On the second weekend in June, a pack of strange and wonderful people descends upon the Cedar Lakes Conference Center in the green hills of Ripley, West Virginia. They’re artsy folk, young and old, with a common bond: the written word. These are the West Virginia Writers, and they’ve been coming together for forty years to celebrate a love of both literature and the West Virginian way of life. It’s the largest writers’ resource in the state, consisting entirely of volunteers, and every summer they gather to teach and learn and read and share.

By day, writers attend workshops and panels. This year, we learned about writing children’s books with West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman. We got a social media marketing lesson from M. Lynne Squires. And we got examples of The Power of Place in Appalachia with keynote speaker Donna Meredith. Conversations happened in the classroom and by the bonfire. Books were sold; books were purchased.

Each year the organization holds its annual writing contest in the spring. In addition to traditional categories like poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, writers may enter pieces in categories such as Appalachian Writing, Inspirational Writing, or the Pearl S. Buck Award for Writing for Social Change category. This year, the contest also included a category called The Flood, which invited prose and poetry inspired by the historic flooding in 2016. Kids compete in a separate category. $5,850 was awarded in cash prizes to the winners at the annual banquet.

I learned plenty in the workshops, but more importantly, I connected with the other writers in a way I did not do any other conference I’ve attended. What makes the West Virginia Writers’ Conference special is West Virginia itself. This spring, I attended AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. AWP is a monster machine, with hundreds of panels, hundreds of publishers, and thousands of people. The crowds made it difficult to forge any new networking connections, and it’s tough to remember faces in such a literary cacophony. More importantly, no common ground holds the attendees together. Simply being a writer isn’t enough to bond 10,000 people.

The West Virginia Writers Conference is like camp. These are folks with whom you can sit down at any meal in the dining hall—quite literally plop down with strangers—and become friends and feel supported. You’ll encounter no jerks, no egos, and no literary snobs. And though the state’s geography might divide other groups, you’ll find that the Huntington writers share a drink with the Wheeling writers. The Charleston poets listen to live bluegrass with the Charles Town poets. We are bonded by our West Virginian-ness.

In our state, that’s not a bond to underestimate. Our love of our home, despite all the negativity it endures from both the inside and the outside, emerges in conversation. It spills out in workshop when the leader asks who has returned to West Virginia from another state and twenty hands shoot up. We are not only proud to be from West Virginia; we are all in love with West Virginia. We’ve all come home. And no matter how many times we land in the 50th spot on an unenviable list, we resist that label. We’re more than an opioid addiction. We’re more than an incest joke or a color on a political map. This place is our bloodline. And that blood runs through the veins of this conference, too. Our state is our spectacular main character; it creates our narrative tension and our blessed resolution.

At every writers’ conference, I come away with something of value: a new technique, a business card, a signed book. When I leave Cedar Lakes, I do so with a renewed sense of community, of deep and enduring pride to be a West Virginian. From the hollers and panhandles of our state the writers come forth for this annual pilgrimage, and though it’s writing that brings us together, it’s our love of our way of life that we truly share.

This year at the banquet we took an oath. We swore to support one another in literature and friendship, to remember the great authors who wrote before us:

And we remain a pack, as the pledge suggests. For forty years the West Virginia Writers have kept the torch burning in support of one another, of the story tradition. It’s one I’m so proud to be a part of.

For more information, visit www.wvwriters.org. For a list of 2017 contest winners, click here.