Friday, August 10, 2012

The Appalachian Writers' Workshop

By Susan

Say you were going on a trip
knowing you wouldn't ever be coming back
and all you'd ever have of that place you knew,
that place where you'd always lived
was what you could take with you.
You'd want to think what to take along
what would travel well
what you'd really need and wouldn't need.
I'm telling you, every day you're leaving
a place you won't be coming back to ever.
What are you going to leave behind?
What are you taking with you?
Don't run off and leave the best part of yourself. ~ Jim Wayne Miller, from "Brier's Sermon"

Seven days ago, I packed my Texas truck with stacks of books and letters from newfound friends and left the Appalachian Writers' Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky for my long drive back to Texas. I'd been blessed by the mountains, healed somehow, by new friendships and connections, and nurtured by mentors I didn't know I needed. I'd been welcomed like family into an incredible group of like-minded, funny, and educated writers. I discussed the divinity of the center of writing with George Ella Lyon, I spent hours with Michael Curtis as he encouraged my process, and I spun out new words like silken thread under the direction of the irreverent and brilliant George Singleton. I studied in the halls, wrote whenever I could, and worshipped in the chapel under the dark bowl of night.

Last Friday, I left Hindman by driving up the mountain and out of that holler toward Hazard in the rain. My heart was full of poetry and kindness. The night before, we'd read "Brier's Sermon," by Jim Wayne Miller under the night sky, each of our voices adding a stanza to the quiet of evening. Then we sang all four verses of Amazing Grace, which moved me—inexplicably—because I remembered all the words, because that song was my childhood, because that song was my self. I felt happy. I felt like I was home.

Driving in the rain that afternoon, I decided that instead of turning this blog post into my own words about the Appalachian Writers' Workshop, I'd ask several of my newfound kin to share their opinions as well. Here's what they had to say:

First year participant, Catherine Childress, poet:
In the days since Hindman I have been considering, what may be, the which came first, the chicken or the egg question for writers: Do we become writers/artists because we are slightly off-kilter—or two bricks shy of a load as they say here in Roan Mountain, TN—or do we unearth our eccentricities in the writing process? I’m a poet (Jesus, does it get more pretentious than that?) so my job is to squeeze every single, tiny speck of emotion from any given thing and then cram it all back into, say 20 lines. Given this, my personal load of bricks feels a bit light sometimes. My point (yes, I do have one) is that it isn’t very often that I am able to spend time with a group of people who know what’s happening in my head and not only understand it, but also embrace it—a group of people who understand why I write when it would be less complicated and more profitable to find another gig. I found this group at the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop—folks who are generous, supportive, accepting, funny as hell, and who—if they just admit it—are a couple bricks short themselves some days (which ain’t a bad thing!)

First year participant, Karen Bell, novelist:
My New Year’s resolution was to push myself beyond what I think I can do. As an older person with health and physical mobility issues that kept me housebound for nearly five years, Hindman challenged me on so many levels. It didn’t take long after arriving at the Appalachian Writers Workshop to wonder why and how I ended up being invited to this group of talented, skilled and prolific writers. I have to admit it; I was intimidated. But a warm spirit of family soon drew me into the fold. Learning wasn’t limited to the classroom. I learned even more by chilling with fellow students and instructors in the dining room or outside on the porch. My life and the focus of my writing changed during this workshop, for the better. Although my physical limitations challenged me in this rustic mountain setting, I survived and thrived in the nurturing environment of fellow writers. Yes, I think I will return next year. Hopefully, my body will be ready.

Returning participant, Donna McClanahan, poet:
A few words about Hindman…this was my seventh year. Each year brings something new and each year I write myself a little essay about it. All have been powerful even if in subtle ways. However, none of them have rivaled the first year I attended. I was lost as a writer and as a woman and trying to find my way toward believing in myself even though my family didn't understand, couldn't help, didn't want to. It was under the direction of Silas House (my first mentor) that I went, not knowing a soul. He said, "You will find what you need there. They're your people." I will never forget arriving on the Settlement School Campus by myself and being welcomed as I got out of the car by George Ella Lyon (authors of about a gazillion children's books and poetry books and YA novels,) my wide eyes taking in every little thing. Lee Maynard (author of Crum, Screaming with the Cannibals) said I looked like my head was about to explode. I couldn't get over the feeling that I had just walked into a reunion of my family I hadn't yet met. We were kin. I'm glad you've joined us.

Instructor, George Singleton, short story writer, novelist:
Normally, because I'm an old curmudgeon, I shy from writers' conferences, workshops, writing groups—even sharing drafts. I don't want to sound all New Age-y mystical about it, but there was something about the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman that made me rethink some things. Normally I think, "Oh, just stay at home and write in a room by yourself, and shut up." But there was a palpable zeitgeist—big word for a South Carolina boy—in Hindman, and I understand why this community attracts writers year after year, whether "student" or "instructor." Hell, I had two "student writers" in my workshop who had been on the faculty in the past. Where else does that ever happen? Now I, of all people, feel reinvigorated.

First year participant, Angie R. Hunt
My application to the Appalachian Writers Workshop was truly fate. I walked into Karen McElmurray’s office just after she’d received the news that Mike Mullins had died suddenly. As an aside, she told me that I should apply to AWW and that it would be perfect for me. I followed her advice and was excited and honored at the news that I was accepted. Just making it to Hindman was a miracle unto itself since my husband had two heart attacks—one massive one—that led to a heart catheterization and six bypasses all within three weeks of my leaving home. He was adamant that I attend so I arranged for friends to take turns helping Henry and set off on my 900+ mile roundtrip adventure. Working in memoir with Joyce Dyer was a remarkable experience. She was such a passionate and insightful instructor. Also, being among this community of writers was truly inspirational.

Returning participant, Gail Chandler, poet:
Thursday at the Appalachian Writers workshop
Cicadas swear in the damp August air
as we rock on the settlement school porch,
celebrate “The Brier Sermon,” and read again
the Brier preaching pride to hillbillies gathered
by the Green Stamp Redemption store in Cincinnati.
The Brier knows we’ve seen our hills raped,
heard our speech mocked,
tried to live in houses not our own.
He also crossed that North Kentucky bridge,
the one our brothers and sisters, classmates
and parents walked until their soles wore out.
Mountains looming about us, we stand in line
to read by flashlight our passage or strophe,
each reader carrying history in his voice:
East Tennessee nasal follows Georgia drawl,
Kentucky vowels change by town or holler,
and then, improbably, a New York chord,
all inflections music in this Appalachian night.

Returning Participant, Carrie Mullins, novelist:
Someone much smarter than me compared it to Brigadoon, a mythical place that rises up on the mountain in Hindman out of the mist every year, just for us. I need to emphasize that was not my own creative thought (I really wish it was), and I can't remember who said it at one of the participant readings a couple years back, but I think it is a very apt description.

First year participant, Cecile Dixon, memoir: I miss Hindman and can't wait until next year. I still haven't given name to what changed inside me, but something surely did.

If you haven't considered a writers workshop, consider it now. Find the right one for you, muster the courage to submit and apply, and scrape together your change. You might find the heart of your work and new friendships that will feel like home. You might learn something. And you might even find yourself, wrapped up in words and the arms of friends.

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