One of the best things that Elmaz Abinader, one of my first writing mentors, ever did was to encourage me to attend my first writing conference. “These are our people,” she said.
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I could be a legitimate member of this passionate community – that I, a beginner, could join a group of real writers. A storm of anxious thoughts flooded my mind: Would I be called out as a novice? Would I feel self-conscious, lonely or embarrassed?
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As it turned out, none of my fears came to pass, and instead, I found inspiration and support at that Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Tempe, Arizona. Decades later, I still get excited when I register for a writing conference. Here are 10 invaluable things I’ve learned in the 20 years I’ve been attending conferences.
1. You’re not alone.
Writing can be a very solitary practice. But at a conference or workshop, you can experience that “I’ve found my people!” feeling, whether you’re in a group of dozens or thousands. Novelist Masha Hamilton says that it is an extraordinary experience to find “a camaraderie with people who live for stories and who care about words: their shape and their texture and their taste.” The network of people that you meet now can pay off well into the future. After making friends at a writing conference, playwright Mona Washington finds that she always has others to connect with at literary events and readings. When Olivia Olivia was applying to graduate programs, she reached out to workshop peers she had met at the Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA) conference and was thrilled to be “surrounded by people who were there to support me making whatever choice I needed to make for school.”
2. You can meet other writers in your area and form a local community.
You may think you’re the only writer in your town or region, but conferences can demonstrate that you’re not, and you can take the camaraderie and support of the conference home with you. Many conferences will sponsor regional meet-ups or provide attendee lists so you can contact people later on. I once sat across a workshop table with another writer, Michael Alenyikov, who shared an unforgettable short story. I emailed him to express my admiration, and 15 years later, we’re still in a close-knit, inspiring writing group hosted in his living room. The story he shared at the conference became the title story of an acclaimed collection, Ivan & Misha. Bearing witness to this story’s first reading in that conference workshop makes me feel as if I had some small hand in his success.
3. Published writers are accessible and there to help.
Believe it or not, it thrills mentors to connect with new writers as much as the other way around. Meg LeFauve, Oscar-winning screenplay writer of Inside Out, shares that while mentoring at Cinestory, a screenwriting lab, she worked on a script with a young writer who “got really honest with me about where the story was coming from inside of her. I asked a few questions, and suddenly there it was – this beautiful, raw, vulnerable perspective on her character that was so real and so her that both of us just sat there blinking. I saw her face change – like light flooding in. It was a powerful experience for both of us.” Mentors live for those shared moments of inspiration.
4. You will learn how to talk (fast) about your book.
Many conferences feature “speed-dating” events with agents during which you can pitch your book premise and get a sense of its appeal in the marketplace. Writer Jennifer Baker had great speed-pitch experiences at BinderCon, a conference for women writers. “I got immediate requests for my material, with three different literary agents for a collection and a YA novel. I find I’m more natural and it’s easier to gauge if an agent may be right for you when meeting them in person than when crafting a query, which I’m not great at.” Finding an agent or editor is much like dating – interpersonal chemistry can spark the beginning of a new relationship.
5. The book publishing world is passionate and (can be) personal.
Large conferences often offer opportunities to meet publishers and editors face-to-face, which helps make sure your future submissions won’t be so anonymous. Being able to say, “It was great to meet you at AWP!” gives your email an edge over a random manuscript from the slush pile. It’s great to be reminded that there’s a human being at the other end of an email, reading your submissions and queries, maybe wearing that fringed purple scarf you complimented at the book fair.
Writer Audrey Ferber walked by a booth and recognized the magazine that had just published a story by one of her good friends. She picked up the latest issue and exclaimed, “This is a great journal! And you’ve got great taste in authors!” The editor walked around the table and hugged her, happy to meet a reader in the flesh. At the next booth, Ferber picked up a free notebook and pen from the Cimarron Review. She wrote notes for a story with the Cimarron Review freebies, and a year later, it was published in their pages.
6. Conferences are a great place to learn cutting-edge craft.
Conferences offer in-depth craft classes on everything from utilizing multiple POVs to creating social change through storytelling. Even after taking many individual classes or completing a master’s degree, there is always something new to learn at a conference, something that will help take your writing to the next level or introduce you to valuable new resources. The current schedule of the 15,000-attendee AWP Conference offers hundreds of scintillating talks, from how to use science to improve your writing, to knowing how to successfully end a story, to writing essays that can change the world.
When attending classes and panels, it’s important to be open to surprises. Karen Lynch had looked forward to finally working with her writing heroine, Cheryl Strayed, at a conference and was deeply disappointed to learn that Strayed had fallen ill and was being replaced by another author, someone she didn’t know. When Steve Almond took over the workshop, “Each of us felt we learned more in those few hours with Steve than we had in many much longer workshops. In the end, Steve was a huge help to all of us. He’s now my favorite teacher.”
7. Networking doesn’t have to be painful.
Connections don’t have to happen over a workshop table at a panel. They can also happen at the hotel bar or the swimming pool. That person you share your sunscreen with could end up being your future best writing partner or agent. Literary magic often happens during after-hours events, socializing in local restaurants or parties. Unburdened by professional duties and the pressure of pitching, people are free to form organic relationships that can morph into professional and personal connections. Roommates or dormitory neighbors can become longtime friends. Wendy Patrice Williams didn’t know a soul when she went to one conference, but her assigned roommate went on to read her manuscript drafts, write a cover blurb for her book and accompany her to other conferences in subsequent years.
8. Each genre has its own community.
Whether you write mystery or romance, literary or YA or science fiction, or if you’re an LGBQT writer or writer of color, there is a world of writers and publishing professionals who share your interests. Williams was an avid attendee of the Writing the Medical Experience Conference for multiple years, and she described it as the “perfect blended community of health professionals, patients, caregivers, cancer support group members and others. There was no hierarchy, it was just a wonderful group of people yearning to understand and write their experience.” After the conference, the attendees’ works were published in a thematic anthology.
Lisa Factora-Borchers, who is now completing her MFA degree at Columbia, says of VONA, “It was the first time in my entire life that I saw real authors of color in the professor role. It was a profound experience. I remember calling my husband and telling him that I felt like I could do anything. I could become a writer and professor. I said these words that I’d never said before: ‘I can do this. I’ve seen it here.’”
9. There’s something beautiful about a city or town that hosts a writing conference.
Conferences cost a lot of money to put on, and the sponsors who support and host them are wonderful. Check out the local bookstores, universities, small presses, libraries and other local sponsors – they can offer a rich added dimension to your conference experience. The Loft Literary Center offered a star-studded week of readings plus tours of their writing center, letterpress studio and bookstore to participants of a recent conference I attended, and I swooned over the gallery of handmade books while listening to award-winning poets. Some smaller conferences like the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference offer low-cost or no-cost homestays that can engender long friendships between local hosts and their visiting writers.
For some people, vacation means sitting on a beach or exploring a new city. And some writing conferences can feel like a vacation. Karen Lynch adored the lovely Sanibel Island conference off the coast of Fort Myers, Florida. “Sanibel is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, famous for millions of seashells on the beaches.” Some writing conferences are held in gorgeous mountain settings, others in vibrant cities or lush wineries. A conference can be the perfect blend of working, networking and exploring a fantastic new setting. Choosing to tack an extra day onto the front or end of a conference can offer a nice balance of business and pleasure.
10. A writing conference can change your identity (and your life).
Attending a writing conference can be nothing short of life-changing. Leanna James Blackwell, now the director of the MFA program in creative nonfiction at BayPath University, recalls her first conference. “I will always remember the first writing conference I attended as an accepted writer. My daughter was only two years old, and I was worried I wouldn’t fit in, as the mother of a small child who hadn’t published anything major yet. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my writing life. I received an outpouring of validation and confirmation that I was on the right track. I met an agent who loved my work; my work was respected and taken seriously. It was a huge boost for me and helped give me the confidence to keep writing.”
Audrey Ferber had been a closet writer before her first conference. “Before I went to [the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley workshop], nobody even knew I was writing a novel. It was a secret, and I had nobody to talk to about it. I told people I was in the jewelry business. At the conference, it was so intense and moving to be around other people who were writers. I realized that I wasn’t crazy – that there were other people who loved writing stories. When I left, for the first time, I said I was a writer, too. Now, writing is my whole world.”
Michelle Valladares, a professor at the City College of New York, tells her students, “At every conference, there is one good thing that will happen. At every conference I’ve been to, I’ve made at least one new friend or met one editor, writer or publisher [who] I admire.”
Not every conference will be a dream come true: Dull lectures and disappointing food offerings can happen, too. But if you stay alert for your “one good thing,” you’re likely to come home with inspiring tips, new comrades-in-writing and a shot of validation, confidence and community that will keep you going, and possibly change your life.
Susan Ito writes and teaches at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
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