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Mark West Reflects on 40 Years of Community Engagement in Charlotte

Mark West

Mark West

When we heard that Mark West was celebrating 80 semesters teaching at UNC Charlotte, we knew we had to do something to commemorate the occasion.

Mark has been a tremendous supporter of Charlotte Lit, most notably through his fantastic blog Storied Charlotte, which has become an integral part of our community’s literary landscape. It’s almost as if it hasn’t happened until Mark has written about it, which makes our many appearances there particularly gratifying for an org currently in just our 16th semester.

As turnabout is fair play, we decided to take a page (pun intended) from Mark’s blog playbook and ask him to tell his story. Here’s what he wrote to us:

I began my career as an English professor at UNC Charlotte in 1984.  As I reflect on my forty-year career, I cannot remember a time during which I was not deeply involved in community engagement work.  For me, my work as an English professor and my commitment to community engagement go hand in hand.  Whether I am teaching a course on children’s literature, volunteering at a public library event, or participating in a community forum about resisting censorship pressures, I am always doing what I can to encourage people to read and appreciate literary works.  As I see it, a literary work does not really blossom into literature until it has readers.  A book without readers is like an unplanted seed—full of potential but needing a little space and attention in order to take root in the imagination of a reader. 

My Storied Charlotte blog is a direct outgrowth of my community engagement work.  I launched my blog four years ago in an effort to draw attention to Charlotte’s vibrant literary community.  This community includes more than writers. It also encompasses librarians, booksellers, publishers, literacy activists, writing groups and organizations, and (most importantly) readers. 

My blog has much in common with Charlotte Lit.  Both are rooted in Charlotte’s community of readers and writers, and both celebrate authors from Charlotte.  Not surprisingly, I have written many Storied Charlotte blog posts about Charlotte Lit’s activities and projects over the past four years. Although there is no formal connection between my Storied Charlotte blog and Charlotte Lit, our shared purpose makes us partners.  

We feel the same way, Mark. Partners we are. Thanks for everything you do for Charlotte’s storied literary community.

The Magic of Listening to Stories

by Meghan Modafferi

If you tune into NPR, sooner or later you’ll hear the phrase “driveway moment.” It’s when you’ve reached your destination, but you just can’t bring yourself to turn off the radio, to get out of the car. You have to hear the ending of the story that’s airing on, say, This American Life.

Ever wonder how the writer did that? When attention spans are shorter than ever, how do you keep someone hooked when you have access to only one of their senses—hearing?

Like anything in writing, or life, there are millions of answers to every question. But for me, I keep coming back to the essay. Or, rather, the essai; in French, the meaning is “to attempt.” It describes an intimate perspective, with a narrator who’s searching rather than concluding. While traditional nonfiction delivers the results of a study or investigation, literary essays focus on the journey—as interior as it is exterior, full of wrong turns and dead ends, where doubts and emotions are not detours to avoid but the very meat of the story. Where how the sausage gets made and the sausage itself start to blur. Where the narrator shows themself in the attempt to understand rather than already understanding.

If you’ve listened to The New Yorker Radio Hour or watched a video essay on YouTube, you’ve likely heard this approach. It’s powerful to the ear because of its intimacy. Think about it: we all live in a state of searching. We don’t live in neat, cohesive stories; we live in a muddle that we make sense of until something breaks that sense, and then we have to find a new angle to make sense of it again.

And when someone speaks directly into your ear and tells you about that journey in their own mind, it’s electric, like a magician sharing their secrets. Because what’s more magical than taking the mess of life and making it into a story? It’s what we spend all our time doing—as writers, yes, but also as humans. Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

So when, inevitably, the narrator in your ear doesn’t find what they were looking for but something else that’s even richer and more meaningful, it gives us hope. Hope that we, too, are on a journey of discovery that only gets sweeter with each wrong turn. And with that kind of magic, you simply can’t help it: you put the car in park and keep listening.

Learn to Write and Record a 3-Minute Essay with Meghan

THREE THURSDAYS, FEBRUARY 8, 15, & 22: “The Sound of Writing: Writing and Recording the 3-Minute Essay,” 6:00-8:00 p.m., Charlotte Art League, 4237 Raleigh Street, Charlotte 28213. Info and registration

In this three-session course, you’ll learn what makes a great spoken essay; draft, get feedback, and edit an essay; learn the basics of being recorded; and record your three-minute essay in a professional sound studio.

Meghan Modafferi is the editorial director of Crash Course, an award-winning YouTube channel reaching more than 70 million people per year. She has taught writing and podcasting at Georgetown University, and her written and multimedia work has been published by National GeographicSlate, and NPR.