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.