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.

At dinner, the topic is Allen Tate. Wyatt Prunty tells of the two children Tate sired while in his 70s to a younger wife, a former nun who had left the convent for him. Prunty, a tall glad-faced southerner and a poet himself, finishes the Tate anecdote by saying this goes to show "the power of the poetic imagination." After dinner, over drinks, the poet and literary critic John Hollander raves about the "sympathy" evident in Hemingway's "Homage to Switzerland," which he then links backwards and forwards through several Spanish writers before digressing awhile on the postwar Italian cinema. Later on, Hollander and another poet, Rosanna Warren, who is much raved about here and also happens to be the daughter of Robert Penn Warren, guide me home as they are on their way out anyway, and Hollander and I talk about a common acquaintance, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb.

This is one pleasure the student writer gets out of the conference, being allowed to feel and chat like a writer, a precious thing given how hard it is to be recognized as one or make a living as one. Of course, there's no explaining America's completely unjust determination not to offer a living to anyone and everyone who thinks he has a story to tell.

At breakfast, I chat with Lisa Blackwell from Tallahassee. Thirty-four years old and married, she is by education a linguist. She has published little but written a lot, one story versus seven novels, though one of the novels is "with an agent." Before getting married, she was able to squeeze more writing into the day, often going at it from 8 p.m. till 2 in the morning at a table in the local Waffle House, where "you don't invite a lot of eye contact." Since getting married--she and her husband eloped, she tells me, by going to a notary public at lunchtime because, well, they were in love and, hmm, it's complicated--she is spending more time cooking. Writing has been relegated to spare moments like the time available during her lunch break.

"I walk up to the bagel shop, work for half an hour, and walk back to work." She knows she needs to be writing more. "I've been rehearsing the conversation I'm going to have with my husband when I get home."

Newbie writers face one-in-four odds of being accepted by the conference, and pay $1,100 for the privilege, while the more accomplished pay only a few hundred dollars or nothing. All participants are assigned to a workshop headed by two writers, one a senior faculty member with possibly a major award under his belt, the other a junior faculty member, more of an up-and-comer. Building relationships between the National Book Award types and their younger successors, one visiting editor tells me, is actually "the most valuable thing here."

What about the young hopefuls? I ask. "I can't tell you what they really get out of it."

For a hint, I visit some workshops. The first one is run by John Casey, who won the National Book Award for Spartina, and Randall Kenan, the author of two well-regarded novels. The students address the teachers as they discuss the 20-page student manuscripts they've read for today's class. One or two student criticisms verge on brutal, but most are tentative, starting, "Maybe the problem is" or, "I don't feel like. . . . " Says one student about the first manuscript: "I feel like this story is too much about what it is about." Minutes later, another student says the same manuscript is too mysterious.

Especially vacuous comments are left to wither on the vine, while the more probing become fodder for discussion, led by the teachers who also stand in like attorneys for the accused. The student writer doesn't clarify or defend his text. Although one hears about instructors doling out tough love, everyone seems on good behavior (at least in my presence). Letting sharp student criticism pass uncontested is about as close as any instructor comes to being cruel. Since the manuscripts being "workshopped," to borrow the unwriterly term in use, are by definition still in progress, the teachers may do no more than air thoughts of a categorical nature about what kind of story this one is, or could be, and make reading suggestions for stories and novels that deal with some of the relevant obstacles.

Reading suggestions seem like a good idea. In conversation with me, several participants confess to fairly paltry reading habits. Several tell me they have not read any books by their teachers.

Success, however, they respect. While students vary on the usefulness of workshops, they are almost unanimous on the major reason they are here: for their one-hour, one-on-one session with a "name" writer like Richard Bausch or Alice McDermott.

Tom Bligh, a doctoral candidate from Florida State whose amusing manuscript concerned the family madness brought on by a megalomaniacal toymaker-father, earnestly gave his teacher, John Casey, very high marks after their session. Casey knew the manuscript, had much to say, and ended up talking with him far longer than he was contractually obliged to.

When I ask a trio of twentysomething MFAs why they've come, especially after spending the last two years in workshops just like these, one mentions the "4 Cs," which I'm told are characters, contacts, cocktails, and consortion. When I ask what consortion is a euphemism for, the question answers itself in a round of boozey giggles. Fittingly, this conversation also features cocktails, as it takes place during a round of beer pong, a campus sport in which two-player teams, facing each other across a ping-pong table, attempt to land ping-pong balls in open cups of beer.

As for characters, the first example would be Annie McFadyen, the blonde MFA from Florida State who tells me about the 4 Cs. Tall, gorgeous, and not the least ashamed of it, she's the most talked-about person at the conference. In one anecdote I hear, McFadyen, who's from Reston, is wearing a well-fitting "Virginia is for Lovers" T-shirt. A guy at the conference takes note. She gives him a big wink and says, "I'm from Virginia."

Annie's little posse is about the closest thing to a cool crowd at the conference. She and the two guys she runs with are called "the kids," "the Breakfast Club," and much else. When I mention that I'm writing about the conference, Annie throws herself forward and with a mischievous smile perfectly calibrated to defeat male reticence, says, "Can I be in your story?"

More than a little fun and games takes place. Before admiring the champions of beer pong, I had my wallet lightened a few dollars in a game of poker--a Sewanee tradition started by the late Donald Justice, poet, Pulitzer Prize winner, and Sewanee faculty member. On the nights that Justice was so inclined, word would go around the dining room that "Donald wants to play." Given to groaning over inattentive players who'd not realize it was their turn, the esteemed poet was nicknamed "Speedy Justice."

If there was much consortion going on, however, I didn't notice. The older and marginally more well-known Bread Loaf Writers' conference in Vermont was long notorious for its hyperactive consorting, which Rebecca Mead described in a 2001 New Yorker profile as one of three compulsions conferees felt but satisfied with only various rates of success: "getting published, getting drunk, and getting laid." A much smaller conference, Sewanee also draws an older crowd (very few attendees are under 30) and, reportedly, faculty lotharios are not invited back.

Getting drunk is another matter. When we talk about the nightly cocktail hours at the French House, which operates as a kind of officers' club for the more upward-bound writers, one regular quotes to me a line from The Sound and the Fury. "At Harvard they teach you how to go for a swim at night without knowing how to swim and at Sewanee they don't even teach you what water is." Indeed, it is a very late hour when you can't get a drink.

The second workshop I attend seems more, well, feminine, perhaps because the manuscripts were written by women and could only have been written by women. But the whole atmosphere is, to continue with the girly cliches, warmer and more nourishing. The teachers--Mark Winegardner, author of The Godfather Returns, and Alice McDermott, best known for the Irish-American classic Charming Billy--offer more prescriptive advice, much of it sound. But given the way students pea-shoot each other's work in the low-stakes game of peer criticism, you wonder how much of the advice is observed except to take aim at workshop manuscripts.

It's the nature of the workshop beast to treat manuscripts far more roughly than a reader would while leafing through the pages at Borders. But the teachers are clearly aware of this, if unable to do much about it. In an essay that appears in the useful Sewanee Writers on Writing, McDermott herself lovingly examines a rule-breaking, advice-ignoring story that would, if subjected, be torn apart by workshop nitpicking. The author? Vladimir Nabokov.

Eric Sumner tells me he always wanted to be a writer, but only started in earnest three years ago at age 46. If a little late to the game, he makes up for it by having what seems like a solid idea: to write about living and working in corporate America. While family and religion have become less prominent in American culture over the last few decades, jobs have increasingly become the center of many people's lives.

This theme, as Laurie Miller noted in the New York Times last year, cries out for exploration. It also has the competitive advantage of not being an idea that would occur to many other writers because so few have any experience in corporate America.

Sumner does. Before this he had an impressive career in telecommunications. Formerly a CEO at Dynamicsoft, which was bought by Cisco last year, he was also a chief technology officer at the ill-fated Lucent. We debate the question of whether any great novels came out of the tech boom (my own candidate: Po Bronson's The First Twenty Million Is Always the Hardest) and talk about his novel, a drama pitting a man versus a woman for the top job at a technology corporation.

In comparing life in telecom and his career so far as a writer, Sumner says he hopes the latter will be as successful as the former. "Phone calls are almost free now," because of companies like the ones he worked for, he notes. Though it's not clear what a parallel achievement would be in literary fiction, Sumner wants Sewanee to help him get there.

Later that evening I meet Tim Woodward, a sharply dressed gastroenterologist from Jacksonville. In 1986 he was a resident at the University of Virginia, where he fell in with John Casey, whose writing seminars he'd visit when he wasn't on call. Educated by Jesuits in San Francisco, Woodward, who is married with three children, seems determined not to do anyone's bidding but his own. Though African American, he's far more likely to reference older French or German novelists than, say, Toni Morrison. A New Criterion reader, he's a fan of Theodore Dalrymple, another physician-writer, and seems more absorbed by ideas in general than by the self-consuming idea of how to become a famous writer. He's published a number of short stories--his byline is Solon Timothy Woodward--one of which received honorable mention from the Pushcart prize, but he's come to Sewanee for guidance on how to take the next step.

For guys like Sumner and Woodward, who have been pretty much alone, blowing on the flame of their writing without much assistance, Sewanee offers community, a sense of identity, and friendship. While many of the students might be better off locked in a motel room with their manuscripts for two weeks, writers like these seem well-served by the experience. Any number of accomplished authors are going to be attracted to a place like Sewanee, where they're treated like royalty by adoring and envious students; but the greater feat is drawing talent in need of nourishment that can't be self-supplied.

In a recent essay in Harper's (from the issue in which editor Lewis Lapham flies into an indecipherable rage over George W. Bush. Oh, right, that's every issue), Lynn Freed, a professor of creative writing, goes in for an episode of serious professional self-loathing. Her piece calls creative writing students overambitious ignoramuses, the job of teaching them unbearable and pointless, and the whole collegiate enterprise of creative writing instruction a sham.

She would certainly know better than I, a mere passerby, except that I find this writers' conference to be quite innocent by comparison, a gentle community of professionals, several of whom are doing good work, finding a way to spend more time together and, possibly, help out some younger writers. It's not a bad or a shallow enterprise; it just may not be sufficient to reverse America's downward slide in the reading and writing of imaginative literature.

Still, conferring with fellow writers can be fun. After a long talk with Woodward, trading book recommendations and reader's notes, I am a little tipsy and, since I've been at this for hours, famished. A tall poet from New Orleans offers to drive us back to our rooms. Then, just before the first drop-off, he makes an inspired suggestion: "Who's up for Waffle House?"

I can't think of a better reason to go to a writers' conference. Some yearnings can be satisfied only by longwinded talk and greasy food.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.