Teachers and Artists

I’ve had an ongoing discussion with a friend about how to choose a workshop leader when planning for a conference. She maintains that she must more or less sit at the feet of someone she considers a master writer. I have found that the best artists don’t necessarily make the best teachers. For many of them, the process comes so naturally and intuitively that they can’t break it down so that others can follow or learn from their experience. Sewanee confirmed my assessment. I observed one noted author whose work I greatly admire, delivering brilliant monologues, full of extended conceits extempore, but whose comments I suspect were of little value to the participants on whose writing he was commenting. On the other hand, another writer whose work does not exactly sweep me away turned out to be an excellent teacher and delivered perhaps the best craft lecture of the conference. Neither of the above were my group leaders, Christine Schutt and Barry Hannah, both of whom are teachers as well as artists of highest caliber.


Comparing Conferences

I’ve been to three now–Squaw Valley Community of Writers (thrice), Napa Valley, and Sewanee. Squaw was my first and takes place in the very country–the high Sierra–where my novel The Maxwell Vendetta is set (Access the first chapter through the “writing” page.). A number of writers who are more or less regulars there deal with California and Western history.  Oakley Hall, the founder of the conference as well as of the renowned MFA program at University of California, Irvine. Max Byrd, whose latest novel, Shooting the Sun, follows several successful novelized biographies of presidents: Grant, Jackson, Jefferson. Jim Houston, latest novel Snow Mountain Passage about the Donner Party, and Jim Holliday, author of the gold rush classic,  The World Rushed In. So Squaw was extremely compatible with my work. The conference is organized to expose everyone to a range of authors and others in the publishing business by assigning a different discussion leader to each group each day. The advantages of meeting writers, agents, editors, and publishers on such an intimate basis are obvious. Also obvious are the disadvantages compared to the way the other two conferences are organized.

Napa pairs up a group and an author for the entire week. you gets to know the leader much better, of course. I very much enjoyed the time with Chang Rae Lee, a low-key guy who talked little, but made his points count.  Napa’s housing is a bit of problem, most of it expensive and located far off-site. Readings were conducted at different venues around the valley, which made for good sight-seeing and wine-tasting, though it was a bit disunifying for me.

Sewanee, I assume because of their money, is able to pair authors/groups, lasts long enough and is self-contained enough that you can get acquainted with just about anyone you want. I guess I have to sample Breadloaf to get the full range, but I’m skipping next year. Don’t want to turn into a conference junkie. Would you?



First, the scene:

 Sewaneee, TN, home of The University of the South–10. 000 acres, 1300 students (most gone for the summer).   Seat of the the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee. Sylvan setting–green expanses, yet no sprinkler systems (odd sight for a Californian), limestone, neo-gothic halls and churches. Streets named for Diocesan states (Library on the corner of Georgia/ Alabama.) A cemetery with founders’ headstones proclaiming them officers, C.S.A. 90+ miles from Nashville, 50+ from Chattanooga. The town= convenience store, coffee shop, ice-cream store, post office, a few other establishments. Nearest town = Monteagle, pop. 1238.  A place and time to gather and meditate, cultivate, read, listen, write.

For More background and thoughts from last year that come close to matching my own feelings, check out beatrice.

The way it went:

No need to review the list of notables (click on the website in the title above if you want to know.) Fiction writers (poets and playwrights also have workshops and do readings at the plenary sessions) were divided into groups of 15 with two author/teachers sharing the leadership duties. We met every other day, so there was a chance to observe other groups meeting on alternate days. Sewanee, like other conferences, sets up a fine program of readings and lectures. The differences between this and other conferences I’ve attended are time (Breadloaf is about the same length, but I’ve not been there.) and money. In addition to a sum from his estate, Tennessee Williams bequeathed the rights to his works to the Sewanee conference because his maternal grandfather (Rev. Walter E. Dakin) who graduated from the UofS’s School of Theology.  In addition to the participants, there is a staff of “Scholars” and “Fellows” who help tend to logistical duties such as setting up receptions and running people back and forth to the airport  in return for tuition and board. Perhaps a small stipend, though I don’t know that. The scholars are promising writers. The fellows have published novels. I think I’ve got that right, anyhow. They join the workshops as regular participants, and their work is critiqued along with everyone else’s.  The level of writing and discussion is high.

As for me, the short story I submitted for review (not the one that got me in) got shredded in group, but I did a partial rewrite in time for my hour-long conference with Barry Hannah, and determined I was at last headed in the right direction. In addition, he reviewed some of my other work and told me to go back to what I was doing before I started trying to write kind of story the group had savaged (CF Millard story on the “Writing” page.)

How it turned out:

In addition to making new personal and literary friends and contacts, I’ve identified my voice, quit trying to self-consciously write literary fiction, and feel as if I’ve laid a burden down. Would that every two weeks of my life were so fruitful.

What about you?

This is the time of year for conferences. Where have you been? How did it go? How did it turn out?


  The litblog co-op recently began naming “Read This!” books with the aim of promoting “authors and presses . . . struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace.” A laudable goal, and the editors deserve huge credit for their undertaking. However, their selection of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories engendered a discussion of (among other matters) whether the book was genre (mystery or detective in this case) fiction or “deserved” to be classified as literary fiction.

I acknowledge that these classification systems have their uses–shelving n bookstores, for example. However I found the tone of many comments almost comic in their assumption that literary fiction is ipso facto the highest form, that all others deserve at best a seat at the foot of the literary table, or should perhaps even be refused entrance to the main hall. I’m reminded of similar discussions about the sanctity of those books which are “character-driven” or “voice-driven” as opposed to (Oh, No!) “action driven.”

Back in the day–as you can see from my snapshot, that’s a way-back day, indeed–there were no MFA writing programs.  When I graduated as an English major, a few “creative writing” courses had popped up on the university scene. We laughed.  Who taught Faulkner creative writing? Or Joyce? Or Yeats? Was some earnest professor to provide the world with its next Fitzgerald? Despite our derision, of course, “creative writing” has grown into an MFA industry. What’s more, some damn fine writers have come out of those programs. At least one Pulitzer Prize winner that I know of–Michael Chabon via University of California at Irvine. Would he and other terrific authors have produced their high-quality work without their MFA’s? Impossible to prove, but to deny the schools all credit would be foolish at best.

Yet, the industry has also produced (predictably, I guess) some silly pretensions, and this business of holding no other writing gods sacred save whatever we hold to qualify as Literary Fiction is one of them. I suggest–just as was happening when my classmates and I sneered at the idea of teaching the art of writing fiction–that there’s more snobbery than quality-assessment going on here.