The Magazine

Learning to Write

The Republic of Letters has a home at the Sewanee Writers' Conference.

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Sewanee, Tennessee

EVERYONE at the Sewanee Writers' Conference was nice. I arrived late. No problem. Did I get something to eat? Well, grab a plate and sit down over here with us. Can I give you a lift to the reading, a tour of campus, access to workshops along with manuscripts so you can follow the discussion?

Of course, I'm a journalist who could end up saying mean things in print. But everyone at Sewanee was treated well. Southern manners? Perhaps, but most people there were not from the South--the morning paper at the conference is the New York Times--and the vast majority were, of course, writers.

Now, the writers I know, journalists mostly, are some of the biggest snobs on earth. They'll pretend to have not met you before and do it again a few days later. They'll feign ignorance of your writing when you reviewed their book last week. They'll deliver just-formed opinions with an air of finality that would make the pope blush.

That's not the kind of writer you meet at Sewanee.

Founded in 1989 by Wyatt Prunty, director of the program, the Sewanee Writers' Conference claims to be the second-most-competitive writers' conference in America. Funded in part by the Tennessee Williams estate, it offers workshops in literary fiction, poetry, and playwriting. The conference takes place about 90 minutes southeast of Nashville on the genteel hilltop campus of the University of the South. Even the climate is nice, drier and airier than you expect.

The faculty roll includes many notables: Diane Johnson is a regular, so are Ernest J. Gaines, Francine Prose, and Barry Hannah. Visiting commentators include many respected agents and editors. This year brought editor Gary Fisketjon of Knopf, Julia Glass, author of Three Junes, and her agent Gail Hochman. The industry representatives speak with surprising frankness about their jobs and the writing they bring to market. Their information is certainly more to the point than one finds in how-to-become-a-writer books.

Sewanee has a reputation for being a tad traditionalist. So I was not surprised to hear more than a little griping about what has become of literary theory and criticism.

"Theory in the academy today," says director Prunty, "doesn't help the intelligent, interested reader approach point-of-view work." David Lynn, editor of the Kenyon Review and a visiting panelist to the conference, tells me he's thinking about starting a readers' conference to address the public side of the problem. When an editors' panel opens the discussion to questions, a man in the back notes that the audience for imaginative literature has been in steady decline for decades and asks what the panelists are doing about it. (Not much, apparently.)

Yet another reminder that Sewanee is not where the avant garde summers is the curious issue of the politics of verse. I find myself having a few conversations over whether more fashionable poetry circles still dismiss rhyme and meter as being right-wing. (Less-than-universal consensus: No, that stopped being true a few years ago.) But there is nothing rightward about the conferee who barks at me over breakfast about how he'd like to see some editors from The Weekly Standard getting shot in Iraq (but that could have happened anywhere) or the Harper's editor who says on a panel that his magazine has become more political in recent years. Then knowingly: "I hope the reasons for that are obvious."

But otherwise the conference is apolitical and, above all, congenial. People there were constantly getting together, dressed in conference T-shirts printed with fondly remembered pronouncements of a you-had-to-be-there quality. The typical day starts with communal breakfast, then readings, then panels, communal lunch, afternoon workshops, lectures, communal dinner, then more lectures. After all this, everyone gets together for drinks.

Conferring may not be essential to good writing, but it is the form modern literary society takes. One might wish for something more stylish than a plenary session on the changing role of agents in publishing today--something more like the Algonquin Roundtable, say--but writers' conferences are easier to find.