West Virginia Writers’ Conference 2017

I’m pleased to write about another fantastic trip down to Ripley where I and two of my fellow Ohio Valley Writers attended the 40th West Virginia Writers’ Conference at Cedar Lakes. I won three awards: honorable mention and first place for two essays in the non-fiction category, in which I competed against 56 other brilliant writers, and second place in the Pearl S. Buck Award for Writing for Social Change category.

What makes the West Virginia Writers’ Conference special, I think, is West Virginia itself. I’ve been to other writing conferences. I went to AWP in Washington, D.C. in February, and it was very businesslike, very efficient. AWP is a monster machine, with hundreds of panels, hundreds of publishers, and thousands of people. I learned a lot at AWP. I also wore myself out to the point of exhaustion. And while I did do some networking, the crowds made it difficult to really forge any new connections from scratch. It’s hard to remember faces in such a literary cacophony, and the faces who did invite me to submit my manuscript said no thank-you several months later. In a perfectly nice way, mind you.

John & Alice joined me at this year’s conference.

West Virginia Writers is like camp. We’re a small state and a ferociously proud one. And while the news will never tell you that we’re full of word artists, they come out of the hollers for this event, and they’re a most enjoyable crowd. They’re friendlier than church-folk, even. West Virginia writers are like puppies: they wag their tails when you show up and welcome you with excitement.

Moonshine under moonshine.

Plus, there’s moonshine. Apple pie flavored. Meta bonus points because I was drinking moonshine while bathing in the Strawberry Moon’s shine.

I learned things, but more importantly, I connected with the other writers in a way I did not do at AWP or any other conference I’ve attended. These are folks with whom you can sit down at any meal in the dining hall – quite literally just plop yourself down with strangers – and become friendly and feel supported. There are no jerks. There are no douchebags. We are bonded by our West Virginian-ness.

The bucolic spirit of Cedar Lakes, Ripley, WV.

And in our state, that’s not a bond to underestimate. Our love of our home, despite all of the negativity it endures from both the inside and the outside, emerges in conversation. It spills out in workshop when the leader asks who returned to West Virginia after living elsewhere and twenty hands shoot up. We are not only proud to be from West Virginia; we are all in love with West Virginia. And no matter how many times we land in the 49th spot on an unenviable list, we resist that label. We’re more than an opioid addiction. We’re more than an incest joke or a color on a political map. This place is our home, our bloodline. And that blood runs through the veins of this conference, too. Our state is our spectacular main character; it creates our narrative tension and our blessed resolution.

Ohio Valley Writers took home 5 awards.

Does this kinship flow at other conferences? I cannot fathom a Manhattan writers’ convention. I can’t imagine passing a group of New York writers sitting beside a bonfire and being invited to join them. In what other world can I approach an esteemed author and come away with a hug or an invitation to call them up for a chat? Who else might toss me a cold beer and exchange a few bad-cat stories or an hour of bluegrass music?

At every writers’ conference, I come away with something of value: a new technique, a business card, a signed book. When I leave Cedar Lakes, I’m also coming home with a renewed sense of community, of deep and enduring pride to be a West Virginian. From the hollers and panhandles of our state the writers come forth for this annual pilgrimage, and though it’s writing that brings us together, it’s our love of our land that we truly share.

This year we took an oath. We swore to support one another in literature and friendship, to remember the great authors who wrote before us:

West Virginia Writers Pledge

And we remain a pack, as the pledge suggests. For forty years the West Virginia Writers have kept the torch burning in support of one another, of the story tradition. It’s one I’m so proud to be a part of.



I’d Rather Be in the Woods

Writers consider their words carefully. Endlessly. To the point of madness. When we write, we think. When we revise, we obsess. We delete and replace and delete again. The words must be exact. They must flow. They must be premeditated and thoughtful and absolutely perfect.

That’s writing. When I speak, however, the process isn’t quite so deliberate. Sometimes the things that pop out of my mouth in conversation are really asinine. Like when I plan to respond with either “neat” or “cool” but end up busting out a hearty, “Nool!” Or when a relative stranger asks where my kids are and I reply that they’re duct taped in a closet at home. Not everyone appreciates that sort of comment, I’ve discovered. But just as often, the things that pop out of my mouth are a surprise to me because they’re not just Laura-chatter; they’re statements that reflect my true feelings.

There’s nothing so perfect as a hemlock tree.

Twice this week I’ve heard myself telling someone that I’d rather be in the woods than around people. The first time, I was sitting with a friend who was asking me if I would be attending a social event this weekend. I grumbled a bit, said yes, and then quipped, “I never go to social events. I’d rather be in the woods.”

Two days later, I had a similar conversation with a different friend. “I don’t like to come out of the woods,” I said, in reference to socializing. “I prefer trees to people.”

On a side note, this week I finally earned my Kooky Hermit Badge from the Girl Scouts of America. It’s one of the hardest badges to earn because it requires an intense effort to be both antisocial and muddy at all times. Nailed it!

It’s true. I’d rather be in the woods than celebrating or drinking or visiting or eating. Now, it’s also true that when I eat lunch with friends, I enjoy it very much.  And I suppose I would rather go to Punta Cana with my husband than a tulip poplar. (Well, actually that really depends on if he’s going to do that thing where he packs three minutes before we leave for the airport and then forgets pants. I wrote about it once.)

But generally, I stand by my statements. I do prefer the trees, the mountains. And it’s not that I don’t love and care for the friends I see at a formal social event. It’s just too overwhelming, too overstimulating, and there are never any squirrels or moss or caterpillars in attendance. (Have you ever talked to moss? It is so polite. Never interrupts.) I have to wear high heels rather than hiking shoes and carry a purse rather than a fishing pole or walking stick. I have to check my quippiness at the door, and I can’t utter things like, “Hey, this looks like coyote poop,” or “I’m going to go take a leak in that ravine.” That’s what I’d say out in nature. At a formal event, it sounds a little suspect.

Of course, I always survive encounters of the social variety, and it’s never as stuffy as I imagine it will be, especially if I confine my bladder evacuations to the ladies’ room. Still, I’ll take any chance to disappear into the forest.

Yesterday, I had to take our new car back to the dealership in Morgantown for a repair. The prospect of a day in the repair shop infuriated me until I remembered Mo-town’s proximity to Coopers Rock State Park. I got downright giddy at the thought of sneaking up to the mountains in a rental car, and I did just that. Although the main road to the famous overlook was closed for the winter, I found a separate trail that led down into the canyon along a mountain stream through an eastern hardwood forest, past patches of hemlock and enormous boulders dripping with moss and icicles. I was the only person on the trail – the only person in the woods, even – and it was fricking glorious. And yes, I did pee in a ravine.

In the spring, the trails become streams.

I found myself so full of joy, grinning like an idiot. The forest is where I go when I’m in need of spiritual comfort. That’s where I connect with spirit, where I find the divine. It’s the only place I connect with the divine, in fact. But on a more basic level, I’m just a happy nut in those mountains. I didn’t even say much to myself as I hiked, except when I approached boulders that looked like they might house a bear and her cubs, and then I made sure to recite loud, dirty limericks and have heated political discussions with Pete, my walking stick. You don’t want to surprise a bear (and it’s also important to remember that tragic man from Nantucket).

Scott Run

My emotions ran so purely joyful for those three hours that I conducted an experiment. Out loud, I said things to myself that normally embed in my brain and make me miserable. I said, “You’re a hack,” and, “Nobody is ever going to publish that book.” I said, “Your writerly income is pitiful, chicken arms.”

Nada. Nothing. Didn’t bother me in the slightest. The insults bounced right off. At home, I’d have felt awful hearing those things. Out there, I laughed at my chicken arms. Not a drop of negativity could penetrate. That’s the power of nature, of the forest.

And let’s be honest: as a species, trees are way better than people. Aside from their intrinsic usefulness and value to the environment, trees are just plain decent folk. Has a red spruce ever criticized your parenting skills? Has a quaking aspen ever raised an eyebrow and asked why you weren’t in church on Sunday? Has a sugar maple ever called you a slut?

Has the forest ever done anything other than listen patiently to your troubles, block the view of your drunken neighbor in his underwear, provide branches to burn on a campfire and a lovely whistling sound on a windy day? Okay, maybe that one sycamore branch that fell on your tool shed was a bit of a douchebag. But I’m telling you, trees are better than people. I’d rather be with the trees. A tree is the ultimate introvert. Even in a group, they stand sort of awkwardly, straight up, exactly like me at a party before I have a cocktail. Sometimes, like me after a cocktail, they swing their arms a little too wide and whack somebody in the face.

(The palm tree’s an extrovert, though. Look how it stands all saucy and angled, leaning to the left or to the right, they way women pose sometimes. Hi, I’m a palm tree! Check out my coconuts! I’m just going to grow here at an angle with my besties in a cluster and wave my fronds all around and make clacking noises.)

Farewell, Pete the Walking Stick. You were my friend.

Yesterday, I eventually had to come out of the woods. After a solid, 6-mile solo hike, I was damn tired. (See What’s Wrong With You?–Part One, a tale of fatigue.) But I felt fortified against the world for another day or two. I hate coming down out of the mountains into a world of shopping plazas and office parks. Thankfully, the high lasts for a while, long enough to remind me that the world of humans isn’t always as bad as I imagine.

And I’m going to try to work on the blurting thing.

West Virginia Incoming

I won’t be writing about the devastating floods happening in West Virginia here. That sort of post calls for a heavy heart and an earnest hand, and as of this time I am not yet able to write what I’d like to with either. 

We’re getting ready to take a little family trip. I hesitate to say “vacation” because we’ll only be gone for three days and because I make a distinction between trips and vacations. When I was young our family went out of town in two ways: we either flew to the beach in Florida or the Caribbean and set up camp in a condo to which we would return every few hours in between lazy beach excursions (the vacation), or we would bounce from hotel to hotel, landing in a different spot each night after a day of driving and sight-seeing and hiking (the trip). The vacation is relaxing, laid-back, and low key. Beach, pool, sail, snorkel, dinner, bed. The trip, however, is fast-paced, heavily-scheduled. Grand Canyon, mule ride, river raft, boat excursion, waterfall hike. It’s the difference between flip flops and hiking books. We took both vacations and trips, and I’ve always put our family outings into one category or the other.
Tucker County: Blackwater Falls

Shawn has taken the week of July 4th off, and we’ve got two separate excursions planned. First, we’ll bop on out to Piedmont Lake for 3 days of relaxation. We’d planned an entire week out there originally, but then I got this bee in my bonnet about taking the kids to Pendleton and Tucker Counties. As a West Virginian, it’s important to me to show them the beauty and wonder of their state, and though I’ve wanted to do so for quite some time now, only recently have they become portable. Until Ben reached age 5, longer car trips consisted of multiple bathroom breaks and endless whining and backseat fisticuffs. Now…well, nothing has changed at all, actually, except that they’ve both learned how much fun it is to pee in a bottle. And I can turn around and tell them to shut their yaps instead of having to provide them with a toy or a movie or something, instead of having to be all nice and motherly because my kids are too little and innocent to be barked at. 

“Ben’s kicking me!”
“Andy’s being a jerk!”
“Hey! Shut up back there.”

You can totally say that when they’re older.
Plus, they’re now old enough to understand empty threats. “I will turn the car around!” “I will make you sit by that rock until you’ve learned your lesson!” “So help me, we will rake the lawn when we get to the resort!”

Pendleton County: Seneca Rocks

Pendleton County is by far my favorite spot in the Mountain State. It even edges out Canaan Valley in the “awesome” category. The geology is amazing: it’s part of the ridge-and-valley geologic province of the Appalachians, characterized by long, even ridges that parallel long, even valleys. From the air the topography looks like corduroy. The other half of West Virginia, the more northwesterly half, is the Appalachian Plateau province and is actually a high, eroded plain rather than mountains. So when I take them to Pendleton County, they’re going to get their first real glimpse of West Virginia mountains, geologically speaking. 

I don’t know if they’ll appreciate what they’re seeing. We have plans to take them to the top of Spruce Knob, the highest mountain in West Virginia. We have plans to see Smoke Hole and/or Seneca Caverns and to ride the Cass Railroad. I desperately want to take them to the Seneca Rocks swimming hole, which, for my money, is the most beautiful swimming hole in the state. (And also possibly the coldest.) 

Seneca Rocks swimming hole.
Shawn asked that I not upload the photo of
him swimming in his underwear.

When I am in the heart of my home state, I feel overwhelmed by its beauty and stupefied by how old it is. There is such comfort here. I admit that, pound for pound and peak for peak, the Rocky Mountains are far more impressive and one look at the Grand Tetons will shut your mouth for days. I would live in the high Rockies if I could; they’re unmatched in this country for stunning-ness.

But I don’t live in the high Rockies; I live here. And when I’m in the ridges and valleys, I feel more at peace than I ever have anywhere else in the world. While the high mountains of the west stir awe and excitement and leave me with stunted speech, the view from Dolly Sods calms me and gives me the feeling that I am of this place, this state, and I know that nowhere on earth will give me such a strong sense of belonging. 

The word “content” doesn’t get its due credit, because it doesn’t feel like it means all that much, when in reality, content is perhaps the one emotion that we should strive to maintain in the long-term. Happy is too difficult; happy is too hard to chase, and too elusive when we catch it. Content should be the goal, the feeling that carries us through our years.

Content is the view my kids will see next week. And I wonder if any of it will mean anything to them. I’m an adult approaching 40 now, and I write about West Virginia as if it has always been in this deep place in my heart. But really, that feeling grows over the years, out of decades of experiences. Ben is 6; the view will be neat for him for about 30 seconds and then he’ll tire of the place we are and ask to be moved onto the next site of adventure. I wonder how many years and how many views it takes for a person to fall in love. At what point, if I have done my job as a West Virginia mother correctly, will my children realize that they are infatuated with this place? When does that notion take hold? In hindsight, I assume I’ve always loved it here, but this is absolutely not the case. Many summers my father tried to organize a “West Virginia Vacation,” and David and I always shot him down in favor of a trip to Yellowstone or Zion National Park or Grand Cayman. We could never get excited about a tour of our state. I was a teenager then, and though I had been to Canaan, for example, many, many times, I desired a sexier vacation and taller, craggier mountains.

I think, perhaps, it was my time away from West Virginia that made me love her. Florida is a different world, and when I left West Virginia I didn’t look back. How could anywhere compete with blue ocean water and dolphins leaping and the fronds of a palm tree that make a melodic clacking sound in the breeze? I fell in love with Florida. She became my home, and I identified as a Floridian.

But the thing about Florida is that it’s a scrub-land. The green you see in Florida is largely introduced. Palm trees aren’t Floridian; palmettos are. And palmettos aren’t tall and breezy; they’re short and scrubby. In fact, everything in Florida is scrubby. Have you ever looked at the leaves? They’re hard and pointy; the natural landscape is brown and spiky. There’s no carpet of grass, and the only grass that grows is a foreign species that’s sharp on the feet and prickly on the ass. And all of this is just fine, because it’s Florida. That’s how the state is supposed to be: scrubland and swamp. (I will touch on my feelings re: the wetlands another day.)
After four years in Florida, the shine wore off, as it invariably does with any new situation, and in particular with any vacation-destination-turned-home. The landscape and the novelty of a place—especially one to which a person feels they have escaped, as college-bound kids often do—no longer stands out as notable. Yes, there are blue waves and happy dolphins out there, but they do not negate the fact that it takes 45 minutes to drive 7 miles. 

On one particular day, I woke up alone in my apartment and decided that I needed some furniture. My grandparents, two hours to the south, had graciously given me their kitchen table and chairs, and all I had to do was drive from St. Petersburg down to Fort Myers and pick it all up from storage. I’d been putting off the trip—a 4-hour venture, all told—but on that particular day I had no friends to play with and nothing scheduled. And so I jumped into my car in pajamas, having not bothered to brush my teeth, even, and drove two hours south, put the furniture into my car, turned around, and drove two hours north, home. It was a weird trip, spontaneous and random and in hindsight I dearly wish I had stopped for an overnight to see my grandparents, but of course I couldn’t yet imagine a time when they wouldn’t walk on this earth with me, and I just blew in and blew out of Fort Myers without bothering to even hug them.
(Fight the tangent, blogger. Fight it hard.)
The road to Dolly Sods

The story of the trip lands in this blog because, on this day, though the sun was shining as it always does in Florida, I felt deeply homesick. Not for my family (sorry, guys) or my house or my old life, but for West Virginia herself. I missed the green, and I missed the topography. I wished, as I drove along, to see anything but flat, anything that might give a hint of a rise in the land, any sort of grade whatsoever. My car, in those days, had a cassette player, and I put my tape of John Denver in it and played “Country Roads” over and over and over, for four hours. Play, rewind, play, rewind. Tear up. Play. The interstate was so straight that I took off my shoes and drove with my bare feet (I was 20, after all, and 20-year-olds are invincible idiots) and tried to picture not the long blade of cement interstate stretching out in front of me, unbending, but rather a two-lane ribbon of road darting in and out of the trees, winding its way through the morning. And I tried to feel the soft brush of West Virginia grass against my skin. At times I looked out the window and ran my hand over imaginary hills, trying to feel the feathery foliage of deciduous trees and picturing the way the treetop canopy waved in the wind, many trees moving in concert like the Gulf rollers at the beach. 

That was what I missed: soft green mountains. It may have been one of the loneliest days of my life, and without a doubt, the most homesick I’ve ever been. And though, at that time, I had great plans to build a life in Florida and pursue my love of estuarine wetlands, I think an unconscious part of me decided then that I couldn’t stay in the scrubland too long.

So how is it, exactly, that we fall in love with place? With any place? We aren’t born loving where we land. In fact, many people fly the coop as soon as the door is opened. Most of my high school graduating class has done so, gone to New York, D.C., or California or more local cities like Columbus and Cleveland. And yet, their departure doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t in love with West Virginia. It means only that they’ve chosen to make a life elsewhere. A beautiful mountain does not a successful life make. A hemlock forest does not content everyone. Nor did it always content me. I can well recall a time in my life when the mountains were a fun day outing, but they hadn’t yet grown into the marrow of my bones. And no matter how many times I re-read the words I’ve written here, I can’t pinpoint a year or an age when I sat up and said, “I love West Virginia with all of my heart.” But it grew, as time passed and in my time in the south, until one day—that day in the car—it was simply there, present, as a palpable ache. If it was born of a childhood in the mountains or if it was realized in hindsight, I cannot say. But, now that I feel it, it can’t be ignored, and I cannot imagine a time when I will not be in love with this place, no matter where I live.

The North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac

When I feel frustrated with West Virginia (and I do, often) I try to remember that day in the car, and the moments of irritation I had in Fort Myers traffic when I reached my destination. I cursed the throngs of people around me, all going somewhere on hot pavement in one big crowd. I think about how frantically I scanned a map to find a forest in Florida—a forest that I didn’t have to bathe in Deet and traverse a boardwalk to see. I recall craving the smell of hemlock trees with the wild desperation of a junkie and instead breathing in only salt and tar.

It’s not easy for me to live here. Bodies that suffer auto-immune disorders don’t like cold rain; minds that become seasonally affected need more sun than West Virginia can offer. But in exchange, I can touch the green. I can smell the pine and hear the cold, rushing water. It’s a trade-off, and on some days I would choose Florida. At least, until I see the ridges-and-valleys. And then I’m quite sure where I should be.