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Writing workshop shows the creative side of an oil boom

Dan Boyce

(Note: This is the fourth of a six-part series on "Bakken Spinoffs" airing Thursdays through January 9th on "Montana Evening Edition.")

Williston, North Dakota, the undisputed capital of the Bakken Oil Boom, offers a haven for a new working class. Tens of thousands of newcomers have poured into the area in the past decade, seeking to fill an abundance of high-paying, low-skill labor jobs. The influx has brought rapid economic development to Williston; it hasn’t brought much in the name of high culture.

The North Dakota Humanities Council has been trying to change that, through a three-week series of creative writing workshops held last month in some of the communities most impacted by oil development.

A small group gathered one Friday night at Books on Broadway, a little slice of Bohemia tucked into Williston’s downtown. Over freshly-brewed coffee, attendees shared short stories and poems they had written in the week since the first class of their workshop.

“It seems to me that most people here just drink and work and sleep,” said Williston bartender Ashley Price. “So, it’s refreshing to find a group of people who want to do more than that.”

Price and the other writers took turns reciting their own work and providing feedback on others’. Oil workers swapped ideas with long-time Williston residents. A recount of the adventures of a lady-bug named Lydia was shortly followed by a lyric essay describing a man losing his thumbs in an accident on the rigs.

“I started breathing again, thinking ‘oh cool, other people that want to experiment (with) writing,’” said Michael Odgen, a former University of Montana Journalism grad who now works on the gas flaring systems found on oil rigs.

The humanities council hired two North Dakota natives to facilitate the workshops, Iowa State University English Professor Deb Marquart and Taylor Brorby, writer in residence at Holden Village, a Lutheran ministry in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington.

Brorby said Western North Dakota suffers from a lack of major educational institutions, which can limit the local exposure to opportunities like this workshop. Still, he said he and Marquart heard some beautiful writing, which challenged some of his deeply-held stereotypes of the region.

“You find that people are willing to share deep sides of their life and what that day-to-day looks like,” he said. “I don’t think we’re hearing those stories.”

The North Dakota Humanities Council plans to release a selection of writings from the workshops in a publication due out early next year. Another series is planned for next year.

Those who met in Books on Broadway exchanged contact information, hoping to keep a local writing group going. 

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