Following a reading engagement in eastern North Carolina in the late ‘80s, Kurt Vonnegut made a special stop through Asheville.
“What a great town,” he said looking up from a bench in front of the historic Flatiron Building. “I would have been depressed if I’d just gone home [to New York] from Charlotte — what a bleak city, no atmosphere. You guys were smart to keep your historic buildings intact.”
But Vonnegut’s trip was not intended as a sightseeing excursion. Instead he had come at the request of Karen Ackerson, co-founder and director of a fledgling workshop established with the purpose of bringing to life the creative endeavors of local writers aspiring to hone their craft.
With the help of a friend, Ackerson decided to start The Writers’ Workshop in 1985 — a time when the writing scene appeared empty despite available funds to support the arts.
“There was nothing going on for writers,” she said, though this was about to change.
Over the course of the next few years, Ackerson held regular workshops, inviting writers from across the country to come and visit. In addition to Vonnegut, the Writers’ Workshop boasts big-name visitors like Peter Matthiessen, E.L. Doctorow and Don DeLillo, who delivered readings and answered questions posed by their audience.
Eventually, renowned writers such as Reynolds Price, Eudora Welty, John Ehle, Sue Monk Kidd and Alex Haley — author of Roots — gave benefit readings for The Workshop, drawing troves of people eager for a chance to interact with their literary heroes.
Many of these esteemed writers formed the Workshop’s Advisory Board, donating their time and talent while doing their part in earning Asheville its reputation as a haven for those endowed with a natural affection for the pen and paper.
“People say ‘Oh, Asheville has a lot of writers now,’ and I say ‘Yeah, and some of them are good,’” Ackerson quipped. Her sprightly sense of humor serves as a lighthearted compliment to her determination as a loyal supporter of Asheville’s literary scene — an aspect of the city’s culture she holds dear.
As The Writer’s Workshop approaches its 35th anniversary, Ackerson and those who helped build it continually strive to help members of the community attain what she believes to be “the highest quality of literary writing.”
“I think we have a duty as writers to uplift society — to show a good, high standard,” she said. “We’re just trying to include everyone and be there for anyone no matter their writing background or how little money they have … to give them some guidance and hope.”
Despite running on minimal funds, Ackerson prides her workshop on fulfilling these obligations. Forced out of the Flatiron Building as a result of a rent hike that quadrupled her monthly payments in the mid ‘90s, followed by a lack of grant funds once allocated to the arts, she purchased what she describes as “a farmhouse without the farm” in the nearby town of Kenilworth in an effort to preserve her cherished enterprise.
It’s here Ackerson offers a work exchange program for those who might otherwise be unable to afford the price of an intensive class. Writers interested in attending the workshop may instead opt to volunteer their time in lieu of payment.
“They love volunteering here … It’s spacious and the house is over 100 years old,” she said. “People feel comfortable here. It’s just very homey. There’s a kitchen right there and no parking problems.”
Having served over 25,000 individuals to date, many of which have gone on to become published authors, it comes as no surprise aspiring writers are doing whatever it takes to get their foot in the door.
But The Writers’ Workshop is not limited to courses and readings alone. Ackerson also holds retreats and annual contests and, for those who place in the top three, prizes are available.
In the past, cash prizes were handed out to the winners and, eventually, they were instead awarded a trip to NY to meet some of the well-known writers affiliated with the Workshop such as Vonnegut and Matthiessen. Albeit a unique incentive to put forth one’s best work, any and all contestants will receive a personalized critique of his or her submission.
“I’ve saved tons of letters from people who did not win a contest but they were so thrilled that they received a critique so they knew how to better their writing, and also that somebody actually read their submission,” Ackerson said.
Ackerson also encourages those serious about publishing their works to submit their pieces to the Renbourne Editorial Agency, which consists of a team of diligent and experienced editors.
As a testament, Mr. Vonnegut once exclaimed, “The Renbourne Agency has some of the best editors I know of.”
In the future, Ackerson plans to continue to help writers by means of the Renbourne Agency. She also hopes to bring back children’s classes in addition to offering workshops free of charge.
However, significantly more funding is in order before these ideas come to fruition. In the meantime, those who wish to become members of The Writers’ Workshop can do so for a $35 fee. Benefits include, but are not limited to, discounts on classes and contests as well as invitations to attend member gatherings and a monthly writers’ group potluck.
“We are informal, supportive and helpful,” Ackerson said regarding The Writers’ Workshop. “People leave smiling and they keep coming back.”
For more information visit https://www.twwoa.org.