As 2019 began, I set a goal to attend a writers’ workshop and took a look at my options. I threw applications at a couple of different places and decided that I would land wherever I was meant to be. As it turned out, that place was deep in the hills of eastern Kentucky at the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop. I arrived home last night road-weary but still spinning from such an immeasurable experience.
I posted a handful of photos on Instagram and wanted to have words here too so that I can record this for my own self to somehow bottle the feeling. I feel like I was a million miles away for much longer than a week, but it also felt like coming home to a community of people so similar to myself that I didn’t even know they existed.
I met Dorothy Allison and watched her put aside a planned speech and instead begin with tears and enlighten us about the power of voice with all of its hard and gritty edges. I ate dinner Thursday night seated across from George Ella Lyon, Kentucky’s Poet Laureate, and listened to her tell me she’s been thinking about creek beds and how they overflow their own banks and the ways she sees our current political landscape as a place that has overflowed its bounds to drown the rest of us. I talked with Silas House, one of my favorite living novelists, about why I love his work and about his travels through Atlanta.
The south can be a lonely place when you straddle that line – as I do – of both loving and hating it at the same time, when you feel it so deeply as home but also see the ways that you have outgrown it. A fish out of water. But last week I met so many new friends like myself who are writing their own stories of home and finding their way through lines on a page – from Alabama to Ohio, those who love this region enough that they never want to leave it and those who left it but still ache for both the ways it is beautiful and the ways it needs to change. I ate more food than I have in ages — fresh corn and boiled peanuts and tomatoes and peach cobbler. I listened to a protest song performed with a washboard. I recited “The Brier Sermon” standing in a circle with people I’d only just met and felt my eyes water when, in unison, they began to sing “Amazing Grace” under the night sky. I heard from gay hillbillies and black hillbillies and young hillbillies and old hillbillies. Those who left home never to return again and those who, like me, have no intention of ever leaving.
As I’m thinking about what made this place so magical, I realize that there are no hard lines there between “real” writers (What does that even mean?) and the rest of us. No designation about which stories matter because there is a recognition that all of them do. Everyone gets a shift of dish duty there. Seated across from George Ella Thursday night as we ate squash casserole and barbeque chicken, I listened to her talk with me earnestly about the book I’m writing and where I’m from. Then she asked a kitchen worker if they needed help with the dishes. That’s the kind of place this was – where you can find yourself washing dishes alongside someone whose work you’ve always admired and mentored by voices you’ve been reading on the page for a long time.
Growing up close enough to Atlanta to be well aware of social class, this week exploded those barriers for me. I descended more from sharecroppers than plantation owners, cow pastures and trailers instead of debutante balls. A first-generation college student who found myself teaching in a college classroom by the time I was 32. I can see in my own life a change that mirrors the change of the region I love – fast and unexpected and sometimes disorienting when you try to integrate all of these disparate pieces. I think one of the hardest pieces to fully examine in this book I am writing is exactly how the place I sprouted from has both limited and empowered me. In “The Brier Sermon,” Miller tells us, “You’ve kept the worst and thrown away the best. You’ve stayed the same where you ought to have changed, changed where you ought to have stayed the same. Wouldn’t you like to know what to throw away, what to keep, what to be ashamed of, what to be proud of? Wouldn’t you like to know how to change and stay the same? You must be born again.” This isn’t just about region. I think all of us have to look closely at our own selves, refuse to let the world tell us what is shameful and what to throw away. We all have to be born again everyday to decide for our own selves what we choose to keep and to share.
Writing is the only way I have come to integrate anything at all in my life. All the pieces that don’t make sense find their rhythm on the page. Sometimes you have to reach way back to find those missing pieces you need to make a full circle. Though she is most famous for Bastard Out of Carolina, I had Dorothy Allison sign her memoir Two or Three Things I Know for Sure when I met her on Thursday night since I had spent the week working in the memoir class. I recovered from the workshop today by taking it slow this morning with coffee and a reading of that short but powerful book with a pen in my hand. In a line I underlined two times over, she says, “I would rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me” and it gave me a lump in my throat. How many times has the world tried to make a coat for me that I was not meant to wear? Too many to count. Why does it take us so long to fully love ourselves?
In that same book, Allison also says “If we cannot name our own we are cut off at the root, our hold on our lives as fragile as seed in a wind.” I’ve known that feeling. I am betting we all have and know people who feel it right now as I am writing this. That feeling of cutting yourself off at the root to begin something new without understanding what happened deep down in the soil to make you what you are. I’m feeling eternally grateful for last week — the roots it illuminated for me, the stories it holds, and the ways it taught me to name my own.