color: the writing, and the voices, and the stories.

I’ve found my voice in the wilderness. I’ve found other voices in the wilderness. And if the sounds of Appalachia are too loud for this moment, that’s okay.