In Praise of Shared History

by Janet Moore, Guest Editor

From left, Carson Minow, Janet Moore, Priscilla Frake

Photo by Michael Mauney

Why do we tell stories? The Paris-based writer and historian Cody C. Delistraty answered this question in his article The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling (The Atlantic, November 2, 2014). “Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, sharing them orally even before the invention of writing. In one way or another, much of people’s lives is spent telling stories—often about other people.” Think Jane Austen.

But Delistraty goes on to say that there are other reasons why we are compelled to create stories. They give us a feeling of control over our world. This makes sense. Stories “allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives—a form of existential problem-solving.”

If ever there was a time when we needed to hone our existential problem-solving skills, it was the year 2020. So, is it any wonder that those of us enrolled in the Great Smokies Writing Program have felt an even greater need to write? A year of living with Covid-19 restrictions has left us yearning for connections with the people and places we love. It is this need—to be part of a shared history—that Delistraty posits may be the “real reason that we tell stories again and again—and endlessly praise our greatest storytellers.”

Thanks to the Great Smokies Writing Program, we are able to share our stories with other writers, and what a gift this has been, especially during the pandemic. This issue of the Great Smokies Review is in no way a paean to how we are living through its horrors. It is a tribute to the nimbleness of the Great Smokies staff who quickly transitioned us to online instruction and to the teachers who jumped on board and never looked back, and to our classmates who kept on writing.

At a time of limited travel, these writers’ words transport us to California, the Atchafalya Swamp, a grandmother’s Iowa farm, the home of an adult child, and an ancient forest floor. They tempt us to taste a briny oyster and a ripe mango. In a mountain forest, we hear the sound of baying hounds, the crunch of underbrush, a glimpse of a fleeing bear, and the crack of a rifle. We witness a newborn’s sacred ritual. We feel the pressure of an unforgiving biological clock. We walk through an empty house and feel the sadness of a parent’s death. We become part of each author’s skillfully shared history.

Among these many fine pieces were two works that stood out as examples of this sharing. Priscilla Frake’s poem, “Covid Wants to Give Me,” and Carson Minow’s short story, “The Crack,” are my Editor’s Choice selections. They encapsulate the anxieties and yearnings of pandemic life.

First, came the fear. We all felt it, when something as ordinary as in-store grocery shopping became extraordinary, even life-threatening. The mysterious virus invaded our way of life and showed us how fragile we really are. Frake’s poem is our shared history.

I creep
around the edges of the grocery store,
an anxious mouse in a gray cotton mask,
as Covid keeps trying to pose me
like a statue, vein me with
cytokines, and inlay its ivory
in all my cells

With fear came isolation. Zoom connected us, but it has proven to be no substitute for a holiday dinner with far-flung family, or an impromptu meet-up with a friend, or even a handshake. (The latter, I suspect, is a thing of the past.) For we primates are social creatures. We need one another, and when our own family isn’t enough, we create the family we need. This, too, is our shared history, as Minow reminds us in the relationship between her young narrator and the elderly Baba Peng.

Baba Peng and I met right after my parents died and my boyfriend disintegrated and my cat marched off into the wilderness to go pass away in privacy maybe to spare me, ineffectually, a third trauma. I had gotten a job at the corner store, the same job I have now, selling loose cigarettes and packaged liquor and microwave burritos to the same people. Baba Peng had seen me all the way from the sidewalk. He’d had just a cane then, not the walker he uses now. The walker that is unattended in the bathroom, where he is not…. I don’t know why, but when he looked at me through the window, I waved at him.

The Great Smokies Writing Program has, over the past eight years, become the lifeblood of my creative life. I am not alone. There are thousands of us who benefit from critiques from wise instructors and classmates. Great Smokies provides an incubator for our work and the means to hone our craft. There is simply nothing quite like it in North Carolina (or elsewhere, I suspect). We have Tommy Hays to thank for that. It is fitting, then, that Governor Cooper recently named Tommy to The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest Civilian honor. So, how can we honor Tommy?

The answer is simple. Write and keep writing. Revise. Change. Edit. Rewrite. Submit. Accept rejection. Revise some more. Submit. Submit. Submit and celebrate publication. It’s all part of the magic, Stephen King tells us. “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

Cheers!

Janet Smith Moore writes short stories because, in the words of David Sedaris, they “take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” Her story Thanksgiving appeared in the 2020 Great Smokies Review and was a finalist in North Carolina State University’s 2020 Short Story Competition. In 2018, her story Beatitudes placed third in Ireland’s 2018 Fish Publishing Short Story Competition and was published in that year’s Fish Anthology. In 2020, she co-authored In Pursuit of a Greater Good, a history of WNC Communities and its work in rural economic development from the 1950s to the present. She is currently working on a collection of stories set in the Carolinas.

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