What I Did For My Summer Vacation: The Sewanee Writers’ Conference

This July I spent twelve days at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Sewanee, Tennessee. It was fabulous. I got out of it everything I had hoped, and more.
Some people go to Sewanee every year and treat the conference as their summer vacation. Others, like me, approach it as a one-time experience. I had finished a novel. The things I wanted from the conference were 1) to get feedback from my faculty reader and others that would help me make the novel good, and 2) to meet agents.
Sewanee allows you to list your first, second and third choices of faculty reader, and tells you who your reader will be when you arrive. My first choice was Jill McCorkle (Ferris Beach, The Cheerleader, Carolina Moon), because she was one of my all-time favorite southern writers, and because she had used multiple points of view in her novels, which was something I was wrestling with. I was lucky enough to get her. As a bonus, my other workshop leader was Tony Earley (Here We Are in Paradise, Jim the Boy), another southern writer whose work I had admired for years. I and the other participants in the Earley-McCorkle workshop agreed that our workshop was the best. Jill and Tony’s styles complemented each other. Jill had a gift for seeing the big picture, while Tony honed in on specific craft issues. They were kind with their criticism and made sure the fifteen members of our workshop kept it constructive. The workshop was particularly helpful to me because I don’t have an MFA and sometimes feel a bit like a primitive artist.
I met with Jill for my individual critique at the campus coffee house. She was positive and encouraging, and the clarity she offered about what I needed to fix was invaluable. For the hour-plus that we talked, I got the benefit of her thinking out loud about how I should deal with multiple narrators, distinguishing characters from one another at the beginning of the novel, and making one weak-sister character more interesting. Most of the participants I talked to at Sewanee were as delighted as I was with their faculty one-on-one. I do think it’s important to be deliberate in choosing your faculty reader. You should read their books to determine who would be a good fit for you. If you write chick lit, it might not be wise to have a male faculty member who writes for a male audience. If you are a poet, you might do well to choose a poet who belongs to the same school of thought as you do (I don’t claim to understand how those crazy poets categorize themselves).
Sewanee invites literary agents to come and meet with participants. The system for getting a meeting with one of them is what we in the law call arbitrary and capricious, and what others might call a free-for-all. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and you have to be aggressive. The day the sign-up sheet for the first visiting agent went up, I wasn’t around and the list was full by the time I saw it. But as I was standing there staring at the full list, a woman who had signed up came and marked her name off, so I got to take her spot. I met with the agent, she told me I could send her my complete manuscript, and I was also able to pick her brain about ways to market the Flatiron short story anthology my writing group had published.
The day the sign up sheet for the second agent went up, I was in the right place but the list had been posted early and was full by the time I got there. I felt like the wolf in the little pig story who makes a date to pick apples with the pig, only to have the pig show up early and pick all the apples. A nice thing about Sewanee, though, is that agents and other guests make themselves available at social events. I approached agent number two at the reception that evening, and told her that I was stalking her (I really said that) because I hadn’t been able to get a meeting with her. She was extremely nice, gave me her email address and told me to contact her.
When agent number three arrived, by God, I was determined to get on the list. I asked the programs manager when she planned to post it, and camped out in the auditorium two feet away from the bulletin board all morning, waiting (I got to hear several good presentations while I was camping, so it wasn’t too painful!). Ten minutes before the list was to go up, all these people began to file into the room and line the wall where the list would be posted, some even leaning against the bulletin board itself. The programs manager posted the list. I rose from my seat, wove my arms over and under all the other arms jostling for a spot, and signed my name on the damn list. As far as I know I didn’t elbow anyone in the eye in the process. I had a good meeting with agent number three, who told me to send her the full manuscript.
Changing the agent sign-up process was the only suggestion I had for improvement when I completed my Sewanee exit survey.
The social life at Sewanee was great, even for an introvert like me (what?! An introverted writer?!). My suite-mate (“bathroom mate” as we called it) became a good friend, and we had a fun crowd in our dorm (St. Luke’s). I met dozens of friendly and talented people in my workshop, at meals and social events. The presence of the playwrights, who were not introverts, added to the entertainment. It was lovely to talk incessantly about writing to people whose eyes didn’t glaze over. A warning to anyone fresh out of rehab, the flow of alcohol at Sewanee was quite heavy and it might not be the best place for someone in early recovery.
The only downside to the conference for me was its length. Twelve days was a long time to be away from my husband and nine-year-old daughter. Cell phones didn’t work inside the stone buildings on campus, and it was hard to have intimate conversations with my spouse standing out on the grass in front of the dorm yelling into my phone. I missed my daughter terribly. One couple brought their nine-year-old daughter to Sewanee (with a babysitter). By the last few days, watching her give her mother a hug at breakfast nearly broke my heart.
In addition to the great contacts I made at Sewanee, I experienced one other benefit I hadn’t expected. My husband is a fine man but he doesn’t read fiction and has never been willing to read my work. He missed me a lot while I was gone, looked Sewanee up on the internet, and realized how serious I am about this writing thing. For the first time in our fourteen-year marriage, he is reading my work.
I would recommend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference to any serious writer. I do think I got more out of it by going with a completed manuscript than I would have if I had gone while my novel was in an early stage. If you have the credentials to attend as a scholar or a fellow (I didn’t), all the better. While Sewanee is not hierarchical the way some conferences are, being distinguished as a scholar or fellow would give you that much more access to faculty, editors and agents.
Here are the web addresses for some people I met at Sewanee who blogged about their experiences: http://www.amandamn.typepad.com/; http://www.perpetualfolly.blogspot.com/; http://www.donnatrussell.com/. The website for the Sewanee Writer’s Conference is http://www.sewaneewriters.org/.

Copyright 2008 by Heather Newton

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