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Recent TWU Grad Attends Appalachian Writers’ Workshop

Class of 2019 alumna Rachel Holbrook is one of the first TWU graduates to earn the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. During the summer she was selected to attend the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at Hindman Settlement School, one of the South’s premier gatherings of writers. Dr. Kristin Robertson caught up with Rachel after she returned from the conference and chatted with her about writing, stoking the fires, and being brave.

Dr. Kristin Robertson: Before we get into the workshop, introduce yourself! How did you arrive at TWU and creative writing as a major?

Rachel Holbrook: I live in Knoxville with my husband and six kids. I have always loved to read and have written poetry and stories since I was a little kid. I have been writing seriously for about five years. I have written a little bit of everything, but I am primarily a fiction writer. I finished my first novel in 2015, and, as I was querying that manuscript, I began writing serialized fiction online. That serial, Little River, was subsequently picked up by two newspapers, which published it in 2017. I had several other publications in lit journals during that time, but that unfortunately didn’t include my novel. I had been offered a contract for it, but it didn’t feel right to me.

As I was trying to decide what my next move would be, I was given the opportunity to go back to school. After a little research, I discovered TWU’s creative writing program. After corresponding with Dr. Elizabeth Ruleman a little bit, I knew it was the perfect next step. I only spent two years as a student, but the experience was invaluable to me. I learned so much from the faculty and the coursework, but the most valuable thing I took away from my time at TWU (besides my degree!) was a much more focused understanding of who I am as a writer and where I see my work fitting into the literary landscape. During my senior year, I became aware of Appalachian Literature as a genre, and I suddenly knew exactly what type of fiction writer I want to be. My professors were incredibly supportive of my interest in Appalachian Lit, and, with their help, I completed a collection of Appalachian short stories and a senior seminar [with Dr. Shaun Morgan] focused on studying the genre.  

KR: And now I’m sitting here with a new BFA alum with an amazing collection of Appalachian short stories—and a new novel in the works.

RH: It was indirectly through this senior seminar that I came to learn about the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky. One of the books we studied was Trampoline by Robert Gipe. After reading the book, I googled the author and found his website. I read there that Gipe would be teaching a novel class at the workshop that summer. The list of visiting faculty was impressive. The keynote speaker was another author whom I studied in the seminar–Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina. I was immediately intrigued, and I made up my mind to apply for the workshop by the end of that same day. I knew that I would be hard pressed to find a workshop more uniquely suited to help me progress toward my writing goals.

KR: Other than it being your literal home, what was it about Appalachian literature that spoke to you?

RH: Appalachian lit is a genre that comes from inside Appalachia or from a writer rooted in Appalachian culture. It’s a genre that is about the people of the Appalachian region, as opposed to being about a single racial or ethnic group. Setting becomes almost a distinct character in Appalachian lit, because the landscape – particularly the Appalachian mountains – has been a defining force for the people of Appalachia. The mountains have, historically, sustained the region through natural resources such as coal and timber, but they have also often separated Appalachians from other people. The land itself has created Appalachian culture, and Appalachian lit echoes back that relationship.

There are many things about Appalachian lit that speak to me, such as the intense sense of place and the perspective of the outsider. However, the fact that Appalachia is my literal home is why I have such a strong connection to the genre. I have been a voracious reader from the time I first learned to read as a little girl, but reading has been a different experience for me since discovering Appalachian lit. It’s been the first time that I have truly seen myself, my home, my culture, my religion, and my family reflected back so poignantly through literature. It has been about identity for me and about feeling seen.

KR: How would you say the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop helped solidify your place as an emerging writer in Appalachian lit?

RH: I think what I was looking for at Hindman, besides practical writing instruction in the workshops, was a sense of belonging and an affirmation that I was indeed on the right path. I definitely found that! It’s hard to overstate the sense of family at Hindman. Many people make the pilgrimage to Hindman every year, and those people went out of their way to welcome people like me for whom it was our first time. I had barely checked in and dropped my things in my room before I was sitting in a rocking chair listening to a play by play from a veteran attendee of what to expect during the coming week, from how everyone is expected to help with dishes to when was the best time to sneak off for a nap. Besides the general friendliness, there was a real openness toward mentorship from the faculty and more accomplished writers. I definitely hadn’t expected that. I left feeling like not only had I made a bunch of new friends, but I had also made several really important connections within the genre.

KR: Were you able to get to know some of the Appalachian lodestars?

RH: Of the seven or eight authors I read in that senior seminar at TWU, I met three of them at the workshop! I met Dorothy Allison, Silas House, and Robert Gipe, as well as several other very accomplished Appalachian authors. They weren’t just there teaching classes, either. I had the privilege of eating meals with them, meeting one on one, and staying out into the wee hours of the morning laughing and talking and telling stories with them. At the end of the week, not only did I find the sense of belonging and affirmation that I had been looking for, but I felt like I had actually been changed by my time there. I felt like I had found my artistic home.

KR: That sounds incredible! What was the workshop like?

RH: Throughout the conference, we followed the same basic schedule. We ate three incredibly delicious, farm-to-table meals a day in the dining hall. The next three hours were workshops. One really great thing was that even though you are only enrolled in one workshop, you are allowed to audit any of the others, as long as they are not at the same time. I had been really torn when I applied because there were two teachers I wanted to be with in workshop. I chose to study with Matthew Neill Null, which turned out to be the perfect choice for me, but I was also able to audit Robert Gipe’s class. I learned so much during these workshops, and I left with some very specific guidance about the novel I am writing as well as some very concrete encouragement to buoy me through the ebb and flow of the writing life.

After the workshops came lunch, and then it was our choice to attend either a lecture on Appalachian Literature by Chris Green, who teaches at Berea College, or a workshop on documentary film-making with Ashley York, who created the award-winning documentary, “Hillbilly.” After that, we had participant readings which were widely attended by both workshop participants and faculty. After dinner, there was a nightly program. The first night was a screening of “Hillbilly,” and the following nights were readings by the faculty from their own books. These were really amazing! After the evening program, we usually gathered on the porch of one of buildings dubbed “The Gathering Place.” We sat out much too late every night, but everyone agreed that was one of the most beloved parts of the Hindman experience. On the final night, dinner was a literal feast created by Chef Kristin Smith, followed by the James Still Keynote Address by Dorothy Allison.

KR: I bet she brought down the house.

RH: If you talk to anyone who was there this year, Dorothy Allison’s speech will be what they want to talk about. She told us she had prepared a speech, but she was just going to talk to us instead. What followed felt less like a keynote speech and more like a commissioning. People have been referring to it since as a sermon. We all left with a fire in our bellies and incredible, motivating passion for our own writing. One of the most meaningful moments of the week was when I got to speak with Ms. Allison for just a few minutes that night and she asked me about the novel I’m writing. I told her I was a little bit scared of what I feel compelled to write, and she told me, “That’s good. It should be a little bit scary. Be brave.” I left Hindman determined to do just that.

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