Writers conferences: How do you choose the best one for you?
Published: August 10, 2003
|Knowing what you need and want is the first step|
Views of writers conferences run from the acerbic, "What can you learn in so short a time?" to the euphoric, "These workshops have made a world of difference." How can you tell in advance whether a writing conference will satisfy all, or even some, of your needs?
The question of which conference to choose is a little like Alice in Wonderland's question to the Cheshire Cat: "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" to which the cat replies, "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."
Whatever your reasons for attending a conference, you need to arm yourself with good information before making a suitable selection. Scan literary journals for conference advertisements. Send for conference brochures and visit their Web sites to see what workshops, activities and speakers are planned.
When choosing a conference, you first need to consider what you're looking for. If you've been writing steadily and are looking for professional feedback on your poems, short story or novel, your needs may be different than a writer who is looking to untangle a writing issue--a refrain, a convoluted plot line, an intractable character, even writer's block. Perhaps you're seeking diversion because you've been teaching or working in your cubby all year and need a break. Some writers attend conferences simply because they want to be with people who care deeply about literature, and they seek intellectual stimulation. All of these factors come into play when considering a conference.
Factors to consider
Money is always a prime consideration. While some conferences offer scholarships and financial aid, there is always some kind of cost to take into account, so consider how much you can afford to spend.
Factor in how much time you'd like to spend at the conference and where you would like to travel. You may have the time and money to go out of the country, or you may prefer to attend a conference close to home. If you're considering the conference as more of a vacation, you may desire a stimulating new area: the green of the South, the excitement of New York or the hills of Tuscany. You may select a conference, no matter what the curriculum looks like, because it takes place in an area you've always wanted to visit--or the location may not matter to you at all.
Your level of experience as a writer is another factor. Someone who's been writing for 30 years may not find a topic such as "How to submit a manuscript" very useful. You might look for a conference with a rigorous selection process to ensure that you'll work with people at a level comparable to or more advanced than your own. Decide if you want workshop critiques or the opportunity for private consultations with instructors--or whether you simply seek a wide spectrum of lecture and workshop options.
Before you select a conference, it's essential to know where you are in your writing. One important consideration is how you handle criticism. As writers, we may be fragile, and sharing our work with others often makes us feel vulnerable.
I recall attending a conference in Santa Fe, N.M., to work with Carolyn Kizer, an extraordinarily accomplished poet. Kizer was demanding and, although I found her assignments and her sang-froid a little daunting, I was not about to cave in and say, "Too difficult." Several colleagues, however, did just that. They decided that too much was being asked of them. By midweek, the workshop had been reduced to almost half--a sign, I think, that some attendees had not bothered to read Kizer's writings before deciding to work with her.
If you're looking for a conference where you will produce new work, it's important to know that not all conferences are oriented to on-site writing, while some make the creation of new work their primary focus. Consider your specific needs. Maybe you feel blocked and writing exercises and assignments are exactly the ticket for you. On the other hand, if your desk at home overflows with unpublished writing, you might to want to attend sessions on how to edit and market your work.
Exploring Form and Narrative in West Chester, Pa., is just the kind of conference that facilitates on-site writing as well as providing lectures and seminars. Most of the workshops are oriented to looking at metrical requirements and traditional poetic forms, such as sonnets and villanelles.
Maybe you're convinced that this is the time to begin a memoir but you don't know how. Or, you've written short stories for years and wonder if you have a novel in you. Then you may be looking for a genre-specific conference.
Boston University's Aboard the Narrative Train conference focuses on narrative nonfiction, also called creative nonfiction or narrative journalism. Except for a few workshops, the conference does not provide for on-site writing--but it does bring together some of the most exemplary nonfiction writers in the field, such as Tracy Kidder, Anne Fadiman, Wil Haygood, Mark Bowden and Alex Chadwick.
This winter conference is like a smorgasbord of presentations, panels, readings and workshops that emphasize the craft and sheer magic of a story well told. It is one of those literary encounters that revs writers' engines before they return to their work.
Keynote speakers and workshop moderators are another facet you'll want to examine. You may select workshops and conferences solely on the basis of who is teaching, and may attend a conference only if a writer you admire is speaking or reading. Possibly, you wouldn't think of working with a writer whose work is unfamiliar to you.
Conversely, you may be intimidated at the thought of sitting down to have a major literary figure critique your work. Maybe you're amenable to working with a lesser-known writer because you assume such an individual may be more available and interested in teaching. This type of setting offers camaraderie among peers, where you are more likely to feel free to speak your mind--and no one carries any more weight than anyone else does.
Rather than focusing specifically on the craft of writing, the conference you choose might explore broader questions about the creative process itself, writer's block, the publishing industry or other related topics.
Possibly, you seek a combination of solitude and camaraderie that allows you to explore the place of spirituality in your creative life, or you want to assess the depth of your commitment to your art. Maybe you need both space and thoughtful questions from someone who has walked these paths before or, perhaps, you need a series of exercises that help you assess where you are in your artistic life. Perhaps you need some new approaches to broaden and re-energize your work.
If you are interested in the business of writing, the conference Inside Books, held at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., provides a week-long introduction to publishing, with a strong emphasis on small, literary and alternative press publications. The conference explores the entire process of producing books and magazines, from acquisitions to marketing, and presents the views of literary agents, writers, editors, book artists, critics, publicists and electronic publishers. There are also visits to a variety of publishers. If you're looking for such a focus, this is one of the best overviews of the rapidly changing book industry available.
Let's be honest. Many of us attend particular conferences because we have a set of specific, well-defined objectives we want to meet. We want to put our manuscript in the hands of our favorite writer. We want to find a new job. We want to meet a colleague with whom we can share our work. We want to know how the winners of writing competitions are selected and whether we have a chance to win. We're going to choose the conference that shows the most potential for advancing our career goals. Keep your "hidden" objectives in mind when choosing a conference.
Finally, prepare before you go so that you will achieve the results you desire. If, for you, attending a writer's conference is nothing but a lark, something to write home about, having a good time may be the one result that matters. On the other hand, if you know that the particular conference you select may well affect your writing career a great deal, then a certain amount of preliminary research is in order before you choose.
Your conference experience may well determine whether you ever attend another writer's conference. You will measure the success of the conference based on the objectives you had in mind when you chose it.
Once you decide on the conference that seems right for you, go with an open mind. Remind yourself, if you need to, that you're there for a new experience. The workshops don't have to be run with the same rules you've applied in workshops on your home turf. If ideas seem heretical to you, hear them out. Try the writing exercises assigned even if they seem preposterous. Attend the readings available in the evenings.
A word may be in order here about serendipity, the unexpected gift one finds when looking for something else.
I recall listening to and watching Amy Clampitt read her translation of Dante at the Festival of Poetry at The Frost Place in Franconia, N.H., while, behind her, a small mouse climbed up the wall of Robert Frost's former barn. Clampitt held even the most squeamish of us spellbound. The scene stays with me for many reasons: the beauty of Clampitt's face as she read, the cohesiveness of the writers held spellbound by her poetic translation, and the palpable power of language to create its own setting and transport us where it will. The best conferences offer such memorable moments.
Donald Sheehan, executive director of The Frost Place, observed that dropping routines can help us get someplace deeper. That "is part of what a conference is about," he told a summer group that I was part of.
Something else that is important is plain, old information about writing. Author Donald Hall talking about his approach to writing, the variety of the projects he tackles and his love of revision--all of which he set down in Life Work--has an unforgettable pungency, weight and warmth when the conference attendees and Hall are sitting inches from each other on Frost's front porch, in his barn or out under a tree.
Take time to listen to your conference colleagues at lunch and dinner. What you learn from them may be just as important as what you learn from keynote speakers. They may tell you, for example, about publications that are looking for exactly the kind of writing you do--something you otherwise might not have learned. You will meet individuals with whom you feel a great compatibility. You may well send work back and forth by mail or e-mail and discover that you've found one of the best critics you've ever encountered.
When poet and translator Carolyn Forche offered a week-long session, Open Poetry: An Experimental Workshop, at the Split Rock Arts Program in Duluth, Minn., she wrote in the catalog, "I would like to work with a group of serious poets who might themselves be experimenting with open forms." Her emphasis on erasing the boundaries we tend to fix around our work, and the techniques she shared for moving beyond various writing blocks that arise, have proven to be as freeing as she said they would be--and invaluable.
I go to conferences for a number of reasons--perhaps, in fact, for all of the reasons we've discussed. Mostly, I go because I want to replenish my store of enthusiasm for my work and renew my dedication to the well-crafted written and spoken word. I've never been disappointed. There has always been at least one new writing colleague or mentor with whom to share work, an introduction to at least a few new writers whose achievements I had not previously known, craft techniques and exercises to try, and insights into the workings of the world of literary publishing.
In his essay on Thoreau, "A Slight Sound at Evening," E.B. White wrote of the young naturalist who took himself off to his own writer's retreat at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.: "Thoreau tended to write in sentences, a feat not every writer is capable of, and Walden is, rhetorically speaking, a collection of certified sentences, some of them, it would now appear, as indestructible as they are errant." And that's what we, too, go in quest of--a few lines that will be "as indestructible as they are errant."
--Posted Aug. 10, 2003