Well into his sixties and with a history of heart problems, Jesse Stuart continued to write and publish at an incredible pace. He also continued to teach and directed seven creative writing workshops at Murray State University from 1969 to 1977. The University established the summer workshop program a year after conferring an honorary doctorate upon Stuart. The program began with fifty-eight students in 1969 and gradually peaked at seventy-nine students, representing twenty-seven states, in 1976.
The workshop offered four courses. In the first year, Stuart taught “The Short Story;” Wilma Dykeman Stokely taught “The Novel;” former Stuart student Lee Pennington taught “Poetry;” and Murray State journalism professor L. J. Horton taught “Nonfiction.” The next year, Stuart added another member to his all-star team when Harriette Simpson Arnow, famed author of The Dollmaker, replaced Mrs. Stokely in teaching the novel. A new course, “Writing for Children,” was added in 1975 and was taught by Alvin Tresselt, a former editor of several children’s magazines.
Students were drawn like moths to Stuart’s infectious light, and “The Short Story” was typically the largest class. Jesse was a brusque, passionate, and helpful teacher. In a remembrance of her first class with him, Quint T. Guier tells the story of a student who began to read her story, when her teacher stopped her and asked her to write the title on the blackboard. She did so and began again. “The title of your story is too long,” Jesse interrupted. “It’s a whole sentence. The title to a story should be short and snappy but suggestive of what the story is about.” The class volleyed suggestions for a more concise title back and forth before the story was satisfactorily renamed and the girl could proceed. “She learned…that Jesse Stuart was just as ready to acknowledge a good point…as to point out a bad one.”
At the end of the 1977 workshop, Stuart, as director, spoke to a group that included the year’s participants, along with Murray State faculty and administrators. He was recovering from a “heart stoppage followed sometime later by a heart attack” and had received doctors’ permission to attend “only three days before the beginning of this workshop.” According to his colleague and friend Harriette Simpson Arnow, his 1977 workshop class “was large and prolific.” Jesse had numerous manuscripts to read and evaluate. Mrs. Arnow described his stressors and his zealous personality:
Worse, he took many of his meals in the dining hall with his wife. Students loved him, crowded ’round him while he tried to eat; that led him into conversations when he should have been quietly eating. Mrs. Stuart, for the most part, would sit silently by, and get him back to the motel where they stayed; she would get him away at the first lull and it was she who remembered his medicine and watched him worriedly. Yet the only way he could go was under full steam; even his conversations were more animated than those of most people.
Each of the classes met for two and a half hours per day, five days per week, for three weeks. Students were limited to taking only one course for three hours of college credit, but they were also allowed to audit an additional class. The workshop was well designed and well implemented, and students benefitted greatly from careful professional evaluations. The workshops concluded with a banquet and the creation of an anthology of the summer’s best pieces.
Stuart suffered a stroke in 1978 and was unable to work again. Without its star attraction, the program came to an end, but Stuart had conducted writing workshops for seven years and had trained approximately five hundred writers and teachers. Murray’s success encouraged the development of similar programs at other regional schools.
The Jesse Stuart Foundation is an institutional extension of Stuart, so we have scheduled a two-day, Friday and Saturday Writers Workshop at Greenbo Lake State Resort Park in 2024 (June 21 & 22). George Ella Lyon has agreed to be the keynote speaker and present a breakout session. Other instructors will be Hal Blythe, Stan Bumgardner, Victor Depka, Brenda Evans, Jim Gifford, Edwina Pendarvis, Cathy Roberts, and Charlie Sweet. If you are interested in attending or promoting this workshop, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will add your name to a list of people we will contact as the workshop takes shape. Please include your mailing address and telephone number.
By James M. Gifford
JSF CEO & Senior Editor