Blind spots and hillbillies

I was talking with a friend a while ago about our biggest respective blind spots. By blind spots we meant the things that held us back, the things that others saw in us that we perhaps did not see in ourselves. For her, I told her I thought she was afraid to be uncomfortable or to make someone else uncomfortable. She loathes schadenfreude (and, by extension, most sitcoms), is  acutely conscious of how her words and actions may affect others, and reads books on etiquette for solace. On the flip side, she can assume others have motives or intentions when they don’t exercise similar caution in word choice or phrasing or timing, or she can hesitate to say or do things that are true to herself for fear of  making the wrong decision or hurting someone’s feelings. She can avoid certain experiences because they are emotionally risky. So — like most other blind spots, this is one that influences the way she interacts with the world and the way the world perceives her. Even now, writing this, I feel like I have over-simplified, that if she were to read my summary analysis she would think it lacks nuance.

But she is honest, and with a little bourbon she can be quite direct. She is a good friend who will tell hard truths if she knows her friends want or need to hear them. She told me about my own blind spot, and I should not be surprised that I was surprised (it wouldn’t be a blind spot if I weren’t a little caught off guard, right?). I don’t remember exactly how she phrased it, but in essence my blind spot was wealth/power/pedigree. I am intimidated and often impressed by people who are wealthy (especially if they come from family money) or those who hold positions of authority, such as C-suite executives at the company where we both worked at the time, or professors and peers with impressive academic credentials. So I have made decisions in and manifested aspects of my own life that reflect how I tried to work around that particular blind spot, like buying an older home in an historic neighborhood close to downtown (but not one on in a prestigious old mountain community) with a mortgage that tied me and my husband to a particular income level, or my need to impress and have the first answer or at least a funny quip in a meeting, or how I would stumble over my words when meeting accomplished writers. I used to worry about how to dine in or dress for nicer restaurants, and for years I tried to swallow my southern accent since I associated it with lack of education, ignorance of all sorts, and the trailer I grew up in. There is a difference between a genteel accent and a hick one, although I suspect they all sound similar to folks from the northeast or midwest.

My friend’s observation rang true, even though at the time I was adjusting to the fact that from the outside I was the sort of person who would intimidate a younger me. I have recently finished reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Marianne Higgins’ Evidence of Things Unseen, and while neither one fully reflects my own life experiences, those novels, especially when coupled with cookbooks like Ronnie Lundy’s Victuals or Janis Owens’ Cracker Kitchen, help me see more clearly how the person I am and the people and circumstances in my life have shaped me, even as those same experiences have shaped the people around me into vastly different forms.

I am working on a novel, and although I have successfully written short stories that were not necessarily mired in the places I have lived, I am stumbling to write with richness and depth of settings I have not truly known. Yes, I know they say, “Write what you know,” but to be true to the language, to know when and what character will say, “I seen him” rather than “I saw him” without condescending, to find a new way to describe the landscape of the familiar without imposing my own filter (which varies from a trite, rose-colored appreciation of trees and rivers and biscuits and fried chicken to putting folks in boxes labeled racist or Trump-supporter or meth head in order to separate myself from them). J.D. Vance talked of the contradictions of his Mamaw, of his own family, bound by loyalty and violence and love, and I am writing my own fictional version of this life, based, as always, on pieces of people I’ve known, versions of people I’ve been.

I’ve talked about these concepts here and there. I suspect I will again.


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