Garrison Keillor has been hosting A Prairie Home Companion, a variety show on Public Radio, for over 35 years.Question: When you first came to the Big Apple as a young writer, how did you come to shift the subject of your writing to stories about back home?
Oh, I just realized when I came to New York that what I had to write about was where I’m from and the people that I grew up with. And I think that’s true with most people. But it’s a difficult step to take, because, we become writers because we want to escape from that of course. And we want to get away from those benighted people. But in the end, I think the first and strongest stories you have to tell are stories that happened to you before you were 12 years old, and then you go on from there.
*********************************************************The above remarks by Garrison Keillor, one of my favorite storytellers, hit home with me. For years I thought I had nothing to write about because I had lived in the same place my entire life. I had too little experience in living, I thought, to write anything of interest.
But when I moved away from the land where I grew up, and found a writing community that embraced me, I found that my poetry and my stories centered on my life before I came here. Like Garrison Keillor, my writing wants to take me back to my childhood, my family and activities of my youth. Whether I am writing a poem, a short story or a personal essay or memoir, I go back to south Georgia where I grew up, where I can smell the rain coming in over the pasture, hear the lowing of a cow missing her calf. I go back to conversations I heard on the dark front porch or under the big old oak tree beside the house. I taste the cornbread dressing and giblet gravy on a groaning table at holiday time. I feel the coolness of sweet iced tea on my tongue when sweat is rolling down my forehead from hot August sunshine. The laughter and teasing of older brothers, the quiet love and gentle eyes of my mother come to me unbidden. The awkward relationship with my father lives on in me even as I come to understand through my writing why he was distant.
Like a sponge, we soak up those images of our youth, unknowing at the time how they will mark our future. As I age I write with less fear about my childhood, my family, most gone now, and give myself permission to love that flat hot landscape where I never felt I quite belonged.
I try to impart to my eager students, many over fifty, the joy of visiting their past and sharing their history in prose or poetry. Some of them open up and binge-write page after page as memories push to surface and become visual.
Read a story from my childhood here.
A poem from my childhood:
My Father's Horse
Stickers tear my legs, bare and tan
from summer sun. Long black braids
fly behind me as I sprint like a Derby winner
down the path.
Harnessed with hames, bridle
and blinders, Charlie plods down
the farm road. Tired and wet with sweat,
he is perfume to my nostrils.
My father swings me up. I bury
my hands in tangled mane. My thighs
stick to leather and damp white hair
high above the ground.
I want to sing in glorious joy,
but only croon a child's nonsensical
tune, grinning for a hundred yards
between field and barn.
My father's arms are strong.
His hands are gentle. The horse
is all we ever share. For he has sons
and I am just a daughter.
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