In Which Our Hero Returns … Triumphant? Part 3

III. Transmogrification

I licked my wounds for the next week and a half, as I geared up for Sewanee. I had no idea what to expect from the two-week long writing conference. All I knew was that I had been accepted, that my friends and family (including many of you, dear readers) helped pay my way, and that I was going no matter what. Who cared if I hadn’t written anything since May and felt like an imposter? It would be two weeks of not thinking about jobs.

Angie dropped me off at the airport. It took a ridiculous two flights to get to Nashville, where I met the group that was waiting for the conference buses. It felt like I was eleven and at summer camp all over again. I got suddenly shy, didn’t introduce myself to anyone. These other attendees lingering around the baggage claim area must’ve felt the same. Only a handful were already chattering away like they were old friends. Me, I needed more coffee to make that transition.

The bus broke down only once on the 90-minute drive to Sewanee, and it’s probably a good thing it did. There was suddenly an occasion for people to toss each other glances: bewildered, bemused, impatient, accepting, or humorous. And once that dam was breached, people started talking more. The remaining half hour on the bus I talked with three other writers.

This isn’t the place where I’ll be talking about my time at Sewanee in great detail. Maybe I’ll post that story here, or maybe I’ll just keep it to myself. It was a magical couple of weeks, and I made about a hundred friends and, on the professional side, new contacts. Doors opened. Okay, maybe a little detail:

While the workshop itself was excellent—a truly inspiring and dedicated group of writers that I’m happy to now call friends—it was the time outside of workshop that made the experience rich and meaningful: the hikes; the conversations over truly wonderful meals; the drop-the-mic amazing readings and craft lectures from writers like Jill McCorkle, John Casey, Claudia Emerson, Christine Schutt, Mary Jo Salter, Adrianne Harun, Maurice Manning, Margot Livesey, Randall Kenan, Tony Earley, and Alice McDermott; the contributor readings at the on-campus pub; and the random, quiet moments alone or with one or two good friends that offered moments to bond and reflect on our astounding good fortune. I’m truly grateful for my time there, and for the people who helped get me there.

I’ve given it some thought, and here are my three main takeaways from the Sewanee Writers Conference:

Before coming, I was feeling a bit rudderless and imposterish. After finishing my MFA with only an incomplete first draft of a novel, I fell into a swamp of malaise and self-doubt, wondering if my abilities and dedication were sufficient to see this first big project through. I wasn’t sure I actually belonged. And the folks at Sewanee, from the staff to the faculty to the scholars, fellows, and contributors, all made me feel welcome. But it was more than that. They never questioned that I belonged, and in fact those that read my work were full-throated in their praises (as well as their constructive critiques, for which I thank them). Both in terms of community and in terms of craft, I felt a resounding affirmation of my belonging to this world of writing that I’ve chosen.

Secondly, the people I met at Sewanee—from the staff to the faculty to the scholars, fellows, and contributors—came from all corners of the country (even one limey Brit), and walks of life, and all manner of profession and career. Before the conference, I had only a handful of models to look at, published writers I personally knew and who I could learn from, not just craft but how to be a writer in the world: what kinds of jobs I might take, how those jobs become careers and how those careers are managed over time, how they are juggled with demands of home and the demands of writing. Sure, as a book publicist I’d met hundreds of writers, but that was different. It was a narrower view. Now, thanks to Sewanee, I had a hundred and fifty models. I could see and ask about the kinds of decisions that get made. And not just about jobs either, but also about agents and editors, publishers and publications, teaching and universities. Hell, before Sewanee and my experience juggling job interviews while there, I didn’t even know the difference between adjunct and a full-time faculty. In the midst of this crazy confluence of interviews, I had at least a dozen people offer me practical and much-needed advice on how to approach them, and how to make a decision. I had a massive team in my dugout.

Whoever said writing is a solitary act took a pitifully narrow view of the sport.

Finally, and forgive me if this seems redundant, but the people I met at Sewanee are the third major takeaway. If before I mentioned their functions as both welcomers and exemplars, let me now mention them again collectively as friends. I met so many people—I’ll try not to be overly twee, but the term “kindred spirits” comes to mind—with whom I share this fundamental attentiveness to language, art, and communication, that it felt like a homecoming as much as a discovery. There’s a core group of maybe forty people with whom I pledge to remain in contact for the rest of my writing life, with whom I connected on several different frequencies. It was a pleasure to simply bask in their company, discover their personalities and histories and life stories, and to go home with a happy longing in my chest and the faith that we’ll remain in cahoots for the duration.