By Karen Salyer McElmurray
In my twenties and thirties, I traveled highways east and west. My 1967 Dodge Dart, its engine block cracked, took me from Kentucky to Arizona and back again. I road up the east coast to Maine, then far south to Key West. I kept a road atlas on the seat beside me and a Tarot deck in my backpack, consulting both about the twists and turns of my various journeys. The atlas was outdated, and on occasion I would end up where some little town used to be, a mall now in its place—and the Tarot showed me far more about my past than it ever did my future. Behind me were generations of coal miners, dirt farmers and outlaws, and ahead of me were more roads than I could count. My Dodge Dart took me south on 29 out of Virginia, 64 West through West Virginia, 24 north, through Tennessee and Georgia.
The Dart ended up in the junk yard, but still I traveled. Once I drove from Kentucky to the panhandle of Florida on backroads. Another time I went to Maine on a Greyhound bus. Years later, I hitch-hiked through England and Ireland, worked my way via vineyards through France and Greece, climbed to northernmost Nepal, then traveled south to India where I saw the dead float by on the Ganges. I was farther and farther away from the people who made me. The world shivered beneath my feet and I held on, gathering up stories of times and places. Those stories were about my family, who had become strangers to me, and strangers who had become my kin. Little by little I began writing those stories down.
As the years passed, my road trips became more about ambition than geographic space. I still drove the nine hours between Eastern Kentucky and my Life-as-a-Writer, but I’d become more driven than driver. I was between years as a graduate student in creative writing and my first job as a visiting professor. Soon there were other jobs, and I traveled between one rental house and the next. I planted gardens and moved away before they established themselves, moved on to a new lover before I fully grieved the loss of the old one. I owned a 1987 Nissan pickup with standard shift and then a shiny Honda with automatic. All the while, I wrote, stories, and then longer works of fiction. A memoir.
For the debut of my first novel, I attended the annual SIBA (Southeastern Independent Booksellers Association) Conference. I found myself at my press’s table between a stack of copies of my debut novel and stacks of other books on the summer list. I was lucky, the press told me, to be debuting at an event like this. I had a ten-minute reading slot on a panel, and the summer catalogue featured a photo of my father and his brother when they were boys, swimming in the Big Sandy River. The photo hadn’t made book cover, but they’d found it enticing. Generate some buzz, the editor said as he headed off to make the rounds of presses, large and small. Talk to people. He disappeared into a crowd that smelled discreetly of sweat and nice cologne.
The book was about the relationship between a boy named Andrew Wallen, and his lover, Henry Ward, who grew up in a town like the coal town my granny was from. I’d written about fundamentalist faith, mental illness, all the things I’d wrested myself away from but never managed to leave behind. The writing had come out of me white-hot and hurting, and now, there it was, in a giant hall, on a table with a hundred other writers and publishers milling around. I paced. Paced in front of the table. Paced behind it, fanning copies of the catalogue. I sat down and fiddled with the pens beside the mailing list. No one. I repeated that to myself. No one was stopping. I paced back into the aisle, proffered the basket of free chocolates and press postcards. At last, a woman lingered near the table, her hand smoothing the paper jacket of my book. The cover wasn’t the photo of the boys swimming, but the silhouette of a tree, the title against a dusky blue sky. I like birds, the woman said, smiling as she nibbled a chocolate.
Besides bird-woman, what I’ve remembered longest from that SIBA Conference is sitting beside my editor during the debut novelist panel. He fidgeted, drew squiggles on his program, poked me in the side when I’d taken my seat after my reading slot. Just remember. He scratched the thin blonde hair on his scalp. Nothing’s about talent when you get right down to it. These words have stayed with me over the years as an elixir of spirit, professional weariness, and bone-deep memories. He has been right, in so many ways. It hasn’t been about talent.
The miles I’ve ridden are made of hard work. Weeks full of teaching and committees and office politics and papers to grade and, somewhere in there, finding silence and the will to begin another essay. The miles are made of words. The distance between the rejection letter and me, standing on the back deck in the wind and waiting for the discouragement to pass. The miles are one more word, one more line, one more page. As Calvin Coolidge would say, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Some days, the trip is a long uphill, and there I am, hanging on for dear life, sometimes by a thread. The trip is sell-ability and connections and being careful not to step on the wrong toes. Historical moments embraced at the right time. Social purpose, potential receptivity, a moral compass, even. Tapping into the zeitgeist via the subject, and the author. Considerations of the market concerning age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity. It’s about how you package, not just the product, but yourself. It’s marketing, sales figures, profits, brand-ability. And admit it, it’s about privilege—enough money to submit to this, apply for that, enter contests, get to the next conference, knock on the right agent’s door. It’s about the privileged making you the next big thing. About knowing which doors to knock on and which gates to climb under. It’s about timing, ingenuity, luck, and sheer stubbornness. And sometimes the wonderful, magical thing happens: quality, literary prose that also sells in numbers.
Regardless, my hackles rise when artistry is described in the same breath as commercialism. The art I have made with words is, I tell myself, as close to a religion as I can get. It’s the axis mundi of my world, if not the world. The open, sacred space, ascending flame, earth touched by the footsteps of the holy. All those fine words? They tremble in their boots in the presence of everything from sales figures to ageism in the publishing world. I just tremble. Me in my shit kicker boots, driving back to Kentucky one more time, to that world I know like a map of my own self, a world inhabited by the smiths of words, wood, and spirit. Which all takes me to back to where I began—the betwixt and between. Artisan or Artist? Do I focus on the work of art or toward its market? This is not an either/-or: many creators manage to be both. I grew up between those worlds, and have kept floating between them ever since.
When I was a kid, artisanry just was. Out behind my grandmother’s house was a building called the Long House, where my grandfather kept tools and projects underway—a chair to re-cane, a beat-up chest to sand and refinish. My grandmother’s world was piles of material from thrift stores and yard sales, hoarded for the next potholder, the next quilt. They were a guided tour through the lives of family members and through my own life. In this quilt, pieces of a shirt my father wore when he was a young man. In that quilt, squares cut from a dress made for me when I was nine. The furniture my grandfather worked on and the quilts we slept under gleamed with hard work, and with colors and laborious stitches. They were splendid, and they were useful. Cathedral Window. Trip Around the World. The quilts and their names were poems I slept under.
To write such poems in my daily life has been another matter. I have robbed the dream world of signs and symbols, tried to pass them off as useful commodities in my waking world. It didn’t jive. As I studied creative writing in this program, that program, taught night classes, lobbied for jobs, I still drove the miles back to Kentucky, and my kin still wondered what exactly I was doing with my time. My father helped me change the brake pads on my car and joked about my lifetime commitment to being a student. My grandfather wanted to know when all my education would begin working on me. Truth be told, I wondered that myself as I began to send out work to literary magazines, awards, and contests.
In a documentary about the writer Harry Crews, we learn that his venture into the public life of writing sent him into “palpable despair,” as he received rejection after rejection, with one notice suggesting he give it up and quit writing. I didn’t give up, but I also felt my share of despair. I remember sitting in the yard late one night, grabbing a handful of grass and shaking it at the full moon like I was a faux Scarlett O’Hara. I would never, I swore. But nothing fit at the end of the sentence. Never be hungry again? Never struggle to fill a blank page? Never worry about what might happen to the manuscript I’d labored over for years once it went out into the world? Doubtful.
In my latest novel, a late-thirty-something woman named Miracelle Loving lives betwixt and between way more than I ever have. Having lost her fortune-telling mother to an unsolved murder when she was sixteen, Miracelle travels the roads doing odd jobs, telling false fortunes, loving false hearts. Her lack of geographic center sends her on a journey with no clear end in sight—she wants to find out the name of the father she never knew, who might just be her mother’s killer.
Just-might-be has become my adage as I dive deeper into a lifetime committed to writing. For many years, when I wrote stories, I always knew the last page, the last line. These days, I deliberately write into unknowing, allowing characters to travel roads, find their way, surprise me. When I can, I abandon deliberation, begin writing an essay to watch it blossom with surprising colors, directions I never anticipated at all. And the external life of the writer has come to surprise me, as well. Finding a public life for new work is a task I’ve come to understand more—the exigencies of the necessary paths forward to bring a work to life in the world, make it known, get it read—though that public life is as mysterious and as frustrating as it ever was. Some doors never open. Others swing wide, with welcoming arms there to take the book in. Still other days, I think again and again of the folk tale about the fisherman and his wife. The fisherman catches a magical flounder, who lends him three wishes when he is released back into the ocean. He gives the wishes to his wife, who wishes bigger and bigger, until she wishes she were God. It is possible, I think, to wish so hard with the public life of writing, that the humbler, inner world, the quiet task of word after word after word can be forgotten. Or so I tell myself.
During the days of the pandemic, I took long drives. Rode along the Patuxent River. Took the old roads into Baltimore City and its run-down townhouses. Took night rides just to see the face of the moon. As I road, I remembered my grandfather. How at the end of long days of hauling coal up out of the earth, he sat on a porch overlooking bottom land in front of his house. He rocked in a green metal chair, and he whittled. I remember best the scent of cedar as he whittled—his Case knife scraping again and again, while shavings of heart-red wood curled and fell at his feet. No purpose but that:—knife, wood, fragrant curls of cedar. He had a talent for it. It’s a memory I come back to often when the world is furious and never still, or when I think I’ve spent all I have in a shifting world of betwixt and between. Listen, I tell myself. You can hear how wood almost sighs in someone’s hands as they try, again and again, to find a beautiful center. I lower all the windows in my car and let the cool air guide me home. I take the gifts that come to me and make the most of them.
Karen Salyer McElmurray
Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction. Her novels are The Motel of the Stars, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven. She has co-edited, with poet Adrian Blevins, an essay collection called Walk till the Dogs Get Mean. Wanting Radiance, her newest novel has just been released in paperback from University Press of Kentucky and Voice Lessons, a short collection of lyric essays, was released in June 2021 from Iris Press.