Meet the Writers | Essays on Childhood 2013

It is with great pleasure that I introduce the first class of all-repeat writers for EOC! Each has written an essay for the project before; Anne Barnhill has the unique status of writing for her third year.

Thank you for reading, and for helping to promote these fine writers. If you appreciate what we are doing, I hope you’ll share the project with your network. We plan to publish a book next year. Just discovering EOC? Catch up with the project by listening to Elizabeth Gaucher’s interview with Beth Vorhees last year for WV Public Radio.

Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman was born, raised, and now resides in Charleston, West Virginia; he lives happily with his wife and 2 dogs.  He attended Marietta College in Ohio and received a bachelor’s degree in English and then went on to complete his Masters in Business Administration at the University of Phoenix in Scottsdale, Arizona.  He enjoys all things outdoors, especially camping with his wife and riding his motorcycle.

Brent’s essay will examine his love of motorcycles — how he fell in love with them when he was young, and how they have facilitated adventure in his life.

Read Brent’s 2012 essay, “Outside.”

Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi.  Her debut novel, At the Mercy of the Queen, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2012. Her second novel, Queen Elizabeth’s Daughter, is forthcoming in 2014. She is working on a third and as-yet-untitled novel, set in West Virginia.

She is also author of At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me, a memoir about growing up in West Virginia in a time before anyone had heard the word ’autism.’ What You Long For is a short story collection published in 2009 that also contains stories set in the mountains.  Books are available from Amazon, www.jkp.comwww.mainstreetrag.com or, if you’d like a signed copy, from the author directly at acbarnhill@yahoo.com. Her first chapbook of poetry, Coal, Babyis available from Finishing Line Press.

Anne’s essay, tentatively titled “Under the Stars,” is inspired by her early experiences camping in West Virginia.

Read Anne’s 2011 essay, “Winter Solstice,” and her 2012 essay, “Melungeons and Mystery.”

Elizabeth Gaucher

Elizabeth Gaucher

Elizabeth Gaucher

Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia; she now makes her home in Middlebury, Vermont. She graduated with honors in History from Davidson College and is a degree candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Elizabeth serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Childhood and Religion, a peer-reviewed online journal.  Her essay, “Rebranding a Life: Spirituality and Chronic Illness,” was accepted for a collection,  A Spiritual Life:  Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, & Preachers (2011).  Her collaborative writing project Essays on Childhoodwas featured on West Virginia Public Radio.

Her short stories, “They Hold Down the Dead” and “Acts” are forthcoming in publications edited by Eric Douglas and Michael Knost, respectively. (She will probably pester you to read them.)

Her essay, “Small Things in My Hand,” is about rabbits. Maybe. It might be about something else, but it has rabbits in it.

Read her 2010 essay, “STOMP! go the doors.”

Margaret Ward McClain

Margaret Ward McClain

Margaret Ward McClain

Margaret was born in the miasmal swamp of Charleston, South Carolina.  She spent her childhood dividing time between the Holy City and Greenville, SC, the red dirt capital of the Upcountry, where she was raised and attended school.  She earned a B.A. in English from Davidson College and a J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law.  She says, “I’ve always been torn between wanting to save the world and wanting to write about it.”  Today she is a recovering lawyer residing in Chapel Hill with her wonderful husband and family.  She is mom to a 16-year-old son, two grown stepdaughters and three very spoiled dogs.

The working title of Margaret’s essay is “The Alligator.”

Read her 2011 essay, “The Simons House.”

Susan Byrum Rountree

Susan Byrum Rountree

Susan Byrum Rountree

Susan Byrum Rountree highjacked the storyteller’s stool in kindergarten and has been telling stories ever since. Words have always held a sense of magic for her, and she has spent more than 35 years bending them this way and that to see what stories she can squeeze out. She is the author of Nags Headers, a regional history set on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and In Mother Words, a collection of essays about family life. Born and raised in Scotland Neck, N.C., a tiny town in the Tar Heel State’s northeastern corner, she studied journalism at UNC Chapel Hill and has written for a number of national and regional newspapers and magazines. She is now Director of Communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, in Raleigh, N.C. The mother of two grown children who have found themselves writing in their careers though they swore to her they would never become writers themselves, Susan these days bends words this way and that on her blog, Write Much.

Her essay will reflect on millions of birds that roosted in her town in the early 1970s. They were just birds. Or were they?

Read her 2012 essay, “Pick a Little Talk a Little.”

In a Man’s Voice: Outside by Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia.  He tried to leave the mountains twice, but always found himself back in the heart of Appalachia.  At the age of 7 he was sent to play outdoors, and he never fully came back inside.  “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir

Editor’s note: Brent is a long-time friend of mine. From junior high through high school, and years of Presbyterian youth experience, we share many childhood commonalities. It was not until I attended his mother’s memorial service that I had the slightest clue what a powerful influence she had on his love of nature. Brent is many things. He is my old friend, he is a poetry student, he is a husband and a writer and a son and a brother. He is a lover of the natural world, and he is a gift to that place and all of us in it. I hope you enjoy this dipping and swirling ride into the mind of a child who is discovering frogs, and fireflies, and the greatness of trees.

Outside | by Brent Aikman

I was six years old when we moved away from the neighborhood I had known as “mine.”

 Away from my best friend who lived next-door.

Away from the familiarity of the dead-end street full of kids, families, people, that at the ripe age of six, I could say “I know them.”

Away from the world as I had come to know it: Friendly people, the nice Valley Bell Dairy milkman who delivered milk to the house, “Shane” the ancient boxer dog that lived across the street, “Big Rock” down in the woods (It was really big, and it was truly a rock), and more.

Away from everything that a normal neighborhood, on a dead-end street, had to offer. We were ‘that family’ that moved away. We only moved about 4 miles, not far at all in adult understanding.

But to a six year old…

Ours was the third house to be built in the ‘new’ neighborhood. A subdivision of homes was being built in the woods. THE WOODS. We moved into the house in the fall, and I played in the woods around the house beginning then and through the winter. When I turned seven in April my mother sent me outside to play.

“No really, you have to go outside… and play…  Go…”

So I went. Outside. Into THE WOODS.

The writer in 1976.

My father was a chemical engineer. My genetics yielded neither the comprehension of mathematics nor science. Those numbers, those scientific thoughts, did not make it too far into my brain. I believe two conditions exacerbated this natural fact. First, if there was a window in the classroom, my eyes were drawn to it, especially when math came around. I just didn’t understand, nor did I really care about, multiplication tables and sums (I think they call this Attention Deficit Disorder these days). Second, I certainly was much more interested in being outside.

Outside, in the woods.

Late spring in West Virginia has a true magic about it. The world is a vibrant green that  startles the eyes. Everything is in bloom. Nature is finally awake after long months of winter. You can see it in the trees as they reach for every drop of sunshine they can grasp. The wind is soft and moist with warmth suggesting that summer is coming. Every wild living creature is either giving birth or going through the mating rituals that will lead to bearing offspring and moving the species ahead a generation.

That spring the woods almost seemed in a frenzy. Birds flying, chasing, singing. Squirrels darting, playing, chattering. Chipmunks, annoying chipmunks. The cry of the red tailed hawk that sent those chipmunks running for their lives. Blue tailed skinks sunning on the rocks. The green snake, brown garden snake, black snake in the bush eating baby birds out of the nest. I did not need math or science in school. I came to an understanding in the woods. There is a lifecycle. Mating, birth, living. If the black snake eats one of three baby birds, it is not only the death part of the lifecycle, it is mathematics. There are now only two baby birds.

I understood science and math, just not in the classroom.

I would lie in the cool leaves on the forest floor, looking up into the fresh canopy of leaves. I could stay there for hours, watching, looking, and listening. Engulfed in the enormity of the woods, but yet not feeling as though I were lost, or small. I felt like I belonged. Unlike my time in school, here I understood what was being revealed to me in the math and science of nature.

Math: Trees grow one ring every year. Birds lay eggs, maybe one, maybe more. The hummingbirds that we see in our woods flap their wings about sixty times a second. Black snakes can grow really big. That one was over four feet long!  A frog lays hundreds of eggs.

Once, I discovered an incredible secret outside. I found it, it was my secret, and I shared it with no one.

I had been watching the puddle for about a week. I finally gathered the courage to dip my hand in. I dipped, the egg mass oozed around my fingers. I held the gelatinous mass in my hand and looked at the single black spec floating in each little bubble. There really is nothing like holding a mass of frog eggs, freshly scooped from the standing puddle by the road. I put the eggs back after complete examination. I would come back to look at them again. Maybe I would not hold them again, I thought, but I would but definitely look. And soon, there would be frogs!

Science:  When it rains, the toads come out onto the road so they won’t drown, to get warm, and they get squished by cars. Hummingbirds can fly backwards. Bumblebees, according to the man-made laws of aerodynamics, should not be able to fly.

I love Bumblebees.

Outside was where I wanted to be, but If I had to be inside, I would be in the kitchen. The kitchen of the new house had a window that was almost six feet wide. The sill was less than two feet off the floor, so I could sit on the floor and look out. I looked out at a bird feeder that was four feet long and 14 inches deep. A BIG bird feeder. No. It was a bird feeding platform. My mother would tell me what each bird was, if we would see it again, or if it was just passing through. I could sit and see birds that others may never see; Scarlet Tanager, Grosbeaks, Cowbirds, Nuthatches, Warblers, Juncos, American Redstart, the Common Grackle with its blazing yellow eyes, and Finches of purple and gold that would sing the rise of the sun.

There were wonderful surprises including the Wood Thrush, the most elegant Cedar Waxwing, Indigo Bunting, Solitary Vireo, Northern Oriole, and many birds that were the gift of “passing through.”  There were Woodpeckers of all sorts and sizes; Downey, Red-bellied, Common Flicker, Hairy, and if we were lucky, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Then HE came.

Young Brent, OUTSIDE.

There was a great thump, and it seemed everything stopped. It was the Pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America. If I was lucky, I would be sitting by the window and get to look into his yellow ringed black eyes. I would hear him ask me if I was coming back outside. And I would run for the door…

In this time of the spring, in the dusk of the early evening, it starts. The fireflies rise. My grandparents lived on the west side of Charleston and had a very large side yard with a Magnolia tree that I could climb. I spent a lot of time at their house. And while there, I spent a lot of time in the Magnolia tree. I would climb to my spot and sit and watch the fireflies come out of the grass and off the branches of the tree and flicker around my head as they searched for their mates. The world was alight.

My grandparents’ yard helped meet my incessant need to be outside. There was an area of rose bushes on which to feast my eyes and nose; grape vines growing over the patio that brought in birds; a small vegetable garden planted in spring that produced tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, and squash.

Then there were the oak trees. There were four (I counted them using my math skills) HUGE oak trees, each one at least four feet thick if not more. At seven years old, I was small. These trees were huge. Spring allowed me to lie on my back in the yard and watch, and look, and listen. Spring brought a sense of urgency to the oak trees with lots of birds flying, squirrels scrambling, and the chipmunks – always, the annoying chipmunks. The giant trees provided life and a home to many creatures. Me, I stretched out underneath the huge trunk and spreading limbs and took it all in. I watched the birds and the squirrels and would wait for dusk, for the lights to start twinkling in the trees. It was magical. While it was not in The Woods, my grandparents’ yard was held in high esteem. And to this day, I long to sit high in that Magnolia tree and watch, and look, and listen as the fireflies rise into the spring evening.

As a child, I found solace outside, in the woods. I had to move away from my friends, start attending a new school, learn new streets and meet new people. My world turned upside down. My own mother had said “go play outside,” and then Mother Nature wiped away my fears and helped me understand that no matter where I was, I could look to her, and suddenly all would be right with my world.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Essays on Childhood: The 2012 Writers

The Essays on Childhood project is pleased to introduce you to the writers for 2012.

They are, in a word, strong.

They are all skilled writers, but they are also individuals who exude a quality best described as simply iron. I know many of these people in some way: Some are social media friends, some are “real life” friends in my community, and some are even people with whom I shared a part of my own childhood experience. Their strengths come from intellect, and physical power, and emotional fortitude. They are special.

As a third year editor in this project, I’ve come to appreciate the different types of essays people write about their childhood experience. Every type is valid and good, but one can tear at your heart while another sends you into gales of laughter. Others may leave you reflecting on the mysteries of life, or convinced it’s time to reconsider your own story.

The word essay means a trial, or an attempt. Essay writing is personal writing, and it  requires courage.

This year I’ve seen a few drafts, and I have a good feeling about this group. These writers have plans to open their worlds to us.

I’m ready. I hope you are!

Gentlemen first:

Douglas Imbrogno

Douglas Imbrogno is a writer, editor, web video producer and musician. He is also a master of brevity. See some some of his words and videos at http://westvirginiaville.com




Terry Gillispie

Terry Gillispie was born in South Charleston, West Virginia, the only son to a single mother, he spent most of his formative years residing in various locales within the Kanawha Valley before a period of stability landed him at South Charleston High School, from which he graduated in 1986.

After a brief stint with the United States Army, he left West Virginia to attend Indiana State University, from which he graduated in 1993 with a degree in Insurance and Business Administration.

After leaving a lucrative profession in claims management, Terry now resides on the north side of Dallas, Texas, and stays at home managing the welfare of his three children while his wife circles the globe as a software trainer for John Deere.  This affords him the opportunity to work on a teaching degree via online studies while also volunteering for various duties at his children’s elementary school.

Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia.  He tried to leave the mountains twice, but always found himself back in the heart Appalachia.  At the age of 7 he was sent to play outdoors, and he never fully came back inside.  “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir



Steve Alberts

Steve writes faith-based stories about “God’s grace throughout (his) life.” He dabbles with song lyric writing, is attempting to write a novel, and enjoys acting, photography, hunting, fishing, and woodworking.

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, raised and educated in Spencer, and having Bachelor and Master Degrees from WVU Steve says, “I now live in Tennessee and love it here, but West Virginia is my forever home…until I get to the other side.” Visit his blog, On Steve’s Mountain.

Jeremy Paden

Jeremy Dae Paden was born in Italy and raised in Latin America. He teaches Spanish at Transylvania University, He is published in Calíope, a critical journal of poetry of Spain and the Americas during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  He is also a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a collaborator in Rose Tree Writers.

Vernon Wildy, Jr.

Vernon was born in Richmond, Virginia on June 6, 1971.  After being schooled in the Henrico County school system, he went to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and received a degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering in 1994.  After college, he returned to the Richmond area and entered the workforce and worked in the transportation industry, mostly in operations.  During that time, Vernon discovered a poetry group in the area and began to read at open mic events around the city of Richmond.  He also was able to have some of his works published in Fantasia magazine, a local literary magazine.  While continuing with poetry events, he began taking graduate classes at Virginia Commonwealth University.  He finished his Masters in Business Administration in 2010. He self-published his first novel, Nice Guys Finish Last, in 2011. Visit his blog, I Got Something to Say.

Rob Boone

After a stint in the Navy, Rob began a nearly decade-long career in sales. Since relocating to St. Albans, West Virginia, from Tampa, he’s turned his sights to more creative pursuits: writing, acting, and designing.

When he’s not doting on his seven-year-old daughter, Jessica, he spends his time reading, writing, learning, and generally questioning the norms of the world at large.

Mary Lauren Weimer

Mary Lauren Weimer is a writer and professional blogger (www.my3littlebirdsblog.com) from Huntington, West Virginia. Her writing has appeared in Sleet Magazine, WV Living, and many popular websites. She writes daily for the parenting website Babble and is a regular contributor to Moonfrye.com.

She serves as a group leader for Education for Ministry, a four-year theological course of study through the Episcopal Church.

She is writing her first book which explores motherhood and identity.

Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

Susan Rountree

Susan Byrum Rountree has been telling stories ever since she understood the power of the Show & Tell stool in kindergarten. Words have always held a sense of magic for her, and she parlayed that magic into a 35-year career of bending them this way and that. She is the author of Nags Headers, a regional history set on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and In Mother Words, a collection of essays about family life. Born and raised in Scotland Neck, N.C., a tiny town in the Tar Heel State’s northeastern corner, she studied journalism at UNC Chapel Hill. She is now Director of Communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, in Raleigh. The mother of two grown children and two very precocious granddogs, she has written for a number of national and regional newspapers and magazines. These days she blogs about the magic of daily life at Write Much.

Melanie Jones

Melanie Bartol Jones lives in Raleigh, North Carolina,  with her 3 girls, dog, and husband. Growing up, Melanie and her family moved every two years because of the Navy. This constant moving taught her how to notice details about people, places, and things, and mostly about herself. Constantly showing people who she is became an art and an opportunity to edit her story. Sports became a natural way for Melanie to fit in wherever she was, and she went on to play lacrosse at Brown University. Melanie’s life continues to be filled with details, physical activity, and change. One role she never imagined was becoming a preacher’s wife. But her husband is an Episcopal priest so the label stuck. On a daily basis she can be found volunteering for her kids’ school, reffing lacrosse, teaching pure barre, whipping up meals for 20, and realizing she may never be on The Today Show. Melanie’s writing focuses on the daily struggles of who she is going to be when she grows up and other faith questions. Check out her latest escapades and thoughts at Not Your Preacher’s Wife.