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.

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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? 

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