Notes on the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, a vital part of the state’s literary landscape

Natalie Sypolt is an assistant professor at Pierpont Community & Technical College. She coordinates the high school workshop for the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop at West Virginia University and has served as a literary editor for the Anthology of Appalachian WritersHer work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Appalachian Heritage, Kenyon Review Online, and Willow Springs. She is the winner of the Glimmer Train new writers contest, the Betty Gabehart Prize, the West Virginia Fiction Award, and the Still fiction contest. West Virginia University Press will publish The Sound of Holding Your Breath, her first book, this November. Learn more at nataliesypolt.com.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I attended the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop for the first time. I was shy, pretty awkward, and more than a little scared of the workshop leader I’d been placed with—West Virginia writer Pinckney Benedict. Now, looking back at my 19-year-old self, I’m still surprised that I actually did it. I can’t help but feel proud.

That summer, I spent time with the only person I even remotely knew who was also attending the workshop, Kelli Nabors, whom I’d met in Introduction to Fiction, taught by Gail Adams, a professor I immediately loved. She suggested the workshop to Kelli and me; Gail also helped me get some money from the university—what was then called an Undergraduate Enrichment Grant—and encouraged Kelli and me to exchange emails before the workshop. Kelli and I have been in one another’s life ever since. I tell this story not to bore you with the unimportant details of my first workshop experience, but because this illustrates one of the aspects of the workshop that has been so important to me from the beginning: creating lasting friendships that nurture both a writing life and a writer’s life.

For the past several years, I have worked as the high school coordinator for the workshop. The first year I did this, it was to help my friend Renee Nicholson, who was then working as Workshop Coordinator Mark Brazaitis’s assistant. (Incidentally, I also had met and become friends with Renee at a previous workshop, before she came to WVU’s MFA program.) That first year, there were just four high schoolers who came to Morgantown, and we weren’t sure there was even going to be a high school program in future summers. Luckily, the next year, the high school program grew, then grew again. The past three years, we have essentially been at capacity with between 12 and 17 high school students, almost all attending on scholarship. I am proud because not only has the high school portion of the workshop remained consistent and strong, but several students have returned year after year—from the summer before they were freshmen to the summer after they graduated. This tells me that we are doing something right. These young people find their voices at the workshop; they find the power in words; they find their tribe.

The workshop itself has seen many changes in its 22 years. James Harms, the first coordinator, handed the reins over to Mark Brazaitis ten years ago. The number of adult participants has fluctuated as the economy has dipped and people have had less financial security (even though our workshop remains one of the most inexpensive of its kind). The financial support provided to the workshop by the university has also been cut. Best-selling fiction writers and poets have visited Morgantown to lead the workshops, and they often come for less money than they would normally make, because they know the reputation and they want to be here. This year West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman and novelist Leslie Pietrzyk served as faculty. Many of the 39 participants were “repeat customers” who greeted one another like the old friends they now are. At the traditional closing evening open mic, one participant said this was like a family reunion, and she was right. This is the most accepting family you’ll ever meet.

 

There is beauty to this workshop—beauty in the people who write poems about the high schoolers and embrace them as peers; who come to the high-school reading in the middle of a packed day—an exhausting day—and praise the students on their work. There is beauty in the scholarship fund started in honor of Shann Palmer, a long-time, beloved workshop participant who passed away. The scholarship was started by another participant and is used to help some writers attend even if they aren’t financially able to on their own. There is incredible beauty in the scholarship fund started by local Dwight Harshbarger that helps undergraduate writers participate. I’ve been to many writing workshops and conferences, but never have I experienced such a supporting and loving group of writers, working so hard to be together and to help others join them. I don’t believe I’m out of line in saying that the world today is often a scary, cold, and uncertain place. We need more beauty like this. We’d all be better off for it.

This year, Mark offered me a reading slot, and I was proud to accept it. My friend and WVU MFA grad Jason Kapcala was reading with me from his first book, North to Lakeville. I read at 1:30 on Saturday, directly following the high school students’ reading (which was the perfect place for me). What was even more perfect, though, was that this year, I read from my book of stories, The Sound of Holding Your Breath, which will be published by WVU Press in November. I had my uncorrected proof, and I showed the audience. I called it pretty, and the audience laughed, but also agreed. I know how rare it is to read in front of an audience so supportive, so—dare I say—proud of me. Sam, one of my high schoolers, sat in the back of the room directly in front of the podium and threw me the finger heart as I began to read a story about an accidental murder and an intentional obsession.

The West Virginia Writers’ Workshop is about writing and critiquing and workshopping, of course; but, more than that, it is about people coming together to glory in words and in companionship. I hope that in the years to come, my high school students will be able to return to the workshop as adult participants, to see how their tribe has grown, and to, someday, share their own books.

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Continuing the family tradition: Natalie Sypolt’s cousin, Brie Stull, a Preston High School Junior, attended her first Writers Workshop this summer. She is already talking about next year, as well as her future as a Mountaineer.

 

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