Just Put On the Mouse Ears, Already: Wildacres Writing Workshop

Special thanks to the Arts and Science Council, which awarded me a Regional Artist Project Grant to attend the Wildacres Writing Workshop this year.

The warnings go something like this:

“You’re thinking about Wildacres? It’s amazing, but you need to know about the Gong Show.”

For more than 30 summers, writer and writing enthusiast Judi Hill has been hosting 100 people at the Wildacres Retreat, a mountain conference center in Little Switzerland, NC. Judi calls her event the Wildacres Writing Workshop. National Geographic called it one of the “100 places that will change your life.”

“Change your life” is a pretty tall order. But before we get to that, let’s talk Gong Show.

The final night of the Workshop, the writers in attendance put on skits. Most are written that week, and some that very day (as you might expect from a place full of writers). They are performed script-in-hand with cobbled together props and costumes. The skits are fun and funny with low (or no) expectations (there’s no gong and no judging), with a tendency to poke fun at the shared experiences of the past week.

Nearly everyone participates—that is, is given some kind of role in one or more skits—especially the first timers. Now, it’s possible the thought of performing in a skit before 100 people, most of whom you’ve just met, makes you apoplectic. The apoplectic do get a pass. You can say no. But it’s hard to say no, because the Workshop veterans know the value of a communal experience.

And in a nutshell, that aesthetic is the key to understanding the Workshop: it’s all about community.

One might expect it would be difficult to find entree into a group so well established. In fact, I’ve rarely felt more welcome. It’s even encoded in Hill’s rules, such as this one: at each meal, sit with someone different. And people do. If it weren’t so brilliant, you’d think it sinister: this is the best way to get everyone to put on the Mickey Mouse ears, so to speak—to buy in to what’s being sold. What it actually does is build community, in the easiest way possible. At meals, I met and talked with perhaps 50 different people—and remember there are only 100 there—many of whom I would not have met otherwise.

There’s more community building: in the evenings are open readings, and—as with the Gong Show—everyone is encouraged to participate. And again, nearly everyone does—for which you’ll be glad. What better way to learn about your fellow writers than to hear their work? (Four-minute limits, though, and no going over; for this there is a gong.)

The norms are well-entrenched, and I found myself resisting at first, but I soon decided that resistance is not only futile, it’s counterproductive. It’s not unlike Disney World: either be prepared to give in to it fully, or choose something different. While Hill sometimes rules with a heavy hand (another rule: no complaining, which also means no suggestions, at least not while the Workshop is going on), the Wildacres Writing Workshop works precisely as she designed it: you go, you immerse yourself in the place and the people, and you emerge with new relationships, a whole lot of new words, and maybe a new outlook on your writing.

It might not change your life. But then again, it just might.

A  Few Details

One week or two? The Wildacres Writing Workshop is actually two things: a retreat week and a workshop week. Everyone who comes in a given year attends the second week, the workshop week. About half of those people also opt to come for the first week, the retreat week.

The retreat week is fantastic: a beautiful mountain location, unstructured days, lovely and supportive people, three square meals you don’t have to think about (including when to eat, since you eat when the bell rings at 8:00, 12:30, and 6:00), readings in the evenings, and lots and lots and lots of writing time. (And bugs: bring bug spray.)

The workshop week is like this: you meet with your teacher and classmates for five sessions, each of which is about an hour of instruction and 90 minutes of workshopping each other’s submitted work. Some meeting are morning and some afternoon, which means you can also audit any of the other class sessions. Workshops are well taught, but my sense is that the real value for most people is in the workshopping.

Diversity. With just two people of color this year, racial diversity is essentially a rounding error. Hill recognizes this but hasn’t figured out how to address it. While there is an application process—you have to submit a page of work and be accepted—the Workshop is essentially self-selecting, and will likely only get more diverse if those who already attend bring more diverse friends.

Accommodations. Wildacres has two lodges that face each other across a courtyard with a fantastic mountain view. You’ll spend a lot of time in the courtyard, the balconies that overlook it, and the big living room called the lobby. Most people don’t spend much time in their rooms, which are functional (think: very old country hotel) but probably not conducive to your writing. And then there is the matter of…

Roommates. Unless you bring or arrange your own, you will be assigned a roommate. The only way to get a private room is to pay for a second person, whether they come with you or not. (No one does this.) On the upside, you can bring an actual second person, even if they’re not participating in the the workshop part of the Workshop, for the same fee that you paid.

Food. Opinions on the food varies. Some are very happy with the family style + buffet arrangement, the choices and the quality. Others, less so. It’s industrial and not (that we could tell) locally sourced. Regardless, the kitchen staff does an excellent job accommodating dietary needs (vegan, gluten-free, etc.).

When, Where, and How Much. Judi Hill’s Wildacres Writing Workshop is usually the first two weeks of July, (optional retreat week followed by the workshop week), at the lovely Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland, NC. For 2018, the workshop week was $850 (double-occupancy lodging, all meals, and your class), and an extra $450 for the retreat week.

About Wildacres, the Place. Wildacres Retreat—1,600 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains—hosts many events and groups during the year: potters, storytellers, musicians, writers, and many more. Another writing group that meets there, in addition to the Wildacres Writing Workshop covered in this post, is the Table Rock Writers Workshop, in August. You might also check out these opportunities there: Spring and Fall Gatherings, and the Wildacres Residency Program.]

Paul Reali, co-founder of Charlotte Lit, is the co-author of Creativity Rising, which is used in college creativity courses throughout the US and Canada. His work has been published in Winston-Salem Journal, InSpine, Office Solutions, Lawyers Weekly, and others. His fiction has been awarded first place in the Elizabeth Simpson Smith and Ruth Moose Flash Fiction competitions, and he received a Regional Artist Project Grant from Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council in 2018.

Note: this post has been updated since its original publication. The author apologies for any inappropriate metaphors in the original.

The Collegeville Institute: A Place to Belong

On the first evening of a workshop entitled, “Exploring Identity and (Dis)belonging through the Personal Essay” at the Collegeville Institute, we gather around a rectangle formed from four long tables pushed together. We are primarily people of color. We are strangers to one another. We are not sure what the days ahead will hold.

Enuma Okoro, our workshop leader, asks us to share something important about our identity that someone wouldn’t know just by looking at us. The answers vary from flamenco dancer to Nigerian to Colombian to chemical engineer. We learn about the people who will share this space with us for the next five days. With our words and stories, we begin to traverse the globe.

I am the black American daughter of Jamaican immigrants who was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. In personal essay after personal essay, I return again and again to the question, “Where do I belong?” It makes senses that this subject of belonging might be a question haunting my writing. The question, however, reaches beyond my race, my ethnicity, or even my place of birth. I find I consider this question in all sorts of realms in my life—including my faith and my writing.

I’ve attended many wonderful writing workshops and classes. However, in these spaces, I’ve often been the only person of color in a class and the only person writing about topics related to race, ethnicity, and, at times, faith. These experiences of being the “only” have left me struggling to determine where I belong in the writing world.

The Collegeville Institute identifies themselves by the tagline, “Exploring faith, igniting imagination, renewing community,” and each summer they offer a variety of week-long writing workshops. Last winter I applied to attend the workshop about identity and (dis)belonging. The idea of participating in a workshop that sat at the intersection of identity formation, belonging, faith, and writing the personal essay grabbed me. I’d never been part of such an environment before. Let me repeat that sentence. I’d never been part of such an environment before.

When I received workshop acceptance details and logistical information, I immediately realized that this workshop would be unlike anything I’d ever experienced. First there was the list of participants primarily composed of other people of color. Then there were the readings comprised of authors with identity formation experiences that shared some similarities with mine. Before the workshop officially began, a wave of affirmation already engulfed me.

The week did not disappoint. We fell into rich, full conversations that I believe happen when the majority of those around you understand certain aspects of your experience. We passed quickly over basic ideas around identity formation and dove headfirst into deep discussions about the ways we can write about how we came to be the people we are today. We learned and we talked and we learned and we talked some more. We read each other’s essays and shared our stories. We laughed and we ate (truly we ate so much) and sometimes we stayed up long enough to watch the clock turn into a new day. We arrived as strangers and we departed as friends.

Sometimes I think it’s possible to realize you are standing in a moment so special that you wish you could stop time if only for a second. You wish the iridescent bubble floating through the air could pause, and you could cup its beauty. On the final night of the workshop, one by one, we rose from our chairs and shared our words. I wanted to grab that iridescent bubble, even though I knew that would make it burst. Instead, when my turn came to read, I began by saying, “Thank you,” to the group. I could feel my throat tighten.

That week is a memory I already treasure. I continue to push out new words on the blank page, and I remember how I am not alone. What I cup now is the reality that at a workshop exploring identity and (dis)belonging, I found a place to belong in this writing world.

Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow. She is the author of All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way (Thomas Nelson, August 2018), an essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging. Please visit patricegopo.com/book to pre-order her book.