I heard about the Sewanee Writers’ Conference when I was on tour promoting Whisper Hollow last year. A bookseller for Parnassus Books in Nashville, who was also an alumna of the conference told me, “You should definitely try to go. There’s nothing like it.”
So early this year, in keeping with my goal of amassing at least as many rejections as I receved in 2015, I applied. To my great happiness, I was offered a Peter Taylor Scholarship to attend, and given a place in my first-choice workshop, led by National Book Award-winner Alice McDermott. I couldn’t wait.
Then I went to Portland for Tin House the week before Sewanee was to begin, burned the candle at both ends and the middle, then went home for 36 hours to do everyone’s laundry, grocery shop, and cook. I was beyond exhausted. In the middle of re-packing my suitcase while my children looked balefully on, I thought, “There’s no way I can do this again. Not this soon.” Then I kissed them goodbye and took off for what would become a twelve-day+ enchantment.
This was the 27th session of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which is located atop a Tennessee mountain-top plateau affectionately referred to as the Domain of the University of the South. According to legend, the Domain is so beautiful that angels dwell within its stone gates. An angel is assigned to you when you enter, and it is that angel’s duty to preserve the spirit of Sewanee in your mind. When you leave, you’re supposed to tap the roof of your car to take the angel with you for guidance, protection and love while you’re away.
When we arrived on campus, the amazing staff—all writers and poets themselves—welcomed us and helped us to our dorms. Right away I felt at home. It was hot and humid and thick with Southern accents. The cicadas trilled, the pine trees swayed in the breeze. Someone hung up a hammock in a poplar’s shade. There was a drawl to the whole affair, an ease and camaraderie that we could slip into like warm lake water. I found a tribe that first evening at dinner at the Sewanee Inn as the sky pinked beyond the lawn: Alyson, Louise, Katrina, Linda, Vimi, Nancy, Paul, Sharon, Mika, Pete, Heather—angels, all of them.
Our workshop of talented writers met the next day and every other day thereafter, allowing us time to read and prepare between meetings. In addition, there were readings, open mics, receptions, hikes, lectures, meetings with visiting editors and agents, and book signings. The schedule was both full and leisurely, and often ended with whiskey and wine on the porch of the French House until late at night. There was no hierarchical division of talent. Fiction writers and poets mingled with luminaries Alice, Dick Bausch, Randall Kenan, Robert Hass, A.E. Stallings, Andrew Hudgins, Daniel Anderson, Naomi Iizuka, Ken Weitzman, B.H. Fairchild, Sidney Wade, Mark Jarman, Maurice Manning, Jill McCorkle, Steve Yarbrough, Allen Wier, Christine Schutt, John Casey and Erin McGraw.
The twelve days passed far too quickly. I’d gotten feedback on my manuscript that was the most insightful and prescriptive I’ve received thus far. I made friends and memories that I’ll keep forever. I thought to myself the night before the conference ended, “There’s no way I’m ready to leave.” But when I did, I tapped the roof of the bus as we passed through the gates, so I could take my angel with me.