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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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.