- Jennifer Haigh
I first attended the Conference twenty years ago, in the summer of 1999. I had just quit my glossy magazine job in New York because I wanted to go be a novelist. That I did this without ever having published a single word of fiction will give you an idea how young I was. I moved to Baltimore, where rents were still so cheap that I could eke out a living teaching yoga while I worked on a terrible novel that has mercifully never seen the light of day. [End Page 715]
I brought the first chapter of that novel to Sewanee, where Amy Hempel and Barry Hannah were put in the unenviable position of having to comment on it. Amy was kind, rueful. Barry seemed outraged by how bad it was. As he picked apart the opening paragraph sentence by sentence, I felt unfairly judged: Had I not clearly written the words first draft at the top of every page? In Barry's view, it was no excuse. Even in a first draft, the sentence mattered. For him it was a point of faith: writing a story with bad sentences was a doomed enterprise, like building a house of rotted wood. It remains the most valuable piece of advice I have ever been given. It forever changed the way I write.
When I returned to the Conference four years later, as a Walter E. Dakin fellow, I had a new MFA from Iowa. My first novel, Mrs. Kimble, had just been published and would soon win the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. I am certain that none of those things would have happened had I not encountered Barry Hannah that summer at Sewanee. He'd written some of the best American sentences of the twentieth century, and he had the grace to take me seriously. He was more generous to me than any writer I have ever known.
Jennifer Haigh is the author of the story collection News from Heaven and five novels—most recently, Heat and Light.