16 July 2009
Dignotion has been on hiatus for a while (obviously, it's been a long while since I've posted) but this blog still receives regular hits from the SAWC link and random others with an Appalachian curiousity.

I'll continue to leave the articles I have written previously up (mostly because I don't have the heart to delete them). Hey, you never know, I might just plop right back down and get to writing here again, but for now I'm concentrating on other (albeit related) things.

If you're interested in picking up where I left off, please send me an email to the link to your left and I'll see about adding you as an additional editor with posting privileges.

Thanks for the memories.
All the best,
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25 September 2007
Coal Mother by Kelli Ward-Sturgill
My mountain,
My Mother.
Weeping with the blood
of my Grandfather's fathers,
Faces, stained black.
My mountain
Wails for justice,
Losing her voice,
Like a dying wick
in a smoldering candle.

Her children,
in the corner,
on scraps
from the master's table.
in darkness,
While she is raped.

Everything pure.
Everything just.
Everything Sacred.
Reduced to ashes and soot for a dollar.

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24 September 2007
Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day
I'm a hillbilly, a woman, and a poet, and I understood early on that nobody was going to listen to anything I had to say anyway, so I might as well just say what I want to.

- Irene McKinney, Poet Laureate, West Virginia

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19 September 2007
Overcoming Writer's Block
Our constantly evolving language, that transcontinental pipeline of countless ideas, words, phrases, and comparisons seem to flow in endless supply to those who tap into it for a livelihood. Yet, all aspiring and established writers get our writing pipes clogged up from time to time. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is to find themselves at a complete loss for words. Searching for the cerebral Drāno to clear that mental blockage is a challenging feat that can send one into the darkest underbelly of self-loathing, but once that pipe clears up, it is pure ecstasy just to get those words flowing once again.

There are thousands of websites out there that give you tips like "Set a schedule and stick to it", or "Examine the psychological reasons that you feel like you can't write", blah blah blah. Most of those sites tell you that you have issues. In most cases, that just isn't true. Yes, maybe you're stressed, but that doesn't mean you have "issues" that you need to line out. Sometimes you just can't think of anything to write about. Sometimes you're just "stuck". It doesn't make writer's block this big bad boogeyman or gremlin that sleeps under your desk, screwing up your life, scattering your pens all willy nilly and causing "issues". Yes, sometimes it might feel that way, but I can't handle the seriousness of that advice. It is just so...depressing.

I have found several ways to combat my own bouts of writer's block, some sources coming from other individuals, and most coming from my own trial and error to find what works. The basic tenet that I have learned is that on-topic distractions can make a world of difference. You can distract yourself, but do it constructively with the goal of breaking that block in mind.

Writing for Writing's Sake
Sometimes writing for the writing's sake can be just what one needs to get those ideas and words flowing again. I find that sometimes just plopping down in front of the monitor or on the bed with a notebook and writing about how I am feeling, or what I did when I woke up (in excruciating detail) can help. You would be surprised how much detail you can get into when you're just describing making a pot of coffee. Don't stop. Don't look back to edit, just keep writing. We're not looking for print quality, here.

If you are still at a loss, write about how much you hate writer's block. Go ahead, imagine it is a tangible creature, that little gremlin that is screwing your desk up and causing you to have "issues". Detail all the things you would like to do to the little monster and write until he has suffered an agonizing and blood curdling death. That should do it.

Setting the Tune: or, Rock Out With Your Block Out
Staring at a blank sheet of paper can only make things worse when you're trying to think. You focus more on the lack of words on that sheet than the potential that the sheet has. Break up that monotony and pent up tension with a jam break.

We all have certain songs that trigger an "abnormal" response in our normally stoic selves. You know you have a few. For instance, if you're driving in the car, and a certain song comes on the radio and it makes you feel so great that the next thing you know, you're lip syncing and dancing like a fool. You have become the guy at the stoplight who forgot his car had transparent windows.

The making of a mixtape may be considered an ancient practice from the era of the cassette, but with the availability of cd burners today, there is absolutely no reason against your making a mixDISC of those few songs to rock out to. Break that tension! You're most likely in the privacy of your own home, so nobody is there to judge you, so get your funk on or do your best air guitar rendition, you know it feels good. The point is to get moving, and have a little fun doing it.

When you're done dancing around the house, sit back down. You've been liberated and can start writing again.

Post-Its are a Girl's Best Friend
I'm infamous for my love of the Post-It note. I have a stack in the purse (when I carry one), in the car, and in every room of my home. You don't have to use Post-Its, any notebook will do (smaller sizes work best for portability). But a simple sentence written down about a particular line or idea to jog your memory can work wonders when you are strapped for ideas to write about later on.

You never know when an idea will hit you, and when it does, get it down before you lose it. If you ever want to win the battle against the 'Block, this should do it.

A Quote of the Day Keeps the Clogging Away

I find that sometimes looking for inspiration in the words of others can get your wheels of thought turning.

Bartlett's, BrainyQuote, and ThinkExist are three really good quote sites on the internet.

Take a Ride on the Memory Machine
If you're finding trouble trying to flesh out a character's personality, go back to a real person that reminds you of what you want your character to represent. Write a few paragraphs about that person. What did you like about them? What did you loathe about them? Did they have any habits that annoyed you or amused you? Any characteristics about their appearance that stood out to you? You could have seen this person in passing on the street, or they could be a close acquaintance, it doesn't matter. The point is that once you focus and get a train of thought moving, you find it easier to develop your character.

I have also found that if you're strapped for ideas, looking back into your memory of distinguishing geographic or landscape features can help. Think about that scene from your memory. What could have happened there? Why? Who was involved? Feel free to utilize the 5W+H formula here: (Who, What Where, When, Why, & How) I've had a few interesting vignettes occur from out of nowhere simply by remembering a particular setting from my own life.

Using Google image search can also be helpful when trying to visualize a scene. Writing about some place in Atlanta? Writing about an old farm house? Google it in an image search and use characteristics in the photos that show up as a springboard.

Converse With Your Muse
You know that friend or acquaintance you have that just being around them makes things spring into your head like a preteen on a trampoline? We all have one. Call them up, tell them what you're working on, that you're stuck, and the short conversation alone will help you decompress and free up your mind. Get back to work.

Find What Works for You
Clichéd but true. Find what inspires you and aids your focus. Everything I have told you above works for me, but it may not work for you. Take from them what you will and redefine them into your own style. OR...you can go to another site and try to figure out why you have "issues" and see where it goes from there.

Happy writing,

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Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day
I believe that every human being is potentially capable within his 'limits' of fully 'realizing' his potentialities; that this, his being cheated and choked of it, is infinitely the ghastliest, commonest, and most inclusive of all the crimes of which the human world can assure itself."
- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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14 September 2007
Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day
"We're defined by where we're from, though, I know that much. And having grown up where I did, the land was inescapable. When you walk outside and there's a mountain in front of you, you can't deny its existence and its importance."
- Silas House

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13 September 2007
Appalachian Spotlight: Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie has done so much to help preserve and promote Appalachian culture and narrate our story in the last 60+ years as have many others I could pull from the filing cabinet in my mind. Using traditional mountain and folk music to sing her family's (and her own) songs, Jean has become an outstanding voice of Appalachia in a world so unfamiliar with our plight.

Jean is an artist, an advocate, and a champion of our people.

I'd love to catch her the next time she's in Viper, just to thank her for all her contributions to preserving our culture she has made. The closest I ever got was when she was Grand Marshall of the Black Gold Festival Parade in Hazard a few years back, and I was like a kid in a candy store just to see her pass by.

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Creative Nonfiction: Old John Smith By Kelli Ward-Sturgill
A note before you read: I took a creative writing class last semester, and this happened to be my favorite selection from the whole term. I found out that I like writing my own stories a whole lot better than those about people who don't exist. I hope you enjoy, I wanted to share one of the many memories of my childhood with you guys and gals!.

Old John Smith

I was at a stoplight today and saw a tattered sign on the post. It said Lost Dog - ”Noodles” - $500 Reward, followed with a picture of the most obnoxious looking Pomeranian you have ever seen tugging on one of those rope toys. The rope was thicker than the pup’s head. Some poor soul’s best friend probably got out of an open screen door a few weeks back when it was warm, and it seems they’re determined to pay more for Noodles’ return than they paid for him in the first place. Noodles must be some dog.

I immediately went back to another time, when I was about ten years old. There was an old man who lived up the holler above one of my grown cousins, and this man never left his house. I think every neighborhood had one of these types. You know the kind; eccentric old man whom all the kids make stories about how he killed his wife or locked her in the attic and you swear you saw her once, but chickened out and ran away. This old man was exactly that.

I grew up hearing from my family how he had been some kind of brilliant engineer, and had a breakdown in his fifties and moved from New York City to Harlan County, USA because he saw the documentary about the UMWA strikes and thought this was an isolated enough place to get away from people. At least, that was the story. He left the house only to walk to his mailbox every morning, and he even had made an arrangement with the local Mom & Pop store to bring him groceries every week.

When he came here, he called himself John Smith. Whether that was really the old man’s name or not was still in question. One of the boys in my class said that his father told him Old Man Smith was here because he was running from the mob, and was in Witness Protection. I was ten years old, and to my knowledge the mob was a group of people chasing someone around with pitchforks, axes and torches. But then again, until I reached adulthood, I lived what one would call a sheltered life.

It’s safe to say that in such a tight knit town as mine, stories like these will pop up like wildfires in August. Everybody knows everybody, the gossip grapevine has been securely set in place for generations, and if they don’t know you, they’ll figure some reason out as to why they don’t. Needlessly, these stories put the fear of God into us kids. However, the one thing we children absolutely knew to be true was Old Man Smith’s dog. It was a mutt; had the face of a Beagle, the sable and white body of a Great Dane, and the howl of a Bloodhound. You could see it run around the fenced yard and into the house, and if you got too close, the dog bellowed like you had just escaped from a chain gang. Lucky for me, I never got that close.

Well, one day that dog got gone, and I reckon Old Man Smith was having a fit. That dog must have been the only being Old Man Smith had the most contact with, so it’s reasonable to assume why he was perturbed. He had called somebody up the Creek and had them post lost dog signs all over the place. He had a quarter page ad taken out in the paper offering “a cash reward for the finding of a beloved friend” and gave a description of the dog, but no picture. I believe it was my aunt who worked at the local clinic that said someone came in from the local Humane Society and said he had made a hefty donation for them to help look for it, and the lady even said that he had called in a psychic to help him find the dog.

A week went by, then two, the talk petered out, and then a month and the ad in the paper disappeared. Everyone thought that Old Man Smith had just given up. I hadn’t thought much about the dog, let alone Old Man Smith. I was out playing in my yard one Friday afternoon, Dad was at work and Mom and my little brother was in the house. Lo and behold, Old Man Smith’s dog walked up from over the riverbank and right into my front yard. My family always joked that if there was ever a stray, it would follow me home. Animals have always seemed to be attracted to me, even when I pretend they’re not there. Maybe it was because I was chubby and looked like I knew where food was, I don’t know, but believe me when I say I was a little Dr. Doolittle by the age of ten.

The dog walked right up and sat beside me. He looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. I resolved right then and there I was going into the house to get him a can of Vienna sausages and a bowl of water. My mother asked me what I was doing rummaging in the cabinets, and when I told her there was a dog outside and it was hungry, she naturally threw the “You’ve brought another stray home?!?” fit she had always thrown. Convinced that the dog was going to bite me and give me rabies or some incurable disease, she went outside with me.
(Not that it would have helped matters if the dog had been rabid, but you know how mothers are).

The first thing she proclaimed when we were outside was “You’ve found Old Man Smith’s dog!” I hadn’t even thought about whose dog it was, it just looked hungry to me. But naturally, a ten year old child and the prospect of a monetary reward seem to be great bedfellows. The dog chomped on the sausages as Mom went in the house to get a leash. When my Dad came home early, he naturally threw the “You’ve brought another damn stray to this house?!?” fit he had always thrown, and then after a second or two it had dawned on him that I had found Old Man Smith’s dog too.

You would have thought that we had won the lottery in that house. My dad worked eleven hour days six days a week at the sawmill, but we never had much money to play around with. The paychecks always went straight into bills and groceries. Dad dug through an old stack of newspapers and found one that had Old Man Smith’s ad in it. He called the number and told Old Man Smith that he believed his daughter had found his dog.

My Dad agreed to bring the dog back to Old Man Smith after we ate dinner and he took a shower. However, somewhere between bites of thirty nine cent chicken noodles from Save a Lot and dreams of a new bicycle, Old Man Smith wanted Dad to bring me with him. After Dad hung up the phone it was like I had been handed a death sentence. Actually having to go up and meet Old Man Smith wasn’t exactly in the itinerary I had fashioned for myself. I was terrified of that man, and good reason too, after all, people with pitchforks, axes, and torches had chased him into the armpit of the Appalachians that was Harlan County.

I begged and pleaded with my Dad to let me stay home, but his reply was “You found the dog; you’re taking it back to him.” After my dad showered, we loaded up the dog into the old Blue Chevy Blazer with rust holes in the floor that Dad used as a work vehicle and headed up the Creek to Old Man Smith’s. I had a knot in my stomach the size of Texas as we went into four wheel drive and climbed that steep hill.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Old Man Smith was actually sitting on his porch. In the sunlight. We got out of the Blazer and Dad got the dog out on the leash and walked up to the gate. Old Man Smith got up from the porch and let us in the yard. He had wiry hair that looked like cotton batting, and it looked like the wind had blown it every which way, floating on the wind like a broken spider’s web. He looked at the dog and said “Hello old Boy.” My dad then proceeded to introduce ourselves and made small talk with the old man about how the dog came into our possession and a little joking about the miniature Dr. Doolittle standing beside him while I stood there still as a stone. Looking back, I would have made a lovely lawn ornament.

Old Man Smith had on a pair of pajamas with wide blue stripes and black house loafers. In his shirt pocket was an eyeglass case from which he pulled an old pair of horn rimmed glasses. He smiled at us, put on a pair of glasses and pulled a picture from his pocket. I noticed his hands were shaking. He looked from the picture to the dog and back again. He walked around the dog, looking at each side, checking its ears and teeth, uttering the occasional “Hmmm,” if he found something interesting. The dog acted like it knew Old Man Smith; it was as friendly as a dog could be. It felt like ten years standing there as none of us uttered a sound, as the dog licked the man’s hand.

Old Man Smith looked over to me and gently said in that Yankee accent that terrified me because of its unfamiliarity, “Well m’dear, it looks like you have found someone’s friend, but not mine. They look nearly alike, but their spots are different, see?” My heart fell. There goes the bike, I thought, but nobody knew how I felt, because I was still as wide eyed as I was when I first walked through that gate. Then he continued, “However, my dog, Boy has been gone for over a month and I fear him to be dead. I think someone upstairs sent this one to you so you would bring him to me. He looks awful lonely and he does look a lot like my dog. I would be very willing to take him off your hands and give you a little something for your trouble.”

He reached into his front pocket once more and pulled out an old, well handled business size envelope. It was stuffed with money to the point that the flap would not close. On second glance, it wasn’t just filled with dollar bills, it was filled with twenties. I had never seen that much money in one place in my entire life, it had to be twice what my Dad made in a week. If my eyes had been wide before, they only bulged more.

I looked down at the envelope, then to the smiling, kind face of the old man I had been so afraid of my entire life and realized that he was just a lonely old man who seemed to be just as scared of the world as I was of him, and he was willing to give me what looked like every penny he had in return for bringing him the next best thing to his closest companion. I looked up to my Dad with a face that said “I’m sorry,” and he looked at me with a face that I took to mean “Do the right thing”. I looked at the envelope once again and releasing the breath I had been holding, I handed the parcel back to the man and said “Mr. Smith, I can’t take your money. Just promise that you’ll take good care of him. He likes Viennies.”

He tried to hand the envelope back to me, but I wouldn’t take it. It just didn’t feel right. After refusing a few more times Old Man Smith gave in and said “You’re a good, kind girl. I’ll treat him like a king.” He and my Dad talked for a little while longer while I sat and pet the dog. On the way home, my Dad said he was proud of me, one of the few times I’ve ever heard him say it. As I came back to the present when the light turned green, I thought about just how far someone would go for the return of a beloved friend.

I really hope Noodles finds his way home.

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Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day (& Homer Hickam's Upcoming Book)
It is better to confess ignorance than provide it.
-Homer Hickam, The Coalwood Way

Homer has a new book due out in February 2008 titled Red Helmet, it's about a New York woman who falls in love with a West Virginia coal miner, and between troubles at home and tragedy striking, she must go underground and work the mines herself, donning the red helmet that is the mark of a novice coal miner. I can't wait for it. Check it out.

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12 September 2007
Rediscovering Robert Penn Warren
Years ago, I read Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce by Robert Penn Warren. While looking for today's Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day, I came across the following excerpt from this work. Though the story is completely unrelated, deep down I feel it can apply to the Appalachia we live in today:

My father held my hand, and he died.
Dying, said: ‘Think always of your country.
Your father has never sold your country.

Has never touched white-man money that they
Should say they have bought the land you now stand on.
You must never sell the bones of your fathers-
For selling that, you sell your Heart-Being".

I can't say if it was because I was fairly young and self-absorbed when I read the poem, or that now that I'm older I can be a little more introspective, but those two stanzas stuck a deep chord within me.

Why it rings more true to the way I see my Appalachia now versus the Appalachia I was literally clawing my way out of when I was seventeen can only be ascribed to the responsibility I feel for preserving the legacy of my Appalachian heritage today. I am guilty of being ashamed of my roots for a period in my younger life. I can't take that back, but I can learn from it.

I think as we mature we begin to see the merits of our culture and upbringing, and the value of sharing it with the next generation. Traditions fade with time, simply because they go dormant, unused, unmarried with the cultural chattels passed down to the successive generation.

Each era possesses less and less to identify with it's foundations, and instead of embracing the old ways and redefining them into a new identity, they're rejected and shunned. In order to attain the "modern" ideals of the non-rural lifestyle for the sake of progress, we are "selling the bones of our fathers", and losing our unique identity as Appalachians.

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