- Michael Knight
Last year was my first at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and I confess that I was very much intimidated, but Wyatt Prunty, with the help of a long list of generous and able lieutenants, made it easy. Of course he did. He's been directing the Conference for thirty years, and it has become as welcoming and nurturing a creative space as you will find.
Like all good hosts, Wyatt is something of a peripheral presence at the Conference. He's always around, always ready to engage, always handy with a kind word, but he is content to let the participants shine. Only on rare occasions does he allow himself to take center stage. On the first night of the Conference, for example, it's his job to introduce new members of the faculty. I don't remember exactly what he said about me, but he did out me as a smoker, his tone playful and disapproving at the same time, the teasing itself, that low-key hazing, a particular and familiar brand of welcome. He sounded very much like my father in that moment. That, too, put me at ease.
Only one element of the Conference never ceased to be intimidating. Each member of the faculty is asked to give a reading and mine was one of the last on the schedule. I'd gone back and forth over my selection before I arrived, changing my mind half a dozen times. Then I listened to two weeks' worth of knockout readings and changed my mind again. And again. I finally settled on a couple of short pieces, one about a father and son that I'd written some years back. There's enough fiction in it that the story must be labeled as such, but it's obvious that the man and boy depicted in its pages are thinly veiled versions of my father and myself. The reading was going along just fine until that last piece. I was about three paragraphs in when I realized I was going to cry. I didn't blubber. It [End Page 725] wasn't that bad. But I did struggle to get through it and remained a little out-of-body with emotion in the aftermath.
After the reading, over drinks at the French House, I found myself in conversation with a man I hadn't met before, a local, if memory serves, not affiliated with the Conference. He'd just come out to see the readings. This man kept pressing a particular point, rephrasing the same question: mine wasn't a sad story, so why, he wanted to know, had it made me so sad to read it? I tried to explain that it wasn't sadness exactly that had overcome me. It was something more complicated than that. The truth is I was still feeling raw and probably embarrassed by my show of emotion, and I'm ashamed to say that finally I snapped, "because he was a good father, and I was a bad son." After that, this poor, curious man left me alone.
A few minutes later, Wyatt walked over and sat down with his drink. He steered us, quite unobtrusively, into the subject of fathers and sons. He didn't ask questions. He just told stories about his own father. I won't repeat them. I don't remember every detail, and besides, they're his stories to tell. Before long, however, I'd settled back into my skin. If I'd thought of it at the time, I would have told Wyatt that I was grateful for his attention and for knowing so much about fathers and sons, but I didn't think of it, and he was already standing, already moving on to another conversation, another group of attendees, already making some other lucky soul feel welcome and understood.
Michael Knight is the author of three novels, three short story collections, and a book of novellas. He teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee.