Let me start off by saying that I never wanted to go to Sewanee. Before I went there, I imagined being surrounded by a bunch of sycophantic, wannabe writers, struggling to keep my dignity while meeting with editors and agents and other writers who have “made it” (whatever that means), and not really knowing what I wanted from them or why I was there among them in the first place. Of course, everyone wants to meet that person who can bolster his career, who will recognize something in his work that sparks a fire of inspiration and dedication, thus spurring them on (whether they be an agent or editor or fellow author) in a rush of promotion and high praise. But I didn’t know if I was ready for that: talking to folks—let’s face it, complete strangers—about my books, selling my work and myself, in the process. This is what I thought Sewanee was going to be like. But as I have been many times before in my life, I was dead wrong.
For the first day or two, I kept to myself mostly, feeling out the lay of the land, getting a sense of those who were there with me, and trying to focus on my then novel-in-progress. I was gearing myself up for two weeks of writing and editing, a sort of self-imposed literary boot camp, with the hope that I would have a complete draft of my book in hand by the time I came home. I didn’t know that I would come away with not only a finished book, but with a sense that I had been in the Mountains for those two weeks among many, variegated spirits who would continue to inspire me and my work, even as I sit here writing this very piece, almost exactly one year later.
You see, I didn’t know that spirits haunted the mountains of Sewanee. And when I say “spirits,” of course, I don’t mean the literal specters that you see in horror movies or Edgar Allan Poe stories. But there are spirits there nonetheless. Ghosts. They come alive in the woods over booze and cigarettes, someone bringing up Barry Hannah or William Gay in conversation, two giants whose ghosts still linger in the pines like river fog. You can almost see William Gay standing against the bole of one of those pine trees, smoking a Marlboro Light and looking down at his ratty sneakers, hardly the image one might conjure when thinking of a literary talent like his. With his long, greasy hair and gray, pointed moustache, he looks more like the drywall hanger, sometimes-carpenter, sometimes-house-painter that he had once been during his apprenticeship as a writer.
I met Amy Williams, William Gay’s former agent, and we talked about William and his work as the sun went down behind the mountains, went down behind those tall pines that jutted out of the precipice like long black paint brushes, scrubbing at the orange and violet sky as if it were itself a blurred canvas. I swear it felt as though William were there listening to us. It was a comforting feeling to have.
I also got to meet Gary Fisketjon, Raymond Carver’s, Richard Ford’s, and Cormac McCarthy’s editor, as well as that of many other literary giants whose work has inspired me over the years. I shook Mr. Fisketjon’s hand as he stood there in his cowboy boots and with his nicotine-stained fingers, listening to me sincerely as though I were an old friend. I asked him about Cormac McCarthy’s next book, about Raymond Carver, questions I’m sure he hears countless times. But he answered them all, never condescendingly, always with that spark of joy one has when talking about something or someone whom one loves. And I felt the presence of those writers he’s worked with as we talked about them. I also felt an equal to this man—this man whose hand has touched the same pieces of paper that had been stained by the pens of some of my biggest literary heroes.
And then there were the teachers: I had the pleasure of working with Steve Yarbrough and Jill McCorkle, sitting around a table in what looked to be a state-of-the-art Chemistry lab (which seemed very appropriate to the sort of work we were doing in there: our manuscripts spread out and ink-stained across the table, chewed-up pencils in hand, smashed Styrofoam coffee cups and scraps of notepaper strewn about like a mad scientist’s ramblings) with its large windows opening up to the campus, lending a natural light to the room as we workshopped each other’s writing and talked about the things for which we all held the same deep and restless passion.
It was there that Steve inadvertently summoned for me the spirit of one of my favorite writers, Larry Brown. He told me a story before class one day about how when Larry came to read at UC-Fresno (where Steve was teaching at the time), he drank so much that, the next morning, he had forgotten where he was and had disappeared. After calling the hotel and knocking on Larry’s door and still getting no response, Steve finally went downstairs with the concierge in a panic, only to spot Larry sitting on the curb outside a convenience store across the street, a 32 oz. Styrofoam cup of coffee in one quivering hand, a bent cigarette hanging from the other.
“Where the hell am I?” Larry said as Steve approached him.
Steve told him that he was in Fresno for a reading, and both men seemed relieved.
Then Larry finally said, “I almost did it, bro.”
“The gun was in my mouth, man. Last night. When I was sitting in that hotel room.”
“Jesus,” Steve said. “Shit.”
“But I’m okay now, man.” Larry sipped from his coffee, then took a drag from his cigarette.
That was all I had to hear to be able to see them there in that noisy Fresno convenience store parking lot, cars pulling in and out among them, leaving dark grease spots on the asphalt, a visible heat radiating from the engines’ quivering hoods. I could see it so well that I am now able to write about it as though I were there with them. It was also all I had to hear to see the spirit of Larry Brown—who he was, what he lived for. It might sound like a negative story that I’m recounting here, but it was the feeling with which Steve told it to me that let me know what they shared that morning was real, that Larry left an indelible mark on the world with his books and also with the man he was. And that was the inspiration I got up there in the Mountains. Seeing my favorite writers in the stories told by those who knew them, who had worked with them, talked with them, and, yes, even cried with them.
One of the best readings I saw while at Sewanee (and there were many) was by the now-late poet, Claudia Emerson. The cancer she had been battling was in remission at the time, and she seemed to glow as she read her lines. There was an urgency in her words, but not a sense of them being rushed. It was as though she had found that perfect place between being still and gliding smoothly, quickly through life. It is a place where we should all aspire to be. Now that she’s gone, I imagine her spirit is there in the Mountains, too, waiting to be brought forth by the conversations that are without a doubt being held in her memory, her honor. For Sewanee is a place full of ghosts; it is a place for the spirits of its visitors to come back to after they leave. In fact, they never really leave; nor have I, come to think of it. It’s been one year, almost to the day, and I am still thinking of that place, its magic, its powerful hold on the writer’s imagination and psyche.
On my last morning there, as I was walking from my dorm room and to the Sewanee Inn, where I would get on a bus that would take me to the airport, I saw a family of deer on the sidewalk just in front of me. No cars were out, the air was cool, and the sky was gray and wet. It is the best time of day to walk and to think, especially in the Tennessee Mountains. These deer were nosing around in the dew-moist grass, seemingly unaware of my approach, their eyes like large oil spots on their smooth, tan-and-white faces. I placed my luggage down on the sidewalk and tried to slip my phone from my pocket so that I could take a picture of them, but just like that, they were gone: off into the morning woods in about two quick leaps that were as silent as breath.
I thought about those deer the whole rest of the way to the Inn, but I never mentioned them to anyone until now. Somehow it seemed the perfect culmination of my trip there, and I wanted to keep it sacred and to myself. But now, however, since the book I was working on while at Sewanee has found a publisher (it will be coming out later this fall from Southeast Missouri State University Press), and I have finished a memoir as well as a chapbook of poems (both of which have also found publishers and are forthcoming), I feel I owe a large part of my success to being at Sewanee, being among writers whom I now call friends, and not in the sycophantic way that I had first imagined, but as true friends. And I still sense those spirits, those ghosts that I mentioned earlier. They are around me even as I write these pages, and I would have never known they existed had I not made the trip up into that ghostly and majestic place.