Among the Gothic architecture and impressive foliage that characterize the campus of the University of the South lies a summer haven for poets and fiction writers alike. The Sewanee Writers' Conference, founded in 1990 and supported by a generous portion of Tennessee Williams's estate, is an intensive two-week conference filled with lectures, workshops, social events, and just plain creative time for writers. Thomas Sanders, a current member of the summer staff, fondly remembers his time spent with the conference:
Last summer I hung 170 portraits of authors, poets, and playwrights on the walls of the main reading room for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference—a picture for every writer or visitor to have spoken at the conference during its twenty-four year history. The group includes many contributors to the Sewanee Review, including Andrew Hudgins, Ernest J. Gaines, and the founder and director of the conference, Wyatt Prunty, as well as Aiken Taylor award recipients William Logan, Debora Greger, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, X. J. Kennedy, and B. H. Fairchild. I was starstruck by the host of faces looking out at me. However as the 150 or so conferees and faculty started arriving by bus, car, and plane, I gathered quickly that the Sewanee Writers’ Conference was a place where the common cause of literature dissolves boundaries, a place where you can sing on the porch after midnight with Claudia Emerson, Richard Bausch, and others, or have a smoke in the shadows with Tim O’Brien.
This year’s faculty includes poets Daniel Anderson, Claudia Emerson, Robert Hass, Andrew Hudgins, Maurice Manning, Mary Jo Salter, A.E. Stallings, and Mark Strand; fiction writers Richard Bausch, Tony Earley, Diane Johnson, Randall Kenan, Jill McCorkle, Alice McDermott, Erin McGraw, Tim O’Brien, Christine Schutt, and Steve Yarbrough; and the playwrights Daisy Foote and Dan O’Brien. The two-week conference, which takes place at the end of summer (this year from July 23rd to August 4th), is packed with panels, craft lectures, and readings, all of which provide versatile instruction in the art of writing and publishing well. Additionally, conferees participate every other day in workshops led by a pair of established writers in their genre. And every attendee sits down with the faculty writer of his or her choosing to discuss the story, novel, poetry, or play submitted to the conference. The conference also offers a view from the publishing and editing side of writing, hosting a variety of esteemed agents and editors. This year’s visitors include several agents looking for new talent, and editors from the Atlantic, New Directions, Knopf, Blackbird, the Oxford American, the Hopkins Review, the Kenyon Review, the Missouri Review, Grove, Algonquin, Poetry, the Weekly Standard, and the American Scholar. These visitors demystify the publishing process, helping the writer to map a practical approach to the business of writing.
It is not hyperbolic to say the conference is transformative; this is something we, the staff, hear again and again. One can’t resist the allures of Sewanee’s 13,000-acre campus, the creek romping, pond-swimming spirit of the mountain in summer. Warm nights under the star-dusted sky, drinking tea or something stronger with new friends, contains undeniable traces of a summer-camp spirit. And yet, the conference also pulls the writer to the page, fills her mind with an electric drive to create—an intoxicating, yet reflective, concoction of business and pleasure, work and play. Some of the richest experiences of the conference are pure happenstance—conversations and glasses brimming around the dinner table and on the green lawns. The buzz of katydids and talk of art and writing crests during these two weeks in Sewanee, and the conference is a cool breeze into what, for many, is a piecemeal and isolated writer’s life the other fifty weeks of the year. The friendships, advice, and uncut inspiration the conference imparts are enough to drive a writer for many months after its conclusion when conferees drift home, as if waking from a dream, from Sewanee.