The Word on Writers’ Conferences

By Elise Blackwell

This summer I was on the faculty of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Years ago, I had a terrific experience there as a participant. It was founded by a beloved professor (Oakley Hall), and the conference continues to be run by the noble Hall family together with other people I greatly like and admire. I should have been looking forward to the trip, but realized I was instead dreading it.

Trying to discern why, I recalled conference complaints I’d heard from others, ranging from mild gripes to tales of full-blown misery. I’d once chatted with a writer who resented having to serve food at Breadloaf. Another pal reported that a conference he attended housed writers based on their publishing credits, with one-book writers getting lousy accommodations. A friend who attended another conference was so emotionally bruised by her workshop experience that she fled weeping. I myself witnessed a famous writer at yet another conference who spent the week pretending not to recognize the young admirer he’d bedded the first night. And I’ve been to enough writing events to know what it feels like when someone glances at your name tag and then scans the room for someone more important to talk to.

But none of that really worried me, perhaps because I’d had a good past experience at Squaw, because I was going as faculty rather than participant, because I was traveling with people who love me, and because I like the Squaw directors and staff. I concluded that what I feared were the writers.

When I glanced at the Web site of the beloved-by-many Sewanee Writers’ Conference, I was jarred by the description of their faculty writers as “the best minds in the industry,” that last word suggestive of commerce not art. I’ve seen enough grubbing writers in my day that I wrote a satire called Grub, and I’ve spent enough time on social media to have seen much of the worst of what aspiring writers will do to get attention—and how the Internet makes that easy. I routinely am sent whole novels by people I’ve never met. Their notes say “Can you please forward this to your agent?” or “I’m self-publishing this on Kindle and thank you in advance for writing a blurb and getting the word out to your network.”

I’m not resistant to helping people, but if I said yes to every inquiry I would do nothing else. (To read a stranger’s manuscript often means shortchanging a student’s.) At Squaw I would be reading and responding to the work of people who had paid to be there (or received scholarships) and so who had a legitimate claim on me. I envisioned desperate participants shoving huge manuscripts at people willy-nilly and had nightmares about waking the following week to a thousand e-mails with attachments.

I was wrong. Squaw was the best week of my summer and not only because of the mountains and glorious weather. What I found in the valley was a group of talented and respectful writers who were not seeking only to land agents but also to improve their work and simply be around others who don’t think sitting alone in a room and making up stories is a nutty thing to do. People talked about writing as much as about publishing. There were panels featuring editors and agents talking about the book industry, but also readings of new work and panels of writers recommending books they love.

Like most good conferences, Squaw is competitive, and the work I read for workshops and individual conferences was of high quality. Many participants were in or had graduated from M.F.A. programs. Others were talented and committed writers outside academia. Many had completed books that were indeed of great interest to the attending agents and editors. Several of the alumni readers had met their editor or agent at Squaw. (I may have even made a literary match, and I will be unreasonably happy if it’s a take.) I only saw one participant buttonholing faculty at inappropriate times. Most were respectful of temporal and other boundaries. Most knew not to pitch books to people trying to chew their dinner. No one whose chapter or story I read asked me to read their whole book.

A couple of people e-mailed me subsequently—but just to thank me or be friendly and I was pleased to receive these messages. I observed collegial respect between the more-famous authors, the less famous authors, the aspiring writers, the working agents, and some of New York’s most storied editors. Perhaps most surprising, not a single video of my performance at the Follies talent show that concludes the week has shown up on YouTube. In short, I witnessed minimal grubbing and my faith in my own kind was restored.

So I have gone from conference skeptic to something closer to booster, with some caveats. Those considering attending a conference should investigate them well. Look for conferences that are competitive and that offer a lot of content for the price. (The afternoon panels at Squaw were an excellent addition to the workshops and readings.) Check out the faculty-participant ratio, and see who the staff and faculty have been in recent years.

Don’t go if your only motivation is to procure an editor or agent. (You’ll reach a lot more of them through old-fashioned querying.) If that’s a secondary motivation and you have a polished manuscript, then great, but make sure you’ll be glad you went even if you strike out. It’s worth choosing a conference from which publishing contracts have emerged, but some of the best “connections” you can make will be writing friendships rather than avenues of professional advancement. If you’re picky, make sure you understand the housing and food situations.

The most well-known conferences are Squaw, Breadloaf, and Sewanee, but there are many others. New Pages has an extensive list (http://www.newpages.com/writing-conferences/), and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs has a searchable database of its 100 member conferences (http://www.writersconf.org/). Consider, too, literary festivals that also cater to aspiring writers, such as the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s Words & Music Festival in New Orleans.

 

The author of four novels, Elise Blackwell directs the M.F.A. program at the University of South Carolina.

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