A Weekend of Writing at John C. Campbell Folk School

Not too long ago I participated in a weekend writing workshop at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. Beginning on Friday evening and ending at lunch on Sunday, the program provided inspiration, encouragement, writing prompts, editing tips, and one-on-one coaching for writers of all skill levels and in multiple genres. The instructor was a kind and gracious poet named Karen Paul Holmes, an award-winning writer who has been published in HuffPost, business publications, literary journals, and anthologies. Her books of poems are Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press, 2014) and No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Books, 2018). She founded and hosts the Side Door Poets in Atlanta and a monthly Writers’ Night Out in Blairsville, Georgia.

John C. Campbell Folk School historical marker
John C. Campbell Folk School historical marker

For more than 90 years, the John C. Campbell Folk School has encouraged all students and guests to become a part of its community through activities such as concerts, dances, presentations, and meals. People with varying interests are given a chance to come together through song, art, nature, gardening, cooking, and storytelling. From basketry to writing, participants can choose from over 860 weeklong and weekend classes each year in a broad variety of areas. This creative experience is enhanced by knowledgeable instructors and small classes. My writing class had only seven people. The classes are structured to create a non-competitive, hands-on learning environment.

Orchard House
Orchard House

Our class met in a house-turned-dorm and meeting space called the Orchard House. We had two males (including me) and five females. There was one young woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. The other five students were all older than I was. We were all amateur writers with diverse backgrounds: education, ministry (the other man), corporate business, and education. As a librarian, literary landmark manager, and artist retreat director, my career probably brought me closer to writing and writers than anyone else in the room save the instructor, but I certainly did not feel I had a competitive edge whatsoever. The retired folks were spending much more time writing than I was, and they took it seriously. They were good at it.

One woman had recently lost her aging mother after an extended decline, and she was working on a collection of reflective essays about the thoughts and emotions she experienced as her mother’s caregiver during those final years. The piece she shared with the group was funny at times but also incredibly moving. The retired Methodist pastor was an affable guy who had some great stories and the ability to translate them into writing that didn’t read like sermons. There was a woman who seemed to be still living in the 1960s. She was a widower and shared through her poetry intimate memories of the relationship she had with her husband, and sometimes her language bordered on the erotic. Her poems were passionate, but her sense of loss was still raw and full of grief. I was most impressed with the work of the woman I guessed was the oldest member of the class. She shared memoir-style essays that demonstrated wisdom, insight, and a remarkable command of words. I was envious.

John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC
John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC

This weekend dedicated to writing was an amazing opportunity provided to me by an artist who served on the advisory board of the retreat center where I was the director. It was such a rewarding experience. Our instructor gave us several writing exercises, one of which resulted in a short post titled “Bliss” that I decided to publish on this blog in 2018. I highly recommend this workshop with Karen Paul Holmes, but any program that gets us away from home and in the company of other writers to practice the craft can be immensely satisfying and productive. Finally, I would encourage anyone who values the arts to visit the John C. Campbell Folk School and consider becoming involved with its programs. It is such an extraordinary place.

John C. Campbell Folk School art
John C. Campbell Folk School art

Flannery O’Connor: A Born Writer

“He’s a born politician.” “She’s a born actress.” “He’s a born preacher.” “She’s a born lawyer.” These are examples of an expression I heard often when I was a young man describing someone who seems to possess an innate talent or skill for a profession or avocation. People who excel in this fashion often exhibited certain predispositions at an early age that their family and friends recall and associate with their success. I am not qualified to comment on the influences of DNA over environment in determining aptitude, but most of us can remember that one child who seemed almost obsessed with a certain activity, pursuit, or area of interest and eventually grew up to turn that fixation into a lifelong career.

  • The librarian who as a child organized into collections and sub-collections every single book, DVD, and CD in the house
  • The biology teacher who as a child captured and studied every living creature within a one-mile radius of home and could spout off a half dozen facts about almost any major species
  • The information technologist and software architect who as a child voraciously read encyclopedias and was fascinated by computers and programming (think young Bill Gates)

When I served as the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia, I frequently gave presentations about O’Connor, which included a brief overview of her life that was cut short at the age of 39 from the effects of lupus. Along with many others who have studied her life and work, I perceived that Flannery O’Connor was indeed a born writer. I’m sure the same case could be made for any number of writers, but I know much more about the childhood of Flannery O’Connor than any other author.

Mary Flannery O’Connor (her full name) was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and was the only child of Edward and Regina O’Connor.  She was raised by a Catholic family that sometimes viewed children much like small versions of adults, a perspective largely abandoned by the 19th century. Young Mary Flannery thrived in this atmosphere. She was a bold, precocious little girl who took herself quite seriously. She referred to her parents by their first names, not “Daddy” or “Momma.” When he was away from home, her father wrote her affectionate letters that he playfully addressed to “Lord Flannery,” and she would sign her correspondence to him with the same title, addressing them to “King of Siam.”

Young Mary Flannery was encouraged to read, and perhaps the most recognizable photograph from her childhood shows her in profile sitting with a large book in her lap, staring down at the page with a look of determined concentration. She would later use that same fierce gaze to observe the world around her and depict it through a grotesque and outrageous filter. As a young reader she collected a small library of familiar children’s titles and took the liberty of writing brief reviews on the flyleaf or title page of the books. Always assertively opinionated, the young critic praised some books as “First rate,” while others, such as Georgina Finds Herself, she dismissed as “the worst book I have read next to Pinnochio.” It is worth noting that, at the height of her career, Flannery O’Connor wrote more than a hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia. Also, she carried to adulthood her sharp words in assessing the value of books, as is illustrated in her acidic comments about the works of other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. To put it in today’s vernacular, she was savage.

Not unlike many bright children, Mary Flannery wrote stories from her own imagination. Some of them were about animals with human characteristics, which is a typical theme explored by aspiring young writers. However, she went a few steps further than most children. Not only did she write clever and often hilarious stories, she also illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession. The volume of her published letters, The Habit of Being, includes correspondence to her agent, editors, publishers, and other professionals in the book industry where O’Connor demonstrated shrewd business acumen.

As a high school and undergraduate college student, Mary Flannery turned her artistic energy to cartoons, which she created through sketching and drawing but more elaborately through printing with linoleum blocks. Although she ended up in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under the direction of Paul Engle, she initially entered graduate school at Iowa thanks to a scholarship in journalism — she intended to pursue a career as a cartoonist. O’Connor’s biting satire and wicked humor were clearly developing even as a cartoonist, not just in the illustrations, but perhaps even more so in the captions. Some critics have argued that, as a mature fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor continued to exhibit the eye of a cartoonist in the creation of her most exaggerated characters. Little wonder that, when asked why her stories were so shocking, O’Connor explained “for the almost blind, you draw large and starling figures.”

In the private journals Flannery O’Connor kept as a college student, she undoubtedly believed that being an artist was so much more than a career choice.  It was a vocation. As she focused her attention toward writing, O’Connor yearned for her work to be used by God. She wanted to craft stories that would miraculously reveal God’s grace. As she matured into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, she became less sentimental, but she never lost her appreciation for the mystery of art as it is interpreted by the Church, to which she remained devoted for the rest of her life. Perhaps she returned to the intensity of her younger years. She certainly became much more confident. When repeatedly asked why she decided to become a writer, without hesitation O’Connor always replied, “Because I’m good at it.”

Most of us get some level of education and eventually find a job that, with any luck, will get us out of our parents’ hair and their bank accounts. We will end up with about five different full-time jobs before we finally clock out for the last time, and our career paths will largely be determined by factors such as education, employment opportunities, salary, family obligations, and just plain old simple fate. But for a select few, a seed will be planted at a very early age that will germinate into a thriving métier that brings with it fulfillment and a deep sense of purpose. The term from my Southern Baptist heritage was “a calling.” The vocation of writing for Flannery O’Connor required serious devotion, discipline, sacrifice, and a form of genius that appears only a few times in each generation of artists. She was born with an incredible gift, which she carefully and skillfully nurtured, and her readers are the fortunate beneficiaries.

A Little Less Anonymity

When I started this blog back in April, I had some misguided notion that I should keep my identity hidden, primarily because I thought that some of the future content would be personal or sensitive, and I feared offending my family, friends, and associates.  What I have come to discover is just how difficult it is to write about my own experiences and opinions while remaining completely anonymous.  There are significant stories and memories that I have had to avoid to stay in hiding.  No more I tell you!

I still prefer not posting my personal information in my profile; however, the stories I tell will definitely reveal my identity to people whom I have encountered over the last few decades.  In so doing, I am accepting a few restrictions: some stories will be better left untold, and I will have to be a bit sensitive and careful in the memories I do elect to share.  Yes, I admit that all of this sounds a tad melodramatic and narcissistic — my arrogance in thinking that this blog will reach such a wide audience that even friends and acquaintances will someday be following my posts.   Even so, getting a little more personal with the details will make for a better journal and, I hope, more engaging narratives.