“When words are all that you have”

The North Carolina Writers’ Network’s Fall Conference, held over the weekend in Asheville at the DoubleTree Hotel, was the group’s largest gathering in several years, organizers said. The event drew some 180 attendees.

The nonprofit organization, founded in 1985, serves writers, editors and publishers with gatherings like this annual conference, as well as year-round workshops, classes, critiques and promotional programs.

The weekend of networking events, readings, panel discussions, exhibits and performances was cast as a “fun, writerly time” by Ed Southern, the network’s Winston-Salem-based executive director. “We have had a great turnout, so thank you, Asheville,” he said. “I know everyone was looking for an excuse to come here in the fall.”

The conference kicked off with a Friday-night keynote address by the award-winning Appalachian writer Silas House. The Kentucky native has published four novels, two plays and one nonfiction book, and his first young-adult novel will be published next year.

“We have a great writing tradition in Kentucky,” House said in his opening remarks. “We have a true family of writers that really takes care of each other and nurtures each other. But we don’t have anything like the North Carolina Writers’ Network, an actual organization that we turn to and depend on, so I envy North Carolina in that way.”

After praising some of his favorite North Carolina writers (and longtime colleagues), including Lee Smith and Ron Rash, House read from a prepared essay titled “Why Writing Matters.” (“Hopefully the speech is better than the title,” he quipped.)

House spoke for about half an hour, in a deep and meditative mountain drawl. Here are some choice excerpts of his talk:

“I was raised in a family that had been so poverty-stricken that they didn’t have much more than their stories — and so they took their storytelling very, very seriously. When words are all that you have, you learn to cherish them. You learn to roll them about in the palm of your hand, and admire their beauty, their shine. In my family, in my place in the world, we knew that words could be used to fight back. …

“But mostly words are used for the positive: to praise, to soothe, to heal. … The very act of collecting words in a beautiful way and then delivering them to others gathered about was a sort of praise service, in that the words were being worshipped. We were a storytelling people, and we knew that stories are the things that sustain a people and a place. They are the first roots of a community. …

“I believe that all writing is a form of activism. The act of telling one’s truth is activism. The act of standing up for what one believes in is activism. The declaration of emotions is activism. I believe that as writers, one of the main responsibilities we have is to preserve, and the act of preservation is surely activism of the highest order. …

“I’m not here tonight to tell you that you’re not a real writer if you’re not political. I’m not saying that all writers need to be out in the streets marching or firing off profound treatises on the current state of the union, or anything remotely like that. But I am here to tell you that I believe the personal is political, and that as writers, we all have the opportunity — and maybe even the responsibility — to be active parts of the place we hope to represent. …

“This is why I love writing. This is why I think writing is important: Because writing can change things. Writing can move people to action, or just move them, period. That is why we’re writers to begin with, I think. To tell our truths. To move others. To make a difference in this world in whatever way we can in the short time we have to do it. …

“We can be activists in all kinds of ways. Some of us will march in the streets. Some of us will chain ourselves to trees. But most of us will do that even more important thing of worrying over each sentence, of giving the voiceless a voice, of articulating that thing that may seem to be impossible to articulate. That is the great moment of creation. That is why we’re writers, and that is why writing matters.”

For more information about the North Carolina Writers’ Network, visit http://www.ncwriters.org.

About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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