Committing your time and resources to attend a writing conference or workshop is a big step in your writing career. The options available for writers keep proliferating – which is awesome. But even if you narrow it down to a certain genre or region, choosing where to go is a difficult process.
So we talked to the real experts – working writers who’ve had fellowships, been residents, netted invitations to conferences, or helped organize workshops – for their insights. Many writers didn’t want to use their names when speaking frankly about their experiences at well-known conferences, but all together a dozen were involved in writing this story.
What kind of writing program do you want?
If you have work ready to share, a workshop is what you should be looking for. Kelly Madigan, author of Getting Sober: A Practical Guide to Making it Through the First 30 Days (McGraw-Hill) and The Edge of Known Things (SFASU Press), loves the structure of a workshop. Getting into “student mode” and critiquing work from other participants gets her writing juices flowing.
Some conferences include a workshop portion, usually as an add-on day before or after the main event. This may be a one-on-one critique with a presenter, offered for an additional fee, or a small group session.
Residencies generally are where you go to create new work, while a conference can translate to a lot of different things. Julie Iromuanya, assistant English professor at the University of Arizona, says you can have a traditional academic-type conference with panels, moderators, and Q&A sessions, or simply “a way to describe a place where workshops, craft talks, panel discussions, readings, networking, and meetings take place.”
It is crucial to know yourself as a writer before deciding what experience you are looking for. One writer shares, “I’ve been to workshops that have derailed things for me because I wasn’t ready to hear [what was said].” If you are too early into a project, brutal critiques from workshop participants won’t be productive. A craft-building conference might be more appropriate.
Lydia Conklin, past fiction fellow at Emory University, says that conferences can also be valuable at an entirely different stage – when looking for an agent or publisher. Only you can gauge what your work is ready for.
Another writer says, “Conferences are often rather expensive, but some have financial assistance available. Small ones are my favorite because you get a chance to really know and learn from the other participants – especially when people come from all over. An intense three- or four-day conference on a topic of relevance to you can be really energizing.”
Getting a feel for things
Just because a conference boasts a full-page ad with a great font and glowing quotes, does that mean it has excellent programming? Is a second-year, shoestring-budget workshop worth trying out? Welcome to the world of trying to read between the lines.
Any writer who has answered a job posting only to discover the amazing opportunities available are for a fee/for exposure/for pennies per hundred words is right to be wary of choosing a workshop or conference based on promotional materials. But what else is there to go by?
The Alliance of Artists Communities is a national association for arts organizations with an extensive website collating more information than you can imagine. While the emphasis is on residencies, you can learn a lot about different locations, such as college campus programs where a variety of workshops or conferences are held.
Edward Porter teaches creative writing at Stanford University; his fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Hudson Review, The Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, Best New American Voices, and elsewhere. He says it is completely acceptable to reach out to past program participants, “so long as you’re polite, respectful, professional, and not asking for a long reply.”
No one interviewed for this story thought it bad form to ask past participants about their experiences. However, you should take their comments with a grain of salt. What one person loved about a social, busy week of aggressive workshopping might be a nightmare to someone else. So take into consideration the personality and temperament of the writers you reach out to.
Programs also have websites, of course, which are a first stop in the research process. Iromuanya suggests looking at mission statements or “about us” philosophies, rather than just the quotes from past participants. These can give you an idea if your basic needs line up with what a program is aiming for.
Several writers suggest using social media as a way to get a sense of the overall vibe of a conference or workshop, rather than just individual opinions. Donna Talarico, founder and publisher of Hippocampus Magazine, recommends checking out a conference hashtag “to get a real-time look at what actual attendees are saying.” That can be a goldmine when you are choosing between a few different options: You can go back through old tweets to see which conference had people more engaged.
What to ask
Once you know the kind of program you’re looking for, what is it you need to find out? Basic logistics are one thing you might take for granted – until you’re stuck in the middle of Nebraska trying to get a ride to somewhere without a cell phone signal. Jennifer Baker, contributing editor to Electric Literature and 2017 NYSCA/NYFA & Queens Council on the Arts grant recipient, says you have to ask questions about anything that might be a big deal to you, especially if you have dietary or mobility needs.
Pat Friedli, assistant director at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, says that more than half of its applications come from recommendations of past residents. They are active in reviewing the information on the web about their program, both on their own site and others, but not everyone is so diligent. “In order to get a true sense of the place, writers need to get that information from a former participant,” says Friedli.
How much of your time will be structured, and what options are available for “on-your-own” time? These are questions one writer was afraid to ask before her first major conference, and it led to significant stress. Now, later in her career, she’s sure to be upfront and make sure she understands the schedule for all events.
Applying for a residency, workshop, or conference
One challenge for early-career writers is applying to writing programs with little work or little confidence. Conklin acknowledges “it can be difficult to describe your own work,” so she suggests having someone else read through your sample and try to describe it for you.
Madigan has been involved on the other side of things, as part of an admissions board. “The selection process is time-consuming for the staff,” she says, “so treat an acceptance as an honor, and do your best to follow through with attending.”
“Attending a big-name conference or residency is a marker of success,” Porter confirms. “But if you attend a lesser-known conference and still learn craft and meet people who become part of your writing network, it’s only to your good.”
That’s advice that many of us learn after a few rejections. Small conferences with a personalized or regional focus can be phenomenal for the wallet. There are also great niches for subgenres of all types that may be less-well-known by large audiences but still well-respected by those in your field.
If you prepare for your writing program in advance, you’ll get more out of the experience: What do you want to get out of this event? Is this a workshop where you’ll polish a first chapter? A conference where you’ll meet five agents? Or two weeks where you’ll wander about drinking coffee and sitting in on random classes, leaving you wondering where the time went when you return home?
Iromuanya emphasizes, above all else, that “it’s absolutely necessary for authors to have a strong sense of what they want to get out of the experience.” Talarico, too, says this question has to be paramount: “What will you take home?”
Baker considers meeting people one of the goals of a conference and includes that on her list of items to get done. She has a full-time non-writing job, so the time she takes for residencies and conferences is a big deal that needs to be utilized fully. Most writers can relate and want to make optimal use of every moment. “Make time to not make art as well as make art,” Baker says, and others agreed, because each experience you have is part of the journey. So taking a walk while thinking about your project might not look like writing, but it is necessary for sorting through the plot.
Porter suggests that “just going to the conference and taking in as much as you can is the goal.” If you can open yourself up as a learner, engaging and growing each day, then your time is truly well spent.
Not all unicorns and roses
There are also big-name conferences and workshops – names we’ve all heard of and dreamed about attending. Few writers wanted to talk about politics in scholarships or acceptances in writing programs, even when offered anonymity.
Porter graciously gives some honest feedback.
“We never escape the junior high school cafeteria. Conferences involve complex, formal, almost feudal hierarchies, and the dynamics vary. At most places, the strata go something like contributor/work-study/scholar/fellow/faculty,” he says. “During my summers at Bread Loaf and Sewanee as a scholar, I thought everyone’s accomplishments in getting there at whichever stage were honored and respected. Conferences are highly competitive at every level, and people know it. However, friends of mine have gone to conferences and encountered friction.”
Iromuanya did not want to name specific programs but was willing to share her own experience. “While I have served as a paying participant and scholar or fellow for different programs, I really think how I felt in each space came down to how I was treated by the other participants and faculty. I’ve been in hierarchical structures where fellows and faculty were kind, attentive, and encouraging, and it really gave me the boost I needed. And I’ve also been to places that were structured very democratically, but other residents were unkind, competitive, pushy, or demanding.”
Just do it
Every career involves professional development. For writers, we’re often isolated from others. Attending a conference or workshop not only helps hone our craft but also brings us into community with others. Whether during a weekend or two full weeks, this is time dedicated solely to being a writer.
Porter says there are three vital activities involved in both conferences and residencies, though each may look very different from the outside: “Learning, writing, and meeting other artists.” A workshop has these same components, with the writing taking place beforehand.
Finding a writing program to suit your needs at a given time may take some legwork, but the rewards will follow long after you return home. They’ll come in the form of new or strengthened relationships, renewed productivity, ideas generated, and passages strengthened.
Whether workshop or conference, resident or fellow, paying guest or scholarship recipient: If you use your time wisely and open yourself up to learning, your work can only improve.
Eliana Osborn is a busy freelance writer focusing on education and family issues for national publications. She is hoping meditation really is going to solve everything.
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