Lexington’s nickname as the “Athens of the West” has been invoked many times in many contexts, but never so accurately as in the longevity of our literary institutions. We are a city of books, that knows how to support writers. The Kentucky Women Writers Conference celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and the University Press of Kentucky its 76th, both incredible assets to the community, state, and nation that the University of Kentucky has nurtured for many decades. Together with the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, celebrating its 27th anniversary this year, they provide a unique and thriving literary ecosystem that is the envy of many midwestern cities.
What is a writers conference and who is it for? Ours has been different things to different people in every decade since its founding. Former conference board president Jan Isenhour recalls being assigned only four books by women in six years of English courses in the 1970s. The Women Writers Conference was launched by UK faculty as a way to fill in those gaps. Over the 1980s it also tracked the growth of Women’s Studies as an academic discipline, and back when LGBTQ was shorter by two letters, the Women Writers Conference was a welcoming place for marginalized identities.
My own introduction to Kentucky writers came long before I ever set foot in the state. As managing editor for Counterpoint Press in Washington, D.C. in the nineties, I remember conversations with Guy Davenport and Ed McClanahan about their book projects, and with another Counterpoint author, Wendell Berry, who came to town to give a reading. For Wendell’s reading there was an overflow crowd bursting with questions like, which is more important, buying organic or buying local? (Wendell said local, to my surprise). When the whole staff joined him afterwards at his editor Jack Shoemaker’s house, I knew I was living the dream of a life among books.
I never imagined that a few years later I would be growing my own roots in Kentucky, raising two babies and beginning a long affiliation with the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. To become director of the conference became my new dream and then, in 2007, my reality. The experience was transformational because, like the columnist Leonard Pitts, who recently confessed to reading few books by women despite being an avowed feminist, I was unfamiliar with many of the authors who came to the Women Writers Conference. I welcomed the chance to become more intentional in my reading.
Now in 2019 I find myself with a son heading off to college and a conference celebrating its 40th anniversary, of which I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of being its longest serving director. My tenure began in 2007 when it was not uncommon to hear skeptics ask whether women still “needed” their own writers conference. It’s a question that will always be asked, and those best equipped to answer it are former participants themselves, for example, Lia Oppendisano, who attended from Boston in 2018: “It did make a difference for me that it was all women. I realized that in other classes I’ve taken, I’ve held the assumption that the men in the room were the heavy hitters. But at KWWC, I saw women as the power in the room, and they were terrific.” In 2010, the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts first published “The Count,” quantifying the presence of women writers in national magazines, e.g., female bylines and reviews of women-authored books in places like The New Yorker and Harper’s. The results were a wake-up call about the progress still to be made towards parity.
Another trend that influenced our development was the rise of the M.F.A.—the Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. As English Departments increasingly focused on literary theory, producing sophisticated readers who can write about literature in stimulating new ways, students who wanted to explore basic questions like “What makes a good plot?” tended to find their answers more in creative writing than in “lit” classes. Both types of learning are essential: great writers are always the smartest, most voracious readers. But that split between Literature and Creative Writing helped crystalize what we now do at a writers conference—primarily the latter. Our workshops teach craft lessons like character development, setting, plot, and, as one has it this year, “the divine detail.”
We also talk a lot about how to get published, with the professionals at the University Press of Kentucky sending authors and panelists our way. What writers need more than anything is readers. Internet culture and Open Access trends have trained people to expect free content, but when you are face-to-face with an author reading from her work, it becomes easier to understand that writers’ words often crystalize the best of what they have to offer this world, and that they deserve to be paid for their labors.
In its first year in 1979, Women Writers Conference organizers were prescient in bringing three women of color: Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara. Featuring writers of color does not automatically translate into audiences who look like them, but it’s an important first step in an essential and ongoing dialogue. For example, many families in this open-hearted city have been formed through transracial adoption. We hope they and their loved ones will join us for a free public address by Nicole Chung, whose memoir on transracial adoption, All You Can Ever Know, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, on September 20, 7:30 p.m., at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center.
For more information or to register for conference daytime sessions on Sept. 20-21, please visit www.kentuckywomenwriters.org or call 859-257-2874. Through your support and participation, Lexington will continue to be a place where diverse women’s voices are thriving, compensated, and heard.
Julie Kuzneski Wrinn is director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference.