All this week I will be attending the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman while sitting at my dining room table. I wouldn’t have planned to attend this year, except Sonja Livingston, an essayist and memoirist whose work I greatly admire, is on faculty and teaching in my genre, creative nonfiction.
So, here I am.
Or rather, here I sit, while she sits in her home in western New York, and my classmates are sitting in theirs, or at the beach, or wherever they are spending this week in late summer. There is no trudging up and down hills for meals and class, no gatherings and no in-person evening readings.
There is no dinner bell that echoes around the mountainsides when it calls us to come eat or to attend a session in the May Stone building. There is air conditioning here, in my house, a constant 72 degrees, except in the afternoon when I get hot and crank it up, or is it down, to 68. Hindman is air-conditioned, too, but it seems spottier, somehow, with all that walking and all the damp that hangs around windows and drips from the kudzu.
Books are important at gatherings such as this, and we have a bookstore at our disposal. The Red Spotted Newt, in Hazard, has a pop-up shop on campus, and we have the website to order all the books our virtual carts can hold. The owner, Mandi Sheffel, is on campus for the few participants who are staying there, but she is sticking around for the rest of us, too, just like at a regular writers workshop, only we see her at a distance in a tiny Zoom window. We can’t walk up and chat like we normally would. But we also do not thumb every book she has brought, picking them up, putting them down, flipping through them again, so maybe she is happy, at least, to have more pristine stock to offer customers.
It’s weird seeing old friends and complete strangers in their tiny Zoom rooms, these people who have bared themselves on the page, the ones we are to give feedback to, receive feedback from, the angst and the tenuous trust of that. But, somehow in Sonja’s hands, it works. The group, too, did its part, jumping in and braving the process, and my only letdown was this.
At Hindman, after the first session, we walk back to the May Stone building for lunch. This takes a while, as we meander alongside a wide meadow and then over the small footbridge, and it is one of my favorite parts of the day. Up ahead are little clutches of classmates, their heads together, still discussing the workshop we have just left. Someone behind me has told a funny story and now I hear nothing but laughing, and I am sad I missed it.
My pals and I walk slowly, reveling in another first day at the forks of Troublesome Creek, with a general sense of love and well-being and a mild wondering of what is for lunch. The heat may be bothersome, but in a minute we will be snaking our way down the lunch line, searching for and finding old friends from other years, with squeals and hugs and much shushing because someone we can’t see has just started grace.
Hindman is different this year. Was different last year, too, with serious discussions about if, and how, to carry on in light of the pandemic. This year, there was no discussion of if to have it. The work, it seems to me, was directed toward how to have it well, and the week is off to a great start.
It has been a few years since I have attended, but the draw of working with a writer I admire was too important to forego. So here I am, new notebook, my good writing pens. But I’ll miss some things, too.
I’ll miss the after-hours conversations, the socializing, the landmarks that let me know I am almost there: Yoders, the Amish store on the outskirts of town where we buy bread and cookies, the Midee-Mart, on the edge of campus, the new concrete bridge over Troublesome that replaces the old one that created a deadman’s curve.
And then the settlement school, nestled in the crook of the creek. Whenever writers gather, there are words upon words upon words. And they are the point, those words, and here we all are, together, sharing them.