The phrase “write what you know” is inspiration for many writers—including Centre College student and Appalachian native Courtney Lucas. The English major and creative writing minor spent her senior year composing a series of stories about the region, titled “Redbud Winter,” as part of her yearlong project as a John C. Young (JCY) Scholar.
Centre’s JCY program, now in its 27th year, is designed to serve highly motivated senior students with yearlong independent study and research in the area of their choosing.
Born and raised in Pikeville, Kentucky, Lucas chose to write a series of eight stories about life in Appalachia using literary analysis and applying techniques from other authors into her writing.
Lucas described how this topic is something that is close and personal to her, as she is very proud of her culture and heritage.
“What kind of sparked the project is when I came to school here and left Appalachia for a long period of time. I started becoming more aware of the negative stereotypes and the media portrayals of the region,” she said.
According to Lucas, she began thinking about ideas for this project during her first year at Centre. It all began with dialect study she researched on Shakespeare. In her other English and creative writing classes, she started writing numerous stories that were set, in her mind, in Appalachia, but not on paper.
The more she discussed the project and her ideas with her advisor and faculty mentor Azita Osanloo, assistant professor of creative writing, she realized she wanted to write about what she knew best, which was Appalachia.
“Working with Courtney on her John C. Young project reminds me of something the poet Richard Hugo once said: ‘Writing is hard and writers need help—but, if we creative writing teachers are doing our job, then we’re learning as much from the students as they might be from us,’” Osanloo said.
From her first year until now, Lucas has done an overwhelming amount of research. Over the summer, she read several regional literature pieces and non-regional literature pieces as part of her research. She would take different techniques like figurative language and the theme of liminality and apply them to her own writing.
While researching other writing techniques and gaining ideas from a variety of regional literature, she also researched her hometown and region in Eastern Kentucky.
During that process, she learned a great deal about the Appalachian area and its people.
Working on an extensive project like this can bring its own obstacles, and one Lucas found herself facing was overcoming the biases of the region.
“Opening the dialogue about Appalachia has been a challenge, because a lot of people have not been willing to hear it or listen to it,” she said. “They seem to be set in their views that there’s no hope for Appalachia and everyone is backwards and not willing to help themselves.”
She described how it was difficult fighting against those beliefs and helping people realize the truth and accomplishments of the Appalachian people through her stories.
“I feel better in that I am kind of helping my region, even in this small way,” she said. “If one person reads my stories and learns something about Appalachia and it changes some of the stereotypes, that would be incredible, and if multiple people have that take away, it would be even better.”
Lucas said the entire project helped her strengthen her writing abilities, allowing her to grow as a more proficient writer than when she arrived at Centre.
“This project has really pushed my creative ability and my critical thinking, as well, because I’ve had to try to understand these issues and the people on a level that most people really don’t try to access,” she said.
“I wrote eight short stories and a pretty lengthy introduction, and that’s something I didn’t think I was capable of. I’m really proud of all my stories.”
Following graduation, Lucas plans to gain work experience in her field of interest before pursuing an MFA in creative writing.
by Kerry Steinhofer
May 10, 2017