In Order to Live: Writing in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers

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Anthology of Appalachian Writers Crystal Wilkinson Volume XII

I haven’t known what to say about having an essay included in the latest Anthology of Appalachian Writers. There are the simple and obvious things: This is an honor and a privilege; it means a lot to me; I am grateful.

But there are other things to say, too. Things that are more complicated and difficult.

When I saw the call for submissions, I thought of an essay I’d written five years ago while a student at WV Wesleyan College in the MFA program. I sent it in to the anthology with this note:

“This piece is about ethnic tensions between Italian and Polish immigrants in the Greenbrier Valley, WV. I recognize it might be a stretch for this anthology, but as an editor myself I know there are complexities in assembling a thematic volume or issue that really only make themselves known in the process.”

Only now, with this full book in hand, do I see how very un-stretched this essay is for this volume. In the prelude, “Everybody’s Street and Being Black in Appalachia: The Prose and Poetry of Crystal Wilkinson,” S. Bailey Shurbutt notes:

(Crystal Wilkinson says) “I’m actually haunted by the varieties of ways there are to be human in this world; and the variety of ways there are to live, to think.” The theme of madness also fits poignantly with the idea of being an ‘outsider’….

I got a bit lightheaded when I read that.

I told myself my essay was about immigrants and social class. Heck, I told the senior managing editor that. But I am reminded of Joan Didion’s words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And it takes some time to realize what your story is, and why you may be telling yourself a certain version at different points. When you see your story in a new way, you start to live in a new way.

My great-grandfather killed himself. And coming to terms with that has been and continues to be a long road. He’s been a papery ghost over my life, and only lately am I starting to put him to rest. As I’ve worked on truly seeing him, I’ve seen a lot of other things. Those things are not pretty, but seeing them is the first step to peace.

So back to my earlier thought. I am grateful. Just not exactly why I thought I was.

I hope you will order and read this anthology. It may help you see your own story.

News Release: Shepherd University Anthology Celebrates Affrilachian Writers

The 12th volume of the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Crystal Wilkinson Volume has been released.  The book is part of the series of anthologies that center around West Virginia Common Read Writers at the Center for the Book and the Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence at the Shepherd University Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities. This year’s anthology celebrates the work of Affrilachian poet and Weatherford award winner Crystal Wilkinson, 2019 One Book One West Virginia Common Read author.

“This is our most diverse volume ever,” Managing Editor Sylvia Shurbutt noted.  “We’re excited about the volume in particular because it reflects so well the work of Crystal Wilkinson, both a superb writer and wonderfully good-hearted person.”  

The volume, supported by the WV Library Association, the WV Humanities Council, and the Shepherd University Foundation, contains writers from across the nation and the Appalachian region, including this year Affrilachian poet Frank X Walker, WV Poet Laureate Marc Harshman, poets  Ronald Davis, Mark DeFoe, and Randi Ward, as well as fiction and creative nonfiction writers from around the state and the country.

This volume also contains the stories of WV Fiction Competition winners, Jessica Salfia, Jordan Carter, and Seán Patrick Duffy.  Crystal Wilkinson selected the winners and wrote story critiques for all the finalists.  Her critiques of Salfia, Carter, and Duffy are contained within the volume.

The book is an annual anthology, created by editors Dave Hoffman, Natalie Sypolt, and Allison Wharton.  Copies of the volume can be obtained from Four Seasons Bookstore in Shepherdstown.  During these Covid days, call Four Seasons, Monday through Saturday, at 304-876-3486 (between 10 am and 3 pm) or 304-240-9550 (you can text that number also) or shoot Kendra an e-mail at 4seasons114@gmail.com.  When Covid restrictions are lifted the book will be available at other venues.  

The WV Library Association distributes copies of the anthology to school libraries across West Virginia.  For more information or questions, see the anthology website at https://www.shepherd.edu/ahwir/anthology-of-appalachian-writers or contact Dr. Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt at the Shepherd Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities.

 

“How Do You Write An Essay?”

Recently I’ve had several people approach me about my essay writing process. I enjoy thinking about the craft of writing, so it was simple for me to jot down a few bullet points to share by e-mail. Because I wanted to respond to the questions right away, I wrote the following thoughts quickly.

Later, when I looked at them again, these points seemed like ideas that might interest anyone who wants to write a creative nonfiction (CNF) essay.

CNF is different from novel writing or short story writing. There are overlapping craft elements in each of these genres of course, but I think the essay process can be a little bit less predictable and controlled. Or should be. The writer is, after all, trying to chip away at an experience in order to reveal its value beyond the obvious and beyond the individual. It can be a long process, but one I find most worthwhile.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you go about writing an essay, or what questions you may have about writing in general.

  • I tend to focus on something unforgettable. Something that lingers in my mind from my own experience.
  • I try not to worry about whether or not, on the front end, other people will care about the subject matter. If I can’t forget about it, I’ve learned there is something there — a nugget — that speaks to the human experience.

    The primary objectives are:

    1) Express the human experience.
    2) Include the reader in that experience.

  • This takes many drafts.
  • So first I just write it as it comes to my mind. Then I walk away. Then maybe I do draft 2, and ask for feedback.
  • At that point the things that are and are not getting through usually are revealed.
  • For me, the essay is a treasure hunt. It takes time, and a dedication to write, review, and rewrite. Also, I have a need just to separate from the work for a few weeks if not longer at various points in its development. I can’t see what’s too close to me.

Finally, and this was not in my e-mail text, it is essential not to fall in love with your own work. Often it is tempting to write about something we want to tell other people. We’ve decided that some experience means a certain something, and we are going to tell the reader what that something is and why he should care. This rarely results in a good essay. I like to accept the mystery that I may have no real understanding of what something means and trust that because I can’t forget it, there is something there to be revealed even to myself.

Let the reader in. Let the reader see enough to draw his or her own conclusion. Let the reader be complicit in your work.

Let it happen.

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“Vacancy” — Advent Ghosts 2013

Vacancy

Raking his fingers through his hair, he paused at the temples. She was silent, eyes tight with increasing pain.

Filthy, really, where he’d sent her to finish but he couldn’t have her bleeding inside. And maybe she was a screamer. No one wanted to hear that.

His animals were circling, facing the doorway where the woman entered. He saw them from his bedroom window. He could see everything. He pulled a blanket over his head to shut out the light.

Tomorrow, that woman and whoever else was with her now had to go. He would make sure they were gone.

(Read more 100-word creepy stories from a range of writers on I Saw Lightening Fall’s Advent StorytellingCheck out my stories from previous years here.)

The World Blanches before Winter: Preparing for Advent Ghosts 2013

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2013, the fifth annual shared storytelling event at I Saw Lightning Fall, Loren Eaton’s blog about “narrative, genre, and the craft of writing.” For the uninitiated, Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.

Ghost Winter Flower by Henrik Thorn

To learn more about this tradition, read the article here about this “lost tradition.”

This is my third year writing for Advent Ghosts. In my first year I pulled some edited lines from a ghost story I wrote about meth addiction. It is called “The Escape.”

Last year, I decided to try Loren’s model of writing one piece inspired by secular Christmas traditions, and another from sacred texts.

Unwanted explores the terror we feel when an unexplained and damaged presence penetrates the safety of our families and our homes.

For Later is my take on what I’ve always seen as a poetic and disturbing element in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus.

This year I am again using a sacred story in “Vacancy.” I’m curious to know if you can identify it. Enjoy this year’s submission, which will post on Friday, and if you like creepy little tales be sure to visit Loren’s blog, too! Just when I think I’ve read the most shiver-inducing tale, they get, well, more shivery!

 

“For Later” — Advent Ghosts 2012

From the back of the church the crèche scene glowed softly from the manger. A lone wise man shuffled, heavy, and knelt. “Where are the others?” whispered the pastor but there was no response. Lifting a leaden urn, the sheet-wrapped stranger only whispered, “For later.”

There was supposed to be gold. There should have been frankincense. There should have been more to praise the child. Where were the shepherds, the angels, the gifts? Instead, left behind was an analgesic known to numb pain and heal wounds.

As he passed me in the pew, I heard him say again, “For later.”

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You can read some background thoughts on this 100-word story here: Light is the First Thing to Go. Read other entries in this annual storytelling event here: I Saw Lightning Fall.

“Unwanted” — Advent Ghosts 2012

“I don’t like this one,” my daughter said, handing me the perfect, brand-new doll. “There’s something wrong with her.” The doll’s hair was glossy black, her clothing immaculate, each tiny fingernail a flawless oval.

I sighed and carried the last toy of Christmas over to my husband. “I didn’t know you bought her this one. She doesn’t like it.” He looked at me, eyes wide, then at the empty space under the tree. “I didn’t buy that. I’ve never seen it before.” I turned the thing’s face to me, saw eyes with scars, and dropped it to the brick hearth.

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You can read some background thoughts on this 100-word story here: Light is the First Thing to GoRead other entries in this annual storytelling event here: I Saw Lightning Fall.

Light is the First Thing to Go: My Advent Stories

Last year I wrote a piece of flash fiction for Loren Eaton’s Shared Storytelling – Advent Ghosts project, and it was difficult. Writing exactly 100 words is not especially hard, but purposefully dredging up fear and loss at Christmas time feels ugly; I wondered last year and I wonder again this year — especially this year — how people will react to this kind of writing.

Then I reread Loren’s words:

Light is the first thing to go as we near the year’s nadir, the days dimming earlier and breaking later. The dark is truly rising. So as Advent approaches, flip every switch in the house, break out the blankets and steel yourself to outlast the gloom. But in all your preparations, pause for a moment, just long enough to peer up into a firmament black and cold as flint. See the frosty flecks of stars? See how the borealis coils its frigid fire around them, eldritch and writhing? What speech do they pour forth to us, and what unearthly knowledge do they show night after endless night?

I have 2 pieces for the Advent Ghost project this year. Following Loren’s example, I am writing one secular story and one sacred story.

Unwanted explores the terror we feel when an unexplained and damaged presence penetrates the safety of our families and our homes; I wrote it before Newtown, but I think like every parent I wrote it from a place of fear of the idea that this presence has designs on our children.

For Later is my take on what I’ve always seen as a poetic and disturbing element in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus.

Advent is about waiting for the light of the world. It is about waiting for God with faith, even on the darkest days. I hope you will read these pieces of flash fiction with a heart and mind willing to look into the dark, so that the brilliance of Christmas day is truly a day of love, gratitude, and salvation for you and yours.

The stories will post later today.

Peace be with you.