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December 1, 2022

By Karen Salyer McElmurray, faculty, fiction and creative nonfiction

Behind The Long House, which is what Granny called the long, narrow building above her house in Johnson County, was the chicken coop and its guinea hens. Inside the building, which smelled of must and darkness, lived the ghosts of my ancestors. I loved to slide down the muddy bank behind it when it rained. I loved the stove where Granny canned corn and beans and beets and the front of the building where my Granddaddy kept saws and vises and vats of used oil from the service station—his workshop.

Over the years, I’ve been in any number of other kinds of workshops. My friend CG is a wood worker and potter. I love hanging out in his shop with its dust and cedar smell. I know the studios of print makers, glass blowers, and weavers, and I also know mechanics and machinists and their garages. I love all those places where things get made, turned, tuned up, but my first memory of a workshop where words got fixed was in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was just as frightened of that workshop as I was at times of The Long House.

In my mid-twenties, I applied to the University of Virginia and got into the MFA Program. Days I worked as a landscaper—dug, hauled rocks, tilled and planted, then hurried to workshop, my boots heavy with mud. Workshops were my first experience of sharing my work with others, and there I received a sometimes confusing range of comments. Some thought my hillbilly characters spoke too eloquently. Others thought the old men who traded guns and knives at a barber shop were sinister. Still other comments were similar to those in Lorrie Moore’s hilarious story, “How to Become a Writer”: “Your language,” that narrator is told, “is smooth and energetic; you have, however, a ludicrous sense of plot.” Once I wrote a drunk girl who shoots someone in a bar, then stands in the parking lot, contemplating a fistful of dirt and knowing she’s done with her life. What, someone said, is all this silly business about dirt? Nevertheless, I was learning to take what and where and who I knew and craft the situations and places and characters of fiction. When someone said my stories “weren’t fiction yet,” I was actually planting the seeds of my later great interest in writing the creative nonfiction that writing programs had not yet embraced.

Above all, workshops over the years taught me that mysterious process called critique: how to discuss work and write that work of my own. The approaches have been various over the years. At UVA, novelist and poet George Garrett taught “what if.” What if, on a Sunday morning, your character wakes up, hears church bells, and starts down the street to the Catholic Church like she always does, but instead goes to a pay phone to call the person she loved a hundred thousand years back, even if that person is no longer living? The point is, George Garrett told us, we must reach in farther, and imagine the “what if,” beyond the usual. Poet Sam Prestridge visited a class I was teaching and said that poems are like a holy cross. They are the horizontal lines made with all the poet’s tools—enjambment, rhythm, assonance, dissonance—and they are also the vertical line, the part of the poems that reaches beyond the page, the infinite part. As poet Alice Friman said when she was visiting a workshop I was leading years after that, poems are both hard work and the ineffable. They are ghosts in our bones.

It was novelist Charles Baxter who resonated with me most when I sat in on a workshop of his at Warren Wilson College. He talked about “the intentions of the work.” In The Art of the Subtext, Baxter calls intentions “a collection of luminous details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and unseen,” beyond just “plot or a collection of instances.” Some of the words for intentions in Baxter’s essay: source; subterranean; mind-haunting; hidden-story possibilities; real story; derailment of ordinary life; impulse and dream; wellsprings; source of power. For purposes of the workshops I teach these days, I have chosen to call “intentions” the heartwood of the piece. By “heart” I do not necessarily mean the emotions evoked by the piece nor experienced by the characters nor the writer. I mean something closer to the word essence, core. As a poet friend said, heartwood is the center of the wood, its hardest part.

Some of the questions that heartwood might ask. What are the layers of this story, of that essay or poem? How do we peel them back to find the core? Does that core hurt? Does it sing? What is the caliber of that song? What words will we remember most after we close our eyes and no longer see the lines the words make if we break them apart? Does the piece echo inside us, and how? Does it create a vacuum, or an absence? Does it taste sweet or bitter, salty or sour? Does it leave us thirsty or does it satisfy? Why? What does it tell, long after the pages are turned over, folded, and left behind?

As one student asked, “Isn’t heartwood really the dead part of the wood?” As Adrienne Rich said, “how do we dead, awaken?” Psychologist James Hillman says, “We must leave the ego-centered daylight world of consciousness and enter the realms of imagination and soul, the underworld of the dream.” How do we get to this rich underworld, this soul of the work, as we write and then revise?

In another essay of Charles Baxter’s The Art of the Subtext, he asks this: “If we take away the subtext, then where is the story? Maybe in the clothes, the weapons, or the cars, and the explosions and the shoes, and the swimming pools and the sex and the firepower and the situation, in a kind of reproduction of glittering surfaces and the beasts of commerce that feed on them. But if the story (or the essay or the poem or the play or the like) is going to be a story about persons who have been granted their humanity, who can live and die with all their attendant angels and devils lurking in the background, people, in short, with those archaic things called souls, it probably cannot do without that something . . . that lies underneath . . . .” (174)

The kind of digging deep that I’m talking about is not, and I really mean that, for first drafts. Play on the page. Discover. Let the words and the characters and the scenes dance. Let them unfold. And we must realize that not everyone likes someone digging around in their subterranean world, in their consciousness, even if it is on the page. We can argue all day that not all stories and novels, movies and TV shows and the like need to make us conscious of deeper intent, no less of the soul. Lots of work is fun, just fun. I in fact often crave a lot of down time that doesn’t challenge me in that soul way necessarily. I love Robert Heinlein, Jodi Picoult. I confess that I love Lifetime movies. I have seen Alien probably a dozen times and adore Ripley more each watching. But to my mind genre work, and I’m not going to qualify it by saying “even” genre work, can rise to the examination of self, of soul, of consciousness as much as any literary work. I am determined to teach as if the soul is not out of fashion.

The Long House behind my Granny’s long-gone house in Eastern Kentucky was the place the heartwood of my work began. The plot of those summers? Sitting up late and fixing popcorn and stealing a swig of the medicinal bourbon out of the hutch. Going across the road to my now oldest friend Vicky’s house and listening to my first Pink Floyd. Sneaking out to the Long House to smoke cigarettes on the sly. An exposition involving girl-me, the prelude to the rising action, the sometime-crises of my life, the falling action that is now, the precursor of the inevitable denouement. My life and my writing has meant inhabiting these pages, revising them until they are whole, alive, singing with the angels of light and dark.

My own soul? I sometimes think it is back there, in the dark rooms of The Long House. I glimpse that ghost-me some nights, floating above my granny’s memory as she wipes sweat from her forehead and cans beets in her summer kitchen. My soul floats along my granddaddy’s workbench, above the grease and soot and hand saws and drills. I dream of that Long House often. In my work, draft after draft, I am still trying to dive deep enough into the subterranean world to get it right.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Piano in a Sycamore: Writing Lessons from the Appalachian Writers' Workshop, edited by Silas House and Marianne Worthington. July 2017, Hindman Settlement School.


Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction. Wanting Radiance, her newest novel, has just been released in paperback from University Press of Kentucky, and Voice Lessons, a short collection of lyric essays, was released in 2021 from Iris Press. Her other novels are The Motel of the Stars, an Editor’s Pick by Oxford American, and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Her nonfiction work has been awarded the Annie Dillard Award for Essay, the New Southerner Award, the Orison Anthology Award for Creative Nonfiction and, most recently, the LitSouth Award. She co-edited, with poet Adrian Blevins, an essay collection called Walk till the Dogs Get Mean.


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