“The fact that you chose GSA reveals something about you.”
I’m paraphrasing something Ellen Hagan, an author from Bardstown, told me during an introductory interview on the first day of the 2008 Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts creative writing program at Transylvania University. It’s stuck with me for the last nine years.
The summer prior to my senior year at Sheldon Clark High School, the only secondary institution in Martin County, I was accepted into the GSA program and Governor’s Scholar Program. The programs ran concurrently (and still do) and yielded similar scholarship opportunities based on one’s performance in high school, so my decision came down to what I was more passionate about: writing, or just about anything else.
From the moment I earned a “Distinguished” rank on my fourth grade writing portfolio, I knew that pursuing a professional writing career of some sort was what I wanted to do with my life. The only other career I remember seriously considering was “train engineer” — a Kindergarten dream dampened after being diagnosed with a form of color blindness (damn cones!).
So, words won (they got to rest their starters in the fourth quarter). I became the first — and to my knowledge, only — person from Martin County to attend GSA.
The program was terrific crash-course exposure to different methods of brainstorming, drafting and publishing. That instruction without a doubt improved my ability to write, but it didn’t make me a better writer.
Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson and Hagan made me a better writer by bringing exceptional female voices into a room full of young boys and girls.
Dan Bernitt made me a better writer by being the first openly gay man from whom this straight man from a strictly conservative region got to learn.
Frank X Walker made me a better writer by being a vocal challenger to the notion of Appalachia being an “all-white” literary playground.
Mickey McCoy, the high school English teacher who encouraged me to apply, made me a better writer by believing in my ability enough to show up for the final-day showcase.
GSA was my first intense immersion within a culturally- and ethnically-diverse group of people — all Kentuckians and all artists. My roommate, whose discipline was music, attended Ballard High School, one of what seemed like 300 schools in the big, bad city of Louisville. Two of my best friends in the program attended Tates Creek, from which I now live a mile away but couldn’t have found nine years ago. A cousin of North Carolina basketball star Tyler Hansbrough hailed from western Kentucky; she was tall but I don’t think she could dunk. I made quick friends with a comic book nerd from Breathitt County and developed a quick crush on a girl from Elizabethtown.
Being thrown into a three-week blender of young and experienced artists bringing a wide array of life experiences and voices to the mixture? That’s what made me a better writer.
The Internet has made it so much easier to peer into other people’s worlds and get exposed to ideas that challenge one’s preconceived notions about anything. YouTube’s a nice cheeseburger, but full-on immersion is a filet mignon.
Nothing can beat actually sitting at a breakfast table talking with fellow writers, musicians, painters, videographers, photographers, dancers, singers and actors — some women, some men, some gay, some black, some Asian, some Christians, some atheists, all whatever the hell they wanted to be — before embarking on a day filled with tasks to improve your talent in something you enjoy. I hope kids in Kentucky — particularly those in poorer parts of the state, like my hometown — continue to receive that critical experience for countless years to come.
It was at those breakfast tables I would flip to the sports section of the Lexington Herald-Leader, which was hard to come by in Martin County, and gobble up news and opinions from role models like Mark Story and Jerry Tipton, blissfully unaware that midway through the next decade I would work alongside them.
Choosing GSA revealed something about me: I thought I belonged.
Finishing GSA revealed something to me: I did.