This week’s author is Katherine Scott Crawford, author of Keowee Valley, winner of a North Carolina Arts Award. Katherine lives in my beloved mountains of Western North Carolina. For those of you who don’t own the book, you must. Here’s a link. Keowee Valley is only 1.99 for Kindle right now. Perfect gift for the holidays.
Such were the words said of me most of my life, a proclamation laid like a familial crown upon the head.
There was nothing to be done for it. While my sister had a brain for math and my cousins excelled in science (one of them could manage any engineering feat—including, as a seven year-old, assembling everyone’s multi-part Christmas gifts in point-seven seconds flat), my talents always lay in writing. My output was storytelling, and still is.
It’s the way I learned: History became the saga of nations, astronomy a tale of mythic creatures in the stars, chemistry the treatise of centuries-old wizards concocting potions in the lab. I could never see past the descriptions of the inventions of Archimedes (the lever, the screw, the pulley, Eureka!) to the bare-bones numbers in his physics equations. In ninth grade English class, while my classmates were bemoaning Shakespearian footnotes, I was happily time-walking in the muck and intrigue of Elizabethan England.
As a child, I wanted to know all the stories. What had my father been like as a boy? Had he really played “Thunder Road” with his buddies, drag-racing his Chevy through dusty Southern fields? Tell me that story again, of how my grandparents met. Didn’t he ask her to dance, in pre-World War II Oak Ridge, Tennessee—he ten years older and a Yankee to boot—and didn’t she refuse at first, then give in? And didn’t he, between the big band beats of the Jitterbug, tell her that she was the woman he was going to marry?
Those stories, they were like magic. Stories—others’ and my own—became the lens from behind which I viewed the world.
The urge to know the story behind the place, the person, the event—that’s the well-spring of my personal creativity. During the summer I spent studying in Italy as a graduate student, I sat for hours in the BoboliGardens, my back to a stone bench and my eyes closed, breathing in the smell of cypress trees and citrus on the June wind. I couldn’t pull my brain from a certain need to know just who’d lived and walked there, in that very spot, the thousand years before I had. This tendency for all the information I can get drives my husband batty: he claims he can’t tell a simple story without me stopping him, asking to know exactly who it’s about, where they’re from, what they were wearing when it happened.
But for me, these details are vital to the tale: they’re the most important puzzle pieces. And without them, the story loses color and vitality.
So maybe that’s the key to creativity: wonder.
I feel lucky that as an adult, I still wonder at the world. The rust-colored curve of a horseshoe crab’s shell, even beached and rotting, still astounds me. The hanging Spanish moss in the live oaks outside my in-laws’ Hilton Head Island house makes me think of the ghostly and dangerous human patois of a bygone time, even as I wonder at just how that moss gets there, why it grows, what kinds of bugs congregate in those gray grass beards in the sweltering heat of summer.
This wonder and curiosity doesn’t make me an especially fun road-trip buddy. Not everyone wants to stop at every single historical marker, or be read to from a bevy of different guidebooks, or learn from my Trivial Pursuit-like bunker of a brain about the particular Revolutionary War general who lost his arm and his horse on that stretch of highway (formerly a wagon path, of course). But I see the world in layers; I just can’t help it.
You’d think I’d have ended up an historian. But much as I love history, I love the story more. And the building of my own stories—from the mulchy forest floor to the heart pine cabin to the fire that took it all away to the tavern and then the church built over top, and the imaginative structuring of the genealogical charts of each and every one of that place’s inhabitants over a several-hundred year period—is my catnip. My storyteller’s Arthurian stone.
I pull the sword, and the singing starts.