In 1978, some University of Kentucky undergraduate administrators had that rarest of academic treasures: a little extra money left in their budget.
John Stephenson, then dean of undergraduate studies at UK, and his assistant Griffith Dye considered how to use the money.
Dye's wife, Nancy, a faculty member in the history department, suggested bringing in women writers because, as poet Jane Gentry Vance later recalled, "students didn't very often get something like that in the curriculum at UK."
The first Kentucky Women Writers Conference was held in 1979.
Since then, the conference has brought high-profile best-selling authors to campus while nurturing promising writers closer to home.
This year's keynote speaker is Ann Beattie, author of Chilly Scenes of Winter (her first published novel, in 1976), the collection The New Yorker Stories (2011) and her new book, The State We're In: Maine Stories.
Beattie will deliver the conference's keynote address — which is free and open to the public — Sept. 11 at the Singletary Center.
Beattie is a friend of UK faculty member Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way. Pittard and Beattie will have a question-and-answer session as part of Beattie's keynote presentation.
The Women Writers Conference has hosted some of the nation's luminaries of writing, notable not because they are women but because they hold unique insight into the human condition and express it in some of the most wrenchingly beautiful poetry and prose ever committed to paper (and now, Kindle). They include novelist and short story writer Joyce Carol Oates; food writer and critic Ruth Reichl; novelist Alice Walker; poet and autobiographer Maya Angelou; novelist Margaret Atwood; and novelist, essayist and poet Barbara Kingsolver.
The conference runs on a shoestring budget of $93,000, including funding from various UK departments, LexArts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women and private donations. Proceeds from ticket sales defray only about 20 percent of program costs, according to conference director Julie Kuzneski Wrinn.
The Women Writers Conference is the longest-running program of its kind in the country, Wrinn said.
"Its history has paralleled the development of feminism over the decades of its life," Wrinn said. "When it began, women writers were not on syllabi in college classrooms."
The answer to the question of why it's important to hold a conference just for women writers has changed over the course of the conference's history, Wrinn said.
"Even now, when we feel that feminism has accomplished many of its goals, ... when you get in some of these upper echelons of literary culture, women are still under- represented," Wrinn said. "Our mission is to address these disparities and to do what we can to foster the careers of women writers."
In a telephone interview, Beattie said that her keynote speech, "All This Useless Beauty: Symbol and Subtext in the Short Story," is titled after an Elvis Costello song, but the song's name didn't occur to her until after she conceived the speech.
"I did confine my subject a little more than the official title would indicate," she said, adding that she would discuss female short story writers in the mid-20th century.
She compared it to the late director Robert Altman, who made the 1971 movie McCabe & Mrs. Miller, in which a gambler and a prostitute become business partners, and later recognized that the gloomy yet catchy music of Leonard Cohen would be perfect for the soundtrack.
Sometimes, Beattie said, you see new things in old patterns as you would after gazing for years at a wallpaper pattern and suddenly find a whole design new to you, yet in plain sight all the time.
Her Sept. 12 craft talk is titled "What I Think I'm Doing." It is assuredly not a career retrospective.
"I'm either going to take several endings of short stories and be able to hand those out, or I'm going to read a very short story, a few pages ... and talk about how, for me, short stories are things that are stored in my subconscious that wouldn't have appeared had I not written the short story," Beattie said.
Beattie's husband, Lincoln Perry, is one of her editors; another is David Wiegand, the television editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.
"I listen to them," Beattie said. "I almost invariably defer to them."
Does she find that her early work still resonates with readers?
"I started publishing so many years ago," Beattie said. Chilly Scenes of Winter was published in 1976, featuring a hero who loved an already committed woman, some mental illness and a smidgen of Turtle Wax — and it was made into a movie starring John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt in 1979, with Beattie in a cameo role as a waitress.
"Chilly Scenes of Winter is much invoked by people. ... To me, that's really old, but people do seem to respond very strongly to that."