Monday, October 22, 2007
By Sharyn McCrumb
The old woman sat on the bench in the waiting room of the sheriff’s office, eying me with a canny inquisitiveness that belied her wizened appearance. Her hair was an iron gray bird’s nest, her dress a shapeless brown sack. She was eying me speculatively, and no doubt seeing an outsider: a meekly polite graduate student in a sensible business outfit, chosen to impress the sheriff with the seriousness of the young writer there to ask him technical questions.
After a few more moments’ inspection, the old woman scooted closer to me on the bench and said, “I’m kin to the DeHarts, the Johnsons, and the Ledbetters.”
I realized that I was supposed to say who I was kin to, and then we could decide what we could talk about, but, alas, I was a stranger in these parts-- kin to nobody, and so the conversation never got started.
Later that day, my husband and I laughed about the insular ways of the county’s Oldest Inhabitant, requiring details of one’s pedigree before attempting to begin a conversation. But a day or two later, we went to a party at the university, and I stopped laughing. At the academic event, people kept coming come up to me and saying something along the lines of: “I’m a graduate of Penn State, and I’m in the history department, and my husband went to Purdue, and he’s in biochemistry.”
It was the same ritual: a litany of allegiances declared before the social encounter could proceed.
I suppose all of us have these magic circles of connection, whether it is the ancient bond of kinship or the more modern links of university or corporate affiliation. Our links are more flexible these days, though: Change jobs or spouses, lose your friends.
So many allegiances today seem to be a matter of convenience. A few years ago I noticed that western Kentucky has begun calling itself “the Midwest,” because it is somewhat problematic in these days of political correctness to identify yourself as “Southern.”
We define ourselves by our allegiances-- thus I am Appalachian; a sept of Clan Donald of the Isles; an alumna of UNC Chapel Hill and Virginia Tech-- and by God I do not write genre fiction! I’ll be polite about any case of mistaken identity except for that last one. Interestingly enough, when ten years ago I started insisting on respect for my serious novels I lost the friendship of most of the female writers I had known, but most male writers of my acquaintance didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I’m not sure what that means. Mostly, these days it means that as a writer I don’t hang out with any crowd at all. My friends are all in other disciplines.
Like many writers I am an introvert, a trait that probably helps me to make imaginary people and places seem real. However, it makes dealing with real people difficult: I never knew quite what to say. I am not by nature “a joiner.” I have no friends who live within twenty miles of me, because I need a lot of space between social occasions. When my children enrolled in the toney local private school, I did not assume the cultural identity of a prep school parent. An entire social life revolved around the activities of that place, but I wasn’t part of it-- I could not summon up any sense of belonging, based on being with the “right” people.
The most pleasant allegiance of my life is one that came about by accident: in the course of researching a novel, I became a NASCAR fan, which turns out to be by far the most unifying of all my affiliations. When quite unintentionally during the course of the novel research, I fell in love with the sport, I suddenly discovered a lengua franca spoken by seventy million people. I could talk to strangers about something besides my work. There are people I’ve e-mailed for a couple of years simply because we rooted for the same driver. I’m not sure what there is about stock car racing that constitutes kinship. Perhaps the life or death element of the sport creates an urgency that strengthens bonds between people, and perhaps the fact that one can support the same driver for a decade or more gives more permanence to one’s allegiance. It’s a bit of a secret society, too: numbers and phrases that mean something only to the initiate. They’re nice people, too. They don’t care about literary politics or most of the other ways we academic types tend to keep score.
It has been good for me. Writing St. Dale and Once Around the Track was a wonderful experience for me. The Earnhardts liked the books; I won two awards; and it changed my life. Now I'm cell-phone buddies with a winner of the Daytona 500, and having adventures with fascinating people that I never knew existed.
The coolest 24 hours-- maybe of my whole life-- started last October with winning the award for St Dale from the Library of Virginia; and then being "squire" for the race to a Cup driver at Martinsville (Ward Burton-- pictured above, when he signed books with me). Saturday night October 21st-- tuxedos and evening gowns in the Library of Virginia, having dinner with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize at the Awards Dinner. Twelve hours later, with my Library of Virginia Award for St. Dale stashed in the back of the car, I was out of the evening gown and into a "J.E. Burton Construction Company" tee shirt, and standing in the infield of the Martinsville Speedway for NASCAR's Subway 500 to be Ward's "squire" for the race.
After spending my adolescence writing term papers and avoiding any and all proms, I am now jumping hills at 100 mph with a race car driver on Virginia backroads, and it is glorious. You can imagine how frightened my teenage children are to contemplate what I might do next.
I venture out into the real world more often now. Of course, lots of people now think I am hopelessly eccentric, but for a writer, that is probably inevitable anyhow.