I took a workshop from Minton Sparks, an amazing storyteller/performance artist earlier this year. Her website description (http://mintonsparks.com/) is apt: “Minton Sparks fuses music, poetry, and her intoxicating gift for storytelling to paint word pictures of the rural South that put you square in the middle of the people and the places she knows like the back of her hand.”
Her workshop centered around two questions: “Where are you from?” and “How does where you are from inform the definition of who you are?” After some introductory exercises, we each spent time developing a personal narrative based on George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From”*. That poem uses the repeating opening lines of “I am from….” Here is a part of the poem:
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
It’s a good exercise, and I recommend writing your own version of “I Am From.” I was one of many workshop participants who stated that in the writing process, aspects of our lives became clearer. For me, it was a deeper appreciation of my early years. Here is what I wrote that morning:
I am from a mother who was far more adventurous in her early life that we knew, and we could have figured that out if we were paying more attention.
I am from a house in which Dad could often be found grading papers at the kitchen table, a father who talked a lot but could only express his emotions in writing letters.
I am from the wood lot next door where Brother Dave and I played knights, with fallen dry limbs from the huge beech trees as swords. We were lucky that when those swords were struck together in our play mortal combat, none of the chips that flew put an eye out.
I am from summers playing outdoors in the neighborhood when we were children, leaving the house after breakfast until Mom called us by ringing a bell. After lunch, outside again until the bell for dinner rang.
I am from playing baseball and football in the only place flat enough to play in that foothills of the Appalachia neighborhood. Really enjoyable, though I wasn’t much good at either sport. And, because of my lack of skill and heft, I did not play organized football, so there are not concussions on my medical record.
I am from not making a Little League team, having inherited from my parents my height and brain cells that work pretty well, but subpar reflexes and coordination.
I am from books, my dad building a new bookcase every year, being read to when young, reading them myself when I was able—the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, and on my 10th birthday, the book Gods and Heroes, containing the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Greek myths—743 pages long.
I am from King College, where Dad taught, three blocks from our house, and visiting his first office in the basement of the Hay Building, where I could buy the coldest small bottle of Coca-Cola from the vending machine for a dime.
I am from First Presbyterian Church, the old church downtown, not the new one built later farther out, which one of my children called a castle. I am from skipping Sunday School and church and going instead to Bunting’s Drug Store, where William Faulkner once lived upstairs, devouring ice cream sundaes.
I am from not quite fitting in, tall and skinny and glasses that were thicker each year.
I am from visiting our grandmother and relatives in Massachusetts in the summers, from seeing my 17-year-old cousin Wink, with his 1954 MG TD, a guitar, and long hair for that time, and realizing that there was another way to live outside of what I had known growing up in Bristol, Tennessee.
I am from, and I realized this much later, that incredible sense of security from never having been evicted or parents being unemployed, growing up in the same house since I was three years old, always with food in the house, and my mother saying when my brother and I were teenagers that she did not need a light on in the kitchen, because the refrigerator door was always open.
* Teachers and librarians have used this poem in schools and other venues. This is a collection of 73 poems inspired by “Where I’m From” collected by the Kentucky Arts Council: http://www.georgeellalyon.com/where.html
Storying the Human Experience
Yes, it's a grandiose title. But, as Flannery O'Connor once said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way."