Over the Christmas holiday, I read several novels by Lee Smith. I read Oral History, Black Mountain Breakdown, Fair and Tender Ladies, and Saving Grace. Now, I am reading her newish memoir, Dimestore. I literally can locate my life in these books because they are set in the area where I live. Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia, Smith writes the stories of her childhood in Grundy, Virginia, and the nearby isolated “hollers” of the mountains surrounding Grundy and on toward Bristol, where I live.
The truths of stories, those truths that emerge and inform my own life, are tacitly experienced in my reading beyond the geographic landscapes I know. For example, across the four novels, I realized that the strong women that anchor each book go through much of their lives waiting, even longing, for something intangible that will make their lives complete. Often these longings result in hastily made decisions based on strong emotions that challenge the very relationships with those closest and most dear to them—husbands, brothers, sisters, and children.
I understand that kind of longing,
I’m teaching children’s literature this semester and I want the class to think deeply about the power of story in our lives. We use words and the many forms of language we encounter to become human, to connect ourselves with people and places and things in the world, and to connect ourselves beyond our human understanding.
Reading for me is one of those interpretive practices that creates a real “place” where I learn about myself. It’s not always explicitly obvious, though that does occasionally happen. Most often, it is what literacy researcher and writer, Dennis Sumara, calls the gradual instant. He recounts the experience of 90-year-old Hagar, from Anne Michael’s novel Fugitive Pieces.
Near the end of her life, when Hagar realizes Marvin has been the best son, not John, it is an epiphany that has been years in the making. As with all unexpected revelations, there is no immediate accounting for this understanding. For Hagar, insight does not spring directly from a particular episode in her life, but emerges ambiguously from the strange crevices that collect memory, current perception, and fantasy.
Sumara goes on to say that he reads memoirs, ethnographies, and autobiographies for the explicit interpretations of life that he is only able to make in retrospect. In all kinds of reading of stories, I would argue, I am continually finding myself, giving “words” to my lived experience. So that “gradual instant” emerges from a complex relationship between my history, memory, language, and geography—where I am in-between what I experience and what I imagine.
So, what do I want the young people with whom I’ll be reading stories this semester to know? Those who will be using stories in their own future classrooms to engender the same kind of experience of exploring and eventually knowing?
Reading is an interaction—a transaction with the text. When we talk about stories we not only interact with an author’s rendition of living but also make sense of our own lives in the context of other peoples’ thinking and experience.
Stories speak truths that we may or may not hear. As we identify with aspects of the text and develop a relationship between these identifications and the context of reading, a complex web of associations emerge.
One thing I love about being in a small university is the opportunity I have to learn from others across disciplines. In a recent conversation, a wise colleague from Religion and Philosophy recalled our own power to “speak words” that create out of chaos.
In those moments, those gradual instants, when I am reading a novel, a memoir, the Bible; I come to insights that matter, just as Frederick Buechner says about our stories.
My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but spiritually.