I spent last week at St. Simon’s Island as a faculty member teaching the nuts and bolts of writing at the Southeastern Writers Association 32nd annual conference with my dear friend Elizabeth Sinclair.
The classes went great, but as I sit here this morning, I’m suffering a serious case of post-conference blahs. You know the ones I mean. The isolation and quiet after a hectic week of talking writing with people whose eyes don’t glaze over during discussions of craft. Late night laughing yourself silly over missteps and goofy stories about characters taking over your book and your life. Things common to all writers but alien to everyone else.
Definitely post-conference blahs. And it is the images of the people there who are most on my mind.
Elizabeth. We’ve been friends for about fifteen years, but the only time we see each other is at conferences or during hurricane evacuations. To have a week together in this relaxed setting is a royal treat. I laughed so much I ached, seriously.
Bill Olsen. Another dear friend there teaching film. A friend I first met at St. Simon’s six years ago. While there, I looked at the photos in the album from that time. We didn’t look any different really. But a lot has changed in all our lives in these past six years.
Then there were familiar faces and new ones, many of whom touched my heart…
Lee, who six years ago was an author and now is an editor and publisher as well!
Paul, who in his 80s has seen his first book published. He was a railroad man and the stories he tells about it are amazing.
Harry, who at 81 published his first book–and has three more in the works at this moment. They’re scheduled to come out every six months. And just as he did when I was there six years ago, Harry started off each of my mornings with a limerick. It set the tone for a humorous day. I am very fond of Harry Rubin’s limericks.
There’s Darrell Huckaby, a humorist steeped in old south mannerisms and traditions that are charming and would serve other men well to watch and learn. I sat in on Darrell’s classes, which were always entertaining and laughter-filled (without an utterance of a dirty word) and wasn’t at all surprised that he and Louis Grizzard had been well acquainted. Darrell is a dying breed of southern gentleman with a keen eye for seeing the unusual in the everyday. But that was never more evident than when Ruthie, who needs hip surgery, won her second award and he stepped out from the podium to meet her so she wouldn’t have to walk as far. His southern gentleman ways are etched in his bones, and it reminded me of a time not too long ago when this type thoughtfulness was common and ordinary and it was in not exhibiting this type thoughtfulness that warranted notice. We are poorer that it isn’t common anymore.
Lee, with his deep radio announcer’s voice and gentle spirit who handled whatever fires might have arisen without a whisper to the others attending. So far as we knew, there hadn’t been a single glitch all week. I’ve coordinated too many conferences to believe that possible.
Rhett, a nurse from Chekoslavia; Mary and Diane from Rome, Beverly Sue who is charming and somehow looks like a southern belle even in a t-shirt and jeans, and Amy and Charlotte and Nelle, whom I hadn’t seen in such a long, long time.
So many others, traipse through my mind, and I feel blessed.
My favorite part: sitting on the rocking chairs at Miss Ellie’s porch and listening to Chris play the guitar in the background while others shared stories. Some were about writing, most were about life. I loved every second of that time–almost as much as I loved open mic night, where anyone who chose to read from their work. The stories were amazing, diverse, riveting. Poets recited from memory that left not a dry eye. Stories of caring for Alzheimer’s patients that were touching, loving and funny. Novelists read openings and Bill read a bit from his novel where the characterization was so vivid, I was standing there with the characters. I could tell by others’ reactions and facial expressions that they were sharing that same experience. Loved that. Susan’s story–boy, does she have the south downpat! And I loved Louis’s gripping tale about a watch. I will never look at a watch the same again!
I could rattle on, add dozens more names. I really, really loved open mic night. I loved the Low Country dinner at Holly’s and hearing Beverly Sue’s voice–a true, deep southern drawl and soothing gentleness. I loved getting to spend some time with an old friend, Haywood Smith, and chatting with Bill Jenkins, a super bookseller who went the extra mile and then some.
Actually, I guess I loved everything about this conference. Mostly I loved the people. The sharing and stories and the laughter. I loved what wasn’t there, too.
There was no talk of how rough the business is; everyone knows it. No talking of how hard it is to get published or talk of frustration and weariness; everyone knows all that, too. Many there felt those things, are experiencing those things, but focused instead on their love for the writing. On telling stories and enjoying the creation process. It was a refreshing breath of spring to experience that; to be immersed in the love of writing.
I’ve been attending conferences since 1987, and never have I enjoyed a conference so much. I usually come home voiceless and exhausted and soul-weary, hurting for so many people who are facing diverse challenges, personal and professional. But from this conference, I came home relaxed and rested and energized down to my soul by the spirit and joy of all those there. It was an amazing treat. A blessing.
And I look forward to seeing everyone there again next year. I can’t wait!