Open Mic Blog

SPOTLIGHT: Cat Pleska

Posted on February 22, 2014 at 3:05 PM

Cat Pleska

The Never-Ending Story

              

I’m not sure when I became words. Maybe it was like Franz Kafka’s character who wakes up as a bug. But I know my metamorphosis was not overnight. I suppose it began while growing up, an only child. My father struggled with alcohol and my mother’s depression seemed linked to my father’s problems. I have never been able to separate her state of mind with his state of sobriety. It was a tango strangely out of step: he drank, she cried. They spent most of their lives in a whirling dervish life, leaving me to navigate the duality of their reality: calm and chaos.

                        

I loved them both. They both loved me. They taught me to be empathic, attuned to every mood and nuance of their lives. Leaning heavily on the calm times to sail me through the chaotic times, I learned to cope. While it was never easy, and I failed sometimes to cope, 90% of the time I played like a normal child. I did well in school, I had a safe home, I dreamed of what I would be one day.

                             

I was never angry with either of them, not then and not now. I am grateful for these two intelligent, creative, larger-than-life people. They augmented my inborn talent to observe then ponder. They inspired me with the verve and spirit to write from the heart, the soul.

                                

The truth is, neither parent was able to finish high school—lack of food and clothes drove them each to work. But, oh, they were writers and storytellers extraordinaire. My mom penned poems and song lyrics and the start of a novel. My mother told me all my life: you must become a writer. My father seemed to have the patois of most older generation Appalachians, West Virginians. His musical dialect, coupled with his ability to tell stories was the stuff of poetry. Both parents were voracious readers, and books were as common as a cup of coffee and a cigarette in our house.

                                 

Near the end of my father’s life, he told me about how aluminum plants work (he retired from Kaiser Aluminum): describing pot rooms and rolling mills, painting vivid images in my mind. I can still yet see the sparks, feel the heat that was 180 degrees up to a man’s shoulder. Not that he knew his facility with language was inspiring. 

                                       

Somewhere around 12, when I’d inadvertently met the great Pearl Buck and figured out authors were real and not some machine or a hundred monkeys somewhere banging on a typewriter, I started writing in earnest. I put on paper what I saw in my mind, what I remembered of everything I’d seen and heard. In my family, I was witness and sin eater, and eventually you know that stuff has to come out somewhere, and fortunately for me, it became a creative outlet, a saving grace.

                                  

Life consumed my parents eventually, my mom in 2000 and my dad in 2003. Before either died they said, “Tell my story.” And from there began the real work, the planting of the butt in the chair to write. In a sense, I am the generation that is finishing what they could not: a fantastic story. But I have learned that I have my own to tell, too.

                                       

Through the last 40 years, on my unsteady route toward writing, I never had a mentor (until fairly recently) as many do, so I chugged along, that out of step tango I learned a long time ago. I was out of high school for 18 years before I got up the nerve to go to college and major in English. Then I earned a master’s degree in humanities: I figured: well, there is no place nearby where I can get a straight up writing degree, but a humanities degree offered a context into which to put my words, helping me discover the past and present, cultures and history, the stuff of background and universality.

                                     

In 2002, I began my, to date, best odyssey in writing: my MFA degree in creative nonfiction from Goucher College in Baltimore. It was low-residency, so I could stay home and take care of my family and continue to work. But it was a life-altering experience. The mentors there helped me take my writing to its next zenith and their support echoed that of my parents. 

                                        

Since graduating in 2004, I finally began to meld life and writing. I veered into other creative activities such as re-enacting historical characters, but I developed into a magazine feature writer and radio essayist. My memoir seems to be a never-ending story, but I’ll get there. And too, I am finding time to mentor others, both students at my university and writers in my community. I live and breathe writing every day. I am never one step away from it, one nano molecule separated from the continuing dream.

                     

Where am I on my path right now? I’m squiggles, marks on paper and on the screen, spoken into the air and ether. I can no longer find the dividing line. Here I am, right in front of you. On this page.

                       

When I die, hopefully many years hence, there will be a gravestone that says: Here lies Cat: mere words.

 

                                *  *  *  *

 

Cat Pleska teaches writing and literature at West Virginia State University and is the new president of Mountain State Press. She is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and a regular writer for Wonderful West Virginia magazine. She lives in Scott Depot with her husband, Dan, her dog, Lexi, and her cats Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Woolf. www.catpleska.com  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: None

Post a Comment

Oops!

Oops, you forgot something.

Oops!

The words you entered did not match the given text. Please try again.

Already a member? Sign In

40 Comments

Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
4:07 PM on February 28, 2014 
Welcome, Cat!

I love when you said "In my family, I was witness and sin eater." Tell me more!
Reply Carter
4:15 PM on February 28, 2014 
I've always wanted to write a story about a sin eater. You gave me a different way to look at the term, however. Great blog entry. Thank you.
Reply Cat
4:21 PM on February 28, 2014 
Carter says...
I've always wanted to write a story about a sin eater. You gave me a different way to look at the term, however. Great blog entry. Thank you.


Thanks, Carter. Have you ever watched the movie The Cutter, with Robin Williams? It's a fascinating movie and that's where I first heard the term sin eater. Although traditionally it refers to many culture's idea of cleansing the soul of the deceased so that they may enter heaven, I realized some sense of serving that function in my own family. Tell little Cat then you'll feel better. But where does that sin go when it goes into a little girl? Into stories, as it turns out.
Reply Cat
4:22 PM on February 28, 2014 
laura7 says...
Welcome, Cat!

I love when you said "In my family, I was witness and sin eater." Tell me more!

I told Carter what I thought it meant, or what it means to me. I recommend you find that movie, too. It's amazing what it makes you think as a memoirist, especially.
Reply Carla McClure
4:25 PM on February 28, 2014 
What's your take on fatalism--the role it has and does play in West Virginians' lives and in our literature?
Reply Cat
4:33 PM on February 28, 2014 
Carla McClure says...
What's your take on fatalism--the role it has and does play in West Virginians' lives and in our literature?


I wonder, Carla, if much of our attitude on fatalism was just undiagnosed melancholia or other depression. Not that we traditionally had time to sit and think about it, unless it got too severe. Now, we have all kinds of diagnostic tests to show what our state of mind is caused by and fatalism isn't a term used much anymore. Still, much of it may have arisen from wide-spread life difficulties, and that may also be the base of our stoicism we're rather famous for. You have to shove on whether you think there's much hope or not. Others depend on you. Some of it may rise from the prevalent types of religion of the early settlers, as well.
Reply Cat
4:37 PM on February 28, 2014 
Cat says...
I wonder, Carla, if much of our attitude on fatalism was just undiagnosed melancholia or other depression. Not that we traditionally had time to sit and think about it, unless it got too severe. Now, we have all kinds of diagnostic tests to show what our state of mind is caused by and fatalism isn't a term used much anymore. Still, much of it may have arisen from wide-spread life difficulties, and that may also be the base of our stoicism we're rather famous for. You have to shove on whether you think there's much hope or not. Others depend on you. Some of it may rise from the prevalent types of religion of the early settlers, as well.


I also think it's prevalent in our early to most recent literature, say up to the 70s (I'm thinking of Breece Pancake here), but there was a shift, such as when I write about my mother's depression, and her fatalistic outlook, I do so from the perspective of the psychological treatment she received. We still see the fatalism in more modern literature regarding stories of our environment, our landscape in particular.
Reply Marie Manilla
4:51 PM on February 28, 2014 
Lovely blog, Cat. I didn't know you re-enacted historical characters. Who do you do? Also, I know that Dan is a master woodworker. Do you see commonalities in your creative pursuits--working with words, working with wood?
Reply Cat
4:58 PM on February 28, 2014 
Marie Manilla says...
Lovely blog, Cat. I didn't know you re-enacted historical characters. Who do you do? Also, I know that Dan is a master woodworker. Do you see commonalities in your creative pursuits--working with words, working with wood?

Hi Marie. Thanks for stopping by. I used to do a fabulous re-enactment of Frances B. Johnston, born in Grafton, WV, in 1864. She went on to become a world famous photographer, such as Ansel Adams was known and Annie Leiboiz today. But though she is a WV native, no one knows her a hundred years later. She was a thoroughly modern lady in her time (I portrayed her in 1910), and an absolute hoot. She was part of the WV Humanities Council's History Alive! program. I also portrayed Anna Jarvis, another native WVian, born in the same town and year as Frances (they met once in Frances's studio in Washington DC). I was asked to develop her to celebrate the centennial of her founding of Mother's Day. I no longer portray either character but it was a heck of a lot of fun for a while :).

I am often Dan's muse when he's creating something new in wood. He, on the other hand, is my first reader of almost everything I write. I provide for him vision; he provides for me direction, structure. It works out pretty well :)
Reply Eddy
8:24 AM on March 1, 2014 
What a life story! I've known you for years and knew a little about your dad, but nothing about your mother. Of course you were too modest to tell about serving as president of West Virginia Writers and about editing Fed from the Blade, and about teaching tai chi, and about being a staple for several writing groups, and a problem-solver and creative source of support for a huge community of writers.
Reply Christina
9:49 AM on March 1, 2014 
What a wonderful blog! I resonated with your love of your parents. Mine too were flawed but so loving and giving in many ways. Grateful for your awesome words.
Reply Cat
11:21 AM on March 1, 2014 
Eddy says...
What a life story! I've known you for years and knew a little about your dad, but nothing about your mother. Of course you were too modest to tell about serving as president of West Virginia Writers and about editing Fed from the Blade, and about teaching tai chi, and about being a staple for several writing groups, and a problem-solver and creative source of support for a huge community of writers.


LOL! Eddy--you are so kind. The truth is: I forget. I swear I do :). Thanks to you, Eddy, I am reminded. :)
Reply Cat
11:23 AM on March 1, 2014 
Christina says...
What a wonderful blog! I resonated with your love of your parents. Mine too were flawed but so loving and giving in many ways. Grateful for your awesome words.


Thank you, Christine. The truth is, I found permission to write about my parents because of a memoir I read years ago where the author wrote about her parents as well. She was loving and wrote a moving account of two wonderful people--flawed as you say--but aren't we all? I can hope my daughter, should she choose to write about me, will be as kind :)
Reply Karyn Stagg
3:36 PM on March 1, 2014 
It's a wonderful story, Cat, and you weave it so well. I know your memoir will be a blazing success because of this generational blessing passed down . . . this mixing of squiggles and words, as you say. It hard to resist anything you write. Thank you for inspiring so many, including me!
Reply Pam Hawley Grady
7:54 PM on March 1, 2014 
Cat I loved reading this. Your use of words is wonderful. I liked that books were as common as a cigarette and cup of coffee and of course I loved "sin eater" as well. First time I ever heard that term and it jumped off the page. I learned something about myself when you said you learned to observe and then ponder as a result of coping with your parents. I enjoyed this brief history of your life of writing. I learned a new word too "patois" Had to consult my Funk and Wagnall's for that one.

Thanks for the heads up to read this. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
Reply Cat
10:40 AM on March 2, 2014 
Karyn Stagg says...
It's a wonderful story, Cat, and you weave it so well. I know your memoir will be a blazing success because of this generational blessing passed down . . . this mixing of squiggles and words, as you say. It hard to resist anything you write. Thank you for inspiring so many, including me!
Reply Cat
10:41 AM on March 2, 2014 
Karyn Stagg, thank you for stopping by and posting a comment. I hope you are right--that the memoir will work. It's a work of love, I know that :). You're the best :)
Reply Cat
10:44 AM on March 2, 2014 
Pam Hawley Grady says...
Cat I loved reading this. Your use of words is wonderful. I liked that books were as common as a cigarette and cup of coffee and of course I loved "sin eater" as well. First time I ever heard that term and it jumped off the page. I learned something about myself when you said you learned to observe and then ponder as a result of coping with your parents. I enjoyed this brief history of your life of writing. I learned a new word too "patois" Had to consult my Funk and Wagnall's for that one.

Thanks for the heads up to read this. Thoroughly enjoyed it.


Thanks, Pam. Very sweet of you and it's always good for a writer to know what works, and what doesn't. I'm glad we just stuck with what works this time LOL! I look forward to working with you and the Memoir Gang soon. Just some details to firm up and we'll be off again, writing about sin eaters, coffee and cigarettes :)
Reply Keith Davis
2:47 PM on March 2, 2014 
Cat, what lovely and personal words---a thought-provoking blog that allows us to know you better, and, in a way, experience the challenges you've endured and overcome. Your path is inspiring and heartwarming. Thank you for sharing.
Reply Sly
12:15 PM on March 3, 2014 
I want to read more about your journey as a writer and how you arrived at where you are today. You write with love and compassion and paint vivid images with your words. Your "voice" has encouraged and inspired me. Thank you!