Monday, July 20, 2015

Dispatches from the 2015 West Virginia Writers’ Workshop: Day Three

We were off bright and early this morning at 9AM in Colson Hall with the PageSpring Publishing ladies: Katherine Matthews and Rebecca Seum, giving their craft talk: “The Writer’s Other Job: Tips for Submitting Your Manuscript to a Publisher.” For several years, this has been the favorite craft talk of the entire workshop. Katherine and Rebecca gave their incredibly savvy publishing advice and anecdotes. The biggest take-aways were to be polite and gracious when submitting your manuscripts to publishers and agents, and to submit your work to as many different places as possible!  Katherine and Rebecca also laid out what their publishing house looks for (which is what all publishing houses look for): excellent writing.  As Rebecca said, "Just be as good as you possibly can be." Workshoppers were able to practice writing their author-bios, and Katherine and Rebecca then did a hard-and-fast assessment of some volunteered bios, but don’t worry if they didn’t get to your questions.They are going to answer more tomorrow at our publication panel, so stay tuned! Like last year, PageSpring came to Morgantown and generously offered to do manuscript reviews for those writers that might be shopping for publication. So during the day, today, our writers scheduled time for private conferences with the lovely PageSpring folks, and ducked out of readings and workshops to meet with Katherine and Rebecca.  All I can say is, what a great literary service. Thank you, ladies!
Our next craft talk was the memoirist, poet, and novelist, Paula McLain. Her talk was titled “Inspiration, Intuition, and the Practical Uses of Mystery. “ Paula used poetry to ground herself during what she called her “Dickensian” childhood, but didn’t share it with anyone. It was only after a small publication in Cosmopolitan magazine (yeah, that one) that she was really spurred towards an identity as a writer.  Paula graduated with an MFA from the University of Michigan, and was began her memoir Like Family when she was still in graduate school, but she talked about how naive she was, expecting fame and fortune to drop in to her lap after one book. (You can see that her ideas interlaced with a lot of what the PageSpring Publishing ladies had just talked about, only on the side of a writer.) Paula coming to writing might be an unconventional story, but it’s also extremely relatable. As writers, we probably expect that the host on the 5:30AM morning show would have read the book that we had just published. And of course that is not the case. Paula told us many times that her expectations about writing and publishing were characteristically unreasonable. But I don’t think they are. I think they’re human. I loved Paula’s craft-talk because it was so authentic. Even when she got her real success with this past book, The Paris Wife, she still knows that it’s her growing knowledge of her writing process, coupled with her good fortune that have given her fame and fortune. Her next attempt at a book didn’t feel quite right, and she could tell, but her forthcoming work, Circling the Sun did. And even though it’s ten days away from release, is generating tremendous buzz.  Paula is humble about the process of writing in the best way. At the end of her talk, she hit home her premise: Just write and feel it, because our intuition knows more than we do. To quote more directly from Paula, “There’s this thing about the creative conscious; whatever makes us writers, our machine; try not to be too serious about it. Give yourself permission to let mystery and unknowing be that thing that goes out into the dark and make something beautiful.” Thank you Paula for such an inspiring talk this morning!
After our catered lunch, it was time for the high school writers who have been working with Natalie Sypolt this weekend to give their reading. This group of high schoolers is so smart (and so well-read) this year! We heard poems inspired by volunteering for the Appalachian Prison Book Project, beautiful images of nature and moths, pictures of social anxieties and lost love, and my favorite: “Why Dogs Are Better Than Boyfriends.” If you get a chance to come to any of our events this weekend, talk to the high school writers. They have brilliant things to say, and are interested in everything.  As I said last year in this blog, many of them come every July to write here, which is a real testament to Natalie’s great teaching! 
...But this also means they remembered me, and my secret irrational fear of sugar-gliders. Oh well.
Our afternoon reading after lunch included the illustrious chair of the English department, our dearest Jim Harms, and we brought back Paula McLain, author of Like Family, The Paris Wife, and in ten days time Circling the Sun (about the wildly adventurous life of Beryl Markham). Jim read first, revisiting poems from The Joy Addict.  It was kind of fabulous to hear him read his older poems! Perhaps it’s was for a throwback-Saturday? Let’s make that a thing. (Though I personally have a special place in my heart for Comet Scar, because it has “Lynda (Singing Chet Baker, 1988)” in it.) Paula read next, and was really excited to read, not only because she and Jim used to teach at a low-residency MFA program for poetry way back when, but also she’s asked to do so many craft talks nowadays, and isn’t asked to read, very often. Like her professors always claimed, Paula’s voice is just so lyrical. What makes The Paris Wife so compelling is that she tailors that lyricism into the kind of spare, yet winsome prose that pays homage to the young Ernest Hemingway, and Hadley, his first wife, as historical characters, while still giving Hadley -- our “Paris Wife” -- a voice and a presence that are entirely unique.  Renee had picked up a gift for Paula in Oakland, Maryland: a small Spanish bull, like the kind in The Sun Also Rises, and Paula totally got behind using it as her mascot. You can see it in all the pictures of I have of Paula, which is really adorable.

Our Workshoppers convened for the last time this evening with their writing instructors, and then it was time for the us to enjoy dinner and an Open Mic at Mother India Restaurant, on High Street. What they might have not known is that we all would be treated to a visit from Gordon Gee this evening as well! President Gee joined us briefly at dinner, coming to our tables, asking us about our Workshop experiences, and giving a huge shout-out to Mark's making this workshop so enjoyable every year. It was great to see him as always. Thank you to Gordon Gee (and to Mother India for hosting our dinner for the second year in a row)!
After dinner, our Open Mic reading began. I think I can speak for all of the workshop faculty and staff, when I say that this was our wildest, woolliest, and BEST Open Mic in recent memory.  People were on fire.  It was incredible.  I live-tweeted my favorite lines, so take a look at Twitter.  But nothing compares to Trinny reminding, us to not, "let our alligator mouth get our hummingbird ass in trouble." Like I said, incredible. 

Thank you all for reading today's blog! Here are some pictorial outtakes.  If you want to see the rest of my pictures, take a look at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  And tune in tomorrow to hear about our Panel on Publishing (and for a Workshop Redux/Reflections/Rundown). 

- Dominique 

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