When I applied to attend the 34th Annual Appalachian Writers Workshop, one thing gnawed at me. Although I have been known to write, and although I have spent a great deal of time in Appalachia, I am not Appalachian — nor even Kentuckian — by birth. I have lived in Central Kentucky for the past fifteen years, but Central Kentucky is not Appalachia.
The friend who suggested I go assured me I was within the workshop’s parameters. My early June acceptance letter seemed to confirm it.
The Sunday drive to Knott County didn’t faze me — I had already spent many days and nights in small Appalachian towns. Even so, I was apprehensive when I first set foot on the Hindman Settlement School campus. Going somewhere and being from there are two entirely different things.
The first person who spoke to me at any length was the Settlement School Director, Mike Mullins. Easygoing and affable, he made me feel at home from the start. He directed me to my room at The Quiltmaker Inn in downtown Hindman.
After hauling my things to my second floor room in 90 plus degree heat (including a bike I took and rode exactly once) I rushed — in a state of semi-liquidity — to dinner. I knew only one person at the workshop, my friend’s wife, whom I had never met in person. I had a family connection to one of the workshop instructors, Linda Scott DeRosier, a friend of my mother-in-law’s from their days at Pikeville College, but DeRosier had no knowledge of my existence.
I found a place to eat and kept my head down as best I could. But the thing was, they wouldn’t let me keep my head down. I quickly began fielding the questions: “Is this your first time here?” “Where are you from?” And that was how they brought me into the fold.
By the end of the first evening, I was in the lobby of The Quiltmaker Inn listening to Kentucky Poet Laureate Gurney Norman tell stories about his days losing lopsided high school football games. His team always made its move, he said, “when the other team sent in its third string.” He, along with other authors, took us into the wee hours.
The next day classes began. Though I was somewhat intimidated, I soon found many people who attend are like me. They wrote growing up or in school, and now enjoy writing primarily as a hobby. Each student at the workshop was assigned to one specific class, but we had the option to audit a second.
The first class I attended was my audit. I made a fine choice. I sat in on a short story class taught by emerging author and Asheville, N.C., college professor, Charles Dodd White. To say his class was rewarding would be a vast understatement — and it was just my audit. I learned more in a week than I did in whole semesters at college.
White, a native of Atlanta and a former Marine, is the author of one of the most well-regarded pieces of southern literary fiction in the past year, “Lambs of Men.” It tells the grim story of a Marine sergeant returning from the First World War to his home in rural Appalachia, where nothing is as he left it.
Although I spent $13 on the “Lambs of Men paperback” — I wanted mine signed — I was amazed to find the Kindle edition at just $2.99 on Amazon. This is but one example of the vast change e-publishing is bringing to the market.
Had White’s class been the only one I took, I would have been satisfied. But, I was yet to set foot in my own class. The class was capped at 10 students, but when I entered the room, it was full at about 30 people. It was the novel class taught by the dynamic young duo of Appalachian literature, Silas House and Amy Greene. House, whose best-selling Appalachian novels have made him a darling of the region, was well known to me. Greene, whose debut novel “Bloodroot” was a New York Times bestseller, is less well known outside literary circles, but that is rapidly changing.
House and Greene co-taught the class and their friendship came across. Greene is kind of like the girl next door, except with an IQ 30 points higher. House also was accessible, but as a writer who has spent more time living in the spotlight, was slightly more guarded. Together they struck a harmonious balance. Both were generous with insight into what they do, and how they do it.
Each afternoon, there were student readings, followed in the evenings by professional readings. All readings were introduced by author and college professor, Robert Gipe, whose plays were recently featured in the New York Times. Gipe, who I guess to be at least 6 feet, 5 inches tall, towered over the week in all senses. His introductions were at times so overwhelmingly funny, the room and the incoming reader required a moment to compose.
During the week, we heard from Jim Minick, a distinguished author and even better guy. His award-winning memoir, “The Blueberry Years,” tells the story of his family’s organic you-pick blueberry farm. Wayne Caldwell, author of two heralded historical novels about the creation of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, “Cataloochee” and “Requiem by Fire,” read from both. DeRosier brought down the house with a reading from her memoir of life growing up in the hollers of Eastern Kentucky, Creeker.
There were also readings by many of the region’s most well-known writers: Gwynn Hyman Rubio (author of the Oprah’s Book Club selection “Icy Sparks”), Maurice Manning (native of Danville, Ky., and the 2011 runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry), Lee Smith (best-selling, often hilarious author and unofficial prom queen of the workshop), George Ella Lyon (beloved poet, novelist and children’s book author), Jesse Graves (an emerging Tennessee poet) as well as House, White, Greene and Norman.
On a wall in the dining hall, beside the sign-up sheet for doing the dishes, was a sign-up sheet for student readings. Student readings were optional, but Gipe persuaded me my experience was incomplete if I did not read. I signed up for the latest time slot available on the last day: Thursday.
I had submitted a 27-page writing sample to get in the workshop. During my one-on-one critique with House, he was complimentary, but also tactfully suggested I get rid of about half of it. I went even further.
By Thursday, the 27 pages were down to just seven. Each student was allotted five minutes to read — which was consistently and hilariously abused. When I told Gipe I intended to read all seven pages, he predicted I could get through about two. I timed myself and found out he was right.
I aspired to be good. I was willing to settle for not embarrassing. I sat near friends — I made many — while I waited my turn. My mouth was dry. As an attorney, one thing I’ve learned while giving opening statements and closing arguments is not to try to speak to people with a dry mouth. But, I couldn’t go to the drinking fountain. Sadly, in Hindman, you can’t drink the tap water.
Shortly before I was to read, I spied some clean water. Smith had just taught a class in the same hall and left behind half a cup of water on the podium. When my name was called, I stepped to the stage, and before I began reading asked, “Is it OK if I drink Lee Smith’s water?”
Was my reading any good? I don’t know. It amused people and it was under five minutes. That made it a success as I measured it.
That night, the last night, against my inclination, I was persuaded to take part in the reading of a poem about Appalachia: Jim Wayne Miller’s “Brier Sermon.” I was hesitant to read out of respect for the people for whom it was more personal. As I was told, I was either a part of Appalachia or I wasn’t, and based on the week, at least some part of me was a part of it.
That was it. I had done it. I took part in every key aspect of the Appalachian Writers Workshop — and a few extraneous activities.
I am certain I was the only participant who was visited by his mother-in-law (who came to see DeRosier). I was also the only person who left with a cat, but that is another story.
If portions of this column seem a bit like an advertisement for regional writers, that’s because they are. If people don’t support the culture and artists of the area, that culture and those artists will go away. When that happens, something is lost. The way you keep those artists working is by supporting their work. Even if you’re a lawyer, like me, or a waitress, or a tree trimmer, you can be a part of the community of artists by purchasing the work.
If you would like to know more about the origins of the Workshop, I suggest the book “Crossing Troublesome: 25 Years of the Appalachian Writers Workshop.” You can also find information on the Hindman Settlement School and its programs at the school’s website.
When I arrived at the workshop the questions were: “Is this your first time here?” “Where are you from?” Before I left, the question I got was: “Are you coming back?” I had been asked several times and was never sure of my answer. I mostly said something along the lines of, “I would like to.”
I was speaking to Norman one last time before I left when he asked me the question again. For the first time my answer was clear: “I don’t know if I could stand it if I didn’t come back.”