Open Mic Blog
|Posted on February 22, 2014 at 3:05 PM|
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.
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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