During the summers I taught at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, in the 1990s, I learned more from Wyatt Prunty than my fiction-writing students could have learned from me. The most useful and important lesson, and the hardest to put into practice, is that impeccable manners (I’m suddenly afraid that everyone writing about Wyatt will use the phrase “Southern gentleman”) can so seamlessly co-exist with looseness. Wyatt seemed so wonderfully chill, a word we didn’t use that way, then.
The Conference lasted twelve days, and I have to admit that I found the work stressful, the individual conferences with students or fellowship recipients, each of whom had turned in a manuscript of sixty pages or less: rarely less. I felt that the helpfulness of these conversations depended wholly on my ability to hide the fact that, in some cases, I wouldn’t have read past the first pages if they hadn’t been written by a student. However gentle and kind I tried to be, I could only infrequently say what a writer most wanted to hear. Nor was it easy to “workshop” stories by students I barely knew. Once at an outdoor conference, I advised a talented writer to put his fingers in his ears if his classmates started to rip apart his work. I showed him what I meant, he put his fingers in his ears, and Jim Peters, stealth-shooting pictures for the conference brochure, photographed us like that, chatting, plugging our ears.