Appalachian writers find family, home at Hindman

July 30, 2009

HINDMAN — This is the season for family reunions in Appalachia, when people come home to celebrate kinship, community and the mountain culture that shaped their lives.

There’s a big reunion in Knott County this week. Many of the 100 people there have been attending for years, if not decades. Few are related by blood, but they’re family just the same, bound together by Appalachia’s storytelling tradition and the magic of words.

Ask participants at the 32nd Appalachian Writers Workshop what it’s like, and they use the word “family” a lot. They come for inspiration and advice on the craft from some of the best writers these mountains have produced.

The workshop was started by two Knott County writers, novelist and folklorist James Still, and poet Albert Stewart. Others associated with the annual gathering have included poet Jim Wayne Miller and novelists Wilma Dykeman and Harriette Arnow, author of the 1954 classic The Dollmaker.

“It’s a central part of my year that I never want to miss,” said novelist Silas House, who was a participant from 1996 to 2001 and has been on staff ever since.

Participants apply and submit writing samples in May. There are always more applicants than spaces; the 102-year-old Hindman Settlement School’s cabins can hold only so many people.

Each morning, participants gather in small groups according to interest: poetry, novels, short stories, nonfiction, memoir and children’s literature.

When I visited the workshop Tuesday, poet and writer George Ella Lyon was in one room talking about the challenges of publishing books for children. In another room, novelist Karen McElmurray discussed using memoir to explore universal themes. In another, novelists Ann Pancake and Laura Benedict explained storytelling techniques.

Afternoons are for group readings and individual coaching from the staff of published writers. Everyone eats together, then washes dishes. There’s writing time throughout the day, and bull sessions late into the night.

“It’s an intense week,” said journalist Jason Howard, who is here for a fifth year. “There’s a great sense of family, and a lot of spiritual detective work going on.”

Mike Mullins helped start the workshop in 1978, soon after he became director of the historic settlement school that now provides literacy and cultural enrichment programs. He marvels at the workshop’s success.

“I think there’s always a crying need for all of us to express ourselves, to tell our story, or a story we’ve made up,” said Mullins.

A few of this year’s participants are college students, but most are much older — academics and blue-collar workers, business people, housewives and retirees. Some are beginners; others have published several books.

Mountain life has always been a popular subject in Appalachian literature. But many now write about the mountains themselves and what has been happening to them over the past half-century. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been leveled by mountaintop-removal coal mining or scarred by strip-miners.

“What we do to the land, we do to the people,” said Don Askins of Clintwood, Va., whose poetry focuses on the coal industry’s environmental destruction.

House and Howard, who both come from coal-mining families, recently wrote the book Something’s Rising about opposition to mountaintop-removal within the region. Howard also edited a collection of essays, poems and songs called We All Live Downstream.

Many writers here are women who have raised families or had careers. “They come with this full lifetime of experience and a passion to write about it,” McElmurray said.

Benedict first came to the workshop 20 years ago. “I had only been writing for a year or so and I was looking for a cheap vacation,” she said. What she found was a calling – and a husband, Pinckney Benedict, who was on the workshop staff. “We didn’t start dating until after the conference, but I gather we scandalized a few people,” she said with a smile.

The Benedicts were back this week as staff members. He is a novelist and short story writer who teaches at the University of Southern Illinois and at writing workshops across the country. She recently published her second novel.

“There’s a sense of community, a spirit of cooperation here,” she said. “They read a lot, and they all take their work very seriously.”

But unlike some other workshops, Benedict and McElmurray said, the writers here don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s no “staff table” at meals, no caste system based on publishing success.

But Benedict has discovered one advantage to being on staff: “I don’t have to do dishes.”

Click on each photo to enlarge.