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
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.