A 14-year classroom veteran, Donna thought she knew her Shakespeare. Then she enrolled in the Sewanee School of Letters and met Professor Ann Cook. The internationally renowned scholar soon had Donna on her feet acting in plays she’d only read before — and in the library doing advanced research on them. Before long, Donna had won a fellowship to study at the Globe Theatre in London and was presenting her findings at the Shakespeare Association of America conference. And it wasn’t just Shakespeare; Donna has taken classes in African American Literature, Writing Pedagogy, and even Creative Writing, bringing valuable insights from each of them back to her familiar classrooms. “Each fall I returned to work with a spring in my step,” she says, “because of the new knowledge and sheer joy I experienced during the previous summer.” No wonder she called her time at Sewanee “my gift to myself”—but it was just as much a gift for her 10th graders.
What do you do after a 25-year career in the U.S. Army? That was Dwight Gray’s question. He enlisted shortly after graduating from college and was stationed everywhere from Korea to Kansas; his final tour was in Iraq. What next? For Dwight one answer was to return to his long-standing interest in poetry. He had a wealth of material to write about, after all, but needed help polishing his craft. He found that, and much more, in his Sewanee classes: “Studying at Sewanee,” he says, “has exposed me to talented poets, writers and scholars who challenge me to not settle for an average idea or lazy writing. Even the talks with fellow students over supper or on the front porch inspire some great writing--I’m usually amazed by what passes for casual conversation.” Sound exhausting? Dwight admits to putting in “some pretty long hours,” but adds that “it doesn’t feel like work.” He has placed poems in Bellow Literary Journal, Poetry Salzburg Review, Grey Sparrow Journal and Spark! A Creative Anthology. His first book, Overwatch—poems based on his experiences in Iraq—was published in 2011:
You removed goggles, wiped the lenses, and lacking
the azimuth of home—cleaned the rifle
as the sun bleached the last reasonable thought.
Routine kept you sane.
“I love my job,” Louise Kennedy begins. Her job is teaching American Literature, British Literature, and AP Language and Composition at a private school in Florida. “I am always looking for a way to give more to my students.” She found it when a School of Letters postcard showed up in her mailbox. “At the time I was lamenting how impossible getting my MA would be,” she explains. “I am a single mother, I don’t live near a university, and I don’t have time to balance family, work and getting a degree without sacrificing quality in all three areas. Sewanee was the perfect solution. I do have time in my summers, and Sewanee is an ideal place to be with my children.” But it isn’t just about the degree, Louise continues; “It’s about getting a really good one. There’s no substitute for being in a classroom with an amazing professor and outstanding peers. I genuinely go back to work with a refreshed ability to bring something important to the classroom.” Of course there’s more to Sewanee than the classroom experience, and Louise will be glad to tell you how her smart and witty SOL friends have enlivened her Facebook news feed--and how she can subsist for whole summers on the hummus, feta and olive sandwiches at the local coffee house. And don’t get her started on the Master’s thesis she’s been researching in Scotland and the US; she’s pretty passionate about eighteenth-century novelist Tobias Smollett and will give you an earful. “Sewanee’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself,” she says. “I tell people that all the time.”
“I’ve had a lot of jobs,” says MFA Candidate Luke Padgett. That’s an understatement: trained as a geologist, Luke has repaired cell towers, crewed support teams for field scientists on four continents, and shot video for ad agencies and magazines. Since 2003 he’s also been directing his own documentary films. He enrolled in the School of Letters “to get back into a place that valued stories and applied the pressure I needed to push toward gathering and writing more.” Luke wants to explore the connections he finds between nonfiction writing and documentary film. “The focus on story structure gathered from reality works for both video and writing,” he says, “but stepping outside the visual medium is a great way to gain perspective.” Two winters ago he shot a documentary in the remote Chatham Islands, a rocky archipelago about 300 miles south of New Zealand. The story resulted in the film Hallowed Isles, which was screened at the International WIldlife Film Festival in Missoula. This past winter he turned his lens to whale ecology in Canada's Great Bear Fjordland. He always brings back more than video footage: “I always take notes so I can bring them to the nonfiction workshop each summer. The best stories,” he has learned, “are happening all day, everywhere.”
After college Kathryn thought she was going to be a journalist and was well on her way, interning and writing for such publications as The Washington Monthly and Newsweek. But when a personal essay she published in The New York Observer caught the interest of an editor at a Young Adult publishing house, her career plans changed. She is now the author of three YA novels, The Debutante; The Lost Summer; and Pizza, Love, and Other Stuff that Made Me Famous. In 2012 she co-launched a teen fiction packaging company, where she is a developmental editor.
So what is this already-successful writer doing in a writing program? “I want to teach and to hone my craft,” she explains. “Sewanee has given me the confidence and opportunity to branch out into other genres and forms. To be able to write, read, and engage with other writers, and to study with amazing teachers who are passionate about their students, has been a real gift.” While deciding how to translate that gift into new literary ventures, Kathryn blogs about “insane narrators and ugly marriages and other bookish notions” at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/author/kathryn-williams/. Right after Sewanee, she calls Nashville, New York City, Richmond, and Portland, Maine home.
You’re likely to find Michael Trent Thompson standing out in a pasture or a bean field, looking as though he’s just tending to things at one of the farms he manages near Lost Cove, Tennessee. But the MA Candidate in Sewanee’s new program in Theology and Literature is probably also contemplating the next entry on his blog, or pondering the thesis he’s writing on Thomas Merton and Wendell Berry, or even praying according to the Rule of St. Benedict. They all go together for Michael, who enrolled in the School of Letters to polish the writing he was doing about contemplative spirituality and its relation to agrarian life. The Theology and Literature program, a joint venture between the School of Letters and the University’s School of Theology, came along at just the right time. So did the chance to manage the long-neglected farm property at nearby St. Mary’s Retreat Center, and to help restore the one at Brinkwood, the Sewanee home of authors William Alexander Percy and Walker Percy. He has also been deeply involved in establishing Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, of which his wife Carmen is Director. What he thought would be a chance to dip his toe into the literary life has become a full immersion: “If I’m not actually attending to Thoreau’s beans or laying out a labyrinth of lavender,” he says, “I’m writing about them.”
Besides writing his MFA thesis in Creative Nonfiction, Patrick Johnson is navigating his fourth season as Head Coach for Sewanee’s Women’s Soccer team. If he looks remarkably calm, it’s probably because he goes way back with both soccer and writing. A high school and college All-American as a player, Patrick went on to play professionally in England for the Newcastle United and in the United States for the Miami Sharks, the Maryland Bays and the Miami Freedom. After his playing career led him into soccer journalism, he began looking at graduate programs in writing and was drawn by Sewanee’s longstanding tradition of literary excellence. His thesis will be a book about his experiences and travels with the game he loves.
“The School of Letters has been everything I hoped it would be and more in guiding me to a polished final product,” he says. “In truth I am going to miss spending my summers reading and writing away. The course offerings, instructors, outside of class information, and classmates have all been stellar. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
(Soccer, by the way, is going well too: during the past two seasons Patrick's young team has earned 10 all-conference awards and tallied 14 victories.) Patrick lives in Sewanee with his wife Andrea and their children. He he holds a black belt in Shotokan Karate and Tae Kwon Do and a guitar that comes out late at night, especially at midsummer parties.