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What Good are Writers Conferences?

PUBLISHED: August 19, 2009

The American writers’ conference is a strange beast. Part workshop, part retreat, part lecture, it hibernates for much of the year in university English departments and home offices, emerging for a week or two at the height of the summer before scuttling back to its lair. Three decades ago, the population of writers’ conferences was limited to a few venerable 500 pound gorillas: Bread Loafs, Sewanees, and Squaws. But recent years have seen an exponential explosion in their population. The Writers’ Conferences and Centers website lists 74 annual conferences, ranging from the Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference to the Writers Workshop at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences.

Apart from MFA programs (and the literary magazines they produce), writers’ conferences are perhaps the most important institutions in American letters. But in spite of this significance, the discourse on such conferences is rather limited and sometimes quite negative. Each summer seems to bring forth a new deluge of exposes, sly critiques, and frustrated rants about the hierarchical, licentious, and corrupt nature of writers’ conferences, a great portion of which is undeserved.

Much of the criticism seems to stem from the idea that writers conferences should be perfectly egalitarian institutions, a convening of colleagues to discuss issues of craft and business. In fact, most writers conferences are more akin to a short-term apprenticeship. You pay a certain amount of money for the privilege to study in close quarters with a master of your craft. You may even get to eat lunch with her. (Think of it this way and writers’ conferences are actually a great deal. Imagine how much money people would pay to learn barbequing from Bobby Flay or to get pitching tips from Curt Shilling.)

Older conferences, with more extensive scholarship opportunities, such as Sewanee and Bread Loaf, are often depicted as bastions of elitism. In fact, these institutions are even more egalitarian than the rest. Not only do they offer scholarships to those who can’t afford tuition, the extra layers of “hierarchy” stimulate more social interaction between participants and faculty.

Unlike the relatively tiny petri dish that is the MFA program, writers’ conferences bring together writers of all stripes, ages, levels, and abilities, allowing them to interact and swap notes, to learn from the “masters,” but also to learn from each other.


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Michele Young-Stone's picture
I’ve only attended one writers’ conference, The James River Writers’ Conference back when I was in MFA school. Now, on the verge of publishing my debut novel THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS through Random House and having been out of MFA school for four years, I look forward to attending some of next year’s conferences. My agent thinks it’s a great idea for me to meet and learn from other fiction writers. Additionally, I miss having a community of writers in my life. I have a four-year old son so most of my social life is limited to play dates and talking about our kids. I look forward to the opportunity to convene with other writers, to talk about technique and craft again. This blog entry makes me feel like that will be a real possibility. Thanks for the positive spin! Michele
Loy Ray Clemons's picture
Loy Ray Clemons · 14 years ago
Dear Michele, I hve a problem. Whereas you have a four year-old son, I have a five year-old grandson, which means I’m an old guy. No, I’m really an old, old guy. I would like to get an agent and get my bushel basket full of manuscripts published before I: 1. Go around the bend, or 2. Go labor on that great keyboard in the sky. But i have the same problem here as every other writer–can’t get published because I don’t have an agent and can’t get an agent because yadayadayada. I’ve been told I should get published in ‘literary journals’. They say an MFA would help ‘elevate’ my platform. Ha! First, I don’t got no MFA, or Phd, or Master of Anything. My meager BS and BS in Architecture is a big ho hum with most of the literati. (I did get 90+ percentile scores on my GED test to get into the university. Do you think I should mention that the next time I’m at one of these conferences when i’m chomping brie and guzzling Sauterene?) My serious question is this: Are there legitimate academic institutions where I could get a Masters degree online or by corespondence to shore up my creaky platform? I’ve got to hurry though. There are rumors a black-hooded character with a scythe has been seen roaming our neighborhood at night and my peers have been moving on. I thought heard a knock the other night, but fortunately it was only the wind. Thanks for your insight and comments, Loy Ray Clemons
Ken Jordan's picture
Ken Jordan · 14 years ago
Loy Ray Clemons I feel your pain. I’m also on the downhill slope of age and I’ve decided to write. Going to workshops, getting an agent and getting published are of interest to me because I would enjoy the cameraderie of other writers (maybe) and certainly would revel in the recognition and enjoy the money if more than a few dozen people bought the book. However, I’m enjoying the process of writing enough to make that exercise alone worth my while. I can sit down for a few hours a day and–on a good day–lose myself in my fictional world. Then, not unlike someone who is burning to share his slide show of a trip to a foreign country, I cajole my friends and innocent bystanders to listen to excerpts. It’s a lot less expensive than giving them printed copies, I get to indulge myself and sometimes get creative feedback. You might sum it up by saying that the writer’s journey is about writing, not about being a published author.

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