Crossroads, Conversations, and Amorality

By: Kayleigh R. Thiel

I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him, and they are welcome to take from him, as he feels that he would be welcome by the best of his predecessors to take what they had done.     –William Faulkner

At a Q&A in John Coleman’s classroom in February of 1957, William Faulkner answered questions posed by novice writers. Faulkner’s words perfectly embody last month’s Southern Literary Festival, which was sponsored in part by MTSU Write. Preparing for the Southern Literary Festival, I had surmised that festivals such as this were an amazing opportunity for writers to connect across generations and cultural backgrounds. Then I realized that the writers who are no longer with us, such as the great William Faulkner, had left everything behind for the living. Their works, preserved in museums and in new editions, taught by professors to students and grandparents to grandchildren, have become an open window for contemporary, new writers. And this open window is the reason the Southern Literary Festival is paramount to the celebration of writers’ legacies. Robert Penn Warren directed the first Southern Literary Festival in 1937 at Blue Mountain College, and this year, Ann Patchett delivered the keynote for this extraordinary event at Middle Tennessee State University. At these conferences, writers share with one another, with their mentors, with their students – there is no limit to the experiences and encouragement passed between each connection made; in addition, we must remember that these festivals are a celebration of those writers who left a part of themselves behind in their writing.

Their words are like an inspirational map linking contemporary writers to the past. Courtney Gulbro, a current student with the MTSU Write program, commented on the importance of the writing community’s learning and connecting, “Regardless of genre, the more a writer knows, the richer her writing. Learning about myriad topics, time periods, regions, and cultures opens the writer’s eyes to aspects of characters, settings, etc., that might otherwise be missed. Those aspects make the individual reader’s experience with the work more meaningful and fosters that sense of connectedness to the book and the author. When a writer connects with writers from these other areas it opens pathways for learning and growth both individually and as a writer, and enriches the life of the writer.” Furthermore, Kory Wells, MTSU Write mentor, author of the poetry collection Heaven Was the Moon and two-time finalist for the Rash Award for Poetry, shared her thoughts on the mind of an intuitive writer. “In her poem ‘Fireflies,’ Cecilia Woloch lists one of her vices as ‘living inside my head,’ something I think many of us writers do. Do we write because we live inside our heads, or do we live inside our heads because we write? I can’t say, but I do know that one strong antidote to that condition is attending literary festivals. For me, the best of such events offer a package deal, if you will, of creative inspiration, education, encouragement, and a broadening of awareness and community.” Wells specifically discusses how the Southern Literary Festival of 2016 offered a plethora of inspiration from presenters such as Matthew Leavitt Brown, Gaylord Brewer, and Kamilah Aisha Moon. She states: “Experienced writers and editors often refer to literature as an ‘ongoing conversation’ of writers past and present, and while nothing replaces the need for writers to read voraciously, literary festivals are a marvelous extension of that conversation.”

Both Gulbro and Wells discuss the assembly of writers as a journey for personal actualization and creative expression within a supportive community. The Southern Literary Festival of 2016 was an extraordinary event for contemporary students and writers to revitalize the prominence of the literary world. Flannery O’Connor puts it this way: “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.”

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