Editor’s note: Eric Shonkwiler is the 2015 New River Gorge Winter Writer-in-Residence and is living and writing at Lafayette Flats this winter. This is his second contribution to our blog.
|Eric will be reading from his book
“Above All Men” at Taylor
Books in Charleston
at 6:00 on March 12
I find it hard to believe that I’m nearing the end of my time here. Just last summer I spent three months in a near-border town in New Mexico, and let me tell you, the days crawled. But it’s been a pleasure living in Fayetteville, and I’ve been working hard, doing what I intended to do. This was supposed to be an opportunity to explore and to write, and I have. I’ve been down to Wolf Creek; I’ve gone driving along 16 and 60.; I got to see a wonderful concert with The Honeycutters at Cathedral Café; I’ve been to two (only two! My bad) gatherings of Poetry, Prose, and Plainsong. And I’ve written nearly 270 pages—more than the final pagecount of my first book. There’s little else I could ask for out of a residency (maybe an earlier break in the weather?). It has been a great time.
This Thursday, I’m going to be reading at Taylor Books in Charleston.
And in the light of everything else that I’ve done here in Fayetteville, it reminded me that this place is supposed to be seen as an uncultured backwater, and that I’m here to help, in some small way, tackle that perception. And after over two months of experiencing the real West Virginia, I’m tempted to say that you all ought to just keep the truth to yourselves. You have a wonderful community here in Fayetteville, and what I’ve seen of the region speaks to that being the truth throughout the state. If the culture’s narrative-at-large says otherwise, all you’re doing is likely keeping out the dregs, those who wouldn’t appreciate what they’re experiencing. You’ve got a nice mix of newcomers and originals in town, and it’s clear that the people you do have coming in are the ones you’d want. And while of course you want more, I don’t think there’s any reason to be unhappy with what you have for the time being.
I’ve noticed that West Virginians talk about West Virginia quite a lot. This comes from, I imagine, that perception that has been perpetuated by outsiders and forced upon you. To combat that, you talk the place up amongst yourselves, even brag a little. I’m an Ohioan, and we don’t do that—well, we brag about The Ohio State University, but we don’t brag about our state. Likely this is because we’ve never been pushed into any boxes (or maybe it’s just OSU and Cedar Point is all we’ve got?). Being here for this long, though, I’m able to see what the perception has done in this state, as wrong as it may be. I feel a bit like I’m talking to a teenager saying this, but West Virginia is great, folks, and soon America will see that. In the meantime, enjoy the peace that you’ve got. Once word gets out, things are going to get rowdy around here. They’ll see all the opportunities you have; for taking in or creating art, for having fun, for eating, drinking, hiking—the list goes on and on. This state has so much to offer, far more than the country already takes for granted.
While my total writings here don’t exactly equal an essay, I’ve tried since I’ve started to craft a narrative as I see it. This narrative says that West Virginia, and Fayetteville in particular, is a place at once familiar and surprising. I feel at home here, and though few places in the country actually feel like home to me, I could see myself living here. There’s everything I could want, and more. A small-town feel with big culture and attractions, lively, caring, giving people. And something else, too: a cause. I’ve stayed positive while writing on this blog, but it bears addressing that West Virginia is a land that’s under a not-terribly-subtle attack. Because of its riches, this wonderful state has been used. And, perhaps because of the perception most of America has, it has also been forgotten. And while I do think that will change someday, I don’t think it’s any reason to quit the fight. This is your land, and it is good. You should try to share it and protect it just as you are. This one outsider hasn’t told you anything you don’t already know, but just the same, I thank you for the opportunity. I’ll do my best to spread the word.