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Conference Insider: Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference

Writers of all genres and experience levels gather in Arizona for intense learning and vibrant conversations.

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Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference 2016
Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference 2016. Photo by Kevin S. Moul

During last year’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference in Tempe, Arizona, keynote speaker and Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz walked away from the podium and into the crowd with her microphone. She asked authors to share their thoughts on literary diversity and inclusion.

“The response from the crowd, 200 strong, was amazing,” says Felicia Zamora, education programs coordinator for the Virginia G. Piper Center, which sponsors the conference at Arizona State University. “Diaz is an expert at pushing the conversation the moment it needs to happen. Not only did she talk, but she opened up a conversation so that we all began to talk together as well. This conference allows for open discussion about race and diversity, disability, gender and sexuality, and socioeconomic class. All of this is part of who we are as people. It’s in our writing, and it’s part of our community.”

What you’ll learn

The Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference includes over 50 workshops, panels, and presentations. Past workshops have had titles like “Tiny Package, Big Punch: Flash Memoir & the Art of Concision,” “Nonfiction Future Present: Writing Speculative Fiction about the Here and Now, “and “Car Crashes, Escape Hatches, & Hobbit Helmets: Where Did Your Suspense Go?”

“While the focus is on the craft of creative writing, it also encompasses many other aspects of being a writer,” Zamora explains. “We look at how you maneuver in literary and publishing spheres, how to be a writer and, fully, a human being. It’s not life and then writing – it’s writing as life.”

“We meet writers where they’re at,” she says. “No matter where you are in your level of writing and where you come from, you’re welcome here.”


Between 200 to 300 participants attend the conference. Some are established authors, while others are only contemplating their first book. Workshops focus on poetry and short fiction, screenwriting and comics, creative nonfiction and literary fiction – including a variety of genres from young adult to science fiction/fantasy, indigenous literature, mythology, folklore, and fairy tales.

For those interested in publishing and marketing, presenters address query letters and freelance writing, researching, and how to give and receive critique. In addition, they explore the intersection of writing with gender and race, climate change, immigration, and borderlands.

Natalie Diaz
Natalie Diaz, keynote speaker Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference 2018. Photo by Kevin S. Moul

Featured presenters

Presenters include numerous best-selling authors, publishers, editors, and agents. Poet and memoirist Carmen Giménez Smith will give the keynote in 2019. Other faculty members include Cuban-American novelist and translator Achy Obejas, poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib, Native American poet Deborah Miranda, and First Nation Canadian memoirist Terese Marie Mailhot.


Fiction writers Kirstin Chen, Ramona Ausubel, and Natashia Deón will offer workshops. Poet Nicole Sealey, who directs Cave Canem, a nonprofit showcasing African-American poetry, will teach, as will T.C. Tolbert, a genderqueer feminist poet, teacher, and Tucson poet laureate.

“Our faculty members are individuals who aren’t just writing and teaching; they’re doing a lot of work in their communities,” Zamora says. She points to something Alberto Ríos, Director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, has said of the Center’s overall vision: “We want to positively affect our community and be affected by it. We want to unabashedly call this conference an act of affection.”

“At this point in time, we need affection more than anything,” Zamora says. “We’re here to learn and listen, but we’re also here to make a connection that goes beyond our time at the conference.”

Manuel Muñoz
Award-winning author Manuel Muñoz is a past faculty member. Photo by Kevin S. Moul

Advice for first-time attendees

While much of the U.S. is under snow, late winter in Tempe is warm and sunny. Dress comfortably and bring walking shoes to take advantage of networking opportunities at local venues. “We have some sort of gathering aside from our big formal keynote and reception,” Zamora says. “We do a low-key event off-site so that individuals can interact with each other and meet and mingle with faculty more personally.”


She urges new participants to be open to making these new connections, to learning something different and unexpected about writing. “We want you to engage,” she says. “We want you to come away feeling welcomed and valued, inspired to become the writer you want to be.”

She hopes writers will take home diverse reading lists from the conference as well. “Now, more than ever, we need to expose our communities to the wide variety of voices in creative writing, to what’s being written around the country and around the world right now.”


Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and the forthcoming The Fiction Fix: Diverse Novels to Help Teens Survive and Thrive (Sasquatch, 2019). Web:

Originally Published