A year and a half ago, some friends and I up and decided to start a writers’ conference.
Well, that’s the story we tell at bars, anyway. In April, we’ll embark on the third iteration of our writers’ weekend, called the Red House Writers’ Retreat. By all markers, it’s been a wonderful, wild, stressful ride, and we’re happy that it’s also been a successful one. Each retreat to date has filled to capacity, and every attendee has walked away happy.
Subscribe today to The Writer magazine for tips, industry news, reviews, and much more.
But writers are really just nerds with pens and word processors, even before John Green made being a nerd cool again, and this particular group of nerds wasn’t going to do anything without a good set of guidelines. These rules, or tenets, as we’ve been referring to them, have made everything from faculty choices to location scouting and where to find our audience way easier, and they’ve opened up possibilities for us – not something we ever expected rules to accomplish. After all, rules are for restricting things, aren’t they?
Turns out, rules can turn a good concept, one of those fizzy pie-in-the-sky things that generate a lot of excitement and ideas and joy, into something that’s actually workable in the real world. (Hint: That’s not the world in which some “suited woman who works for Harper Collins discovers you and your work in a diner,” to paraphrase a writer acquaintance of mine. We’re talking about the world in which writers actually work at doing things like building literary conferences and thereby increasing their clout in this crazy profession.)
Before I tell you which three rules we follow all the time, I should say that our group, Red House Writers, did not start from scratch. We had a built-in audience, leftover from our MFA program, which unexpectedly closed down one year. And we made the deliberate choice to start small, so we could grow responsibly. Finally, we knew what kind of writers’ retreat we wanted to run, since we all loved the model our MFA residencies pioneered. So we were well ahead of the game. And maybe that’s the pre-rule rule. But we wouldn’t be where we are now without the following three tenets:
1. Pay people
Our writers’ retreat hires faculty. We don’t ask people to come teach for free, because we wouldn’t expect to teach for free. (Obviously there are exceptions to this rule: College classes that are reading my novel or the literary magazine I edit for, or libraries that are having me in as a repeat guest, or friends who are writers and who support you – the list could go on, but use your judgment.) We want to make it very clear that we value people’s time and their expertise, so we pay each faculty instructor who comes to our event, and foot their room and board.
We also don’t look for barter opportunities when it comes to things like lodging or meals.
Finally, this rule also applies to those of us who organize the conference. When we conceived of the retreat, it was always with the intention that we would someday be paid. Things like free attendance at the retreat only go so far: Everyone knows that folks who put on any event won’t ever get as much out of the event as attendees, since we typically have an eye out on the back end of the proceedings. Paying the organizers ensures that we stay fresh and motivated, that resentment never occurs, and that we can guarantee the sustainability of the event for years to come.
2. Seek uniqueness
Oh, I know. This sounds so obvious. Who doesn’t want their event to stand out, especially if it will eventually be opened to the general public? What it really means is this: What can you rely on to make sure your event feels true to the values you hold dear?
For us, it’s this: Spread literary community. From there, everything falls into place: When we look for venues, we look for nonprofit centers, or state or national park venues that help us to feel like we’re contributing to the community. From there, we also source local: That is, we hire only local faculty, so that we can highlight them and introduce a new set of writers to their work as they’re teaching.
This portion of our retreat planning, what we see as our “unique factor,” provides us with so much to work on and draw from. It’s probably my favorite “rule.”
I’ve seen this “uniqueness” focus work well for other conferences and retreats, too. Barrelhouse Literary Magazine runs something it calls “Writer Camp,” which was hatched at another writers’ conference, the annual 14,000-person shindig we know as AWP. (If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry. All you need to know is that it is a hotbed of small- and medium- and university-press publishing, and that it’s a great bird’s-eye view of what’s happening in this world.) Writer Camp’s three-day event schedule lists waking up, writing, and “optional” activities like hiking or meeting with editors. “I think for us, one of our biggest things is to keep it very unstructured,” said Becky Barnard, a co-founder of the retreat and production manager for the magazine. “There are tons of retreats that have coordinated programming, and that’s fantastic, but there are few writers that can write full-time. We wanted to give people the chance to just write.” At Writer Camp, even the dates of the thing can be unstructured – the ink hadn’t dried on the first Writer Camp when the organizers decided to hold another one, just six weeks later.
3. Provide value
I think I’d argue that, for most conference planners, this is a pretty obvious goal. But it’s one thing to see something as a goal, and quite another to see it as a cardinal rule. Ami Hendrickson, who runs the #Write2TheEnd writing program and conference out of Michigan, says, “Everything we do has to have takeaway value, so that [the attendees] leave wiser or richer or more accomplished.” During #Write2TheEnd’s normal programming, Hendrickson and her partner, Kim Jorgenson Gane, even refund a portion of attendees’ registration fees if they complete the manuscript they’re working on.
Red House Writers doesn’t have this setup, but we operate under the edict that everyone has to get something out of the weekend. So we build backstops into place: We ask everyone to get to know each other’s works-in-progress or anything else the attendees want to share, and we also use a setup I stole from a women-in-business conference: You can write whatever problem or roadblock you’re experiencing on a big red house. (Get it?) You stick your house up on the wall, and people use sticky notes to write down potential solutions. At the end of the retreat, people take home their houses with all those solutions on them.
And when we hire and talk to faculty, we give them good information about the attendees, so our instructors know which genres are represented and at which stage the audience is in the publishing process. Faculty walk in feeling like they’re better prepared, and we’ve then had the chance to talk to the faculty once or twice, so we’re more confident in our offerings. Plus, by then, we’ve made new writerly friends of the faculty members, and that’s always a plus. (See “literary community,” above.)
Running a writers’ retreat isn’t always buckets of fun. Lots of times, it’s stressful. But, as in writing any narrative work, once you know what you want your retreat or conference to be about – once you know what the parameters are – you’ll be that much better off to move forward.
Yi Shun Lai is a novelist and editor. Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu is available at booksellers everywhere. Find Yi Shun at tahomaliteraryreview.com, thegooddirt.org, and on Twitter @gooddirt.