November 29, 2015

The Writing Life Where I’m From-West Virginia with Cat Pleska

I live in a vast region called Appalachia. Within the confines of the region (its boundaries vary at times, depending on demographics, economics, and whoever you talk to) live 29 million people. The backbone of the Appalachia Mountains stretches up through the middle of the region, from Georgia to Maine. Appalachia encompasses parts of 13 states. West Virginia, where I live and am a seventh generation native, is the only state wholly within the geographical/political designation of Appalachia. 

I refer to West Virginia as the “heart” of Appalachia. It’s a heart that’s been beating since its formation from Virginia in 1863, during the Civil War. A state that is much maligned (WV—the genesis of the oft denigrated hillbilly) and often misunderstood. However, I like the mystery we seem to generate, maybe because I’m a writer. 

By nature, we are a resilient and resourceful people, and we’ve had to be. Our vast resources: coal, timber, gas, have been coveted by outside interests for 150 years. Often colonized so that extraction can take place without spreading the wealth with the citizens, we have a roiling history that has made us tenacious. However, we have never forgotten our manners or our connection with the natural world and with people who come here. Still, with the downward economic situations that have existed for decades, many ask: why not move? 

But we are characters—vivid ones—living in a dynamic, beautiful landscape. We are attached extraordinarily to our land. And why not? The scenery is knock your socks off gorgeous.

For many reasons, we stay, and for me it’s a place where I know a secret. I have traveled extensively and even lived in another state for a short time, but it’s here in this funny shaped, little state I make the most sense. And I think for the many of us who stay, we know the secret appeal of this area: its people and culture.

Eventually, being from here helped me make sense of my life and that was a boon when I turned to writing my memoir. It helped me understand that as an only child of loving but troubled parents, I had a regional and state history I could emulate, that of the courage that seemed to be my birthright. We often take the long view: this too shall pass. So I could write about difficult times and struggling lives, from a backdrop of dramatic history and recovery. 

In my memoir, Riding on Comets, I write about growing up in a working class, dynamic family. A challenging family: when I was five, my grandfather took me with him to visit his bootlegger; when I was 12, my mother left my father after his drunken rage; when I was 16, my mother was hospitalized to undergo electric shock therapy. 

One thing I knew for sure: these people loved me and I loved them. Even though my parents were unable to realize all their own dreams, as best they could, they lifted me upon their humble shoulders so that I could reach for the stars and ride on comets.

From within the confines of this small, great state, this West-by-God-Virginia, I have. 

The winner of this book will receive a signed paperback copy of my memoir, Riding on Comets.  I will mail if you live in the US.  Leave a comment and your contact info for your chance to win.

Riding on Comets is a memoir about an ultra-sensitive child who grows up in a working class family in West Virginia. A calm, innocent beginning soon builds to a wild ride, as Cat appears to  follow in the footsteps of her family who seemed to her like giants, until loss and love teach her that life is to be experienced, held on to, and cherished, despite difficulties and despair.
Told with exquisite sensory detail, with acute empathy and lyricism, Cat tells her own tale in a family of storytellers, about a different kind of Appalachia. Not one that is agrarian, but industrial. Not one with weak women, but against great odds, empowered women. And even though the men seemed determined to destroy themselves and others, Cat finds out she can self-empower too, and intuitively stretches beyond the landscape of dysfunctional to the land of love and forgiveness. 

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  1. I've driven through West Virginia a number of times. I've always been struck by the giant crosses that stand atop the hills as the interstate winds through them. It seems to me that those crosses bear witness to the determined survival of the people of Appalachia. It is a proud land of strong folks who have impressed me with their commitment to stay and share with kin rather than look for a better and more prosperous life elsewhere. In honesty, I wouldn't want to live in that hardscrabble place, but I admire those who do.

  2. I was captivated with your post today about West Virginia, your life and the trials and tribulations with which you dealt so strongly and your memoir. Real life is riveting and fascinating more than fiction since it involves individuals who endure, suffer and triumph over adversity. Wishing you happiness, success and enjoyment. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  3. Your memoir would be an emotional experience. You are to be admired and praised for capturing this in your book. Your integrity and strength of character shines through. So much of what we have to suffer from is what shapes us for our future. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  4. My area of Pennsylvania has much in common with West Virginia. Our ancestors have granted us a legacy as survivors. Best wishes for your success.

  5. Being attached to your land shows in the pictures you choose to include. They are wonderful images. I've always wondered about your part of the country and have never been. I had always imagined it with deep snows. Maybe one day I will get there. It looks beautiful.

  6. Cat, what a great blog about your state, your family, and your life growing up. I can relate to much of it myself having grown up in West Kentucky where the natives are known as rednecks. I have lived and worked in public schools in East Tennessee and it also has many similarities. Your book sounds spellbinding and I would enjoy reading it. I wish you success with all of your books.


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