Sunday, November 6, 2016

Reading Autobiography

By Sharon May

As an Appalachian writer, I read lots of Appalachian fiction, and my favorite authors of this genre are Lee Smith, Silas House, and Ron Rash. Recently, I read two non-fiction books by two very different Appalachians – Lee Smith’s Dimestore: A Writer’s Life and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Neither book is a typical autobiography, but both resonate with this hillbilly.

Vance grew up in the Rust Belt of Ohio, but identifies as an Appalachian because his neighborhood was filled with Appalachians who had migrated north for jobs and because, on his visits to his family home in Jackson, Kentucky, he felt it was the only place he could be himself. His book reveals the dysfunction of his family in brutal, honest detail and the hope given to him by his Mamaw that he could rise above the despair to accomplish his dream of going to college.

A graduate of Ohio State and Yale Law School, Vance includes in his memoir sociological research on Appalachia to help him and his reader understand his life and culture. He concludes that, despite the Appalachian’s tendency to blame the government and other social institutions for the despair in their lives, it is time that Appalachians themselves take responsibility for their actions and fix their problems themselves so they can stop damaging the lives of their children.

Smith writes her autobiography in a series of essays spanning her childhood memories of her childhood in Grundy, Virginia at her father’s dime store to her meeting Eudora Welty in her creative writing class to her tribute to her late son, lost to the effects of medications taken to control his mental illness.

One of the more telling points Smith makes about modern Appalachian life is how progress for many people is measured by whether your town has a Walmart, and Smith discusses how such progress has changed the landscape of places like Grundy. Her essays on writing paint it as an act that can be rewarding as well as difficult at times, particularly when searching for an idea for the next book.   

While both books are organized linearly along the author’s life, they are not organized by event, but instead by theme. They have taught me that creative non-fiction can be merged with autobiography, and have given me permission to explore more options for revising my autobiography that I started years ago. I have written one very long introduction that includes several themes. Now I need to separate those themes into a series of essays that make the points I want readers to learn from my experiences.

Obviously a writer needs to read, not only for pleasure, but for instruction on how to improve one’s writing. A poet friend of mine argues that you can measure a writer by what he or she reads. I don’t know if I agree with him, but it does give me food for thought. 

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