Monday, July 20, 2015

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

Our final panel of the 2015 West Virginia Writers’ Workshop began Sunday July 19th at 9:30AM.  The topic was publishing, and the members of the panel consisted of the lovely ladies from PageSpring Publishing, Katherine Matthews and Rebecca Seum, Abby Freeland from the WVU Press, Renee Nicholson, Erin Murphy, and Natalie Sypolt.  Mark was kind enough to moderate the panel, and the audience (including yours truly) chimed in with thoughts on self-publishing, social networking, and the kind of relationships that writers have with their publishers. All of the panelists had great advice, so check out our Twitter feed to see what they had to say.  It was just the perfect event to end our Workshop this year, because all of us were able to get involved, sip coffee, and just talk about that “next step” for our writing.  Maybe some of the writing that we were able to do this last weekend will be published next year? Only time will tell...
After our publishing panel, we bid adieu to our wonderful Workshoppers, until next year.  And that means it’s time to reflect on our magical weekend.  If you wanted some numbers, here they are: four days, more than fifty writers, two big open readings (one for high schoolers, one for adult writers), several hundred live-tweets, yet another visit (and ringing endorsement) from our university president, and countless memories made. Jim Harms founded this Workshop nineteen years ago, and it’s still going stronger than ever under Mark’s direction. Honestly, it’s crazy to think that next year will be the twentieth West Virginia Writers’ Workshop! If you think of panels, or readers that you would like suggest having next year to celebrate our twentieth, please contact Mark, or Renee, or reach out to us on the Facebook page. We’d love to hear from you.  

I will now echo Mark’s thanks to everyone who helped make this Workshop possible. Out of the Colson Office, Amanda, Cindy, Mary, and especially Marsha, who are all miracle-workers, helping our faculty, our writers, and our guests with gracious kindness, and making incredibly difficult look so so easy.

I must fold in (the first of many) thanks here to my dear friend Renee Nicholson. She is the unsung hero of this Workshop every single year, making everything run so smoothly, and gracefully solving problems even before they start.

All of the West Virginia University English Department, including this year’s reader Kevin Oderman and our founder Jim Harms, who also read with Paula McLain.  

Paula, Kevin, Joanne Veal Gabbin, David Hassler, Renee, Natalie Sypolt, and John Hoppenthaler, thank you all for reading, and giving such amazing craft talks.

To Abby Freeland, Katherine Matthews, and Rebecca Seum: thank you for enlightening and empowering our writers with your discussions of publishing and marketing. The audience loved hearing from you, and you all made everything about the world of publishing much clearer (not to mention less scary).

Thank you to our Workshop instructors, Mark, Renee, Erin Murphy, Natalie, and our pinch-hitter extraordinaire, Rebecca Thomas, for giving your time effort and expertise over to more than fifty people this weekend. Thank you for reading from your work, and reading and responding to the work of others. We know that it took tons of preparation and commitment to do this, and you prove it by keeping our Workshoppers coming back. You are all amazing writers, scholars and ambassadors for literacy at our university, and in our community.  Essentially thank you for being you.  

Thank you to all the students from WVU’s English programs who helped organize events, chaperone high school students, provide refreshments for readings, and answered all of the foolish questions that I could think of.  Some are MFAs, some will be MFAs, and some are undergraduates, but thank you to Jake Maynard, Whit Arnold, Megan Fahey, Claire Fowler, Shaun Turner, Elizabeth Leo, and Jordan Carter -- thank you all.  Rarely have I felt so supported in my behind-the-scenes work as I did at this year’s Workshop. You folks made all the difference.  

Thank you to the WVU Bookstore, for providing books for all of our book-signings, and for generally putting up with me. Trust me, I know it wasn’t easy!

Thank you to Mark Brazaitis, without whom none of this would even be possible.  Here’s to the next nineteen years, Mark! We love working with you.

Thank you for the continued support of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, particularly our outgoing Dean Rudy Almasy and new Dean Maryanne Reed.

Thank you to University President Gordon Gee, who has made a point of supporting this workshop since he arrived in Morgantown (and lets us all take a million selfies with him whenever we see him).

Thank you all of the writers, Workshoppers, and high school students! We love you, and we love hosting you in Morgantown each summer. Please come again.

Finally, thank you to all of you, my dear readers.  Social media is all about instant gratification, and this weekend, I was instantly gratified by your readings, your responses, your "follow"-ings on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, your retweets, your "liking/favoriting," your posts, your mentions, your messages of support, and just the “clicks” on your smartphones, tablets, and computers. You help keep this Workshop on the map by generating buzz, and drumming up support in your individual communities of writers, and that's why we are able to make this happen each year.

To anyone I have missed, thank you as well. And thanks,Tenants of Colson Hall. Have a great summer, and we hope to see you next year.

Best Wishes -

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 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

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

For our second day of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, the writers began with a continental breakfast in the Stalnaker Hall piano lounge, and then convened at nine for a craft talk with Joanne Veal Gabbin called: "Seeding the Future of African-American Poetry." Joanne is a professor at James Madison University, specializing in African-American poetry, and she was the perfect presenter this morning, because she got our brains working, and kept us interested in her topic with her warmth, intelligence, and humor. You can tell that Joanne is a teacher and that she enjoys her subject, because we were answering her questions immediately, and she really wanted our responses!  She concluded with a DVD for us to watch about James Madison University’s work with African-American poetry out of the Furious Flower Poetry Center. I also loved getting Joanne’s husband’s input, because he’s an accountant, and he told the room, “You write because accountants need to read!” Truer words never have been spoken. Mark suggested we get that printed on a t-shirt or something. :-) It was a really great morning craft talk.

After a brief coffee break, David Hassler began his craft-talk: “Spinning Straw Into Gold: Making Threads of Meaning.” We all know the tale of Rumplestiltskin, where the fair maiden has the little dwarf spin straw into gold, and then the dwarf has the maiden on the hook to steal her firstborn child until she can guess his name. David believes that these folktales are powerful in our lives, helping us to transform the “straw” we experience (what troubles us, and what obstacles we might face) into gold, or into meaning. He talked about the death of his mother when he was a boy, and how that was repressed until his mid-twenties, when his absent mother became an overwhelming presence in his life (the way that the dead mother is such a presence in folklore and fairy tales). David traveled to Asia, where he paralleled the image of his twelve-year-old-attempts at unicycling at the time of his mother’s funeral, into understanding Asian mantras and prayer wheels.  So he saw the wheel of the unicycle as a potent location for meaning, or in his mind, the “gold” from the "straw."  The real work of the imagination for David is building these gold threads of meaning. It was a lovely and truly poignant craft talk, and David was then kind enough to give us some time for writing with his brief writing prompt, where we wrote metaphors to “bless” parts of our bodies. He read an example written by some twelfth-graders, who, “bless the heart, that beats even when it is broken,” and "bless the bellybutton, the scar of love.” Though obviously it’s tough to follow acts like that, we all set out to write our little pieces, and then shared them as a sort of call-and-response choral poem. I could tell that everyone really had a great time working with David this morning.  

After lunching independently, Workshoppers gathered for a real treat, because John Hoppenthaler is back in town! John is such a great writer, it was a great turnout for this afternoon reading. Probably because John knows everyone here in Morgantown (and specifically in Colson Hall) and most likely he invited them on Facebook.  All month long, John has been following the Workshop Facebook fan page very closely, and helping me hype the Workshop up.  I am in John’s debt for his kindness, and his generosity when he is sharing all of his writerly clout with us. John loves our Workshop very much, which clear in his reading, as he interlaced his poems with musings on his time working for Toni Morrison, failed camping trips, (with successful drinking components), adorable dogs, and West Virginia. As he ended one of his poems, “And yes, I’ve got on John Denver, and it’s West by God Heaven.” Thank you John, for giving us your best, the way you always do. And Tenants, be sure to pick up John’s newest book: Domestic Garden, out of Carnegie Mellon.  

The next reader this afternoon was Colson’s own Kevin Oderman, and that was really exciting for our Workshop as well! I love Kevin’s quiet, frank voice, and it actually complemented John’s work in a really cool way. There’s something very elegant about Kevin’s writing that is incredibly appealing.  He’s also very well-traveled, and talking about his travels in his work from his forthcoming book showed the audience how smart he is when he puts the pen to the page.  I had never heard Kevin read before, believe it or not, and I really loved it. Towards the end, Kevin ended up paralleling David’s craft talk a bit, when he alluded to Asian art and mythology. I love when that happens at a workshop; two writers have work that intertwines together so gracefully, even when it might not be intentional. Be sure to pick up Kevin’s latest: Cannot Stay out of Etruscan Press, and read more about his travels!

Some of our MFA students provided us with light refreshments after the reading, and then it was off to the evening workshops with Mark, Renee, Erin, and Rebecca. And you know that these four aren’t just running workshops each evening, either. This weekend, our writers have a chance to meet one on one with their writing instructors, to read through their comments, and talk about craft. I saw our writers in their one-on-ones throughout the day, peeling off from our craft talks to meet with their instructors. Our Workshop writing instructors go above and beyond to advise and counsel the Workshoppers each year, and every year I know how much the writers appreciate the extra time and effort they put in.  

After dinner the Workshoppers convened in Colson 130 for our night reading, this evening starring David Hassler and our own Mark Brazaitis.  David is the Director of the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University, as well as the author of two books of poetry and several works in other genres. He had already proved during his morning craft talk that he was a brilliant writer who cares about the “big stuff.” His obsessions with the primal, archetypal, mythic and epic were apparent this evening as well, as he mused on fatherhood, the loss of his mother, fairy tales, traveling in Asia, and the world at large in his essays and poems. He quoted from the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales, and the children’s book The Dancing Man by Ruth Bornstein. Dave read so sweetly and tenderly about his family, and his reflections on those images of them that still move him to this day. It was a gorgeous representation of his writing, and you could see that the audience was really touched by his work.

Mark read next, keeping with the theme of fairy tales as he recounted a story of his time in Guatemala, coupled with some devastating reflections on his experiences there, before he moved to the biting humor (and a self-satisfied smirk) of “Prince Charming’s Confession” poem. But by far the funniest piece that Mark read aloud was about the little lies we tell in social situations regarding pregnancy and childbearing. Or the really big lies. You know the kind: the ones that might involve threesomes with identical triplets, or turkey basters... 

...I love these nighttime readings so much, I can’t even tell you.  But the turnout was fabulous today for all of our readings and craft talks, and you could tell that everyone was having a great time. It was a great day to be Workshopping here in John Hoppenthaler's West-By-God-Heaven.

Stop by Colson 130 tomorrow, Tenants, for readings by all of our high school Workshoppers, our chair Jim Harms, and Paula McLain: the author of The Paris Wife. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We'll see you tomorrow! 


Thursday, July 16, 2015

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

Hello, and welcome back to another weekend full of blog updates from the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop! I hope that all of you will read along with my ramblings this year, and if you have any time this weekend, please do come to our many readings and events held in Elizabeth Moore Hall, and in Colson. Here is a (tentative) schedule of who will be where, and when. Remember all of our readings are free and open to the public, so bring a friend (or five)!

Along with some blogging, I will be cultivating our social media presence for the next four days. If you have a Twitter account, you can follow us here, or just use the handle @WV_Workshop. If you have a Facebook, be sure to “Like” our Page, here. I made sure to attach a poster of all of our free readings to the Facebook page, and you'll see it if you scroll back through my Workshop Countdown. (It’s from day seven, so one week ago.)  Also, we have an Instagram (I have some adorable pictures of Renee’s golden retriever on there and I know everyone loves puppies). The Instagram site is here, or just find the handle: @wv_writersworkshop to follow along.  There were a lot of posts today on several different social media platforms, so check us out!

The first day of the Workshop is always busy, because all of the writers registered and picked up their packets around nine or ten this morning, and this year we moved our Registration Station down to Elizabeth Moore Hall this year, putting our Literary Journal Display on the first floor of Colson, right by that (fortuitously?) closed front entrance. It turns out that area is perfect for a Literary Journal Display, so go figure! Our writers checked in with the lovely miracle-worker who is Marsha Bissett, and then if they are staying in Stalnaker/Dadisman for the weekend, they came up the hill and settled in there, where I gave them some maps, and pointed them towards breakfast beverages.  Then our writers were free to take a walk, grab a coffee, and explore the campus until our lunch in Elizabeth Moore Hall. It was a gorgeous morning!

At noon, Mark started us off with some opening remarks, and announcements, and then we were free to get a slice of pizza or two (and to reunite with all of our writer-friends from workshops past).  After lunch, we all had a grand old time with Mark's mini-craft-talk, from the point of view of Sam-I-Am, of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, obviously (it matched his Dr. Seuss tie)! So there were “Ten Questions to Ask a Fiction Writer” and you can check Twitter to see all ten. The last one was a rather cheeky,  10) “No, seriously, I’m stuck. How do I begin?” Which was an excellent segue to Mark’s flash-writing prompt, which focused on “obstacles” and conflicts to be dramatized for the best writing. The flash pieces that resulted were heartfelt, empathetic, and occasionally hilarious, and I for one really loved hearing all of them.  Each year, Mark sets us up for great writing with an exercise like this in honor of Shann Palmer, a long-time member and fan of the workshop, who passed away two years ago. The lottery and fundraiser we set up last year has created a few “mini-scholarships” for several of our writers, and I think that would make Shann very happy.  

Our first big craft talk of the workshop was Renee Nicholson’s, titled: “Your Virtual Writing Life: Managing an Online Presence to Support Your Work.” Renee called on Natalie Sypolt, (our High School Workshop maven) and yours truly, to talk about how social media branding works with our own jobs as writers and academics.  Renee talked about Twitter, and Squarespace, and how she publicized her book of poems with a book trailer. Natalie talked about Facebook, and Weebly, and how to cultivate a public online writerly presence (versus a private Facebook persona) specifically in regards to Renee and Natalie's podcast, which you can listen to here.  Lastly, I talked about Instagram, the Layout App, and what it means to live-tweet, as well as how I worked my Workshop Countdown for the last four weeks. Of course, life’s little ironies include the fact that it was impossible to live-tweet my presentation I couldn't have my face buried in my phone while up in front of the crowd, but the rest of the Twitter feed has all of the brilliant things that Renee and Natalie said, regarding the curating as Renee called it, of your social media presence.  And I think curating is a really perfect word for what this feels like each year, at least for the Workshop. Of course it's about maintenance and keeping the information updated. But it’s also about making choices from life’s beautiful miasma as to what would be pretty, witty, and shiny enough to go on public display. 'Definitely worth thinking about!

Our workshoppers broke into their writing groups after the craft talk, to work with Mark (working with fiction and nonfiction writers), Renee (working with fiction writers), Natalie (working with the high school writers), and Erin Murphy (working with poetry writers). Due to a family emergency, Howard Owen will not be able to join us in Morgantown this year.  So Mark graciously took on two fiction workshops this evening, and tomorrow, the brilliantly talented Rebecca Thomas (an alum of Colson's own MFA program) will take over Howard’s workshop.  Howard has already sent comments to the writers, so that writing group will be getting comments and writerly advice from the triple-threat: Howard, Mark, and Rebecca. I am rather jealous of that writing group, to be honest.

This evening, the Workshop enjoyed a reading by the poet Erin Murphy, and our own Renee Nicholson as well. (It was, as I am sure you have guessed, a very busy day for Assistant to the Director of the Workshop: Renee Nicholson, author of Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center out of Urban Farmhouse Press: get your copies now.) Erin and Renee worked together during Renee’s previous residency at Penn State Altoona, where Erin currently teaches. After Mark’s introduction, Renee read her titular poem, “Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center,” and followed it up with some advice from “Audition Girl,” who’s sort of like Gossip Girl, but for ballet auditions. She even brought out a tiara to amp up the effects of the reading, and the audience loved it.

Who doesn’t love perfectly selected props, right? (See what I mean about the curating?) Renee's "Audition Girl" piece was sarcastic, passionate, and intensely funny, which was a great tie-in to Erin’s work. Professor Erin Murphy is a member of the creative writing faculty at Penn State Altoona and the author of six(!) books of poetry, and we're so excited that she could come to our Workshop this year. Erin's really inventive, and she read poems from a form she created called the "demi-sonnet," because it's formally balanced, but shorter than a standard sonnet. Demi-sonnets can pack a punch, but also be really funny, as Erin showed us this evening. To balance her humorous works, Erin was also able to read gorgeous poems about her son and daughter, because they weren’t here to be embarrassed by their mom. :-) It was adorable. 

Erin is an incredibly smart writer, and a beautiful reader, just like Renee, and I think that Renee and Erin read in tandem really well, tonight. For those poor souls who missed tonight's reading, you're in luck, because there’s more great readings to be had all weekend long! Tune in tomorrow afternoon at 1:30PM to hear John Hoppenthaler and Colson Hall’s own Kevin Oderman in Elizabeth Moore Hall, and then tomorrow night in Colson 130, we will have Mark, and David Hassler.  You don’t want to miss our Friday events!

Until Tomorrow, Dear Reader(s) -