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.

 

#MyWritingProcess

Today is my day on The Blog Tour, where writers and authors answer questions about their writing processes. My friend Suzanne Farrell Smith posted about her work last week. She is a wonderful, thoughtful, intelligent writer’s writer, and I urge you to check out her process here: http://suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/my-writing-process/

An absolute must-read is her collaborative work with Cheryl Wilder in the journal Hunger Mountain: The 7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life. I can do no better describing The Blog Tour than to quote Suzanne:

“We writers share these things, but informally during workshops and at conferences (and, for a handful of established writers, in printed interviews), but not so much through our open-forum blogs. With the hashtag #MyWritingProcess, you can learn how writers all over the world answer the same four questions. How long it takes one to write a novel, why romance is a fitting genre for another, how one’s playlist grows as the draft grows, why one’s poems are often sparked by distress over news headlines or oddball facts learned on Facebook… ”

I am an enrolled graduate student in my second semester pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College; my concentration is in the Creative Nonfiction genre. You can read about my published and soon-to-be-published writing projects in detail here, Elizabeth Gaucher. My Twitter handle is @ElizGaucher.

What am I working on?

My MFA work is my primary focus right now. In my first semester I worked closely with Dr. Eric Waggoner, whose take-no-prisoners rock and roll style became a viral sensation nationwide when his essay about the Freedom Industries chemical spill appeared in The Huffington Post. This semester I am mentoring with Professor Richard Schmitt whose work, “Sometimes a Romantic Notion,” was chosen for The Best American Essays 2013. I am truly humbled by these opportunities.

I write personal essays throughout each semester, and I continue to search for the unifying element that will thread it all together.  I thought it would be experience in the natural world, but that hasn’t been it. I thought it might be some family history stories, but that isn’t exactly it either. I think I am avoiding something major, but that hasn’t shown itself. For now I keep writing and revising, waiting for the mystery to reveal itself; sometimes I think that’s all you can do, be patient and persistent and wait for The Muse to talk to you.

I am also working on my second River Town story. My first story, “They Hold Down the Dead,” centers on a 16-year-old girl named Lillian Conley who lives on the hill above the river with her wealthy family and finds herself drawn into a dangerous mystery tied to Indian legend. The story I am working on now is called “The Letter Opener.” This story is a prequel to the first and is about Lillian’s mother, Lorraine, not long after the Civil War. 

Me and River Town!

Me and River Town!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

A lot of my work blends childhood experience and spiritual awareness. I started an online publishing project called Essays on Childhood, and through that I help other writers find their voices for some of their untold stories.

I’m also digging into the experience of leaving my home state of West Virginia. I left it a long time ago to go to college and stayed gone for over ten years, but I came back. Why I did that and why I left again, for good, is the focus of some recent essays. This idea of place — what it means and why we return to it and why we let it go –fascinates me.

I’ve been told that my work is “unsentimental” and that that is a good thing. I wasn’t sure what to make of it the first few times I heard it, but then in one of my MFA seminars I heard this: Your work is sentimental when it gives the reader only one way to feel. 

I am glad I’m not doing that! That’s just plain boring.

Why do I write what I do?

This question was harder to answer than I expected; and I think it’s turned out to be very simple. I want to understand life, and I want other people to have moments of understanding and connection through my work. In a self-centered way I hope my writing will allow others to know who I am, and in the Big Picture I hope that my writing will add to a body of work that connects all of us through those recognition moments in human experience . . . those moments when you are reading and for awhile you feel less alone.

How does my writing process work? 

I do a lot on a laptop computer. When I wrote A Rebranded Life: Spirituality and Chronic Illness, I went down in to my parents’ basement to do the work. In that place I could be isolated and in complete quiet. It also had the unintended but I think powerful effect of putting myself, quite literally, in a place where I lived long before I became ill. Physically being in that place amplified my feelings of loss, of grief, but also of safety and love.

a-spiritual-life1

When I was writing “They Hold Down the Dead” for River Town, I started using the cloud computing available through Google Drive. Drive touts itself as “One Safe Place for All Your Stuff” and I have found that to be true. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the terrifying world of saving my drafts on a hard drive that may or may not want to work with me tomorrow!

I need quiet surroundings to write well. I love to be alone, but life rarely affords any of us not residing in a monastery total peace, quiet, and solitude. I like to get up early before the sun and I work as much as possible when I have my house to myself.

I’ve finally given myself permission to just write without self editing as I go, crazy random “mental shenanigans” to loosen up that part of the brain that has things to say that are so often censored. Here’s a brief insight into this exercise:

What if one of the things you can never stop doing is thinking about James and the Giant Peach? And how in the library of your mind the book cover is gone and that becomes your new hallmark of a great book and there’s a guy from high school who will never shut up about some animal he trapped when you try to tell him about the greatness of this book?

It’s like he is everything that is wrong with the world and doesn’t even know it. And your coverless book is everything that’s right, this worn out old crazy book about a peach carried by spider’s or was it silk worm’s strands high, high, high above the ocean by greedy seagulls who a little boy risked his friend to trick into being snared by the silk threads.

About how he escaped his alleged family who hated him. About how even though the peach was only a peach after all even though it was giant and would one day disintegrate or be eaten like every other peach in the world, this one was giant, and carried a child to a new and luminous and distant life. I can’t stop thinking about it.

This kind of early a.m. writing puts me more in touch with the parts of my mind that want to say things I don’t usually let them say. Those subjects, when drafted and revised and shared, can be elements in the most effective stories.

Finally, there is a saying, “The best writing is re-writing.” I’ve come to see revision as an act of love for my work, not as a grueling task. I believe it is a privilege to receive readers’ feedback and to earn their honesty when something is not working. I think it’s essential to listen and respond to those kinds of things in order to grow as a writer.

NEXT WEEK

Rachael Hanel lives and writes just outside of Mankato, Minnesota. She is a former newspaper reporter and copy editor and teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, is her first book for adults. She blogs about death and grief’s role in culture at www.rachaelhanel.me. You can find Rachael on Twitter at @Rachael18.

I invited Rachael to The Blog Tour because she is a dedicated professional writer, frequent blogger, and generous with her talents. We can all learn from her self-discipline and willingness to engage and share in the writing community.

Shauna Hambrick Jones is a native daughter of West Virginia and a proud graduate of WV Wesleyan College’s MFA program. She has been published in Vandalia, Wesleyan’s literary journal; Connotation Press: An Online Artifact; and Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Mothers and DaughtersShe’s a self-described grateful wife and mother; lover of words, Texas Hold ’Em, Prince’s music, and reading in the bath until her toes are waterlogged. Connect with Shauna on her blog, Mental Shenanigans, or on Twitter, @ShaunaGJones.

I invited Shauna to The Blog Tour because she is a personal friend and we studied together in the WVWC MFA program. She also has an attraction to baring her soul through her writing. She is devoted to her work, and she takes amazing risks that pay off. She’s someone to listen to, someone to read.

Vernon Wildy, Jr., is a resident of Glen Allen, Virginia. He has published his work on sites such as Esse Diem for the Essays on Childhood, The Man Cave Podcast, Intentional Walk Review, and his own poetry blog, I Got Something to Say. He published his novel, Nice Guys Finish Last, in 2011. Connect with Vernon on Facebook via his author page, and on Twitter, @VernonWildyJr.

I invited Vernon to The Blog Tour because he understands that writers need community. Every Wednesday (just about) on Twitter he tweets a Happy Writers’ Wednesday (#WW) to his writer friends and associates. It touches me that he is so loyal and so constant in his efforts to thread us all together, even in a brief occasional social media moment. He also brought up a story about his adolescence that was painful and real and honest for the Essays on Childhood project. Read his essay, The Jersey, and get to know this authentic storyteller.


The Long Road to the Last Goodbye

Following is a spontaneous first draft intro for my next creative nonficition packet submission. It will get better. But one of my favorite parts about pursuing my MFA is to just sit down and let it out.

I am leaving West Virginia. It is not the first time, but it will be the last time. I’ve gone through some cyclical departures, but this one has all the signs of a last goodbye.

This strange place is my home. I was conceived and born in Appalachia, as were many of my recent maternal and paternal ancestors and relatives. We are hardwired into the hills. We come from the rock and the soil and yes, if I am truthful we come from the coal. One of my great grandfathers was a coal miner. He fathered ten children, and yet when I see his photograph not twenty years before his death he is a young man. Handsome, tall and lean, he has a look about him that is telling; it tells of an internal age that a casual viewer cannot gauge.  For some reason I’ve never been able to articulate until now, I have refused to own him. My entire family has refused to own him. His name was Charles Edward, but I had to look up my grandfather’s obituary to confirm that. I’m not sure how I know his wife’s name by heart, but his is a thin disintegrated sheet of paper in my history files.

I can still see her photograph with no effort. In fact her son, my grandfather, prominently displayed for years her photograph in his home. In the picture she is as a vibrant young woman in a lace collared blouse and rich blue velvet gown. It was decades after I first saw this photograph that I saw the entire picture. She is smiling with the glow of love because she is standing next to her husband, Charles Edward, in the unaltered photo.

But in the altered photo my great grandfather is no more. His son, my grandfather, decided to cut him out of the picture and to remove him from a visual place in his home where children and great grandchildren might know who he was. On some level, cutting him out of the picture was who he was to my grandfather, Charles Edward’s son. My grandfather was the ninth of ten, and his father died a coal miner well before he had any real memory of his dad. Better to just cut him away. I don’t know that I would post photographs of an unknown parent myself.

But the unknown, the dead and absent, the ghosts, don’t just go away. They tolerate the neuroses of the living for a time, but they always return to claim what is theirs. This is the story of what is Charles Edward’s. I’ve come to believe that my final goodbye to West Virginia on behalf of myself and Charles Edward’s great-great-granddaughter is part of what belongs to him.

The Art of Being Still – NYTimes.com

The No. 1 question I get at readings is: “How many hours a day do you write?” I used to stumble on this question. I don’t write every day, but when I first started going on book tours I was afraid I’d be revealed as a true fraud if I admitted that. Sometimes I write for 20 minutes. Other times I don’t stop writing for six hours, falling over at the end like an emotional, wrung-out mess, simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. Sometimes I go months without putting a word on the page.

One night, however, I was asked that question and the right answer just popped out, unknown to me before it found solidity on the air: “I write every waking minute,” I said. I meant, of course, that I am always writing in my head.

via The Art of Being Still – NYTimes.com.

Special thanks to Jessie van Eerden, Director of the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, for sharing this essay with incoming students.