Turning Stones: The Education of the Writer

 

A small bullsnake found along the banks of Oregon's Deschutes River.


“How did you come to write?”

 

This is probably the most common question asked of writers and puts the cart before the horse, because all of us received our initial inspiration from reading.  The more revealing question is, “How did you become an avid reader?”  Was it because you liked to hear stories told when you were a child? Was it because your mother read to you from a very young age? I grew up in a family of story tellers and my mother did indeed read to me when I was very young.  But when I look back, I can trace the path I took to becoming a reader, and in time a writer, to a single day of my childhood.  It was a summer day, and I was playing with a neighbor girl in my mother’s rock garden when a snake slithered out from under a stone.  Marty screamed “Copperhead!” at the top of her voice, a scream my mother still recalls, because it scared her.   She came running outside, but by the time she reached the rock garden, the snake had disappeared.  That is, it disappeared from our sight.  But it did not disappear from my mind.  It fascinated me, that snake with its elegant movement as it crawled among the stones, its straw colored stripe that ran the length of its back, and the utter magic with which it disappeared, like liquid rope pouring into a seam of the earth.

 

My mother recalls that in telling the story that night to my father, he remarked that it was probably just a garter snake and entirely harmless.  Now my father only knew a little about snakes, but enough to know that a snake described as having a stripe down its back was certainly not a copperhead. In the Appalachian hollows of my childhood, nearly every snake was accused of being a copperhead, for the simple reason that copperheads were the only venomous snake in the region and ignorant people tend to assume the worst. Marty of course was not to blamed for the mistaken identity.  She was simply repeating the dreaded name that she had heard from adults. I would like to believe that people today are more enlightened about snakes than they were when I grew up, but I fear that most are not.  Snakes remain the least understood, most feared and most persecuted animals on the planet.

 

And, for me, from that day forth, the most fascinating.  Shortly after the excitement in the rock garden, my father caught a garter snake near the foundation of the house.  He handed it to me and taught me to pay it out like rope, letting it slip from one hand to other before it settled down and no long tried to escape.  I was surprised to find that it was not slimy as popularly believed, but its coils were cool, smooth and dry to touch. I also, for the first of what by now must be thousands of times, experienced the tickling sensation of a snake’s forked tongue flicking against my skin.  Eventually my father took it from my hands and released it into the grass, having no idea that the experience had transformed my life forever.

 

After that day, I determined to learn everything there was to know about snakes. How could I gain this knowledge?  I couldn’t learn much from adults.  My father only knew a little about snakes, which was a little more than almost anyone else.  Snakes were to be avoided, to be feared, to be awarded superstitious powers, to be exterminated from the earth.  Or at least from the Appalachian foothill country where I grew up in southeastern Ohio. My grandmother Inez, or Nanal as we called her, was so steeped in superstition that she believed “hoop” snakes would bite their tails, turning themselves into circles like bicycle tires, in order to roll down the hill and strike people dead.  She also believed milk snakes would crawl into a baby’s crib, bite the baby on the mouth and suck the air out of his lungs, turning the baby blue. “For pity’s sake, child,” she’d tell me, “I seen it with my own eyes.”  When she stayed with us, she would stuff towels under the door to keep the snakes I kept from crawling into her room.

 

In the face of such pervasive ignorance, the only place I could turn for accurate information was books.  There was one problem.  I was not yet in kindergarten and couldn’t read.  My mother, who was a children’s librarian, came to my rescue.  She began to teach me how to read, despite her misgivings about my motive, and by the age most children in my class were just starting to learn the a,b,c’s, I was reading Raymond Ditmar’s “Snakes of North America,” the most advanced and comprehensive book on snake identification, distributaries and behavior that the local library carried.  The lessons I learned from my fascination were as much about people as about snakes.  At an age when most children thought adults infallible, I grew to suspect them.  Many were ignorant, prejudiced and so fearful of a boy who played with snakes that they would not let their own sons and daughters near me.  This gave me an outsiders perspective on life, and helped form me into a person who suspected common wisdom and asked questions — traits that are very desirable for a future writer.  Life could be mysterious, beautiful, and misunderstood, as mysterious and as beautiful and as misunderstood as the snakes that hid under stones and in the folds of the earth, and I wanted to get to the truth.  I turned thousands of stones in search of snakes; later the stones I turned for the truth would be in my mind.  I became a devout disciple of that great sleuth and stone turner Sherlock Holmes, an avid follower of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — a reader, a searcher, and, in time, a writer. It all began with a garter snake in a rock garden.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Turning Stones: The Education of the Writer

  1. Maria Burke

    Mr. McCafferty,

    I hope you see this note – I just spoke with my grandmother and your former English teacher, Mrs. Mary Coleman; she was so proud of you and your accomplishments.

    My grandmother is a remarkable person – full of life and with a vivacious personality (as you are aware, I am sure), and I feel connected to her through my soul of souls because I, too, have a love for life.

    When I called her this weekend for Mother’s Day, she told me all about her former student – Keith McCafferty – and his book published, which recognizes her in the prologue. I just wanted you to know how excited she was to share your accomplishments with me. I am an 8th grade English teacher in a suburban school outside of Philadelphia. I truly dream to teach as well as I hear she did and inspire others the way she inspired you to know you could write.

    Thanks for taking the time to send her your book and write her the message inside that she shared with me.

    Sincerely,
    Maria Burke

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