Writing is a lonely business, right? A fight to the finish between the scribbler and the blank page (or screen), with no witness but for the unsatisfied muse peering over the writer’s shoulder.
Not really, says Rick Jackson, an award winning poet and UTC professor. As director of Meacham Writers Workshop, he’s been bringing together accomplished and emerging writers – both UTC students and writers in the community – twice a year since 1985. Whether they’re starting out or established, what writers really need, says Jackson, is a community of other writers. That’s what they find at Meacham. (Okay, getting their work critiqued by experienced writers and hearing writers read their work are pretty important, too.)
According to Jackson, Meacham is easily the most informal writers conference in the country. Visiting writers are available about 12 hours a day for informal conversations. “At other conferences there’s always an air of formality. You know you’ve got to do certain things at a certain time. You don’t approach the writers except in a formal workshop or classroom setting, or maybe you can chat briefly after a reading.”
The next Meacham workshop will be October 25-27, with workshops and individual conferences among participants and visiting instructors at UTC and readings by 20 writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry at Chattanooga State and various locations around town. Even when Meacham has had national literary figures like poets James Tate (Pulitzer 1992, National Book Award 1994) and Gerald Stern (National Book Award 1998), “They just hang around with people, whether they’re the most famous or the least famous. It’s incredibly democratic.”
Oh, and it’s free. Next week’s readings by 20 writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry are all free and open to the public. Even workshop sessions and individual conferences are available at no charge to anyone who submits a manuscript, although the deadline has passed for this fall’s workshop.
Many conference participants keep up an email correspondence with the visiting writers they meet at Meacham. “I think that’s pretty incredible. At other conferences, the conference is over and that’s it,” says Jackson.This kind of access is important to a writer who hasn’t yet gotten as far up the career ladder as these visiting writers because it’s an informal welcoming into the profession.
“It’s like being a little league baseball player, and you go to the game and all of a sudden you’re invited into team locker room for Atlanta Braves, and they let you throw the ball. It gives you a sense of your identity and what you’re about, a sense that you’re part of that larger community, particularly when you have the writers who come in and encourage you and take you seriously and don’t think of you as an apprentice, as much as somebody who’s getting from where they are to being a better writer.”
This sense of intimacy also appeals to the visiting writers. At most writers’ conferences, he says, the schedule is tight and the visiting writers are “handled” like rock stars.
“You do your stuff and they hustle you back to your hotel room. Here you do your stuff and hang around more. The writers like that because they get a sense of their audience, who they are writing for.”
At Meacham, he says you might see a few pros sit down for a chat, then invite a workshop participant to join in. In fact, the informal atmosphere is one reason Jackson had been able to attract such a high level of writers as faculty, including Stern and Tate, as well as poets Philip Levine and Charles Simic, Guggenheim fellow Stanley Plumly and Oprah selection novelist Bret Lott. Jackson also brings writers from abroad including Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, England and the Czech Republic. "We get writers for a fraction of what they normally charge because they know the quality of the students and the community writers. They know the kind of atmosphere we have here.”
Jackson thinks the larger community benefits, too, because they get a chance not only to see excellent writers, but also to see that they are real people who just happen to write beautifully.
“I put a writer on same level that I put my mechanic. To me Bobby Parker is an artist. He can look at my car, figure out what’s wrong with it, and get it running. There’s an art to that, but he’s just a regular person. Gerald Stern comes in, and he can see some sort of a situation and find some words that describe it and create something new out of it, give it his own spin and send it out into the world. It’s the same sort of thing.”
For the full program and access past readings on iTunes, visit www.meachamwriters.org.