Alex Gast of Weaverville, North Carolina, said he has been writing ever since he could hold a pen.
Gast is one of two winners of the 2022 Thomas Wolfe Scholarship, a four-year, full-ride merit scholarship awarded by the department of English and comparative literature to first-year students interested in creative writing. This year’s additional winner is Serene Almehmi.
“I really seriously got very interested in writing a few years ago and decided that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Gast said.
He is pursuing an English major and a creative writing minor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Gast said writing is more than just a hobby or even a career goal: For him, it is the culmination of everything he does.
“I think putting words on the page is one step in an ongoing process of writing, so I sort of feel like I’m always writing,” Gast explained. “I imagine myself going out into the world and collecting experiences — if that makes sense — to write about later.”
With writing playing such a central role in Gast’s life, he said that his personal identity is irrevocably intertwined with his identity as a writer.
“To me, being a writer means you’re constantly looking outwards and inwards,” he said. “You’re trying to find fragments of truth within yourself and within the world and to make meaning of [that], which is, at times, a tedious pursuit, but it’s really rewarding, and it’s made me who I am today.”
One of the truths that Gast represents in his writing is his experiences as a queer person from a small southern town. While his queer identity is only one part of his identity as a writer, Gast finds that his work definitely appeals to a queer audience.
“It can be difficult to grow up queer in small southern towns,” he said, “and that is an audience that I think needs a voice. And I don’t know if I’m that voice — maybe it’s a collective voice — but I’m honored to be a part of it.”
As an understanding of the fluidity of gender and sexuality becomes more widely accepted, Gast said he anticipates that the queer experience will become more widely accessible to people, converting it from a minority experience to a universal truth. Gast believes that literature belongs to all audiences because it is filled with universal experiences and truths.
“When you’re reading something, even if it has nothing to do with your life experience, I think you can detect if it rings true to you or not, which, to me, implies that there’s some sort of universal human truth or experience that we’re all chipping away at when we write,” he said.
At UNC, Gast has enrolled in two poetry classes and anticipates expanding his literary skill set. With 10 years of theater experience under his belt, he also wants to take classes in playwriting to explore the intersection of theater and writing.
To any incoming students who are considering applying to the prestigious scholarship, Gast said that creating a 50-page manuscript of original writing for the application provides an invaluable opportunity for self-discovery.
“Fifty pages is a lot of pages. And anyone who can put that together should be proud, and you’ll learn something about yourself along the way,” Gast said. “I’m crossing my fingers for you [because] it’s awesome.”
—By Andy Little ’24
Enjoy one of Gast’s poems:
my grandad is older than the mountains and louder than the quakes that formed them.
he’ll sit with me for hours and weave stories until
he’s made a tapestry, or at the very least a sweater or two.
he’s told me the same tales more times than I can count, identical
but for a few details he’s forgotten and made up on the spot.
i’ve heard his account of jumping from the train trestle
on the last day of high school with his best friend, whose name has morphed from Jason
but i never mind much; a story is a story.
one night after his scotch he sat next to me on the torn leather couch and
told me about a man from his hometown named John
who’d drive around offering rides to teenagers
if they could read him a Bible verse from memory.
my grandad never could remember any, so one Sunday
he snuck into church and took a holy book and flipped through it to find the shortest line:
and, true to his word, John drove him home from school for the rest of the year.
when he finished the story, i asked him if he ever regretted the loophole,
and he sat still for a while, thinking, before he said
“you know, as far as i’m concerned, that’s the best damn line.
any old fool can die for sins, but it takes a real savior to
break down and cry.”
the next time he told me the story, i pretended i’d never heard it before
and drank every drop as if each was my first taste.
Read about Serene Almemhi, who is also a 2022 Thomas Wolfe Scholar.