Spinning our own yarn 

By Erin Smith

Community columnist

When I was in middle school, I took a class called Appalachian Appreciation one summer at the University of Kentucky. On the first day, the instructor arranged us in a circle and handed one child a large ball of rainbow-colored yarn. She explained that the earliest German, Scottish, and Irish immigrants moved southward into the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1700’s. On the long voyage from Europe, the sailors shared stories to while away the time while repairing the ship’s ropes. This pastime came to be known as spinning a yarn. 

The immigrants reinterpreted this tradition for their children in the New World by tying shorter pieces of string together to form one large pile of yarn. Someone would start telling a story, winding the yarn around their knuckles. When they reached a new color on the large strand, they would pass the balled yarn – and the story – to someone else, who would pick up the literal and figurative thread to continue to spin the yarn.

These yarns were infinite. Once the yarn was fully balled, the story continued by unraveling it, on and on, night after night, over many generations. The story shared was a quest, then a comedy, a tragedy, then a love story or a rags to riches tale. Enemies were vanquished and monsters were overcome. Beloved characters were killed off, fell prey to cruelty of fortune, were missed and brought back from the dead. New characters were born and woven into the existing tapestry, venturing forth to meet their destiny. 

But, as our teacher reminded us over and over, the story never ends. That’s the beauty of the yarn. A plot twist is never more than a single spin away.

The word author comes from an Old French word autor, meaning authentic. Each of us has a rich, engaging yarn lying in our experiences and memories. Our stories may not be particularly honorable or exciting or inspiring. They need only be ours to be of value. 

I’ve been writing with a broken pen of late, all mixed metaphors and muddled meaning. I’ve been in a sort of existential crisis the last year as the events of my own life have taken a turn I had not imagined when I first outlined my heroine’s tale. This unwelcome plot twist has edited the story I thought I was writing. Suddenly my well-planned memoir has morphed into a menacing whodunit, a tale told by a now unreliable narrator.

And that’s okay. The very best stories have plenty of didn’t-see-that-coming twists. Plenty of moments where the reader is confused because the wisdom has yet to be revealed. My story is in a constant state of change, unraveling and rewinding. But there are plenty of unwritten pages. I might need to get a few chapters down the road to have the proper perspective to glean meaning from this one.

Here’s what I know for sure. My life is a love story. It is, at turns, a bittersweet and heartbreaking one for sure, but still a love story. Not in the sense of Romeo and Juliet, or a maiden rescued by a knight on a white horse. But in the sense that I was put here to be ecstatically in love with what’s unfolding in front of me. All the truest tales of love are equal parts tragedy and comedy. Sometimes I am the plucky heroine and sometimes the damsel in distress; but I am never simply a character in someone else’s tale. Real life, like the best tales, are both fantasy and reality, part truth and part delusion, beauty and brutality in equal measure. I don’t need to know the ending just yet. I need to forget about trying to figure out what it all means and where it’s all going. I need to hold tight to the pen.

I just need to keep writing.