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Squire Success: Stephen Closson Reflects on His Squire Summer Writing Workshop Experience

In the Fall 2024 Issue of Highway 64, NCWN member Stephen Closson reflected on his experience at the 2023 Squire Summer Writing Workshops. With registration currently open for the 2024 Squire Summer Writing Workshops, Thursday—Sunday, July 25—28, on the campus of East Carolina University in Greenville, we wanted to share his reflection once again for those looking for an insider’s perspective on this four day program.

As I stood at the reception desk in Dogwood Hall, my stomach was in knots. All month I’d been terrified, in the most wonderful way, of attending my first writing workshop. When I took hold of that little envelope and felt the weight of the key inside pressing against my palm, I knew I’d be unlocking more here than just the door to my dorm.  

A Thursday evening Prompt Party kicked off the Squire Summer Writing Workshops. We poured up the stairs of the Divinity building with open minds and gleaming brows, thrilled to be free from the simmering heat that enveloped the manicured grounds of Wake Forest University.  

After a brief introduction NCWN Executive Director Ed Southern began regaling us with a recitation of William Butler Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” Before Aengus could turn to face the mysterious presence calling his name, a surprise prompt emerged! Four groups set to the task, writers of all styles and genres pooling their imaginations to decide the fate of the wandering Irishman. Beauty and absurdity locked arms and danced together on our pages and, just like that, I’d taken part in my first collaborative poem. 

The walk back to Dogwood Hall was a pleasant one. Night brought with it an invigorating breeze, allowing me to linger outside and enjoy the serene surroundings. In front of the residence hall, lively music students erupted into song as they soared on a pair of ebony swings lining the lawn’s edge. A chorus of crickets accompanied the students in their revelry, drowning out the remaining silence with their piercing harmonies.  

Back inside, the lobby had grown calm. Ed and Celeste McMaster, the latest addition to the NCWN’s staff, sat in a pair of chairs off to the side of the main entrance. I went over to inquire about the Open Mic and was invited to pull up a chair and join them. It was a touching gesture, one that allowed me to start crawling out of my shell. Other attendees soon followed suit, and we found ourselves immersed in an engaging exchange of interests and ideas. By the conversation’s end, I’d stepped out of that loathsome shell completely, locking it away in my car for the remainder of the weekend. I wouldn’t need it. I belonged.  

If there are any writers out there seeking a safe space to learn and grow, these are the workshops for you. Squire was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. 

The writing workshops were an absolute delight. Sheryl Monks, who led the fiction workshop, was as friendly as she was knowledgeable. We swiveled around in our fancy green chairs, watching intently as she covered board after board with all sorts of different ways to breathe life into our stories. I dove headlong into every prompt, eagerly applying what I’d learned from Sheryl’s insights.  

An air of positivity had filled the room by the time we began sharing our submissions. Each of us brought a unique perspective to the discussion as we exchanged praises and recommendations. Receiving so much actionable advice from such a talented bunch was splendid. 

The field trip to Bookmarks was just as illuminating an experience. Jamie Rogers Southern, the bookstore’s Executive Director, gave us a comprehensive look at the business side of being an author, including the best practices on how to approach and build relationships with booksellers. After the presentation, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning as I bounced between bookshelves, combing through their wide array of selections. 

Interspersed between workshops were a series of captivating readings by the three workshop instructors. Cassandra Kircher, who headed the creative nonfiction contingent, shared a passage on a class trip to Alaska laden with tension and regret. Sheryl read the following day, her short stories so vivid and visceral it transported me deep into the heart of a harrowing mineshaft mid-collapse. The last to read was Joseph Mills, who led the poetry workshop. No poem had ever moved me to tears before that Saturday evening, but the hilarity and emotional depth of his works thoroughly quashed that streak with ease.  

To call my time at Squire Workshops 2023 fantastic would be an understatement. The amount of care and effort that went into all aspects of the event was truly remarkable. I’m incredibly grateful to the Network for allowing me to attend. If there are any writers out there seeking a safe space to learn and grow, these are the workshops for you. Squire was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. 

Stephen Closson