Thursday, June 11, 2009
The Appalachian Writers Workshop (or, How I Met Pinckney)
In the spring of 1989, my life was a mess. The details aren't particularly important. But for the sake of this story, I'll tell you that by summer I was more than ready to leave it completely behind for a week.
I'd been taking writing classes and writing short stories for almost a year while working at my day job in sales promotion for the mega-beer company. Those night classes were my first real exposure to the literary world--beyond my own rather lame attempts to educate myself by reading random books that I knew to be classics. I subscribed to Writer's Digest, that wonderful cheerleader of a magazine that puts publishing stars in so many nascent writers' eyes. And that's where I found my dream come true: a list of writers' conferences that promised camaraderie, knowledge and, best of all, a week removed from the rest of the world.
There were probably a hundred conferences listed for that year. How did I choose? Location, location and price, of course.
The Appalachian Writers Workshop was (and is) at the Hindman Settlement School, in Hindman, Kentucky, many hours from where I was living in St. Louis. But my dad's people, the Philpots, were from that area and I always entertained extremely romantic notions about it. Growing up in Louisville, it seemed a faraway, inaccessible place. Perfect for making up stories about. The notion of going there comforted me, and it seemed liked a friendly sort of conference, if there is such a thing. Plus, it was quite inexpensive. I think I even managed to get mega-beer company to pay for it, though my boss probably approved it because he felt sorry for me (see Line 1, above).
So I sent in the check and registration fee and received, in return, instructions for travel, a schedule, and a bright green photocopied brochure with a picture of someone named Pinckney Benedict perusing a book (his own) on its cover.
What in the world might a Pinckney Benedict be? I asked myself.
The workshop was, indeed, a very friendly place. It was a summer camp for writers where we talked about books and stories and wrote during the day. The workshop format was familiar to me, but the encouraging staff there was a refreshing change from the arrogant baseball writer who had made fun of my "old fashioned" stories in the grad workshop I'd just completed. In the evenings, there was plenty of music, storytelling, gossip (ha!) and much partying in general, drinking in particular, for those who would. The surrounding mountains were beyond beautiful. It was a much gentler introduction to the world of writers outside the classroom than I ever could have anticipated.
And, well, there was that Pinckney Benedict guy. He kept trying to talk to me, and followed me everywhere! But then I discovered he just wanted to talk to me because he was the leader of the short story section of the conference, and that he and I were actually supposed to have a private meeting about the manuscript I'd submitted. Silly me!
We must have hit it off, because, here it is, almost exactly twenty years later and we seem to have collected a couple of children, several houses (not all at once), many pets and not a few gray hairs along the way (okay, one of us has--the other shaves his head so no one can tell). And at the end of July, we'll both be back at The Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman (July 26-31). This time I'll be teaching a novel section, and P will be doing short stories. Twenty years. Oh, my.
If you're looking for a workshop this summer, the workshop at Hindman is a very special place for many writers in the region--people who have it tucked away in their hearts because they found good teaching, good friends and lots of support for their work there.
A few folks on this year's staff: Silas House, Ann Pancake, Leatha Kendrick, Gurney Norman, Maurice Manning, and George Ella Lyon. Ron Rash is also making a special appearance.
Sorry, I can't promise you'll meet a potential spouse, but you never know!
**The portrait is of P and me just after Pom was born. It was taken by an amazing photographer named Arturo Patten who was doing a book of author portraits for the French publisher Actes Sud. (He was there to shoot P, but when he learned I was a writer as well, he kindly included me in this one and sent it to us.) Arturo died in 1999. I expect the copyright belongs to his estate. This is my very favorite picture of us.