For more than 25 years, The Knoxville Writers’ Guild has served the writers of this area. We’ve held meetings, contests, open mics, workshops, and many other activities designed to make the writing life a little less lonely and more satisfying. The Guild also gives writers opportunities to serve the community. We’ve participated in all kinds of festivals, gone into the schools to show the kids that all writers aren’t dead, held workshops at senior centers to help our elderly preserve their memories. If you believe such endeavors are worthwhile, and especially if you have benefited personally from your association with the Guild, you owe a big, warm, heartfelt THANK YOU to Jeanne MacDonald.
Jeanne was one of five people who decided that Knoxville needed an association of writers and set out to make it a reality. They did an enormous amount of legwork before they called the first meeting. They contacted all the writers they knew personally. They arranged to meet at the Laurel Theatre without charge. They obtained a membership list of a state-wide writers’ group and sent out invitations to members who had nearby zip codes. A few months after the first meeting, when the initial board was formed, they all became board members, but they wanted a prominent person as president. Jeanne recruited her dear friend Jack Reese, a former chancellor of UT Knoxville, who at that time was one of the most respected figures in this area. Having Jack as president gave the Guild instant credibility. Without Jeanne, we would have never had Jack.
That core group of founders, and those who joined the board later, gave up precious free time and, more important, writing time to deal with the barrage of problems every new organization encounters. Although Jeanne was later vice president and then president, she wasn’t an officer for the first few years. Yet Jeanne, more than anyone else, was the one with the big ideas, the one with the courage to take on difficult projects and the stamina to see them through to a successful conclusion.
I was asked one time, after the Guild was a few years old, why I thought our organization had survived and expanded when so many similar groups had fizzled out. I said, “Because we had an interesting, informative, professionally edited newsletter from the very beginning.” Jeanne, of course, was the editor of that newsletter.
Early on, Jeanne told the board, “I want the Writers’ Guild to be an organization that does things!” Shortly after that, she presented the board with a bombshell idea: she wanted us to publish an anthology of our members’ writing. That may sound ho-hum today, but at the time no other writers’ organization in the area was publishing. It was a gamble. This was long before print-on-demand made independent publishing affordable. We had at most a couple of hundred dollars, and the printing cost would be in the thousands. But Jeanne assured us she would find the money and people would buy the final product. As it turned out, she was right in principle but way off in the details. It cost twice as much as she thought, but it sold out two printings, making twice the profit she had estimated. More important, Voices from the Valley, edited by Jeanne MacDonald, established the Guild as a serious organization, one that indeed did things. And, by the way, in the next few years, writers’ organizations all over this region were publishing anthologies of their members’ writing.
Later Jeanne secured funding for a program that sent writers into local senior centers and nursing homes to lead workshops. The result was The Voice of Memory, a fascinating collection of vignettes by workshop participants–edited, of course, by Jeanne MacDonald.
As many of you know, Jeanne made her living as an editor at UT. Imagine, if you can, working five days a week editing mostly dull, official documents and stultifying academic papers and then spending your nights and weekends editing newsletters and books for the Guild. Jeanne did that for years. And she still found time to write short stories and novels of her own.
I have mentioned only a few of Jeanne’s initiatives and contributions. Without her, the Guild would have been less bold, less innovative, less successful. It’s possible it would not have survived.
I’ve heard several people say that the Guild ought to put Jeanne’s name on an award or an event. If I may steal a line from Abraham Lincoln, it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But to me, it seems even more fitting and proper to honor Jeanne by making sure the Guild continues to be what she wanted it to be—an organization that does things. A vibrant, bold, innovative, energetic Knoxville Writers’ Guild is the best memorial to Jeanne MacDonald.