Issue 13 | Writing the Heart and Heartbreak in Appalachia
Reporting from a 'crisis,' webinars, G.K. Chesterton, and more.
Happy May, people. Summer is coming and I can almost smell the ocean. Also, somehow this became a themed issue of my newsletter. Not sure how, but it happened.
Here are five things I’ve been doing lately:
Writing about Appalachia;
Showing you this video;
Talking about my writing; and
Reading John T. Edge and G.K. Chesterton.
1. Writing the heart and heartbreak in Appalachia.
Almost two years ago now, I traveled with a friend into the mountains of Appalachia to learn, more or less, about how church communities respond to the opioid crisis there. The culture in crisis, if you remember Hillbilly Elegy temporarily taking over the world. I wrote about what we found for Common Good not long after, and the piece has been sitting in print since then. I’ve thought about sharing a PDF or something here, but that’s generally an awful way to read. Last month, though, we finally gave a digital life to our work. Here’s an early section of my reporting:
The scorch of mid-July doesn’t affect the spring color of Appalachia. Not along the 650-mile loop we drive from Louisville, Kentucky, into eastern Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and back again. It’s striking country, sparse with people and thick with vegetation. The lush breaks every 80 miles or so, disrupted by steely hot civilizations called coal mines and coking plants. They’re partly why we’re here.
You’ve probably heard this area called coal country. That’s a geographically and geologically accurate moniker: Coal forms in the mountains of the central Appalachian range, and the area provides the majority of the world’s coal, some for power plants and some for forging steel.
But Appalachia isn’t really a place as much as an identity. The region leapt into national consciousness in 2016, when it became the muse of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the preoccupation of people around the United States who read the ferociously popular memoir Hillbilly Elegy.
The men and women of Appalachia came in the early 20th century to embody the American work ideal. Long, physical hours. Big pay off. This mystique is especially true of American Christians, who often imbibe a Thoreauvian sense that outdoorsy labor trends more godly. Yet the Christians who generally put the most thought into labor, career, and economics — the faith and work movement — tend mainly to discuss white collar, coastal, and even C-suite versions.
That’s the other part of why we came. To look at faith and work where the labor comes more muscular than mental. Surprisingly, though, almost all of our conversations began with the chemical.
Read the rest here.
You’ll hit a paywall, so if you don’t have $15, I’ll summarize: Appalachia, especially West Virginia, persists as a remarkable place, as open as the west but green and complex. I’ve been back several times. It’s an easy place to love, even when it’s difficult to be there. And it is difficult. What’s happened there since the 60s or so defies a lot of our conceptions about life in the United States. And reinforces it. Brave humans, like my friend Travis, are giving their lives to that land and its inhabitant souls. Oh, and J.D. Vance can tell stories and so can every, ehem, *real* Appalachian. And you probably shouldn’t bring him up.
Photo credit: Emil Handke
2. While we’re at it, check this trailer for the whole magazine.
Several weeks ago, a buddy of mine made this video to help us promote Common Good at a conference. It’s only about a minute long, and I think you’ll like it.
Talent credit: John David Harris.
3. The better way to participate in the subscription economy.
There’s a magazine theme going here, can you feel it? A gave a talk last week about magazine-making during which I shared some go-to’s. Like you might expect, we’ve got magazines all over this little house and most are from one-off purchases and lapsed subscriptions. But we do subscribe to a few, and they flag the publications in which I consistently find value — value from insight to reflection to delight. I’m glad to say I don’t get any boxes of dress shirts or frozen steaks on the monthly, but I do get:
New York Review of Books
Recently lapsed subscriptions: Like you, I subscribe to the New Yorker off and on. I enjoy it, but its frequency makes it a tad exhausting. I thought I’d enjoy First Things more than I did. And, this isn’t that recent, but Esquire just isn’t the same since Jay Fielden’s sort of famous departure. Plus, the redesign strikes me like Bon Iver’s 22, A Million: I get it, but I don’t really care.
Tell me: What are the magazine subscriptions you can’t give up?
4. Watch me revise your writing (and mine).
Last week at did a webinar about revision, outlining my thought process when I approach a piece of work. It’s pretty informal and given time restraints, the talk is basically just tips I’ve learned for improving writing at each level of composition. Some of you may find this helpful. Most of you are probably better off just moving along.
5. Here’s (some of) what I’ve been reading.
The Potlicker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. The junction of history and politics and geography and identity is a place we go about three times a day. It’s been a while since this book came out and about that long since I took it off the shelf. But I’m at it again, and it strikes me how much more I’m finding this time around — supposedly after a few years now of trying to tell my daughters why we cook and eat what we do.
The Man Who Was Thursday. Another reread. I’ve got a conversation coming up with a friend of mine who owns a tragic story in which Chesterton’s “nightmare” plays a part. The fun of it — the book, not my friend’s story — is that Chesterton’s works seem made to read again (and again).
The Magic Hill. I know Winnie the Pooh, of course. But I didn’t know about this book by A.A. Milne until the past few weeks. Both Hannah and I have read it to our girls a few times now. It’s a sweet, sort of delicate story, absent the chummy humor of Pooh. We all enjoy it.