Saturday, August 13, 2011
Sewanee Writers’ Conference – July 26 to August 7, 2011
A week ago I returned from the Sewanee Writers' Conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. I would have posted this blog earlier, but my laptop crashed while I was at the conference and I couldn't get the hard drive replaced until this week.
I had to overcome many challenges to attend this prestigious conference.
My first obstacle was the admissions process. Sewanee only admits about one in four applicants and the first two times I tried I wasn't one of the chosen. But I eventually wore them down and this spring my application was accepted.
It's approximately 563 miles to the campus from my home. I started out at 5 am for the ten hour drive. At mile 16 the engine light went on in my trouble-free Chrysler 300 (the same car that overheated on my last expedition.) At mile 32, after slowing for traffic on the Skyway, the transmission refused to shift out of first gear. I got off the expressway, looked around for a garage that might be opened at 5:30 in the morning and, finding none, decided to drive home and rent a car. But when I got back on I-90 the transmission worked normally so I turned back around before the skyway bridge and headed south again.
I made it the rest of the way without incident. I dropped my car off at the only garage in Sewanee and Harold promised he'd have it ready by the time I needed to leave.
The conference is organized into workshop groups: four fiction workshops, two poetry and one playwriting group. There are about twelve participants in each workshop and each is led by two instructors. My fiction workshop was led by novelist John Casey, author of "Scarpina," which won the National Book Award in 1989, and novelist and short story writer,Christine Schutt. Her novel Florida was a National Book Award Finalist and her second novel, All Souls was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. As workshop leaders they made a great team.
The workshops meet every other afternoon for about three hours. At each session three of the participants' work is discussed. It was an eye-opening experience to listen (mixed metaphor AND a cliche) to the other participants as they critiqued my work and others. Most of the folks were graduates (or attending) MFA programs and they had well-developed critical tools. I workshopped the opening of my novel and their comments have given me much to think about. My contribution to the workshop was mostly to offer an historical perspective.
The non-workshop portion of the conference was packed with faculty reading and craft lectures. There was something going on from about 9 am to 8 pm. Meals were provided and at dinner sometimes they served wine. Wine nights were very popular. They also had several open mics, which gave everyone an opportunity to read their own work.
I had time to keep more or less to my triathlon workout schedule as breakfast didn't start until 8 am. The first time out on my bike I had a flat tire (it was a week for break downs) and swim workouts were a little inconvenient because the pool hours were from noon to 3 pm. But I adapted. I had a great incentive to get up early to get my run workouts in, because, despite being on the top of a mountain, it was hot and humid. On my most days it was over 90 by 10 am. And it wasn't a dry heat, either.
The conference was definitely long enough (at least for someone who isn't use to attending classes) and by Saturday I was ready to get home. I had picked up my car from Harold on Friday and everything seemed to be fine (only cost me $587). Saturday morning I packed up and headed home – skipping the wrap up dance, which I am sure disappointed many. Five miles down the road, the engine light went on and by the time I got to Nashville the transmission problem had returned. I made it home by driving 70 mph and not stopping except for gas. It worked fine until I hit traffic in Calumet City. After that I got off the expressway and took surface streets for the last twenty miles. I took it to the dealership and they replaced a few more parts, which cost me an additional $1,800.
I've been home for a week and so far nothing else has broken. I was impressed with the conference. It is well organized and both the instructors and participants are engaged and enthusiastic and most are extremely talented writers. It was a great experience for me. Daunting, but very much worth the effort - even with all those extra difficulties.