In search of the perfect word: Literary festival returns to WCU

art frA writer looking at a blank page is a like a painter staring at a fresh canvas, a sculptor facing a block of clay or a woodworker holding a chunk of wood. The desire to grab words from thin air and construct them into sentences, notions and ideas comes from an internal fire to describe human emotion and situation. It is a calling, one that picks its creators when the time and place is prime. Writers are messengers, connecting the unknown cosmos to an everyday modern reality.

SEE ALSO: Wordsmiths converge on WCU for Spring Literary Festival

Western Carolina University will be once again play host to an array of writers during the 12th annual Spring Literary Festival, which runs March 31 through April 4. The event is a celebration of the written word, where finely-aged veterans intermingle with the young faces of future generations eager to find their voice. It is a bountiful cross-pollination, one crucial to the perpetuation of the craft.


The Smoky Mountain News recently caught up with a handful of the presenters at the festival. They range from a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer to an up-and-coming author specializing in children’s books. Each is as unique as their genres, each as passionate about writing as they are about life itself.


Luis Alberto Urrea, 58 


Naperville, Ill. 

Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Lannan Literary Award, Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award, Edgar Award, Christopher Award, Western States Book Award, Colorado Center for the Book Award, Southwest Book Award (two), Latino Literature Hall of Fame, American Book Award

Notable works: “The Devil’s Highway,” “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” “Into the Beautiful North”

Smoky Mountain News: How did you get into writing?

Luis Alberto Urrea: I was always in love with stories. I came from loquacious people. Real talkers. My mom was a New York blueblood, with Virginia roots going back before the Civil War. My dad was Mexican, but with Basque and Irish roots. So, my folks were a Confederate and a Conquistador. Everybody told tales all day long. I was a big reader — Mark Twain floated my boat, followed by Kipling. From then on, all bets were off. I started to write in junior high. I wanted to be Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan. By high school, I realized girls liked poets. I was immediately addicted.

SMN: Was there a specific moment you realized a piece of writing could be anything you wanted it to be?

LAU: Yes, it was in college. My father had died at the hands of Mexican cops. They made me buy his corpse with our family’s last money. A famous writer, Ursula Le Guin, read the manuscript of the story I wrote about his death and took me under her wing, then published it — my first sale.

SMN: What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?

LAU: People think it’s a career. It isn’t. It’s a calling. Writing is prayer. Write not for money or groupies or a private jet like Led Zeppelin. Write because you have to. Write because your soul will explode if you stay silent. Then, friend, I will join you and walk 100 miles beside you. Write because you and your people are beautiful. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from.

SMN: When you’re writing, where do you go in your head?

LAU: When I’m in it, deep in it, I’m not thinking.  I’m in a trance. I’m there, living in that story or essay or poem. I’m swinging the bat at the handsomest fastball ever pitched, and I’m aiming for the far wall. I’m doing kung fu like Bruce Lee. I’m on my knees before God. I’m shouting along to James Brown or Johnny Cash. I come out of writing as if I had been hypnotized.

SMN: What’s your favorite piece of writing that you tend to return to often for inspiration?

LAU: I have a Johnny Cash autograph. If that doesn’t move you, nothing will.  

SMN: What do you see as the current state of reading/writing in the 21st century?

LAU: Reading is strong. Don’t believe the hype. Publishing is confused — it’s true. But the spirit of writing will never be extinguished.

SMN: What advice would you give someone interested in starting to write?

LAU: Read, read, read, read, read. Then, write, write, write, write, write. In that order. You can’t burn if you don’t load the furnace.


Anna Browning, 26 

Children’s Fiction

Waynesville, N.C.

Notable work: “Tanner Turbeyfill and the Moon Rocks”

Smoky Mountain News: How old were you when the spark for writing hit?

Anna Browning: I started writing when I was working in a preschool classroom as a teacher assistant in 2010. I was 23 years old and fell in love with the books I was reading to children. I wanted to write my own stories that would put a smile on a child’s face and also teach them new concepts and lessons.

SMN: What was the best advice you received about writing?

AB: Don’t be burdened if you receive a lot of rejection letters from agents and publishers. Keep trying. As long as you are passionate about writing, the long process of publishing is worth it in the end.

SMN: What’s your process like?

AB: Writing for me starts out mentally. All of my ideas are floating around in my head. When I can imagine the whole plot and see the ending, then I sit down and write it out. After that, I take a few days away from the story, and then revisit it to start the editing process.

SMN: What advice would you give someone interested in starting to write?

AB: Find an idea or subject you enjoy learning about, and write about it. That’s how I came up with the idea for my book.


Jill McCorkle, 55

Short Story/Novels

Lumberton, N.C.

John Dos Passos Prize, North Carolina Award for Literature, New England Book Award

Notable works: “Ferris Beach,” “July 7th,” “Tending to Virginia,” “The Cheer Leader”

Smoky Mountain News: How did you get into writing?

Jill McCorkle: I’ve written since childhood for self-amusement, but began writing seriously as a college student when I studied with Max Steele, Lee Smith and Louis Rubin.  

SMN: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

JM: My best advice about writing was all about clearing the room of ghosts and critics and writing that first draft being true to your instincts about the work at hand. I love the revision process and think that’s the real art, the honing and crafting. Read all you can and study those writers you admire and then write all that you possibly can.


Donna Glee Williams, 59

Poetry/Short Story/Nonfiction

Balsam, N.C.

Notable works: “The Braided Path”

Smoky Mountain News: How did you get into writing? 

Donna Glee Williams: Even though I wrote my first poem in second grade, I’d have to say that my real start as a writer happened in junior high school. There was a group of us misfit types that were so bored with our classes that we used the time to write elaborate notes to each other, assuming alternate, fantasy personalities. We got in trouble regularly for passing notes in class, but nothing stopped us. Plots developed in the notes, adventures, even fantasy landscapes that we’d draw out in elaborate maps. Fantasy caught fire for me then. 

SMN: What was the best advice you received about writing?

DGW: The most brain-exploding advice I received was when someone put Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” in my hands. Her rules — write without worrying about spelling, punctuation or grammar; feel free to write the worst junk in America; go for the jugular. It transformed the way I write and the way I teach writing.

SMN: What’s your writing process like?

DGW: For me, it’s 25 minutes. Nothing scary about 25 minutes, right?  Anyone can do 25 minutes. My wristwatch alarm is always set and ready, and when I get down to business, I just start it running. My commitment then is to write until it rings. Then, after I’ve scratched out that sloppy fragment by hand, I pick up my laptop and transfer it into a computer document, with a little shaping and polishing. I do that cycle as many times as I can fit in a day and then usually call a friend at the end of the day to read them what I’ve written. Hearing the words aloud, and hearing someone else’s breath as they respond to the words, helps me smooth things out with a second pass of editing. Then, after the beast is finished, there are lots of read-and-revise cycles as I lean on my writer friends to give me feedback as I polish the final product.

SMN: Why is it important events like the WCU Spring Literary Festival exist?

DGW: One of the rules of human behavior is that you get more of what you pay attention to. If we want more great writing, we have to pay attention to it. We have to celebrate it. These events give a place for writers from many different backgrounds and styles to mix it up. But maybe most important, to me at least, is the way the festival brings readers and writers into direct personal connection. Both reading and writing are essentially solitary, even lonely, pursuits. Putting readers and writers together face to face is like closing a circuit. The spark jumps from writers to readers, from readers to writers, and the electricity flows.

SMN: What advice would you give someone interested in starting to write?

DGW: Start writing. Now. Not later. Don’t postpone joy.

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