I was happy when I found out last May that I’d been accepted to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, even though I wasn’t entirely sure why I wanted to go. The application asked what I expected to get out of the conference, and I think I said something vague about wanting to finish a novel I’ve been working on for years. It was a silly answer: I know perfectly well that the way you finish a novel is by sitting alone in a room and writing it, not by leaving home to hang out with a lot of other people who haven’t finished writing their own novels. I have to admit, too, that the reputation of the conference was a little intimidating. I was wary of getting in over my head, trying to keep up with writers who are more accomplished than I. But my former teacher, Richard Bausch, who often teaches at Sewanee, encouraged me to go, and hanging out with other writers did sound like fun. So at the end of July I packed a couple of suitcases, left my quartet of dogs with assorted caregivers, and headed to the Mountain.
For the first couple of days, the thing that impressed me most at Sewanee, aside from the idyllic setting, was the ceaseless stream of advice that came my way. I’m not sure why it hadn’t dawned on me before, but advice is the primary currency of a writers’ conference. After readers, good advice is the thing most aspiring writers are desperate to find, which is why there’s such a glut of books, magazines, and websites that promise to make you a better writer. Not that I’m equating the advice at Sewanee with, say, Writing Fiction for Dummies. The guidance at Sewanee is of a different order altogether, coming from people who practice the art of writing at the highest level and who assume you hope to do the same. A lecture by John Casey on the narrative principles in Aristotle’s Poetics should never be compared to a webinar on “How to Write Your Novel in 90 Days.” Likewise, putting my manuscript before a workshop group led by Randall Kenan and Margot Livesey was a long way from hurling it into the digital ether for an online peer critique. Still, advice is advice, no matter how brilliant and caring, and there’s only so much you can sort through and absorb in a short space of time. After a while it all began to blur together for me. It was a little like being trapped in a very long session with a literary social worker.
But even as the words of wisdom were dissolving into a benign drone, I was feeling more and more moved, for want of a better word, by the atmosphere of the conference. I don’t want to say inspired, because that suggests a bright emotion, a kind of exhilaration. This was something quieter. At first, I identified it as sadness—the kind of profound sadness that is sometimes called up when you see a beautiful face or hear an exquisite piece of music. As the days went by, I came to recognize what I felt as devotion, a beckoning to the soul. I was with a group of people doing a small, deeply human thing—shaping language to convey something about what it means to be alive—and most of them were committed to doing the work for its own sake. Yes, of course, every writer wants to be published and read, and precious few people object to making money, but I know I will go on loving and struggling with words regardless of worldly reward, and it seemed that a lot of the people around me at Sewanee felt the same. In their company I had a sense of shared faith.
That sounds a bit lofty, I know, and I wish had some ready metaphor to convey the experience without resorting to loaded words like “faith.” (That is to say, I wish I were a better writer.) Also, I don’t want to give the idea that we were all padding around in somber meditation like a bunch of monks. A lot of the readings, even some of the lectures, were hilarious, and there was a party every night. Drinks were poured with a generous hand. As I’d hoped from the outset, the conference was a lot of fun.
Even so, I found myself steadily less interested in the social scene as the days went by. I wanted some silence and space to nurture that quiet feeling in myself. I began taking long, solitary nighttime walks around the beautiful campus, listening to the crickets and mulling over ideas that had been sparked by the day’s discussions. I started a new story (a rare event for me) and holed up in my room during free hours to work on it. I felt a little bit bad about missing out on the camaraderie, the one thing I knew I’d come for, but it seemed as if I’d found something more valuable. When the last day arrived, even though I’d had a great time, loved my workshop, and enjoyed every reading and lecture, I was desperately eager to get home. To sit alone in my room and write.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Maria Browning. All rights reserved. Maria Browning, a contributing writer for Chapter 16, lives in White Bluff.