introducing readers to writers since 1995

July 29, 2005

N.M. Kelby @ Sewanee

by Ron Hogan

nmkelby.jpgN.M. Kelby is always a welcome guest here at Beatrice, and in her latest dispatch she takes us behind the scenes at the Sewanee Writers' Conference:

For more than a decade, I have returned to this conference, to this part of Tennessee where it is said that angels walk the streets. If angels do roam here, during mid-July they probably stop by Stirling's coffeehouse for some sweet tea and a chat with Barry Hannah. It's a lovely way to spend a summer afternoon.

The great Southern writer Peter Taylor is buried in Sewanee. His grave sits atop the Cumberland Plateau overlooking what he called "the long green hinterland that is Tennessee." His heart was always in Sewanee, and now always will be.

Sometimes, I feel my heart is here, too. It is a fertile landscape.

The first time I came here, I was awarded a Jerome Fellowship to study playwriting. That was such a long time ago. During the past decade, I have had the fine pleasure to have supper with Arthur Miller, Derek Walcott (a man I later studied with), and Bob Giroux of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I also have studied theater with the great gentleman playwright Horton Foote, his daughter Daisy Foote, and the venerable Romulus Linney. I have learned much about the naked quality of the stage, and of life itself, from them. For that I will always be grateful.

I have also considered fiction with Tim O'Brien, Tony Earley, and, perhaps one of my most favorite women on this planet, Alice McDermott.

My time at Sewanee has been a blessed education. And this year will always be remembered as a turning point in my life.

I hadn't intended to come at all. With three novels, I felt that my time as an apprentice had long passed. But, after I was commissioned to write a play, I knew I needed help. I needed a chance to 'test' the first draft in an environment far away from New York City. I needed a safe place. It's been more than a decade since I've written for the stage. I am so rusty, I creak.

So, I wrote the play and sent it to Sewanee along with my conference application. I have to admit that I was quite surprised when I was named a Walter Dakin fellow in Playwriting. I was just hoping they'd let me in. A Dakin is the highest honor bestowed on a participant, a fellowship of great distinction.

In 1983, Tennessee Williams left the residual portion of his estate to the University of the South to support "creative writing" as a memorial to his grandfather, the Reverend Walter E. Dakin, who had studied at Sewanee's School of Theology in 1895. This was my second Dakin Fellowship. I have also served as a Dakin Fellow in fiction, and a Tennessee Williams Scholar.

So I now feel that I have become part of the legacy of Tennessee Williams--and that is an amazing thing to be a part of. I am honored and humbled by it. During my two weeks on the mountain, I rediscovered the great joy that is theater, the blood and bones of it. I also discovered that the legacy of Mr. Williams lives with all of us who write. We are all part of the community of his heart, his vision, and his keen desire to create a world that makes sense, and has beauty, and honors grace.

From the first night when the linguist and writer John Casey stood before us, explained his stutter, and read his work the best he could, it was clear that those who gather on the mountain come to be a part of something greater than themselves. They sat in quiet wonder listening to this man who is fluent in many languages but because of his affliction must struggle to communicate in any of them. They listened to the new voices of the scholars, the fledgling fellows, and each other. They wept, laughed, and drank together under the Tennessee moon.

For me, one of the finest moments happened on my birthday. July 18 always falls during the conference, and I have marked the passing of my years in grand company. This year was no exception.

The day of my birthday, I went to the flea market and bought an ebony guitar from Jimmy Carter. Not the former president, as he was quick to point out, but Jimmy Carter who is a sweet man from Nashville.

"When people ask me where Rosalynn is, I say she lives across the street these days," he said. "Which is true. My neighbor is a Miss Rosalynn, but not the same Miss Rosalynn as Jimmy's, you understand." Then he winked. I like a man who winks.

And so, because it was my birthday, he sold me a brand new Epiphone by Gibson and a hard-sided case for all the cash I had in my wallet–even though it was much less than his asking price. And by all accounts, it was a good deal. After the non-presidential Mr. Carter took my money, he looked shocked.

"I've never given anyone a discount like that before," he said. "Just thought a pretty lady like you needed a good gift on her birthday one that would service her a long time."

And he was right; the story is a good gift. The story will be around a long time.

The funny part about all this is that I don't know how to play guitar. But every couple of years I try and learn a new skill. I can sing and the guitar was so beautiful, it seemed like the right thing to do. And, of course, I did get a good story out of it.

When I arrived at supper that night, flowers greeted me. My agent Lisa Bankoff and her assistant Tina Dubois had sent me a lovely display of roses and lilies. The card read: "There is so much to celebrate." And she, as always, was right. Later, a bouquet of white fist-sized roses would appear and create an embarrassment of riches.

When supper was over, Richard Bausch, who is an amazing writer, skilled teller of jokes, boyish imp, and kind heart, lead the two hundred assembled in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday."

After the reading that night, Dick showed me how to play my new guitar. As we sat on the front porch of the French House, he serenaded me while I sipped bourbon, fireflies winked, and the smoky moon rose over "the long green hinterland that is Tennessee."

It was at that moment that I knew the legend of Sewannee is true: angels do walk among those who chose to come to the mountain. These angels sing. They play guitar. They laugh. They sip bourbon. They love too much. They write in shadow of Tennessee Williams. And most importantly, they hope. They believe in hope and cultivate it from one generation to the next.

And that is a great gift.

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