In a 1973 interview with Playboy, Tennessee Williams explained the necessity of artistic struggle: "Luxury is a wolf at the door and its fangs are the vanities and conceits germinated by success. When an artist learns this, he knows where the dangers lie. Without deprivation and struggle, there is no salvation and I am just a sword cutting daisies." Kevin Wilson, author of the best-selling novel The Family Fang — optioned for a film starring Nicole Kidman — holds a similar view. His keynote address to the first annual Middle Tennessee Writers' Conference, to be held in Murfreesboro on Sept. 28, will be called "The Possible Necessity of Failure: An Examination of the Writing Life." This theory, he wrote in a recent email, stems from his conclusion that The Family Fang was "born out of spectacular failure."
"I was under contract for a different novel," he says, "but the more I wrote, the more difficult it became, and the less my editor liked it." Eventually the book was rejected, and he was forced to start from scratch. Gutted by the experience, he says he found it "hard to even think about starting a new book, especially since I had no other ideas."
Wilson reoriented himself by undertaking short writing projects (a thousand words or fewer) in which he felt free to experiment with style, form and content. That willingness to take chances — even to fail — gave him the courage to begin writing a new novel, which became The Family Fang. "Writing is incredibly difficult," he says now. "It doesn't always work, and you have to appreciate this in order to understand the times that it does work." His keynote address will unpack the other surprising ways that failure led to the quality of work he'd set out to create in the first place.
The daylong conference is sponsored by Middle Tennessee State University's The Writer's Loft, a certificate program in creative writing that offers three semesters of one-on-one mentorship by professional writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and dramatic writing. The conference will feature talks by nonfiction writer Holly Tucker, author of Blood Work; poet Bill Brown, author of Late Winter; fiction writer Linda Busby Parker, author of Seven Laurels; and playwright Claudia Barnett, author of I Love You Terribly: Six Plays. The idea for the conference came from Karen Alea Ford, who was named director of The Writer's Loft in April. Ford's inspiration, she says, was novelist Ann Patchett: "Watching her fill a hole by starting her own bookstore inspired me to do the same — to fill a hole for an affordable, cross-genre literary conference" where everyone is welcome. Ford says her aim in selecting the speakers, most of whom are local teachers as well as writers, was to emphasize the point that "hard work is the main ingredient to quality published writing."
Ford views the conference as a noncompetitive, welcoming way for local writers to meet each other and develop their craft. She, too, will speak at the conference, in a talk titled "Middle Tennessee Writers: Do We Have What It Takes?" By "it," Ford means the ability to "get past the competition and posturing that many of us writers battle within ourselves."
Bill Brown, one of the two conference speakers who also work as mentors for The Writer's Loft, has published five collections of poetry, three chapbooks and a textbook. Named Writer of the Year by the Tennessee Writers' Alliance in 2011, Brown will open the conference. Inspired by the John Barth line, "The story of your life is not your life; it's your story," his speech is intended for writers of all genres, and he will encourage participants to jot down ideas, memories and character sketches as he talks. The other Writer's Loft mentor on the roster, fiction writer Linda Busby Parker, will deliver a speech about creating tension. Playwright Claudia Barnett will discuss crafting dialogue, and like Brown, she will engage attendees with short exercises.
Ford says the whole conference will "focus on craft and quality writing. No agents, no pitch-fests, no selling merchandise. These have their place at conferences, but we will fill a different niche." The cost of attending the conference is $60 for the general public, $30 for MTSU students and faculty, and free for writers enrolled in The Writer's Loft program. The registration fee includes dinner, during which Wilson will deliver his keynote address. Registration is open through Sept. 10 at mtsu.edu/theloft/orientation.php.
For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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