Sunday, July 24, 2016

Dispatches from the 20th Annual West Virginia Writers' Workshop: Day 4

Hello and welcome to the last day of the 20th Annual West Virginia Writers’ Workshop. We all came to Colson 130 at 9:30AM for our Panel on Publishing, with all of our Workshop Faculty.  This is always a fun morning, because we’re able to talk about what we can do with all of the writing that we have generated over the last three days (and that we got to enjoy last night at the Open Mic at Mother India).

Publishing panels can show us both sides of the literary arts. David Hassler and Jacinda Townsend talked more about the nitty gritty business side of what it means to be a writer, what it means to labor over revisions, and how to stay in the game even through all of the rejections that we will inevitably experience, while Shara McCallum talked about how the spirit of our creative desires should fuel and sustain us, because we love it. As I was having lunch with Natalie and Renee earlier, I realized that our Workshop has both of those elements. Each year we bring amazing authors to come in and be part of our Workshop Faculty, which is a very businesslike endeavor. But all of the authors come to do work and pay homage to the craft of writing, which supports and sustains and fulfills us. Each year, the Workshop is a labor of love. And twenty years in, it’s still the most magical weekend in July.  

These are Mark's Thank-You's to: 

all of you in the Department of English...and...

To our participants -- who came from Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the great state of West Virginia

To Jim Harms -- whose wonderful concluding poem Friday night now makes me think of our local diner as the "Existentialist Cafe, with Milkshake"

To Marsha Bissett -- whose management skills are second only to her grace under pressure

To Cindy Ulrich -- who handles so much so effortlessly

To Ethel Morgan Smith -- whose reading was topped only by the stunningly moving panel she served on

To Breon Batten, Kelly Johnson, and Amanda Tustin -- muchisimas gracias!

To our amazing Workshop faculty, who came from far (Jacinda Townsend, who is heading out for a teaching position in California) and near (relatively, in some cases; very in others): Dominique Bruno (social-media maestro extraordinaire), Ann Claycomb, David Hassler, Brent House, Alonzo LaMont, Shara McCallum, and Howard Owen

To Natalie Sypolt, who displayed her usual firm patience with (and inspired) 16 high-school participants

To Bonnie Thibodeau, who had the night-shift with the high-schoolers and lived to tell the tale

To our grad-student and undergraduate-student assistants: Megan Fahey, Bryce Berkowitz, Jordan Carter, and Amanda Gaines

To our dean, Greg Dunaway, whose enthusiastic support of the Workshop justly received enthusiastic applause from our participants and faculty Friday night 

To our president, Gordon Gee, who has talked up our Workshop frequently ever since his welcome (second) arrival at WVU

To the WVU bookstore, which came through

And of course to Renée Nicholson, whose commitment to the Workshop is unrivaled and deeply, deeply appreciated.

If I missed anyone -- please accept my absent-minded (but grateful) thank you!

Planning for next year's West Virginia Writers' Workshop is already under way. We hope to see you there!

In the meantime, 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.  You can do a search for that on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to re-live your favorite moments!

Thank you thank you thank you to all of the Workshop participants this year, and over the last twenty years. Doing the social media for this Workshop is the highlight of my summer, and I love every minute of it. 

'Until next year Tenants-

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dispatches from the 20th Annual West Virginia Writers' Workshop: Day 3

'Just going to leave this here. 
Hello from day three of the 20th Annual West Virginia Writers’ Workshop! We started our day with a brilliant craft talk from Howard Owen, called: “How to Start a Writing Career After 40.” The best part of Howard’s craft talk was how his advice actually applied to any of us, at any stage in our writing career. Howard had brilliant suggestions for writing with discipline and pragmatism.  My favorite suggestion he had (other than reading everything you can) is how he finds pictures from newspapers and magazines that resemble what he imagines a character to look like, and then puts it up on a story board, so that the character’s image is not only in his head, but also in front of his eyes when he looks up. I love that idea, and I might borrow it myself (which Howard also suggested: borrow all of the good ideas and inspiration you can)! Howard has published fifteen books since he turned forty, and he’ sixty-eight now, with more books on the way.  He had a brilliant perspective about writing and living and process and experience, so thank you Howard for an inspiring talk!

Howard in action. 
We then had a powerful panel about performance from David Hassler, Alonzo LaMont, and Ethel Morgan Smith.  The full title is: “A Panel on Public Performance of Poetry and Prose and Plays.” All three panelists addressed the perils, pitfalls, and pleasures of writing for performance (of course I’m trying to be as alliterative as the title of the panel is).  David Hassler, the director of the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University, spoke about unearthing oral histories of the Kent State Shooting, which happened when he was young but which no one really talked about. Alonzo LaMont talked about Telling, which you can find on Facebook as The Telling Project, a performance project that seeks to bridge the gap between veteran and civilian experiences and discourses.  Ethel talked about transitioning From Whence Cometh My Help from prose to performance, and the power of testimony. Eventually our discussion turned towards the political performance in the world right now, and the role, or even obligation of the arts to testify, and even to heal. Thank you to all of the panelists for a superlative discussion! We laughed, we cried, we testified, and it was magical. 

Maybe it helps that our panelists are so darn good looking. (It sure doesn't hurt!) 
After the panel presentation, writers were able to have a catered lunch, and hear the writings from the high school workshop writers.  What an amazing group we have this year! All of the readers had such passion and energy, and, coupled with their writing talents, the lunch reading was a revelation. (After all, not every reading will have someone open with Bertolt Brecht’s “The Lovers.”) Thank you high school writers, and thank you Natalie for your teaching and reading with the high schoolers every year. We know that it’s an intense endeavor. (After all, folks only have four days to write, and work together on revision.) But every year all of the high schoolers rave about getting to work with you and are so excited to present their work to us. One student has returned for all four years of high school, and we are going to miss her when she goes to college next year. Hooray for Natalie, and hooray for all of our writers this weekend! 

'So professional...
Our afternoon reading featured David Hassler, Alonzo LaMont, and Howard Owen.  David Hassler read from May 4th Voices, which is an oral history play that recounts the Kent State Shootings in 1970’s. (My favorite was a high school teacher blessing Pavlov, when a potential fight evaporates as the class bell rings.) Alonzo read a dramatic monologue of "B-SideMan," which will be performed in New York in October. The monologue built from the wild madcap humor of the summer of love, and a small college in Vermont, to meditations on fatherhood, the death of a child, and the life of an artist. Pretty much the entire room was in tears after he finished reading. Howard read from Grace, his most recent Willie Black mystery novel that will be released in October. When I talked to the other writers tonight, even ones who don’t always read mysteries, they were most struck by how accessible Howard’s work is, and how he makes the genre so exciting to both mystery novel experts, and novices alike. Every single writer this afternoon brought their A-Game to their readings, and it was an amazing day. We were kind of all reeling as we split into our Workshops. 

David Hassler
Alonzo LaMont
Howard Owen
For this last workshop, I sat in on the tail end of Natalie’s High School workshop before I met for a manuscript one-on-one with a high school writer.  Both of those events were fantastic, I have to say. I’m really grateful to Natalie for giving us the opportunity to talk about all different kinds of writing with high school writers who are so enthusiastic about the craft of writing, and about finding new things to read! 

Some pictures from the High School Lunchtime Reading
Our last evening of the Workshop is always our Open Mic dinner, so thank you to Mother India on High Street for their third year supporting our Workshop! Our takeaways this year include the fact that Karen Valentine never needs a microphone, Mark is going to work on his Elvis impression, and that poems are always better if they mention cake. But as it is every year, it was a wild and wonderful time down on south High Street.  I just came home from meeting a couple of writers at the Iron Horse Tavern, and they were still recounting their favorite moments.  

Renée's little polaroid was a huge hit this evening! I didn't make it to each table, but I made it to a lot of them.  
Karen Valentine killing it, as usual

Actually everyone did an amazing job!

Well, that’s it for today, Tenants. Are you following us on assorted social media? Because you should.

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! 

Tune in tomorrow, as we talk publishing, and say goodbye until next year! 


Friday, July 22, 2016

Dispatches from the 20th Annual West Virginia Writers' Workshop: Day 2

Here we are for day two of the 20th Annual West Virginia Writers’ Workshop! We opened in Elizabeth Moore Hall for a craft talk with the lovely and talented Renée Nicholson (who rocked out the flamingos on her dress, earrings, and bag this Friday) as she gave her craft talk:  “The Origins of Connection: The Relationships Others Have On and With Your Writing.” Renée started with a brief discussion of Charles Darwin (you know, like you do) while describing the evolution of our processes as writers, and these points of connection and interaction that we accumulate to create a work. I even got to participate for a little while with a high school writer, when we did a listening exercise that Renée had first done for her Narrative Medicine training at Columbia University with Doctor Rita Charon. The writer had to listen to me tell a story (so I told a story of a time that I broke a law), and then summarize the story I told, while I then had to write about how it felt to be listened to. When we got a chance to share, it was an elevated sort of sharing. Even a seemingly ordinary anecdote, like a trip to the beach, or getting a dog, seemed like a more significant experience when we all knew that we were listened to when it was told. It was an authentic experience (and for many of our writers, it was clearly very moving). I love when a craft talk makes me feel more connected to the speaker, and to the other writers in the room, and that’s just what Renée was able to do. 

All the flamingos!
There was a brief coffee break after Renée’s talk, and then we heard from Ann Claycomb, who gave a talk titled, “The Mockingbird Test: the key role of perspective in taking YA lit from good to great.” Lots of our high school workshoppers were very invested in what Ann had to say, because they are the target audience of this genre, and some of them have tried to write in this genre themselves. Ann had us do an exercise where we had to describe a character that our protagonist had strong feelings about. These could be strong feelings of affection or hatred, or any sensation, as long as the feelings were strong. Ann based her talk title “The Mockingbird Test” on the Bechdel Test (the touchstone for feminist prose) Her argument for how good YA Lit differed from great YA Lit is if it incorporates perspective. We talked about how the perspective of different characters, the perspective of the passage of time, and the perspective of understanding your place in the world all help to elevate YA Lit and make it more memorable. Ann had brought in some evidence of this, so we did some close readings of excerpts from Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other seminal young adult literature to understand these perspectives. We finished with a cool discussion of the slippery genre of Young Adult Literature itself, coming back to talk about and recommend Peter Cameron’s (a Workshop alumnus) Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, Cirque du Freak, and Dumplin’. 

Ann in action!
After lunch (which Renée, Natalie and I enjoyed with Lud and Mary Gutmann. Thanks Mary and Lud!) We had our afternoon reading from Brent House and Renée. Renée introduced Brent, who based his poem reading selections on the most “wild and wonderful” thing he knows: his five-year-old-son. Brent read beautiful pastorals, peppered with hilarious stories of his son declaring war on all honeybees after a sting, and getting lost in cornhusks. The most beautiful image by far when Brent read about his son as a pine tree, strong and rooted in the ground.  It was a gorgeous, hilarious reading. Thank you so much, Brent! 

Brent House

Megan Fahey introduced Renée next, and Renée opened with her rather elegiac mini-memoirs about the death of Prince, and then a piece about her brother’s fight with cancer.  I have had the pleasure of reading drafts of this memoir as Renée has been writing it, and it was very satisfying to see how far her revisions have come since May. Afterwards, everyone wanted to talk to Renée, hug Renée, and share with her their own experiences with family, illness and listening. That's how you know it was a really powerful reading. 

Our writers separated for their afternoon workshops after that, and then we had dinner before reconvening for our night reading featuring Ethel Morgan Smith, Mark Brazaitis, and Jim Harms. The Dean of Eberly College Greg Dunaway joined us this evening, which was delightful! Ethel started by reading a poem by Langston Hughes, “Democracy,” and then read something new: her book, From Whence Cometh My Help: The African American Community at Hollins College is being turned into a play that will be performed next spring, and she has the script. Obviously reading a script meant that the work was dialogue-driven, but Ethel painted beautiful pictures with the language she used, and the audience felt the humor as well. It was a warm and generous piece, and I think I can speak for everyone when I say we can’t wait for the play to be performed! 

Mark read next, starting with one of his poems, from the magazine for Peace Corps Alumni: Worldview, called, “What I Remember from the Country I Loved, for John Coyne.” (And Mark spelled out John's name so that I would get that right, because he knew I was writing this blog when he started talking.) He then read an older short story about a newlywed couple moving to the states from Guatemala. In this story, Mark perfectly captures the tension of international travel, moving, repressed family dynamics, and impulsive desires. It was a heartbreaking, funny, and sad (in other words the perfect short story). Mark might be the king of last lines, and though I won’t spoil it for you folks, the ending of this story reminded me of what it felt like to wake up in the United States after several weeks in Italy, and realize if I had been talking in my sleep, it wasn’t in English.

Jim finished us up tonight with several poems for us. I think he only embarrassed his daughter Phoebe (one of our high school workshop writers this year) with one poem about her babyhood insistence on calling spinach “yogurt.” It was adorable.  The last poem he read, (which will be forthcoming next year) described the utter bliss of having a milkshake for breakfast, while still reminding us that life is a painfully complicated thing. Thank you for the reminder, Jim. And if you decide to make milkshakes for us tomorrow before our first craft talk, I think we'll all be amenable. 

Well that’s it for tonight Tenants! We’ll see you tomorrow at 9AM in Colson Hall for a craft-talk with Howard Owen. Be sure utilize social media, and keep coming back here to read recaps of our wonderful 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!


Megan introducing Renée

Anyone recognize these excerpts from Ann's handout?