Long before I passed through the stone pillars and entered the two-week workshop intensive of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, I was forewarned to pace myself. Once here I was reminded by everyone from the shuttle driver to Rufus, Alice McDermott’s mellow dog, to go easy, choose gently among the abundant opportunities to attend readings and craft talks and late-night Irish music fests. I recognized the advice to be good and founded in truth, but I also recalled my mother’s oft-repeated adage of “moderation,” wondering how it would work in application.
Once here with the schedule in front of me, the choice of which event to eliminate was not as clearcut as the words of wisdom. Even though I am not predominantly a fiction writer, how could I miss Jill McCorkle’s reading or craft talk—hilarious and perceptive Southern woman that she is—and what Jayne Anne Philips calls “the guardian angel of American short fiction”?
I had been told I could find a guardian angel at Sewanee by my friend Rick who shared the legend with me. According to story, the campus is so beautiful, angels dwell within its gates and protect all guests and dwellers within. So plentiful are these guardians of the campus’ riches, visitors may take one with them when they leave by tapping the roof of the car twice when they pass through the gates. On return, they release the angel by tapping once.
If only I could have gotten my angel BEFORE my travel began, perhaps my car would not have been towed to the shop two days before my scheduled drive. Although perhaps my angel’s mojo was with me even then, prompting my new friend and workshop participant Liz Prato to post on the conference Facebook page her offer of a ride. Suffice it to say, the place is as rippling with challenge and luck, charm and collaboration as the writing process itself.
In her craft talk Alice McDermott described the trials and rewards of being a writer labeled Catholic enough times to warrant an investigation. She examined the process by which doubt meets the work of creation and is overcome by the faith to persevere. Her struggle is every writer’s, in the sense that creativity is neither constant nor easily anticipated. The very dynamic, after all, arises in meeting or limning the unknown.
How could I know if Richard Bausch’s talk on character would prove more valuable than John Casey’s reading or attendance at an open mic? I couldn’t, and then how would I begin to make that evaluation without having something to compare?
Being at Sewanee—and I still have another eight days left—reminds me that there are things about the creative path I will know only afterward and others I may never know. Certainly there are aspects that will remain beyond my control—even as they are for these honest and generous teachers who do not pretend to have the skeleton key to the muse’s cottage. Coupled with the instruction toward stronger diction, harder questions, more attentive images, are reminders of the limitations of craft. Knowledge is a reliable vehicle that will drop us off.
If I am to “pace” myself in the time I have left, it will be by celebrating the moments of fumbling in the dark, allowing haphazard insight or rest, staying up all night or waking at six a.m. to go bird watching with Jim Peters. Who could predict that the invisible network of angels would have been joined by one of text? Like flocks of starlings we swoop from stone buildings, following the rhythms of each other, tethered to something thin and bright, one character at a time.
Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 journal, as well as the author of three chapbooks, Farm and There Are No New Ways To Kill A Man. She won the 2012 Pavement Saw Chapbook Contest for The Garden Will Give You A Fat Lip, which is forthcoming.