Ironwood

I first came to the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop in 2015. I was from the Great Lakes region of Ohio and had been living in southeast Kentucky for 5 years, and my sense of myself as a writer, as an Appalachian writer, would change forever that week. Writing is often a solitary endeavor, with the author scribbling or typing away by themselves. But through the workshop at Hindman, I was brought into an active and engaging community of writers, scholars, mentors, musicians, artists, activists, and friends. I was brought into the long-established and far-reaching literary legacy of the Settlement School before I even knew the scope of it.

I was washing dishes with George Ella Lyon before I knew who she was.

Now, after 17 years of teaching in community colleges and universities in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, I am beyond excited in my new role as Community Programs Manager because I get to build writing experiences and events for area youth, one leg of which is this summer’sinaugural Ironwood Writers Studio.

Ironwood will be a week-long event where high school students (those going to be sophomores in the fall through those just graduated) will come stay on our historic campus, study with published writers, develop their own skills and passion, and build a writing community of their peers. We will take the format of the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop and adapt it for the particular needs and personality of our youth.

Participants will study various genres (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and speculative fiction) with our faculty Neema Avashia (author of Another Appalachia: Coming up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place) and Chris McMurray (author of Open Burning and leader of Lexington Poetry Month). In addition to being writers, Neema and Chris are also current educators in middle school and high school. 

Other sessions will include an illustration session with Robert Gipe (author of the illustrated novels Trampoline, Weedeater, and Pop), a journal-making session with Marianne Worthington (author of The Girl Singer and co-founder of Still: The Journal), a cosplay character supper (where students dress up as their favorite character from books, movies, games, or their own stories) and a techno square dance (led by T-claw and Ben Townsend).

Many youth in Appalachia are geographically isolated from each other, and may not have any peers who enjoy writing, so time at Ironwood is a great opportunity to meet other young people who share similar interests. Especially coming from additional isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, being in community is of increased importance.

Why “ironwood”?

The adult Appalachian Writers’ Workshop is just referred to as “Hindman” by attendees. Have you been to Hindman? I met her during Hindman. It happened before Hindman. They don’tmean the town. It means the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. Following that example, I knew we needed a short, snappy name to refer to the youth gathering. 

Since place is an important theme in Appalachian writing, I wanted a nature image to ground us. In scrolling through websites and flipping through books of Appalachian flora and fauna, I came across “ironwood.”

There are literally dozens of species of trees and bushes around the world called ironwood, including the American hophornbeam here in central Appalachia. These earn their name by having heavy, dense cores. Because of their strength, these woods are used to make fences, tool handles, furniture, and even long bows. 

It seemed an apt metaphor. 

You can’t tell an ironwood tree from the outside. You only discover its strength and density in its core. The same can be said for people. We never know a person’s story, their victories, their abilities, or their strength from looking at them. That is in the core of their personality and spirit. 

Also, these dense cores are heavy. Likewise, the struggles, heartaches, and unfairness we experience can sit heavily in us. And sometimes, carrying that weight is difficult.

But in the end, this core of joy and pain, strength and struggle, is valuable. We choose what to make of these cores. Certainly, we all know people who create destruction and toxicity. But we want to use our cores to create things that are beautiful, are useful, and shape how we want the future to be.

While the details and specifics of our experiences are unique as people and a community, they are also universal. We may have the unique struggle of water pollution from a mining project in our community, but we can connect to people fighting an oil pipeline through their land and people dealing with water shortages in a desert climate. We may have the unique struggle of dealing with our father’s chronic illness, but we can connect to others through their experiences dealing with illness in their families. It’s the specifics that connect us to the universal.

All these dozens of ironwood trees around the world are different and specific, but they have a commonality that makes them special, and what we do with those dense, strong cores gives us empowerment. We choose to make something good out of what was given to us.

That is why this gathering of young writers is called Ironwood.

Additionally, we’re calling it the Ironwood Writers Studio, and not calling it a “workshop” because the focus of the week is for students to experience various genres of writing. We are not doing a traditional “workshop” where we intensely critique a manuscript and try to help each other improve it. It’s more about exploration and discovery than preparing one piece for publication.

On our logo you will see a tree to represent all those ironwood trees around the world. Also, you’ll find an adorable opossum. The opossum is sometimes derided for being gross or dirty, but they’re far from it. Not only is it the only marsupial in the US and Canada, but it is immune to snake venom and keeps the tick population in check by eating up to 5,000 ticks in a season. We wanted a useful and special animal to go in our crest, and the often-misunderstood, quirkyopossum seemed appropriate. 

The Latin phrase wrapping the bottom of our crest, ex multis itineribus – fabula nostra, means“from many journeys – our story.” The story of Appalachia needs to be as multifaceted as the people here. There is not one kind of Appalachian, or one kind of Appalachian life. We need everyone’s input in writing the Appalachian experience. And, this generation of youth is unlike any other. They are changing the world already, and as they reach adulthood and develop political and economic power, they will continue changing the world to align with their values.We need all kinds of young people from all over the country involved in writing the story of their generation.

The adult Appalachian Writers’ Workshop is in its 45th year this summer. I am honored to develop the next chapter of Hindman’s legacy in the literary arts and the writing and artistic community of our region. The Ironwood Writers Studio has the opportunity to foster the next generation of Appalachian literature and shape the future of countless young writers. 

This is something I am deeply honored to be a part of, to be using my ironwood core to build.