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 SUP

There’s nothing like a weekend away at Piedmont Lake to really clear the head and calm the soul.

I got the weekend away, but it wasn’t so much clearing and calming as it was chaos and calamity. I don’t know why minor accidents follow my family around everywhere, but in three days Ben spilled six drinks, Nugget broke a glass and tore a screen, Maya pooped on four different neighbors’ lawns, and Shawn popped Ben’s favorite raft with a nail.

Still, it’s good to be out there. A few hours feels like a few days when the sound of traffic and sirens and television are quelled.

Ah, the glorious silence of nature.

In addition, I finally got to play with my birthday gift: the paddle board I’ve been wanting for years but have always been too cheap to buy. We’ve enjoyed our kayaks for years, but stand-up-paddling is an entirely different kind of fun. The kind that promises both exercise and humiliation.

It’s been a chilly May. Consequently, the water temperature hovered somewhere around 75. Great if you’re a bass; not so much if you’re a swimmer. It didn’t bother Andy at all. The boy is impervious to cold. Ben, however, spent most of his weekend wet and blue-lipped, shivering yet refusing to get out of the water until I forced him into a hot shower.

Everybody got a chance to paddleboard, though.

I’m proud to say I’m the only one who didn’t fall off. And while that may have more to do with the new prescription sunglasses I was wearing, I like to think it’s just because I’ve got the balance of a Flying Wallenda.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much skill to go around.

 

Fading into mush

Although we spent a recent weekend at Piedmont with the kids, I’m having more trouble picking out topics for a Piedmont blog than I did when I went alone. Just as I mentioned in my first entry, when I’m with my family, there are a lot of voices in and out of my head which sync up into a droning beat of noise punctuated by spikes and dips. And when I have time to stop in the evening and write, or think, I often fall into a heavy sleep instead. 


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The kids bickered. As a child I remember wondering why my mother found it so infuriating. Now, it seems perfectly obvious that the developing fetus triggers a reflex in the mother, and this makes her nerves vulnerable to the irritation of bickering. One child is often being picked on, so there’s a protective instinct, but more often it’s simply akin to fingernails on a chalkboard (here my mentor comes out and slaps me for using a cliche, but this early on a Sunday I cannot locate a more accurate sensation). 

Someone always needed food, or a worm on their hook, or some dog had pooped right in the driveway (you may remember that from early, solo blog entries as well). Piedmont isn’t so peaceful, with my family. It’s still fun, and it’s a salve on a chapped soul worn raw from a few weeks in town. The lake heals, and remains a source of joy. But as the weekend matriarch, I find responsibility to be a far louder voice than the quiet call for serenity.

The lake at noon, looking east.

This winter I made eight solo trips to Piedmont. I didn’t expect to love them as I did. The drive is long, and the winter was bitterly cold. I’m a warm-weather gal; the cold closes in on me and, unless I’m on the ski mountain or something, feels unfriendly and stank. I waited for the warmth to come as I made my Piedmont trips, but now that it has, I hesitate. I don’t wish for more cold at all, but I do mourn the loss of my solitude, and my freedom to walk in the woods and on the ice. Now, the lake is crowded. (And by crowded I mean there are, at any given time, 10 boats within sight. I know: horrors.) There are fisherman in front of the dock, and church campers at the camp, and in the cabin my mom is resting (her health is poor) and my dad is in the garage tinkering, and the children are tossing toys and insults on the deck, and there are five dogs going in and out of every door every time one is opened. It’s mad chaos in comparison.

I loved my winter trips. My spring trips. I loved every trip I undertook alone, and I saw more, learned more, than I had in 35 years of lake trips. I saw it as a natural place rather than a weekend vacation site. Just the thought of my new perspective makes me both excited to have experienced it and wistful for another taste of it.

Northern rough-winged
swallows have nested in the dock
floats for years.
I’m one of those “highly sensitive people” you read about. It’s a curse, really. The world is just too much for me. John Coffey, in The Green Mile, says that he feels like there are bits of glass in his brain, and I often feel that way about things. Loud noises bother me, and I detest wind for the feel of it on my face, garish and offensive. That’s right: wind bothers me. That’s how sensitive I am. At the lake I get up very early so as to avoid sensory overload, but my dad gets up very early too, so even then solitude is hard to find, and it’s always accompanied by the responsibility of motherhood, of constantly turning an ear inward to listen for little feet on the stairs. 

To make matters far more complicated, Shawn and I now get cell service at the lake. We switched from ATT to Verizon. Once a month, Shawn has to be on call. He’s a programmer, and when a server goes down, he needs to a) know about it, and b) be able to reboot it. The rotation is every four to five weeks, and so for the past nine years, every fourth or fifth week, we were stuck in town. In order to be able to go to the lake on on-call weekends, we had to make the change in carriers, and now the world can reach us at Piedmont. Facebook and CNN can find me. And though it’s a necessary change–we made the decision to switch when Nugget was hooked and the cabin phone wasn’t working and we wondered, what if it had been more serious?–it’s intrusive to be connected. There’s a weight I imagine I feel, now. 

We can at least check the radar for incoming weather, Shawn’s on-the-side passion.

I enjoyed the weekend so much, and it was fun. But it wasn’t restorative. Not entirely, anyway. Returning to Wheeling, I didn’t feel as though I’d been able to turn inward at all. There was no time, no quiet moment. The woods are closed now, the poison ivy thick and the vegetation thicker. The brambles and thorns and poisonous leaves reach out over the hiking paths just aching to get a lick at my legs. I won’t go in. (As you’d imagine, I’m highly susceptible to poison ivy. I require cortizone shots.) 

One of the [illegal] jump rocks.
This weekend, the storms have been popping up everywhere. We chose not to go to the lake, and the radar has confirmed that we made the right call. The lake was slammed several times on Saturday. Yet, part of me wishes I could be out there, alone, listening to the thunder volley about the hills as it comes in–you can never tell where the storm is because the sound echoes all over the lake; it’s on my Top 10 Favorite Things About Being Alive list. 

Perhaps the universe is telling me that I need a few more solo day trips. The children start day camp soon. I might have to invest in a few tanks of gas in the coming months. 




Shawn discovers the water is 71 degrees.

The whole fam damily

Though his smoked chicken was outstanding, the process of smoking meat is
one more way to offend my senses.

B gets a story.