Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Reflections on Sewanee

It may be too soon to offer “reflections” on my experience at this year’s Sewanee Writers’ Conference, but if not now, when?

The conference was excellent, extremely well-organized and executed, with such glitches as there were (I had a small problem with my dorm room) addressed immediately. While there were no “literary” alternatives scheduled during off-workshop time (afternoons of the days between workshop sessions) as there are at Bread Loaf, having that time available for reading workshop submissions was very helpful, so I wouldn’t want to see more added to the schedule even though I enjoyed such classes at Bread Loaf. As for non-literary alternatives, there were a number—basketball and softball games, trips to the swimming hole, a hike, two bird-watching walks, and various tours. I went on the one hike and would like to have done another, organized or otherwise, but am not sure when I could have squeezed that in. The excellent schedule is one thing, but the key to a wonderful conference might be the outstanding staff. From regular staff Wyatt Prunty, Cheri Peters and Kevin Wilson, to all of the temporary staff (many of them several-time repeaters), it is a hard-working, helpful and friendly bunch. They do an outstanding job.

A note on food: I heard some complaints, although nothing serious, and indeed I wasn’t thrilled at every meal either (Aramark might have been better off with simpler fare than trying to push the international variety—barely recognizable Thai food one night, bad Caribbean food another). But on the whole I thought it was pretty good, wholesome and satisfying, and, besides, the point of meals was meeting and talking as much as eating, and that goal was always met. There were, besides, several truly outstanding receptions—at the Vice Chancellor’s home, at the Alumni House, at the University Archives—with top-notch food that rendered dinner mostly irrelevant anyway.

On hierarchy: The first time I attended SWC I was a little bothered by the hierarchy. I was a peasant (contributor), and above me were Scholars, Fellows and Faculty. The primary manifestation of the hierarchy, though, is access to the French House, a nightly party that is funded in part by contributions from Scholars and Fellows, but which contributors also often attend. Some contributors probably chip in, some bring their own beer, some come as guests. But I never saw anyone turned away and this year, with the exception of one Fellow, I didn’t see any snobbery. Having moved up the ladder a notch my perceptions may be a bit off, but I found this year’s conference to pretty egalitarian, if not altogether democratic. (The other distinction--the public readings--is another matter, but I understand that it is impossible to give everyone a real reading slot and I quite enjoyed doing my own reading, even at 9am.)

On readings: Counting Scholars and Fellows in addition to faculty, there were 68 readings (plus 4 open mic nights, one Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender reading, and one night of shotgun [one-minute] readings). That’s a lot of readings and I missed only 3 (one set of Fellows’ readings) because of my conference with John Casey. (I also missed 3 of the open mic nights and the LGBT reading.) Among the Scholars and Fellows there were some terrific readings and I won’t attempt to choose among them here. (In my own reading, I read a section from my novel and appreciated the many compliments I received.) But among the faculty there were some clear highlights: John Casey’s new book (a sequel to Spartina) sounds like it will be wonderful, as does Claire Messud’s new book (due out next month). Alice McDermott’s reading from her new book was also terrific, although it sounds as though she’s covering familiar ground. Elizabeth Spencer’s reading was a treat because she’s quite a presence—not only because of her place in Southern letters, but because of her accent, her bearing and charm.

On craft lectures: several of the faculty craft lectures were very good but the stand-out in my view was Margot Livesey’s discussion of characterization. It was pleasantly specific, with practical advice and references to familiar novels and stories. Some of the other lectures, although also usable, were a bit more vague or obscure. (James Wood's lecture on Free Indirect Style would have been up there, too, except that it reapeated his performance at Bread Loaf last summer; that essay will be part of the book he is working on, for anyone curious.)

On workshops: In a big conference—this one has about 100 workshoppers—you can expect unevenness. Not everyone has workshopped before. Not everyone has published. Not everyone is confident enough to move beyond the “rules” so that some weaknesses are glossed over, and some strengths missed. Some readers make few or no comments, either out of laziness or ignorance. Some make too many, either from condescension or ignorance. So I wasn’t thrilled with all the work in our group and I wasn’t thrilled with all the comments I received on my work. But that’s okay—it’s a subjective process and I will now take those comments, with a heavy bias toward John Casey’s reactions, and consider them in light of my own aesthetic sense. That’s the way it should be and I’m sure my story will be stronger as a result.

On rumors: There were some doozies, but I’m going to keep them to myself.


Steve Gilbert said...

Cliff, really enjoyed getting to know you at Sewanee. I stopped by to check out your blog to see if I'm capable of something similar. Also interested in Zeotrope. Best of luck to you on your novel. See you again someday.

Clifford Garstang said...

Same here, Steve! If you do a blog, let me know, for linking purposes. And if you join Zoetrope, also let me know--there are some "offices" you might be interested in.