by Darlene Cah
When I moved south eight years ago, my friend and fellow writer, Nancy Pemberton told me I had to go to the Hub City Writers’ Workshop for a weekend of writing, classes, readings and eating. Yes, I admit the eating part held equal appeal to the writing part! So I signed up, in my usual fashion, on impulse, not knowing what I was getting into. In all this time, I’ve missed only one year—and that was because I’d booked a flight to visit family up north before I knew the conference dates! I’ve since forgiven my sister for the scheduling conflict.
What I love about the Hub City Writing in Place Conference is that it’s one weekend packed with literary activities and workshops that get you writing—a lot. If you took a six-day MFA residency and compressed it into three days, you’d find yourself immersed in the Hub City experience. The annual conference is put together by Hub City Executive Director, Betsy Teter and her staff, and takes place at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC. It brings together writers from the south and beyond to create a supportive, lively and diverse community of people at all stages of their writing careers. Did I mention the terrific food?
In past conferences, I’ve been in workshops taught by George Singleton, Tommy Hays, Philip Gerard, Betsy Cox and Mindy Friddle among others. This year, I was thrilled to be in Wiley Cash’s class. In addition to many other honors and awards, Wiley’s debut novel, A Land More Kind than Home, was a New York Times Bestseller and 2012 Notable Book and (announced on the day our workshop began), a 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize finalist.
Friday evening: Register…and eat! Oh, yeah, and write.
After dinner and faculty readings we headed to our first workshop session with Wiley. I had no idea what to expect. His book is gripping, dark, moody and beautifully written. I imagined he would be super serious, brooding, even. The writer, who brought to life a snake-handling preacher and the tragic events that take place during a healing in A Land More Kind than Home, was anything but grim! He was personable, funny and encouraging.
The conference theme is “Writing in Place,” so workshops emphasize setting, building a well-grounded world for our characters to occupy and interact with. Wiley stressed that we should think about place as an experience, and that stories can come from a single image. He pointed out that poets do this well, and fiction writers can learn a lot from poetry. He talked about the meaning of objects in a place. We should give our characters something physical, tangible to attach emotion to. That goes for us as writers, too. What are your attachments? What stirs you emotionally? He writes about North Carolina because he’s emotionally attached to the place.
Wiley asked us to create a character based on the following list:
Season Age Gender Social class State Region Ethnicity
Education Era Politics Faith
After we filled in the information as we would write it, he randomly called on students to fill in the blanks for the character we would create together. The group character we came up with was female, 35, middle class in the low country of South Carolina in the summer of 1970, Afro-American, high school grad, liberal and Catholic. Talk about complex!
Next, again as a group, we had to create an environment (in this case her car) that revealed all these details about our character without ever stating them outright—and the character could not be present in our description. What kind of items would she have that would tell the reader who she is? We all started shouting out objects. Here’s what we came up with:
The car is a Chevy Nova (middle class) with rosary beads (Catholic) hanging from the rearview mirror. The windows are rolled down (summer) and a Marvin Gaye 8-track (1970) is in the deck. A driver’s license and money are in a rubber band on the dash (age 35, Afro-American). African flag colors, popular in the 70s, bumper sticker on the car (Afro-American). Sand on the floor mats (Low country, SC). Melted lipstick (Woman, summer). Soda cup with melted ice (summer).
We may have thrown in some political pamphlets and a high school ring! The point is if you were to investigate the car, you would discover all these things that have meaning to this character. You’ll get a snapshot of who she is on the surface. When we as writers and readers, see these items we begin to understand the connections to the character. Later, you’ll gain further insight into her by the way she interacts with the objects.
Then Wiley asked: How would someone going back into your world, see it?
Saturday: Eat, learn, eat, write, eat, drink…Party!
On this day we delved into our own pasts. Even when we’re writing about things that are not us (historical fiction, sci-fi, fantasy or simply a topic we’re not familiar with in our own lives), we write about things that matter to us. He asked us to go to our childhoods and “mine your own stories.” With that, he had us draw maps of our childhood neighborhoods, and asked us to answer questions as we drew, filling out our maps:
Where did you feel safe?
Where were you forbidden to go?
Where was the nearest water, and what was it? Ocean? River? Creek?
Where did you get hurt? Or did you hurt someone else?
Were there snakes?
Did you spy on adults? What did you learn?
Was there a garage or storage shed nearby?
Did you do something that made you feel guilty?
What were some of the sounds? Dogs barking?
Where did the neighborhood bully live? Were you the neighborhood bully?
Where did you suffer a traumatic experience?
Where did your best friend live? Your enemy?
Where did you hide?
I found that as I drew my map, more and more memories flooded my head. I couldn’t write them down fast enough. Though I usually write funny stories, these were dark and deeply sad memories, sprinkled with just a few bright spots. I focused on a child in the projects where I grew up, who died. I let that image drive me then made up the rest. My writer cohorts and roomies, too, had stunning memories. Nancy, who’d felt a bit stilted by the exercise, experienced a major breakthrough. Originally, she’d thought there were no bullies in her neighborhood, but as she drew, a name came to her: a bully named Yvonne Orange, and she started a story based on her character. Clare conjured up a tale about spreading rumors that a neighbor was a witch and the consequences that followed. Mary Ellen based her humorous story on her mother burning all of her Christmas presents in the fireplace!
While Wiley wasn’t suggesting we write coming of age stories, many times going back to childhood memories will result in just that. However, we can alter the memory to create an adult situation. But in terms of coming of age, he said, “You can’t un-see something you’ve seen, or un-know something you’ve learned.” So we were to let that affect our characters. What they encountered will change them, thrust them into adulthood, cross a line and they will never be able to go back.
After lunch, we had an hour to write as much as we could, using what we started in class, or a different memory from our maps. We returned to class to read our work. It always amazes me how much you can write in an hour and how much of it can actually be very good. The stories that came out of this exercise impressed me. Any one of these new beginnings I heard in class that day could be expanded, polished and published.
After our final two-hour class, we all gathered at the Hub City Bookstore to schmooze and buy books (I swore I wasn’t going to buy any! Ha!). After dinner in Spartanburg, we went to the Hub-Bub Showroom (another Hub City entity) to hear Wiley give his keynote address, followed by an open mic, where we cheered on our fellow writers, including Mary Ellen, who read in public for the first time. Back at the dorm, you’d think these “writers of a certain age” would call it a night. No! The great literary debates of the weekend roared on, fueled by a touch of the vino, often requiring a “talking stick” in the form of a pretzel rod! We probably gave our neighbors nightmares.
Sunday: Concurrent workshops and goodbye until next year
The conference winds down on Sunday, but before it ends there’s a whirlwind of activity. Short workshops in fiction, poetry and non-fiction topics, manuscript critiques and a panel discussion all took place at the same time or in close succession. We chose to attend Jon Sealy’s class, “Sympathy with the Devil,” on creating complex and memorable villains.
People love villains! We want to see what they’ll do next. We want to see them defeated, to face justice (most of the time). They intrigue us—everyone from Iago to Darth Vader to Tony Soprano.
Jon started with the four aspects of creating an effective villain:
Satisfaction: We want to see the character’s comeuppance
Mystery: What makes them do what they do? What’s their motivation?
Will to Power: Villains often have charm, charisma, are brilliant. How do they get their power?
Sympathy: …and empathy are powerful forces. Show both sides. In real life, we’re not all heroes or villains. We’re both at different times. Our villainous acts don’t have to be huge, like murder. They can be simple, like not standing up for a friend. Make your villain character complex.
Think of an occasion where someone deeply wronged you. Make sure it’s something you feel comfortable revealing or writing about. Now write the story from the “villain’s” POV.
Check out Hub City workshops and events.
Learn more about Wiley Cash and his work.