Kymberly Keaton on the Sewanee Writers' Conference

by Karen Joslin May 01, 2019

Kymberly Keaton on the Sewanee Writers' Conference

Note: I originally published this on my former blog/website. Although it dates back to 2009, I think it's still got a lot of helpful information for anyone considering applying to the Sewanee Writers' Conference. I've edited it slightly and added a few notes with more recent info. 

My good friend and fellow writer extraordinaire, Kymberly Keaton, recently returned from the Sewanee Writers' Conference. I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to pick her brains on all things Sewanee.

First, though, here's some background info on the Sewanee Writers' Conference.

Founded in 1990 at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, the conference sprang from Tennessee Williams' desire to support creative writers. In fact, Williams' estate partially underwrites the cost.

Sewanee covers fiction, poetry, and playwrighting, drawing distinguished writers to serve as faculty members. Visiting writers, publishers, agents, and editors round out aspiring writers' education and provide valuable connections for the future.

The conference takes place over a week and a half in July, comprised of workshops, lectures, readings, and presentations.

Workshops consist of small group sessions, plus one-on-one meetings with faculty members to improve each participant's chosen manuscript.

Participants also receive priority seating at readings and lectures, many of which are open to the public.

The cost to participants in 2009 was $1,700 [Ed. note: 2019 cost was $1,800].  

However, scholarships and fellowships are available to those who have been published or produced in the genre they're applying for.

Scholars pay for room and board [Ed. note: $700 in 2019]. Fellows attend for free, other than their transportation costs.

Writers may also apply to attend as auditors, which allows them to participate in the conference without having their work discussed and evaluated. [Ed. note: I haven't been able to confirm whether this is still true.]

Applications are accepted from January to May [in 2019, March 20], or until the conference is filled (so it definitely behooves applicants to submit as early as possible). 

Sewanee chooses participating writers based on skill and the potential they have to benefit from the conference.

Over a leisurely lunch, Kym and I talked about her experiences at the 2009 Sewanee Writers' Conference.

KAREN: I was reading their information online, and they mentioned that they close their applications once they're full. I know you got in on the wait list, so I was wondering how early you applied.

KYM: It was pretty late.

Honestly, I just got it into my head that I needed to go to a writers' conference, and the first one I looked at was Bread Loaf, and I missed it by over a month.

It was right at the end of the semester, so I want to say the end of April.

KAREN: So, I'm guessing that getting into Sewanee is pretty freakin' competitive.

KYM: It's pretty competitive, this year more than usual. And I'm not really sure what went on to get me in.

They sent me an informal email saying “You're first on the wait list,” and I emailed them back and I said, “I'm trying to plan my work schedule for the summer; i.e., should I get a job or not?”

(Laughs)

“Is there a chance somebody will drop out?” And they said, “Well, not really.” And then two days later they called me back and they're like, “No, no, you have a place.”

And once I got there, it was interesting that my work was so much more on a level with the scholars than on the participants that I was a little confused about the whole process.

So, I actually thought at first that I had shot myself in the foot by being too lazy to get letters of recommendation and apply to be a scholar.

And this is something interesting, too, that I missed out on. Because I was planning on workshopping short stories at the conference, I sent them short stories as a writing sample.

They actually look at those writing samples, and people who have novel excerpts, if it's a good enough sample, they ask you for your permission to submit that to an agent.

KAREN: Interesting. That is good to know.

KYM: If you do have a novel, even if you're planning on working on short stories, you do not have to workshop the writing samples. Send the novel in.

You have lots of opportunities to meet with agents, but the big guns were the Borchardts. They have T.C. Boyle, they have, oh, let's see, lots of dead famous people.

KAREN: (Laughs) Lots of dead famous people! I like that.

KYM: They give a presentation, but they don't meet with you. They look at half a dozen manuscripts that come out of the conference as they leave.

Everybody says that the agent relationship has to be like a passionate love affair. It has be chemical attraction in order for them to make it work.

And I suspect it has to be that way with an editor, too.

KAREN: What was the process like in the group workshops? Were you always with the same faculty member?

KYM: Yes. You look at a list of faculty members who are going to be there, and in fiction there were eight, which meant that there were four workshops.

Each workshop had a senior faculty member and a junior faculty member. So, you look at the list of eight and then you choose your top three.

You're going to be in their workshop the whole time you're there. It meets every other day. Well, three times a week. So, your workshop meets six times while you're there.

But they are personally going to read your 60 pages' worth of writing sample and make comments on it, and you get a one-hour conference with them.

So, Dick Bausch was my first choice.

One, because I couldn't imagine looking anybody in the face and saying that I had a chance to work with Dick Bausch and that I picked somebody else, just because he's such the granddaddy of literary fiction.

And two, when I was reading everybody's short stories – and right now, I'm really focused on the short story – I appreciated all the short stories, but there were things Dick Bausch was doing in his short stories that I couldn't figure out how to do. And still can't quite figure out how to do.

Things that he was revealing. Characters would just – he would describe them walking across the room, and I would know them, and I would know their quirks and their fantasies and their insecurities and all that, just by describing the way they were moving.

Completely through action, without any kind of interior, uh – and I was like, “How does he do this?” So, I picked him as number one.

I picked Jill McCorkle as number two. Mostly I picked her because her short stories are very Southern and very weird. Not very weird, but very quirky.

Really, I was very concerned about finding somebody who could relate to my stuff, because I've had to fight again and again and again, especially at FSU during my Masters, where half of the people there were able to make really good, constructive criticism without being able to connect to the kind of writing that I do.

And the other half, literally, it pissed them off and made them psychotic, and it just would give me absolutely no help at all.

Or they just would say, “No, sorry, this isn't art.” Because my stuff is very strange.

Dick Bausch ended up as the senior faculty member, Erin McGraw ended up as the junior faculty member. And she turned out to be just as helpful as Dick Bausch was.

And it was just by far – I think I learned more in that workshop than I did in my entire Masters Degree.

KAREN: Wow, that's amazing.

KYM: So, you end up with one of your few choices, you're in a workshop with them, and then you get this other faculty member, and they team teach.

And some of them do that better than others. Dick Bausch and Erin McGraw were perfect together. They could have done stand-up together, they were so perfect.

But so, you have as many as 15 people in your workshop, and each workshop has – I don't know how many scholars it has, but it has two fellows.

And the fellows – there's supposed to be some tradition where the fellows act kind of as co-teachers as well. That didn't really happen in our workshop, but one of the fellows tried to.

But every day, three people are workshopped, so you have to show up to class having thoroughly read their work, which is about 25 pages. And they ask us to make comments on the draft as well.

And so during the workshop, the leaders of the workshop – the faculty members – talk about the story, and pretty much in the way they want.

And usually the way it happened was whoever was the reader for that particular person being workshopped would lead the discussion. In my workshop, there was plenty of room to talk.

And then, you were allowed as an auditor to show up to other workshops of other authors that you were interested in and sit in. If you could find the time.

KAREN: Well, I was just going to say, I looked at the schedule and they claim on the front page, “In your free time, you could play tennis and hike,” and I thought, “How would anyone find the time to do that?”

KYM: And there was drinking and schmoozing.

KAREN: Right, right.

KYM: Which Sewanee actually schedules that.

On the first night I was there, I made friends with Steve Yarbrough.

Actually, my suite mate, the woman I shared a bathroom with, was the schmoozer. Oh, my God, she was so good.

And the first few days of the conference, I literally followed her around like a little duck. I made jokes about it.

“Thank you for letting me be your little duck. Your little duckling. Quack!”

(We laugh)

I actually had moments in the first two days of claustrophobia, where I felt like – I mean, I've been in the woods alone for three years, writing, and here are all these cocktail parties and all the schmoozing.

There was a lot of schmoozing. Every meal was an opportunity to schmooze. Although at meals, the faculty typically sat separately.

KAREN: So, is there a cafeteria or something, because I know there's nothing there besides the campus. Is there even anywhere else to eat?

KYM: Well, if you wanted to. They serve three meals a day. Plus, every cocktail party has catered food. Every reading has little snacks.

So, I mean, literally, you could eat yourself into a daze.

But the food was good, I mean, for a conference it was really good. It was vegetarian-friendly, but not vegan-friendly.

I had a friend who was vegan, and she had to bring a lot of her own food. Because most of the vegetarian stuff has cheese on it.

KAREN: Yeah, yeah, that does tend to be a problem sometimes.

KYM: Every other night was wine night.

KAREN: They're just living up the stereotype.

KYM: It's Tennessee Williams.

KAREN: True.

KYM: And that is one reason the – $1,700 seems hefty, but it's not. Bread Loaf is almost twice that. Tennessee Williams. Thank God he was gay. Had no heirs.

(We laugh)

It's totally true. That's why this conference is so well-funded. Every time somebody puts on a play, we get to go to Sewanee for cheaper.

KAREN: So, is there just one one-on-one meeting?

KYM: One for one hour. You get a lot of contact with the faculty, but really that particular time is the only time you get to discuss your work.

You could submit up to 60 pages. For me, that was two short stories.

The workshop itself considers one of the short stories or part of the novel segment, and your reader is the only person who looks at your full writing sample and responds to it.

And you know, you sit down over coffee or over dinner or over breakfast or whatever, whenever it works for them, and you talk about your stuff.

KAREN: Did you find you got something out of that that you didn't get out of the workshop?

KYM: Yeah, absolutely.

He pointed out something that he said was endemic in my writing, and it was something that had been pointed out to me before, but the people who pointed it out did it in such a way – it was so inferior to the way he pointed it out that I was like, “Fuck you, that's my style.”

And that's, you know, the excessive poetry, or excessive flowery language.

Now, when I wrote the book, I cut a lot of that out. I made it a purpose to be less literary and more accessible.

My tendency as a writer is to describe something three or four different ways. And so in the book, I would go through and I would cut that down to one or two, in revision.

And what he said was: first draft, let whatever comes out come out.

But, you know, people had said before, “Oh, there's so much poetic language in this. It's more poetry than fiction.”

I was like, “Well, that's my style, I'm not going to change.”

But what he said was that so many metaphors and similes – I can't remember what he called them, it's all lumped together but he said that they were so flowery that some of them weren't correct, they weren't accurate, they weren't working.

And that when you have a beautiful expression – figures of speech is what he called them – that works, that resonates with the reader, that it draws them into the narrative.

It makes them more emotional about the narrative. It makes them pay more attention to the narrative.

But if you have one that doesn't work, that's dysfunctional, that's an inaccurate metaphor or a simile that just doesn't work out, that it actually pops them out of the story.

And so, I was like, “Yeah, okay, you're right.”

KAREN: What about the readings and the lectures and the other presentations?

KYM: Oh, my God, it was amazing.

Every morning there was a craft lecture, which was an hour. They were all very personable and very good speakers.

And then there was a panel of some sort. It would either be publishers or agents or editors. They would each introduce themselves and give a little three-minute blurb about what they did, and then they took questions from the audience.

And then there were readings all day long. The fellows read, the staff read, and the faculty read.

KAREN: What do you think was the top highlight of the conference for you?

KYM: The highlight of the conference was getting confirmation that I'm doing the right thing, and that I'm gifted, and that if I keep doing what I'm doing that I'm going to make it. Which I had suspected, but there's always such self-doubt involved.

But really, on a different level, when I did my Masters, I really didn't enjoy the academic community. I really disliked it.

It was just this group of people who were grubbing around, trying to get jobs, and it just wasn't very creative, and it felt like people were doing it for the wrong reasons.

But so, I left Sewanee feeling like there was a community of writers that I could join and appreciate, and who would appreciate me.

The entire conference feels very hippie-lovey. I mean, there are even guitar sing-alongs.

KAREN: Was there a drum jam?

(We laugh)

KYM: There was not a drum jam, there was not a drum jam. But only because there were no drums. I'm serious.

Richard Bausch, who has won every award except the Pulitzer, he's sitting there playing guitar. And here's this other guy over here playing guitar.

And Alan Shapiro, who's this amazing poet, is singing, and another guy's playing harmonica.

It was just this great kind of happy family, and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is great! My Masters was not like this at all.”

KAREN: Do you have any advice for writers who want to apply to Sewanee?

KYM: Apply early.

Send a strong writing sample. I would try and get somebody to look at your writing sample and make comments on it before you send it in.

You also have to write a personal statement basically about why you want to be a writer and why you're qualified.

KAREN: What about tips for people who actually get accepted and are going to go? Is there anything indispensable that you wish you had brought and forgot?

KYM: Well, I came on a motorcycle, so I had to keep my stuff pretty limited. You are going to be staying in a dorm room.

If you go to the Sewanee Writers' Conference [website], there's a list of stuff to bring and there are several links to people's blogs and what they wish they brought and what they brought that was absolutely necessary.

Bedside reading lamp would have been fabulous because it's a dorm room.

They say you don't need to bring a computer because you're not really writing, you're workshopping writing, but my computer was indispensable. I would have been lost without it.

I wish I had brought some kind of sleeping pills, because –

(Karen laughs)

No, I'm serious, because literally my brain was going 18 hours a day, and I could never shut it off at night. So, I spent the entire week getting about three hours' sleep a night. And that was really rough.

Someone on one of these blogs said, “The dorm beds are really hard. Bring something to cushion them. Bring a big, giant bath towel, a beach towel, to fold up and use as a mattress pad.” And that worked really well, so I'm glad I had that.

It says the conference is casual, but there are several opportunities to dress up so don't assume that it's just casual. Because there are several cocktail parties that you may feel funny dressed in jeans at.

KAREN: How do you think that having gone to Sewanee will affect your career in the long term?

KYM: I think it's a big boost.

I don't know what will come of it ultimately but directly as a result of Sewanee, one editor from Viking has my manuscript.

An editor from Turner, which is an independent publisher, took my manuscript with him to show to his acquisitions editor.

Three agents have portions of my manuscript.

So, I don't know what will come of that, if anything. But I left there with enough confidence to send pieces of that manuscript out to any agent that I feel could work.

And before I was like, “Oh, I can't send it out to an agent because they won't really read it.”

But now that I've met them, I know that somebody's probably going to read it.

And there were also three editors, three presses that are known for doing literary works. And the three of them said, “We don't read the slush pile. We don't read unsolicited stuff.”

And somebody said, “Well, how do we get you our stuff?”

And they said, “Well, if you tell us you've been to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, we'll read it.”

So, I have a lot more confidence. I know a little bit more about how the system works. I just have this kind of brand.

Now I can say that I was at Sewanee in 2009, and I am absolutely sure that that's going to draw more attention to manuscripts, to short stories that I send out to get published.

And this is all just the practical stuff. The things I learned in that workshop about revision and commitment to revision and specific issues...

And I took notes, I have a lot of notes on technique. Both Erin and Dick were master teachers, they were so good at teaching.

So, I haven't even really talked about how the conference is going to improve my writing and the lessons that I learned. I'm still processing that and absorbing that.

KAREN: I think it helps to actually meet people in person because then you're not just a name, you're a face. You're a real person.

KYM: Yeah. And they are, too.

I mean, what I came away with, all of those editors panels – man, they are just big, fat book nerds just like you and me.

They're just looking for that book that's going to make it. They're genuinely looking for good stories to put out into the world and to kind of shepherd. And that was just great.

And the publishing industry is in trouble, and they all recognize that, and none of them know what to do about it, which was really interesting.

None of the agents do, either, which is a little scary.

They don't know what to do with electronic rights.

KAREN: All right, I guess my only other question is if there's anything else you want to add.

KYM:I can't wait to go back next year as a scholar.

Read Kym's blog Following Serendipity.

Find out more about the Sewanee Writers' Conference



Karen Joslin
Karen Joslin

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