‘Tell Me a Story’: Notes from The Rivendell Writers’ Colony
April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Kate Parrish
“The most powerful words in English are ‘tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity and art itself.” Pat Conroy wrote these words in 2010, and today, when the arts are under attack—when not even Bert and Ernie are safe—they read more like an omen than a salvation. Without access to the arts, will we lose access to our humanity? How long can we survive without each other’s stories? For us at Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the answers are unknown but our response plan remains the same: create more opportunity for creation. It’s why we’re offering four new two-week residency fellowships this year.
Let us tell you a little of our story. Maybe you’ll find its one in which you’d like to help write.
Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the first writers’ residency in Tennessee, opened its doors to storytellers of all genres in 2013. But, of course, that isn’t exactly where the story begins. Located in Sewanee, Tenn., Rivendell sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, a region forged out of layers of sandstone and shale lifted 2,000 feet above sea level nearly 300 million years ago. Hundreds of caves dot the landscape concealing some of the area’s oldest stories: finger-traced mud glyphs left behind 2,000 thousand years ago by individuals with something to say. Individuals who would have ducked into low chambers, squeezed through impossible passes, and crawled on their bellies deep into the earth to write down their stories. Taproot is right.
Sewanee is something of a literary hamlet, a bastion of the written word. It is home to the University of the South, which is home to the Sewanee Review, the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country, and the prestigious Tennessee Williams estate-funded Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Literary juggernauts like Fugitive poet Allen Tate, Agrarian poet Andrew Lytle, novelists William Alexander Percy and his cousin Walker Percy have all lived in Sewanee. In more recent years, John Jeremiah Sullivan, popular essayist and southern editor of The Paris Review, and Kevin Wilson, author of the book-turned-movie The Family Fang, have called Sewanee home. A little more than a decade ago, the university started the School of Letters, a summers-only MFA and MA program, the only one of its kind in the country. For a town with only two blinking red lights, it has a larger literary footprint than many major cities. But what it didn’t have—what it needed—was a writers’ residency.
Built between 1905-1910, the nearly 7,000-square-foot house, referred to simply as “the Manor,” is positioned on the edge of a bluff overlooking Lost Cove. Many mornings the home, the expansive yard dotted with oak and white pine, and the entirety of the bluff are blanketed in a dense fog. Families of deer, fox and skunks move under its protective cover. Lost Cove disappears completely. It is the Manor’s position on the bluff and the frequent presence of fog that inspired one of the property’s former owners to name the space Rivendell after the elven realm in The Lord of the Rings.
Rivendell, which adjoins the historic Brinkwood property, former home of William Alexander Percy, and later, Walker Percy, changed hands for the last time in 1990. Mary Elizabeth Nelson, a Nashville resident with a deep fondness for Sewanee, purchased the property and set to work meticulously renovating it. Today it features two full kitchens, two dining rooms, six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a wood-burning fireplace, a third-story writers’ loft, and a wrap-around porch with a panoramic view of the cove. Rivendell was the first renovation project in Tennessee to earn LEED silver certification.
But Ms. Nelson didn’t set out to create a writers’ residency or a nonprofit. Rivendell Writers’ Colony was born out of one of those “wouldn’t it be nice” kind of conversations that only a long lunch on a back porch in the middle of summer could create. Sewanee friends and colleagues spit balling and dreaming over iced tea and local greens. What if Rivendell became something else? Could it grow into something more? It was the literary piece Sewanee still lacked. Ms. Nelson, a literature lover but not a “Writer” by trade, was listening. And as stories go, the rest is history.
Rivendell, which has now expanded to four residences across two adjoining properties, serves all those who embrace the life of the book. In its brief history as a writers’ residency, it seems to now be fulfilling its intended destiny, as if it had been inching towards this outcome for the last century all along. Over the last four years, hundreds of writers have been able to call Rivendell home for a weekend, two weeks, or a month, joining in Sewanee’s rich literary history in their own way.
We support writers of all genres and writers at varying stages of their literary journeys. Both seasoned and aspiring writers are encouraged to apply. The surroundings, intended to quiet outside distractions (Wi-Fi is limited and there are no TVs), encourage imagination and contemplation. But the accommodations and amenities are anything but austere. Warm and inviting, thoughtful with close attention to detail, this place is meant to feel like home.
In March, we were awarded a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, an organization committed to supporting artists who are also raising families. With this award, we are able to offer four, two-week residencies to writers with a child or children age twelve or younger. If making time and space for writing with no children is challenging, writing while parenting young children can feel almost impossible. Applications for the Sustainable Arts Foundation 2017 Fellowship for Parents are being accepted April 1-May 31 for residencies September-December.
In addition to the SAF fellowship, Rivendell also offers five other fellowships, each made possible by the generous contributions of private donors and our past writers-in-residence. All new applicants are considered for one of these awards.
While it appears there are tough days ahead for those of us in the arts, awards like these stand as evidence of our steadfast commitment to providing writers with the time and space to imagine, create, and examine. We are honored to be a protector of the art of storytelling. We look forward to hearing your stories.
Kate Parrish is a writer, MFA candidate at the Sewanee School of Letters, and doer of whatever needs doing around Rivendell Writers’ Colony. She can be found at kateparrish.com or @parrishdontperish on Instagram.