Writers Conferences - Are They Worth It?
This week I am delighted to welcome Loretta Worters, a New York City writer who also works full time (plus) as vice president of communications for a national non-profit.
In addition to her day job, Loretta is completing her literary memoir, AFTER THE STORM. Set against the backdrop of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, AFTER THE STORM is a personal account of the author’s nine months spent in the ravaged south and speaks to the anxieties, loneliness and violence she encounters while living and working there. Her memoir follows the dual-narratives of her professional life and her move to Manhattan when her suburban marriage ends. Her two worlds ultimately collide when a young woman is brutally murdered.
I am unpacking the last of my suitcase after attending the Cape Cod Writers Center (CCWC) Conference on Craigville Beach in Centerville, Massachusetts. Shaking out the sand from between the inner lining, I pause. I have been going to this conference for over a decade now. Every year I take the Peter Pan Bus from the Port Authority in Manhattan, overloaded with books that are never read and a laptop seldom turned on. Every year my friend Andrew, who also attends the conference, sighs with impatience as he helps me haul files bulging with research material, magazine clippings and multiple drafts of my work. “Why do you do this to yourself every year? Why must you bring all this stuff you’re never going to use?”
“I’ll use it,” I gasp, heaving my knapsack into the bus' luggage compartment.
But I never do.
Instead, most of my days are spent crammed with writing classes, readings and mingling with writers, agents and teachers, mulling over story arcs, dialogue and the illusive muse.
I remember a tough, no-nonsense New York literary agent who spoke one year at a conference and told us that we should be home writing, not wasting our time attending writers' conferences. (Odd advice given she was speaking at a writers’ conference. Still, some writers and agents agree with this philosophy.)
In Ralph Keyes’The Courage to Write, he explains: “Course taking and conference attending are regarded with deep suspicion by many working writers. ‘How can you teach writing?’ they ask. Probably you can’t. Writing techniques can be taught. But that’s only one purpose served by writers conferences and not necessarily the most important one. Their more important lessons are conveyed in the realm of the spirit.”
I agree. The first time I attended a writers’ conference and met other aspiring writers it was an Aha! moment. I recognized a part of myself in these people. There was that affinity, that spiritual connection so different from other relationships.
As Keyes points out, writing programs can also provide a safe haven, “a sparsely filled theater in which to practice lines before facing the trauma of a real audience.”
This was true for me when, at the Abroad Writers Conference, which took place three years ago in Thailand, I shared an extremely personal scene from my memoir with the group. I was apprehensive about revealing myself to these strangers and yet, that setting, that support from mentors like Chris Abani and Rebecca Walker, who had written about their own traumatic experiences, helped me to find the courage to tell my story.
Each course, each professor, has guided me along the way through difficult issues with my work. It was Richard Hoffman, a sensitive and insightful professor, who cautioned me to be gentle with myself, to recognize that it can take years to sift through the painful memories in order to get them down on paper. And when I was overwhelmed with how to structure my memoir, Daniel Robb and Paula Balzer provided tips, techniques and detailed exercises to get me back on track.
At the close of the conference, my friend Ann and I take our annual “goodbye walk” the length of Craigville Beach.
Arm in arm we stroll, picking up moon shells and sea glass that have washed up along the shore, talking about our dreams, fantasizing about a writer’s life without the intrusion of a day job. Long gone are the days, we muse, when a Gustav Flaubert could spend weeks lingering, aching over the perfect word to use while his parents kept him housed and clothed, able to maintain his literary lifestyle. We don’t have that luxury. Most writers today do not.
As writers with day jobs, we must carve out time – early mornings before work, on subways, lunch hours and weekends (in between cleaning, cooking and family responsibilities) – to toss out some prose. It is often difficult to keep the momentum going, and there can be patches of time when we do not write.
“Here,” Ann says, bending down to pick up a wedge of green sea glass. The texture is varied, with one side frosty, the other shiny. “Whenever you think you can’t write,” she says, pressing the smooth glass into my palm, “look at this; keep it with you. Remember, there are days your writing will be dull and there will be days when your writing will shine. But either way, write.”
We linger a while longer, watching the waves crash along the shore, breathing in the sea air. I swallow hard. I always feel pangs of sadness at the thought of heading back to New York City. It seems harder every year to leave the conference and I don’t know why. Perhaps it is because I’m living a different life, a writer’s life when I am here. Perhaps it is because I’m getting older and wonder if I will ever finish this book? I will miss the daily interaction with these writers, these friendships that sustain me, nurture me and encourage me throughout my writing life.
I stick the sea glass in my pants pocket, turning it over with my fingers, feeling for the shiny side.
Where's your writer's escape? Close to home or faraway, is there a spot that fills and fulfillls your writer's soul?