I have been writing this blog for a little over a year, and recently I have been itching to expand into short stories, and hopefully a book in the future. Because I always try to marry experiences with travel, I decided to travel to the Smoky Mountains and polish my writing skills at the John C. Campbell Folk School (JCC Folk School). The workshop was presented by teacher and writer, Robin Edgar.
The premise of the workshop was using our senses and memories to prompt our writing. For example – think of a smell or touch from your childhood that prompts a memory, which in turn can become the basis for writing a story. It can be your story, or the story of another person in your past or present life. Maybe you recall the smell of pipe smoke from your grandfather? Or maybe you remember your mother holding your hand on your first day of school?
During my week at the JCC Folk School, Robin shared several techniques for finding our memories and turning them into written stories. Some of the students in our class were there because they wanted to compile stories as family histories for their children and grandchildren.
Neal and his wife, Sallie, both in their eighties, came from their farm in Alabama to do just that. With guidance from Robin, they were reminded of their lives growing up in depression era farm country and they were wonderful storytellers. The workshop was a vehicle for turning their storytelling into written word.
As for me, I set three goals for my week at the folk school: 1) to change the way I look at writing – make it feel less like a chore and more like a creative and fulfilling outlet. 2) Develop a narrative arc for my memoir (something with which I have struggled for months). 3) Just write – produce enough pieces to build confidence and allow Robin to critique and edit my work.
I am happy to say that I achieved all three goals – for the most part. At home this week, I still struggle to write the first sentence when I sit down at my laptop, but it no longer feels like a chore. During the 26 hours of instruction, dialog, and writing time at the workshop, I was able to write several short stories. Robin served as editor and gave me the feedback that every writer wants to hear – she told me “you have found your voice.” It was the first time in 14 months of writing that I really felt like a writer.
Each student at the workshop was afforded one on one time with Robin for whatever purpose. I used my time to develop the aforementioned narrative arc. While it still needs some fleshing out, the framework is done and not once in the last week have I had second thoughts or doubted my decision. I suspect the book will be a multi-year project, but there is no bigger step than the first one.
For those of you who are intrigued by the folk school and its programs, I recommend you check out their website:
for more information, but I will share some of my experience here.
Getting there from Southeastern Pennsylvania: I chose to use some airline miles to fly from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Georgia. From there I rented a car ($173 for 6 days) because the cost of a round trip shuttle provided by the school was $260. With the car, I was able to do some sightseeing during the drive from Atlanta (less than 3 hours with no stops). You can fly into other cities that are almost equal distance from the school (Knoxville, TN or Ashville, NC for example). If you choose to drive, it is about eleven hours door to door.
John C. Campbell, born in Indiana in 1867, and raised in Wisconsin, studied education and theology in New England. Like many other idealistic young people of his generation, he felt a calling to humanitarian work.
At the turn of the century, the Southern Appalachian region was viewed as a fertile field for educational and social missions. With his new bride, Olive Dame of Massachusetts, John undertook a fact-finding survey of social conditions in the mountains in 1908-1909. The Campbells outfitted a wagon as a traveling home and studied mountain life from Georgia to West Virginia.
While John interviewed farmers about their agricultural practices, Olive collected ancient Appalachian ballads and studied the handicrafts of the mountain people. Both were hopeful that the quality of life could be improved by education, and in turn, wanted to preserve and share with the rest of the world the wonderful crafts, techniques and tools that mountain people used in every day life.
After John died in 1919, Olive and her friend Marguerite Butler traveled to Europe and studied folk schools in Denmark, Sweden and other countries. They returned to the U.S. full of purposeful energy and a determination to start such a school in Appalachia. They realized, more than many reformers of the day, that they could not impose their ideas on the mountain people. They would need to develop a genuine collaboration.
In 1925, the Folk School began its work. Instruction at the Folk School has always been noncompetitive; there are no credits and no grades. Today, the Folk School offers a unique combination of rich history, beautiful mountain surroundings, and an atmosphere of living and learning together.
I found the setting to be extremely tranquil and conducive to losing yourself in whatever craft you came to do. The property is 300 acres of rolling hills, farmland, wooded trails, mountains, barns, and houses. It sits on the foothills of the Smokies and the little village of Brasstown at the end of the road is comprised of three artist owned galleries and a corner store.
Lodging is in houses and cabins scattered around the property. Students can choose from dormitories, shared rooms and baths, private rooms, and even a campground for the back to nature crowd. Meals are family style in the mess hall near the school’s large main building, Keith Hall. Originally a barn, Keith Hall is full of history and serves as the venue for all kinds of entertainment and gatherings: square and contra dancing, live music (mostly Bluegrass), yoga, and morning song to name a few.
There is a spirit of support and encouragement at the folk school. I heard other students call it magical, soothing, centering, and happy. Most of the students I spoke with were repeat visitors, coming back year after year to enhance their skills, or learn new ones. If you like to work with your hands, there is no shortage of ways to do so: blacksmithing, wood turning, quilting, rug hooking, pottery, drawing, carving, and the list goes on.
The students are men and women, singles, couples, more older than younger. The majority come from within a five hour drive – North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. But I met students from Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania. The sense of comradery and support, the quality of the environment, and the people (especially the locals) made this an experience I will look back on with fondness and gratitude.