What I Did Over My Summer Vacation

Aja Gabel

Sep 23, 2011

Here's the honest, embarrassing truth: when I found out I'd gotten a scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers' Conference this summer, I didn't want to go. I'd just come off of my fifth straight freezing cold, overstimulating AWP and taught at not one but two undergraduate writing conferences, and I was tired of networking. I was tired of talking about how to get published, about how to get a teaching job, about how to find time to write. Alexander McCleod, the next great Canadian short story writer and author of Light Lifting, said to me at one of the conferences, "Don't you ever get tired of talking about it? Don't you just want to do it?" Why, yes, I thought. I do. So when I had to book tickets to Tennessee and figure out whether to pack my own sheets or use the University of the South's plastic sheets, I was less than excited. I just wanted to write. But attending Sewanee--up on the mountain, as they say--this summer was the best possible thing I could have done for my writing. Yes, there was talking. A lot of it. There was talking over whiskey-gingers on an antebellum porch and under a thin trickle of a once-grand waterfall in the forest. There was talking over the banjo music in the courtyard and through the bathroom wall late at night. I learned more from talking about my manuscript with Alice McDermott on a plaid couch in the late afternoon sunlight than I have learned in an hour of talking maybe ever. The director of the conference, Kevin Wilson, didn't talk that much, but when he did, when he read from The Family Fang, it made me downright itchy to write. So there was talking. I take back what I said about being tired of talking. But there was also lots of silence. There was getting lost on a trail along a mountain at dusk, sweating through your shirt and running out of water and hoping you were following the way back to the road. There was getting the shit scared out of you and the sound of your own scream when a family of deer emerged out of the pitch black path to the dorm. There was the quiet observation of a giant snapping turtle being shuffled back toward its water. There was lying on a floating dock in the middle of a lake in the middle of the night, seeing the Milky Way end to end for the first time in years. And most importantly, there was community, in both the silence and the talking. The fellows in my workshop, Urban Waite and Michelle Hoover, were also teachers. Some of my new favorite story writers--Belle Boggs, Alan Heathcock--I feel lucky to have encountered Sewanee. The people I met on that mountain and now call friends, authors of books of poetry collections and story collections and novels, published and about to be published, are in my community for good. I know that now and it's damn inspiring. I want to be as good as them. When I think about them, I am reminded of this: earn your place in that community. I shouldn't have been so cynical when I got into Sewanee. I should have been honored, because here was this chance to talk--about anything including writing--and to be silent on the mountain, and to break out of that rut of aloneness and exhaustion that the writing life can sometimes be by actually connecting with a group of artists. So I came home. I was ready to write.