First Writer-in-residence

It seems cliché to say that telling our stories is empowering, because we know it is. Folks get up and testify in church. We sit with a therapist to discuss our traumas. We gather with friends to share our joys and sorrows. We write in a journal to remember important life events. 

It also seems cliché to say that experiencing the creative works of others is empowering, because we know it is. A painting helps us see the world differently. We are inspired by a movie. We are swept away by a book. We hear a song that comforts us. 

It’s not a secret that the humanities are being cut from schools. When I was in elementary school in the 80s and 90s, each week we had a music class and an art class. My kids, who are in public school in the region, do not have a regularly scheduled interaction with the arts. Our schools are under tremendous pressure over testing scores and quantifiable learning outcomes. They are given more to do with fewer resources. We know there is value in the arts, but our schools are in a predicament and our kids are caught in the crossfire.

And we know that standardized testing isn’t a complete assessment of kids’ actual understanding of the material. It makes me think of a news story a few years ago when Nigel Richards from New Zealand won the Scrabble tournament in France. He couldn’t speak French, but he memorized the French Scrabble dictionary. Winning that championship didn’t mean he understood what those words meant. Test scores can only give us a limited understanding of where our kids are. Additionally, there are knowledges and skills that cannot be tested at all.

Hindman Settlement School is dedicated to helping our area children through food access programs, through our dyslexia interventions, through reading tutoring, and through bringing them some of these much-needed humanities. Our traditional arts program brings music, weaving, painting, storytelling, dance and more. And now our young writers program is bringing them creative writing.

One leg of this young writers program is our new Writers-In-Residence initiative. We want to bring published, regional writers into the high schools to work with students to engage them with Appalachian literature and their own creativity by having them write poems, stories, and non-fiction personal narratives. 

Last week I got to attend the closing session of our first Writer-in-Residence. Leatha Kendrick is a familiar name to friends of Hindman Settlement School and Appalachian literature. She has a relationship with Hindman that goes back decades. She has several books of poetry published, has won many awards and fellowships, and her writing has appeared in too anthologies and journals to list.

Leatha spent the last month working with students at Wolfe County High School. She worked with Lisa Creech’s English classes as well as the student-led afterschool club, The Write Pace Writing Club. Leatha introduced students to Appalachian literary greats such as Gurney Norman, George Ella Lyon, and Wendell Berry. And the students wrote. 

Our director Will and I made the trip up to the high school for their final meeting with Leatha, during which time they were going to read and share some of the work they’d written during the residency. 

It would be expected that the after-school writing club, which the students themselves started, would have responded enthusiastically to their time with Leatha. This group loves to write. Thanks to Ms. Creech finding the funding and offering her time, the students publish a yearly anthology of their writing, they publish a quarterly newsletter, and they even run a Facebookpage dedicated to Wolfe County history (you can find it by searching for Wolfe County Homegrown). And they did love their time with Leatha. They brought her a card and expressed their thanks for her guidance and inspiration.

But it wasn’t just the dedicated, already-love-writing students of the club who were clearly impacted. When Leatha announced to each class that this would be their last gathering together, the room erupted in expression of disappointment. They didn’t want her to leave. When asked what their favorite assignments had been, they were quick to answer. When asking for volunteers to read a piece they had written, hands were raised. 

Being a writer and having been a writing teacher, I know the vulnerability of sharing work. Sometimes it’s even hard to put it on the page, let alone read it aloud. Leatha and Ms. Creech built a safe space of trust for these students, and even with two strangers sitting in the back row, they shared. 

One student read a poem about his love of being out mudding on his 4-wheeler and made poignant connections to how being alone in nature brought his heart and mind peace. One student wrote a funny memory of having a butter fight with her mamaw. One student began to read a piece about when she was little, but stopped and asked if she had to finish. Ms. Creech said of course she could stop if she wanted to. Another student volunteered to finish reading it for her, and she passed her paper back. As the other student read, the writer was quiet. It was about the death of her father. A student next to her reached over and held her hand through the rest of the reading. One student took off her mask to read. Later, Ms. Creech explained how this student, who had been very quiet and reserved, had opened up during the course of the residency and this was the first time she removed her mask to read. A perfect moment of metaphor, no?

Some even goaded each other on, saying things like “Read your praise piece. It was so good!” It was very touching how they supported each other. All of this was beautiful to see and I’m thankful they trusted us strangers enough to read with us there. 

I know the vulnerability they felt. The pages held in my hands have trembled as I stood at a podium. I have choked up and fought tears while reading, and sometimes couldn’t stop them.

And as a reader, I know how connections are built through hearing others’ stories, ideas, and experiences. We only have our one little life. But through reading, we can learn what life is like for others. Just this morning I finished reading Joan is Okay by Weike Wang. It’s a novel about a woman who is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She is an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is not an experience I have had or ever will. But by experiencing it through the novel, I am expanded. 

Between classes, Leatha and Ms. Creech talked about the residency experience with me and Will. They expressed how much the students had opened up, how brave their writing had been. Ms. Creech discussed how she was hesitant at first to dedicate so much class time to creative writing since there is a lot of priority on improving reading scores, but there was value in having the students engage with the written word from both sides. Building our own pieces can help usunderstand and deconstruct the writings of others.

There is a lot of research going on about the power of creative writing across disciplines. One study showed that having nursing students write poems from the perspective of patients with mental illness conditions not only helped the students understand and remember the specifics of the condition, but it increased their empathy toward actual patients with those conditions. One study showed how having students write poems about the principles of thermodynamics helped them retain the information longer. Creative writing can help students learn, remember, and understand just about anything from thermodynamics and schizophrenia to their own life experiences.

I am so thankful to Leatha Kendrick and Lisa Creech for doing to work to make this happen for the students, that even though there were postponements and hurdles, they made it happen. The students definitely benefitted. I’m happy our young writers program helped catalyze this experience.

As this school year ends, I am excited to begin organizing more writers-in-residence for the fall semester for our schools. This is an exciting new way for Hindman Settlement School to bring the engaging and connective humanities to our kids. As humans, we all need the humanities. Perhaps now more so than ever.