Writing, Risk, and Moonshine
One memoirist’s difficult path back to the page
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Vodka is the science of alcohol, the moonshiner told me. And whiskey is the art.
A soft rain beat down against the tin roof above us as he stroked the dark train of his beard. It was a quiet moment made holy by the barrel of mash fermenting in the background. This was what I had come for: to hear an artist meditate on his medium and to let it breathe new life into my own.
This trip was equal parts inspiration and research. I’d traveled three and a half hours from my home in New Jersey to Sal’s barn in West Virginia because I’d fallen in love with mountain whiskey when my first book came out a few years ago. In it, I’d written about the sexual assault I’d once sworn to keep secret and the widespread damage it caused in my small hometown in the Rust Belt. I was one of several silent victims, and my memoir debuted to an onslaught of accusations. When it came out, I was also two months pregnant. I was called disgusting, a liar, and a cheat by people who had once been friends. I felt proud to publish that memoir, but it came at a price. My own art had left me exposed, vulnerable, and tired.
This was what I had come for: to hear an artist meditate on his medium and to let it breathe new life into my own.
It was a lonely and mournful period, one that caused me to question my own artistic instincts. I knew that good art often offends, but I didn’t know it would hurt so much. I couldn’t get myself to write through it. That was asking too much of myself. In my experience, a writer doesn’t always write. Sometimes she just thinks. Despairs. Feels. Instead of writing, I decided to lend my strength to welcoming the pain I’d censored since my adolescence. I’d never before experienced such necessary isolation, and it lasted for months.
Then I came across a string of stories about mountain moonshiners in the Appalachian anthology Foxfire, and it kept me the best company. Any time my world would start to buck or pitch, I’d picture old moonshiners with their buckets and spirals of copper, sitting by the fire and working alone in the dark. It wasn’t the whiskey itself that drew me; it was the process of creating it, the way a ‘shiner steps into the night and doesn’t look back. I had done the same with my own work — I had weighed the cost of retreating to safer territory and chose to remain. Those mountain men assured me that I was right where I was meant to be. There is no art if there is no risk.
It wasn’t the whiskey itself that drew me; it was the process of creating it, the way a ‘shiner steps into the night and doesn’t look back.
After my son turned a year old, my stories returned to me. I wrote about moonshine, about love, about loss. For our anniversary, my husband and I spent a day hunting for real corn whiskey and a real distiller to go with it, and by midday we’d only come across sugar shine made in Kentucky and sold at tourist traps. I’d read about Sal on the internet, and we drove past his property a few times before we parked in his gravel lot and took a wagon down the slant hill behind it. The ground was covered in mud and fog curled around the pines.
“Smell it,” Sal said, nodding at the barrels.
Together we leaned over his latest batch of whiskey. It smelled like roasted corn, earth, and summer.
“It’s not ready to run yet,” Sal said. “Still needs time.”
He took my baby in his arms and looked out over his hill. The expanse of the field behind the barn gave way into the mountains and reminded me of Van Gogh’s wheat fields, the way each stalk raises its hand toward the swirling sky. In the Corn Belt, grains are culled, soaked, and fermented before they’re born again into liquor. Sometimes I think our hearts break like that — a kernel at a time, finding its flight in the wind.
Sometimes I think our hearts break like that — a kernel at a time, finding its flight in the wind.
Like artists, moonshiners know how to befriend sorrow. They spend hours in solitude, often awake while the rest of the world dreams. The nickname “moonshine” was coined for the midnight hours distillers spent working in secret in the woods. It’s been illicit by nature since its origins when Scots immigrated to the hills of western Pennsylvania and the Virginias and used their whiskey to barter for food and other necessities. They were using it to survive — a truth that proves making art is as much a necessity as it is a luxury. A moonshiner’s work may never see daylight, and it runs the risk of being destroyed by rain or wind or the law. This is what makes it precious — its strength and its fragility. Sharing my story had left me similarly potent, but raw, and what I needed was to chase that darkness instead of run from it. I let my first book cut my heart open so I could begin to write again.
Even Sal’s first batch of moonshine came in the wake of a broken heart. The barn he uses for his whiskey and bourbon had been built for his beloved black draft show horse who had died. It wasn’t just the horse Sal and his family missed. There’s an art to coaxing a powerful animal to bend at the slightest touch, and Sal’s family missed that ritual of togetherness, of nurture. I find a secret here that resonates for me as writer and as a human — our best work often births itself from absence. I have a mantra I repeat to myself when I fear all is lost: Destruction isn’t the opposite of creation. It’s the antecedent. This is why I like abandoned buildings and overgrown Ferris wheels. It isn’t just because they remind me of the home I left. They remind me every sentence I write is a chance to build something new from the wreckage.
A moonshiner’s work may never see daylight, and it runs the risk of being destroyed by rain or wind or the law. This is what makes it precious — its strength and its fragility.
I imagine it might have been something like that for Sal, who began in his kitchen with a small 10-gallon still fashioned from a lobster pot. The first batch was terrible, Sal told me, but it was a starting point. As the author of many failed first drafts, I understood him well. He’d used an old family recipe that substituted sugar for corn, a shortcut that made the liquor taste like rubbing alcohol. It gave a good buzz, but it told no story of what it had once been. In time, Sal tested his way toward his own trademark, a whiskey that tasted like the West Virginia grain it had come from. He had no models, only a desire to let his moonshine speak for itself.
There’s an old Appalachian saying about this kind of survival that every artist reckons with: root, hog, or die. I like it because it’s imperative rather than formulaic, as the best advice tends to be. I once heard Colum McCann caution against writing what you know. Write toward what you want to know, he said. Standing in his barn between his pot of mash and his gleaming copper still, Sal has somehow accomplished both. He set out to discover what his ancestors had already attempted — a magic concoction of corn, sugar, and fire — and in it, he found his art.
Formulas for mountain whiskey are like creative writing classes in one way: they both talk of necessary mystery and make no promise of finding it. Sal didn’t mind sharing his moonshine recipe with me because he didn’t need to keep it a secret. It’s a mash-up of ratios and gut feeling, an hour to an hour and a half of boiling, days of waiting for the mash to ferment. Even if I attempted Sal’s recipe myself, I couldn’t recreate his flavor. The dirt is different where I come from, the water, the air. Each bottle of whiskey has a voice all its own.
Formulas for mountain whiskey are like creative writing classes in one way: they both talk of necessary mystery and make no promise of finding it.
It’s funny that I fell for moonshine almost from the moment I could no longer drink it. Throughout my pregnancy and a year of breastfeeding, mountain whiskey became less of a spirit to me and more of a story in a bottle. Like this: Fireside, old ‘shiners raise their glasses and sing songs of heartache and young love and children growing old. Bootleggers earned their names from the flasks they hid in their boots, and the Scots-Irish passed down stories of stills stowed beneath gravestones, trails of wooden crosses left to lead the law astray, and spatters of furnace bricks erected in memorial at the season’s end. Once the leaves fall and expose their hidden stills, they spend the winter remembering the fruits of their labor, and drinking it, too. Many moonshiners work to make enough money during the swell of summer to last them through the leaner months, the same way a good book keeps us company through the darkest of times. I’m no moonshiner, but that’s why I started writing so many years ago — to reach out of the jar that bound me and go palm to palm with the life of a stranger.
It takes only two weeks to make moonshine, and it’s tempting for me to say “if only” when I consider the glacial pace required in getting myself to write the truth and write it well. But here’s the larger picture. Corn is planted in winter and abandoned for months in the dark before its shoots break ground. The soil that cultivates it has been tilled for generations. It’s impossible to define the moment a jar of moonshine began just as it’s impossible to say when the stories inside me first took root.
Just before we left Sal’s barn, his wife poured me a shot of whiskey, and I drank it slowly.
“Tastes just like sitting on your back porch,” she said, and she was right. It was warm and smooth and lingered in my throat like an old secret.
Moonshine taught me that art is necessarily subversive. It may be born in the dark, but it doesn’t have to live there. It’s true that we sometimes attempt things others wouldn’t dare. We make people angry. With every word, every drop, we hope to stop time. We fail. And even still, when the time comes, we can shine.