The Sewanee Writers’ Conference

I’ve been back from Sewanee for two weeks, but I still think about it every day. It’s one of those experiences where every second feels heightened, feels alive; you’re completely taken out of your regular life and placed in this different world, and when you return to your life you’re inevitably changed. As a writer, I feel like I have two warring parts of myself: the hermit-like part that loves and needs to be alone and to write, and the social part that loves meeting new people and making new friends. Sewanee is all about that second part. It’s a celebration, being with like-minded souls who worship books and writing. Writing can be so lonely and isolating, and I used to think that after I published a book it would feel less lonely and isolating….but it doesn’t. You’re still alone with that page, day after day. But for those twelve days at Sewanee, you’re part of this incredible community—and when it’s over, you do feel so much less alone, and so inspired about the importance of fiction, poetry, and playwriting. The poet Leslie Harrison wrote in her blog that after Sewanee “My tribe got so much bigger.”

So did mine. The three people I met at Sewanee who I spent the most time with are Porochista Khakpour, Josh Weil, and Mike Rosovsky. If Porochista and I had been in a cartoon when we met, a little heart would’ve appeared above our heads. She’s the author of the award-winning Sons and Other Flammable Objects (and she has the best clothes ever.) Josh Weil’s novella collection (yes! novellas!) The New Valley will be published by Grove/Atlantic next spring; Josh also wrote these two amazing essays in the Times. He was the Squiggy to our Laverne & Shirley, and Mike Rosovksy was our Lenny. Mike is a fiction editor of Post Road magazine, and a lightning rod of fun. I finally figured out how to insert a photo, so here’s a picture of Porochista, Josh, and me (the photo I took with Mike didn’t come out….apparently his devastating good looks were too much for my camera). I’m the one in the middle:

Porochista, me, and Josh

Other new tribe members not pictured: playwrights David Roby and David Caudle, fiction writers Don Waters, Darrin Doyle, Jason Ockert, Cecilia Ward Jones, Jim Scott, Ryan Call, and Dave Mullins, poets Kimberly Johnson, Sandra Beasley, Michael Dumanis, Aaron Baker, Eric McHenry, Matthew Thorburn, and Katrina Vandenberg. I’m a little bit in love with all of them.

On the businessy side of things, the fiction workshop I was in was led by Margot Livesey and Randall Kenan. I’ve participated in a LOT of writing workshops and have not had exactly glowing feelings about most of them (I wrote a satire of one that can be read here) but honestly, this was the best workshop I’ve been in. Margot (what a fab name, yes? Even if she spells it a little funny) and Randall took each story seriously, respectfully, and on its own terms, and critiqued them while managing to be insightful, thorough, illuminating, and kind. Which, if you’ve ever been in a writing workshop, is no small feat. Just because someone is an incredible writer doesn’t mean they’re a good teacher–if anything, some writers get so frustrated by stories that aren’t working that they lash out at the student. One professor in my M.F.A. program repeatedly put his head down on the table in exasperation at students’ stories. He looked a tad suicidal sometimes, as if our ramshackle prose was literally killing him.

Margot read the first 50 pages of my new novel, and, thank god, she didn’t put her head down on the table. With every book I write I go through this phase when I decide the whole thing sucks and I should throw it in the garbage, but Margot talked me down from the ledge and gave me some great suggestions. She is such an incredible teacher—if you write fiction and are thinking of taking a writing workshop, Get Thee to Margot Livesey. Take a class with her. Follow her wherever she goes!

And read her books. Her novel Eva Moves the Furniture is one of my all-time favorites.

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