SWC: the Art Behind the Legacy
by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
The 2019 Sewanee Writers’ Conference (SWC) marked the program’s 30th anniversary. Today, it is the most highly competitive conference in the country, admitting only one in 10 applicants. The SWC began as an unknown program at a small southern university funded entirely by application fees and tuition. Founding director Wyatt Prunty’s formula for making the magic happen: “Get the right people and then get out of the way.”
Tennessee Williams left his estate to the University of the South to foster creative writers and creative writing, but the will stipulated Harvard University manage the money. Hoping to persuade the executors to let Sewanee manage its own financial affairs, attorney Ed Watson recommended Sewanee get a program in place. Poet Prunty, just recently hired to teach and write, took on the challenge.
“It was very attractive to me to do this,” Prunty concedes, “as you’re bringing writers to your own town.”
Prunty used the allure of being among fellow writers to attract faculty. “You’ll enjoy being among friends,” he told colleagues from his former teaching post at John Hopkins University.
“Tim O’Brien didn’t even ask how much I could afford to pay him,” Prunty said.
In addition to National Book Award winner O’Brien, more than half the first year faculty had received or went on to receive the National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize—playwright Tina Howe, poets Mona Van Dyne and Howard Nemerov, and fiction writers Ellen Douglas and Robert Stone.
Prunty encouraged faculty to bring their family. “There were always children around,” he said. Prunty made it a point to “weave the little things people are interested in into the fabric of the program”—hiking, nature walks, birding.
The strong faculty attracted “students who wanted to know them,” Prunty explained.
Since the first year, the number of workshops has doubled from five to 10—four in poetry, five in fiction, and one in playwriting. The conference is considering adding another playwriting workshop or a nonfiction prose workshop, but Prunty expressed concerns about “losing the sense of community.”
For the faculty, another allure is interacting with and encountering “young people with talent,” Prunty said.
Applicants receiving fellowships must have published a book and scholars must have a history of publications in notable magazines and journals.
For many of the staff the first year, Prunty drew on his former John Hopkins students. For young people who aspired to a writing career, “it was a way to make a living midst a community of writers,” Prunty pointed out.
Cheri Peters, a first year staffer, came to the conference via the Sewanee English Department. “When I heard about Wyatt starting a conference, I said I was interested if there was a place for me.” Peters served on the staff for 20 years, most of those as associate director.
“Organizing the conference was huge,” Peters reflected. In the days before cell phones she would find herself “literally running from place to place” to confirm an arrangement or make one.
In 1990, Miriam Berkley was transitioning from a career in writing to a career in photography. Prunty knew Berkley from the Breadloaf Writers Conference where he taught for eight years and invited her to come to the fledgling Sewanee conference as the photographer.
Berkley has attended every year since. She cited vastly increased diversity as the biggest change. The first year the presence was “overwhelmingly white Protestant,” Berkley said.
Prunty is stepping down as conference director. “Thirty years is a round number,” he joked. “I’m satisfied with the quality of the students and faculty and the conference is financially stronger than it’s ever been,” said Prunty.
Harvard ultimately turned over the financial management of Williams’ estate to Sewanee, and the SWC puts half the Williams money in to an endowment. Today Williams is the most widely produced playwright in the world after Shakespeare with a literary legacy also including fiction and poetry.
Looking to the future, rising director Leah Stewart hopes to do even more to increase diversity and to step up sustainability by eliminating plastic at receptions and instituting carbon offsets for travel. Novelist Stewart worked on the staff 10 years. She shared a memory about playwright Romulus Linney leading a middle of the night skinny dipping outing. However, Stewart stressed, “The most important takeaway was the work.” She recalled Margot Livesey diagramming a short story on a blackboard. Today, Stewart uses the illustration in her classes.
“My top priority is sustaining what the conference does well,” Stewart said, “building community among writers and rejuvenating faith in literature.”
Rising associate director and short story writer Gwen Kirby began her affiliation with Sewanee at age 17 with the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference. “The challenge is to keep the conference as welcoming a place as I found it to be,” Kirby said, “while moving forward to be as modern and diverse as the world of writing is today.”