Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dispatches from the 20th Annual West Virginia Writers’ Workshop: Day 1

Hello and welcome back to our live updates from the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, which turns TWENTY YEARS OLD this year! Today was the first day that we welcomed writers to Morgantown, where we'll spend four days reading and writing together. 

Our writers checked in this morning in Elizabeth Moore Hall (and then in Dadisman/Stalnaker if they are staying in the dormitories). Mark Brazaitis and Jim Harms delivered our opening remarks before everyone had their lunch. After lunch, Mark gave our first craft talk: “Image is Everything” which had the compelling premise that writing is like a first date. (Mark said the metaphor fell apart after a while, but I still buy the fact that first impressions are really important, and our expectations dictate so much of what we are drawn to.) What was really striking about Mark’s first craft talk was how genuine it was. He was so sincere, and don't we all as people respond best to authenticity? Mark gave a handout of great opening lines, and we talked about the promise in each one, and what we hoped to get from reading. It really was like a first date, because in each opening line we go in with such hope, and even anxiety! Everyone was really engaged with these openings, especially “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and we also had a great talk about Sarah Waters' pacing versus plotting in The Paying Guests. 

Next, the writers were given their “Super Fabulous Magnificent Wonderful Writing Exercise,” and gave readings of their work at the microphone in E. Moore Hall. Each year, we dedicate this exercise and reading to the late Shann Palmer (who would have loved all of these prompts, and all of the readings and discussions that are generated). Whenever our writers read their work it’s a wild ride, and this was no exception. There were pieces written as cats, and as squirrels, there were really delicious descriptions of pancakes and blueberries (we were getting hungry, I guess) and what it is like to know people who wear way too much cologne. Part of working the social media for this Workshop requires good observation, and it was really cool to see that manifest in everyone’s readings this afternoon. 

The WVU Bookstore is selling the works of our Workshop faculty members all weekend long!
After the reading (and some snacking) the writers peeled off for their individual workshops with our esteemed faculty. This weekend, Jacinda Townsend is in charge of the fiction workshop, Shara McCallum is leading poetry writers, Mark Brazaitis is doing the nonfiction workshop, and Natalie Sypolt is working with our high schoolers. After the first official workshopping, we all broke off for dinner (I had a girl’s night Thai food extravaganza!) and then we met back up in Colson Hall for our evening reading. Tonight we featured Shara McCallum and Jacinda Townsend. Shara read poems from her newest book Madwoman, which will be published in 2017, and *spoiler alert*: it's an amazing book. Shara’s voice is so beautiful to hear, with the lilt of Jamaica where she grew up. And as she said, Madwoman is about voices: what they do, what they say, and the impact they have. Shara tends towards elegy, which she says is “useful” as a poet, but her work is also full of these moments of wry humor and rueful wit, that make you smile to yourself when you hear her. But don't take my word for it, because I Live-Tweeted the whole reading for Shara and Jacinda, and they both sound way better than I could ever describe here. 

Jacinda Townsend read next from her novel Kif, about a child abduction that takes place in Morocco. Like Shara, Jacinda uses a variety of voices to tell her story, playing with space, time, and consciousness throughout. (She is also the only novelist I’ve heard use the word chiaroscuro correctly, and I minored in Art History, so I heard the word a lot.) Beyond that, Jacinda combined satirical points of view with real pathos to describe a series of traumatic events. She held the room in rapt attention as we were feeling the unendurable tension of the child-kidnappers, and yet still felt sympathy for them. Jacinda's reading reminded us that here are no essential characters in life. People are only completely good or completely bad in fairy tales, which Shara had mentioned earlier. The coolest part was how both of tonight's readings manipulated voices in unique ways, and gave us plenty of heroes and anti-heroes to examine and interrogate. I love it when readings intersect! 

Well that’s it for tonight, Tenants. Tune in all weekend long for more Dispatches from the 20th Annual West Virginia Writers’ Workshop.*** 

Be sure to "Like" and follow us on Facebook: @WVWritersWS

On Twitter: @WV_Workshop

And on Instagram: wv_writersworkshop

The hashtag that Renée came up with is #wvww20 for our 20th Anniversary, so use that when you attend and post about our events! 

***Before I sign off today: I learned from some intrepid “Masters” that Colson Hall is a “Poke-Stop” if you’re playing Pokemon Go. So if you’re hunting Pokemon this weekend, do stop in for a reading. There are apparently things called zubats, and drowzees all around, whatever they are. I am out of my depth, but I'm just keeping all of you folks informed. 


Renée brought an old-school polaroid-type camera, and I was able to watch a photo of me and my former student Stephen develop in front of my eyes. The fact that this was so exciting for me means that I am in no way ready for Pokemon Go. 


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