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Commentary: The Best Stories Come from 'Happy Accidents'

Madisonville author Patricia Wiles returns as a WKMS commentator after a hiatus of many years. In "Serendipity," the first of her latest series, she channels Bob Ross and reflects on how sometimes the best stories come from "happy accidents."


by Patricia Wiles 

Several years ago at a writer’s conference I to pick one word to describe my experience as a writer. I chose serendipity. Webster’s defines serendipity as “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.” These “happy accidents,” as the star of PBS’s Painting with Bob Ross used to say, can lead to inspiration, illumination, or wonderful discoveries.

In June I attended the West Virginia Writers Conference -- three days of workshops and events for authors, poets, storytellers, and songwriters. My flight to Charleston was delayed due to storms, so I used the time to review notes for the two workshops I’d be teaching and to flag passages in my books for a reading. I’ve attended many conferences over the years and learned much from many authors and publishing professionals. What could I do for the writers at this conference to make the time spent with me worthwhile? This wasn’t the only thing on my mind. I’d recently decided to rejoin the WKMS cast of commentators, so my overactive brain decided to play an additional negative tape. After a decade away from the radio, what in the world could I say that hasn’t already been said?

My arrival at Yeager Airport had been delayed, but thankfully my ride had remained faithful. Kathy Manley welcomed me into her SUV and before we were out of the parking lot I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit. We wound our way through the mountains and Kathy’s conversation traveled a similar serpentine path, curving smoothly from one subject into the next. She talked about her volunteer work for West Virginia Writers, her passion for teaching children how to read, and her joy at receiving the Frieda Riley Teacher Achievement Award, named for the woman who inspired the Rocket Boys of Homer Hickam’s memoir.

Kathy writes because she needs to tell the story of her childhood: how her father was missing a leg and the family was missing a mother, how as a young girl Kathy helped make her father’s wooden legs so on Saturdays they could sit outside the door of the dime store and sell pencils to earn money, but the money from the pencils was never enough so her father was forced to trade their two-room shack for thirty cans of evaporated milk so her baby brother wouldn’t starve to death.

We stopped for dinner at a Chick-Fil-A, but as we talked the space around our table for two was anything but ordinary; it was epic space, reverent, tragic and grand, as otherworldly as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Like Samwise Gamgee said to Frodo – Kathy’s story is one that really matters, full of darkness and danger, where you wonder how the end can be happy, then the darkness passes and as the sun shines out the clearer the story stays with you.

And why does it stay? In spite of bitter poverty, Kathy held onto hope and refused to let go.

Many of the stories and poems I heard during that weekend in West Virginia were published ones and many, like Kathy’s, have yet to be, but no distinctions were made between published and non. Every writer was celebrated and valued and encouraged as the mountains embraced them, the landscape visible evidence of the influence place has in their work. I went there to teach; instead, I was the one who learned.

Authorship is more than words printed on paper or digitized for e-readers or even recorded for radio – it’s owning the story inside you, honing the voice and crafting the phrase that captures it, and acknowledging the serendipitous moments that remind us that we all have stories, and our stories matter.

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