Two Floods Later, I'm Still Working on the Story
creative nonfiction by Laura Dennis
In a recent contribution to Poets & Writers’ “Writers Recommend,” Joy Castro exhorts us to write about the questions that haunt us. For me, many of these involve my ancestors, especially my grandmother. Looking back through my journals, it’s plain that I’ve long been intrigued by the ways my story parallels, yet often differs from hers. For starters, we were both born outside New York State, a rare occurrence in our family. We both came to Appalachia as relatively young adults, albeit to different parts, her to New York’s Southern Tier, me to Southeast Kentucky. Prior to her marriage she had attended Cornell to become a history teacher, hoping to write for the college paper along the way. Her plans were cut short in 1943 when she had to leave to help her newly divorced mother and younger brothers. She found work in an aircraft factory in Niagara Falls as a real-life Rosie the Riveter, though she always hated the moniker. Within the year, she’d married her college sweetheart, Bob. She did her best to settle into her new role as a farm wife before he convinced her to start writing again. I, by contrast, finished college, lived abroad, earned a master’s, got married, finished my Ph.D., then later got divorced. As an academic, I have always written, though my turn to creative writing is rather more recent, less than a decade old.
The rain had taken hold by the end of our second day. We squelched our way around the Settlement School campus, going from meals to readings to class. Umbrellas littered porches and entryways, leaving dank puddles behind. More than once, the director interrupted meals to announce that those of us parked in the lower lot by Troublesome Creek should be ready to move our cars at a moment’s notice. He knew how quickly the water could rise, the creek having long since earned its name.
I stared out the rain-specked window at scenes of destruction that Hollywood’s best special effects crews would have struggled to replicate. Bewildered and beleaguered, I could no longer even really cry. I had gone to Hindman in part to work on a story about a flood. Instead, a flood had come to work on me.
After my return, people kept urging me to write about what had happened, especially when they heard the part about the story I’d planned to write. It was true that I now had a crucial element for said story––I knew exactly what a flood was like. It is one thing, however, to have knowledge, another to make use of it. I pitched a couple of essays and talked with an editor, but mostly, in large part due to COVID and residual trauma, I had to let everything rest. After a couple months, however, I found myself crafting the opening scene yet again, this time as part of a writing intensive. I asked what I should do with it.
Originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State, Laura Dennis is a professor and writer-in-progress at a liberal arts college in Southeast Kentucky. Her work has been published in MER Vox Quarterly, Change Seven, Northern Appalachia Review, and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, where she was the Spring 2020 Featured Author. Her writing was also recognized in two literary contests: the Betty Gabehart Prize (2017) and the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards (2019). She reviews books for a variety of publications, including Still: The Journal and co-edits book reviews for MER. When she is not teaching or writing, she enjoys music, reading, and spending time with her friends, family, and pets (three cats and a dog).