On Driving Dicey Mountain Roads, Learning to Write, and Making New Friends

IMG_5716Long an admirer of The Sun magazine, which I think publishes the best writing around, I was delighted when the opportunity came up for me to attend the magazine’s writing retreat at Wildacres Retreat Center in western North Carolina. (Meaning I hadn’t signed up in time but was notified when someone cancelled and I was first up on the waiting list.) Wildacres hosts some fabulous sounding workshops for all sorts of creative types, and I plan to return. It’s lovely, Wildacres, set apart–far, far, apart–from all things distracting, among verdant greenery and rustling wildlife. Peaceful, natural, and away from cell towers. And the food is good…

Getting there was tricky, what with downed road signs, dense fog, and my innate ability to “get turned around,” but every tricky curve up the mountain was worth it. After the last turn off anything resembling a well-traveled road, and fearing I was hopelessly lost and possibly in some trouble–the fog was really that hard to see through and I didn’t have cell reception–I stopped at the only commercial entity I’d seen for miles.

“I think I’m lost,” I said as I opened the door to the charming Books and Beans, which is just like the bookstore I dream of opening one day: cozy, full of books of all varieties, comfy chairs by the fireplace, strong coffee, set in the mountains. There may have even been a dog by the hearth, it was that perfect.

“We’re all lost up here,” said the woman behind the counter, smiling. Thankfully I was just two miles from my destination. A vanilla latte and two books later I was on my way.

As usual at these kinds of gatherings—I go to a lot of writing workshops; they’re like vacation for me—I’m nervous at the beginning, wondering if I “fit,” and then, within a couple of hours, I am settled and confident and in my element, surrounded by kindred spirits who care about words with the same intensity that I do. Which means they’re sort of obsessed.

I was familiar with only one writer scheduled to present, Leslie Pietrzyk, as I had read, and enjoyed, her Pears on a Willow Tree (Harper Perennial). Two writers new to me–though perhaps I have read their work in The Sun and simply misplaced their names, something I do more and more these days, misplace things of import–are already favorites.

When Joe Wilkins read from his The Mountain and The Fathers (Counterpoint) I looked around the room to see if everyone else was hearing what I was hearing: well-crafted sentences of such feeling and awareness that I moved to the edge of my seat just to draw a little closer. I subsequently bought every book he had for sale that weekend.

Another writer I’m glad to know about is Chris Bursk, a poet who was funny and heartfelt and one of the best workshop leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. He was generous, engaging, and knowledgeable, willing to share whatever he knew that might help the rest of us write better poems. And he handed out kazoos, so bonus points for that.

IMG_5850Upon returning to Nashville my husband and I went to hear Richard Russo at our fabulous library. He was in town promoting his new book, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf), which I look forward to reading. Russo was just as I had imagined he would be in real life: engaging, approachable, considerate, and smart. When asked what informed his writing, he responded, “I write about the things I notice twice.”

I love that so much. We all notice things once, but what draws us back for another look? Maybe even a third or a fourth circling round. That’s where the gold is, right?

Not only did I learn something about writing at both these events, but I also met interesting people, like the man who told me to check out St. Paul and the Broken Bones after I told him I had enjoyed hearing the Alabama Shakes in Asheville recently. (Seriously, people, run to listen to them if you haven’t already. Brittany Howard belted it out like I’ve never witnessed before. Stunning.) My new friend was spot on with his suggestion, for St. Paul now sits at the top of my current playlist.

And the woman who lives in New York, whose writing is searing and moving and tender, which I learned only after returning home and going online as she was too humble to tell me she’d been in literary journals many of us dream about publishing our work.

IMG_5736I applied for a job at The Sun a while back and although I made the first cut, being invited to critique issues of the magazine, I was not called for an interview. I’m glad I didn’t let any disappointment keep me from attending this retreat. For there is always something to learn about the practice of writing, a bit of inspiration to glean, a recommendation to take to heart, a fellow pilgrim to meet.

What informs your writing? What do you look at twice and want to know more about? In other words, what haunts you so much that you’re driven to write it out?

Amy Lyles Wilson

Interview with Cool People Care

The fine folks over at Cool People Care (CPC) were kind enough to interview me about the power of storytelling. CPC does great work, and they exist to make a difference. Check them out if you’re not familiar with this forward-thinking group.

CPC: You say that “it’s the telling of our stories that saves us.” What do you mean by that?
Wilson: The guiding principle for my work is my belief that it is the sharing of our stories that saves us. By this I mean that we need to be reminded we are not alone. Be it in good times or bad, commiseration or celebration. Humanity is best served when we are willing to unlock our hearts for one another, and one way we can do that is by offering up our individual stories to our families, friends, and communities, and, if appropriate, the world.

You can read more here: http://www.coolpeoplecare.org/its-time-to-share-our-stories/

On Being Southern in Seaside

I’m just back from a fabulous trip to Seaside, Florida, where I had the pleasure of hanging out with authors John T. Edge and Shellie Rushing Tomlinson. You might know Edge for his in-depth work on the sociological and historical aspects of food, and Tomlinson for her high-larious take on being a southern belle. If you don’t know these two writers, please check them out.
The weekend, sponsored by Escape2Create, was entitled “Voices of the South,” and it was all about the food, culture, and ethos of being Southern. I facilitated an Amherst Writers and Artists workshop around the topic of food, where I wrote with some amazing women. On a rainy Saturday morning, we gathered around a farmhouse table in a stunning home that reminded me of Martha’s Vineyard. We spoke of the challenges, and payoffs, of living a writing life, whatever that might look like for our individual lives. Some of us are called to write for the public, others for our families. Some craft in rhyme, others in long form essay. But I dare say the end result is the same: “It’s the sharing of our stories that saves us.” Repeat after me.
You don’t need Cape Cod when you’ve got the beaches of 30A, and celebrating the South in Seaside was a treat indeed. With its engaging architecture, good food, fun shops, breathtaking atmosphere–and delightfully friendly and helpful residents–it was hard to leave. Thank you, fine people of Seaside, for making my first trip to your oasis so memorable. It had been a goal of mine to sign at Sundog Books, and look at me, I made it. Thank you, Linda and Bob White, for a dream come true.
I encourage all artistic types to check out the residences and other programs offered by Escape2Create. It will do your work, and your soul, good.

Of Middle-Aged Dreams and the Demise of the Bookstore

I am a middle-aged goober who still has dreams, even though I don’t have as much time to get them accomplished as I once did, seeing that I’m staring 50 in the face. To wit: I’d like to lose some weight, write a novel, and buy an old farmhouse where creative types can come to write and commune and hang out. And I wanted, as much as anything, really, to have a book signing at the Davis-Kidd bookstore in Nashville. On November 2, that dream came true for me. And this week came word that the store will close by the end of the year.

Back in 1993, my parents sat with me at the Davis-Kidd café as I signed the papers to buy my first home in Nashville. The store was at a different location then, one that felt like home. My father was still alive, and I was thinner, and single, and dreaming of being a writer. It was the place where I heard Mary Karr for the first time; where I discovered the work of Ann Hood, a writer I would later study with at Chautauqua; where I spent many an enjoyable Friday evening listening to music and having dinner; and where I could find those literary journals no one else carries.

When Davis-Kidd moved to the Green Hills Mall a while back, it didn’t “feel right” to me, but I like to think I understand progress, and commerce, and foot traffic. And it still seemed like home in many respects, just a bigger, less cozy one.

Thank you, Davis-Kidd, for the books, and the tuna melts, and the memories. And the dream come true.