It was the hot, muggy summer of 1980; I was in Ablingdon, Virginia, for a week to teach the creative writing class that always preceded "literary day" at the Virginia Highlands Festival. I got hotter and hotter each step I took up the long staircase to the room where the class would meet, above the sanctuary in the old United Methodist Church right on Main Street. Finally I made it, and surveyed the group seated around a big oak table. It was about what you'd expect -- eight or ten people, mostly high school English teachers, some librarians, some retirees.
We had already gone around the table and introduced ourselves when here came this old woman in a man's hat and fuzzy bedroom shoes, gray head shaking a little with palsy, huffing and puffing up the stairs, dropping notebooks and pencils all over the place, greeting everybody with a smile and a joke. She was a real commotion all by herself.
"Hello there, young lady," she said to me. "My name is Lou Crabtree and I just love to write!" My heart sank like a stone. Here was every creative writing teacher's nightmare: The nutty old lady who will invariably write sentimental drivel and monopolize the class as well.
"Pleased to meet you," I lied. The week stretched out before me, hot and intolerable, an eternity. But I had to pull myself together. Looking around at all those sweaty, expectant faces, I began. "Okay, now I know you've brought a story with you to read to the group, so let's start out by thinking about beginnings, about how we start a story...let's go around the room, and I want you to read the first line of your story aloud."
So we began. Nice lines, nice people. A bee hummed at the open window; a square of golden sunlight fell on the old oak table; somebody somewhere was mowing grass. We got to Lou, who cleared her throat and read this line: "Old Rellar had thirteen miscarriages and she named every one of them."
I sat up. "Would you read that line again?" I asked.
"Old Rellar had thirteen miscarriages and she named every one of them," Lou read.
I took a deep breath. "Keep going," I said.
"Only of late, she got mixed up and missed some. This bothered her. She looked toward the iron bed. It had always been exactly the same. First came the prayer, then the act with Old Man gratifying himself...."
I had never heard anything like it.