Andre Dubus III and I recently had a conversation about writers' conference -- the good, the bad, and the in-between. Andre and I met at a writer's conference, The Literary Sojourn in Steamboat Springs, back in 2001. We discovered we had the same flight back from Denver to Boston on September 10th. It was a date you don't forget--for many reasons--and we've been friends ever since, often appearing at the same writing conference.
So what IS a writing conference or workshop? It can go from a really filled-to-the-brim one day event (like the Writing Conference at Hunter College in NYC) to a week or more intensive "camp" during which established author-teachers meet with aspiring writers. It's different from a literary festival because the emphasis in a workshop or conference is on the student-writer. There are a range of workshops and classes to help emerging writers boost their literary skills, learn about current trends in publishing and instruct them in ways to promote their work. The best both teach and inspire.
In August, we are both keynote speakers at the 50th Anniversary of the Cape Cod Writers Center Conference.
Why are writing conferences important enough to take us away from writing?
Andre: I'm a big believer in the importance of writers' conferences. Many writers do not enroll in MFA programs, and most people who write know few others who do this strange, eccentric thing we do, which is to go to a quiet room every day and make things up with words.
The central gift of these conferences, it seems to me -- even beyond what is learned about craft -- is that it introduces one writer to another, and they can then keep the conversation going long after the conference is over. Helping to foster these connections is worth whatever time teaching or speaking at a conference demands from the visiting writer, especially now when -- thanks largely to Amazon and its predatory actions on bookstores and publishers -- the book itself seems imperiled.
It's not, of course; live theater has survived for hundreds of years and is still alive and well despite all of its flickering screen competitors. And the book, in one form or another, will live on, too. But each generation must have its passionate writers and readers for this to work, and that's the main reason why I show up at conferences.
Gina: Writing conferences make me nervous and excited in equal measure. I worry about everything from what to say to what to wear, and whether the students will profit from the experience. Like anything important, conferences offer the honor of giving you attention while demanding that you, in turn, give attention to others. I want to make sure I give the students something new and practical.
Finally, I wonder--always--whether I can afford the time to do this when I should be sitting at the desk and writing instead of talking to other people about writing.
How good a writer do you need to be to attend a writing workshop?
Andre: The conference participant does not necessarily have to be a good writer, but there are some qualities that will make the experience more fruitful for him or her: sincerity, humility, an ability to receive criticism without becoming defensive and shutting down and no longer listening (because even criticism that is undisciplined and not constructive may have a gem within it about your work worth looking at), a sense of humor, and a desire to really listen to and see the work of others.
Too many writers, I think, go to conferences because they want to hear from someone established (author, agent, editor, etc.) that they've got it, that they're talented, as if they can then let some magic carpet take over and give them a career. This is an entirely human and understandable thing to do. But it's a dangerous road because talent is just one thing you need, and frankly, you don't need a lot of it. You really don't. What you need more than anything is a deep curiosity about people and life, and you must have a work ethic that simply never, ever quits.
So, show up to the conference knowing some people will hate your work, others won't get it (which may or may not be your fault as the writer), others will love it, but if you're looking to others' opinions too much, you're lost anyway. Instead, seek out any wisdom you can about the actual tools of writing. Then go home and get back to work!
Gina: One of the great things about a conference is that it is what good congregations claim to be: genuinely open and affirming to all. It's a workshop, not an award ceremony. Don't worry if you're new to the craft; focus instead on your ability to work with other people's responses to your writing. Are you prepared to hear what others have to say about your pages? If you come to a workshop and conference with an appetite, a willingness to engage, a sense of humor and sense of perspective, you'll get a lot from the experience.
Perspective might be the most important thing to bring with you: you probably won't be the best writer there, at least not every day, and you probably won't be the worst, at least not every day. I remind myself of this even as a presenter.
Is writing something a person can be taught, or is it a talent a person has to possess?
Andre: Yes, writing well can be taught, but no, you cannot make someone a writer if it's not in his or her true nature to be one. The writer Michael Ventura published a great essay years ago called "The Talent of the Room", in which he argues that there are many kinds of writing talents a writer may or may not have, but the one she needs more than any other is the talent of the room, the ability to go each and every day to that solitary place -- wherever it is -- and write day in day out, week in week out, month in month out, year in year out -- for decades -- whether you ever feel like doing it or not.
Those who have this talent, he argues, tend to accomplish quite a lot. Those who don't, don't. I completely agree with Ventura here. I've taught at the university level for many years. My students who have gone on to publish books and produce plays and screenplays, etc. we're not the ones I would have called the most gifted at writing; but they all had the "talent of the room". Conferences can inspire writers, I believe, to go to that room and stay there till something happens.
Gina: I've been teaching creative writing at workshops, as well at both the graduate and undergraduate students for 25 years and never once have I asked them whether or not they consider themselves talented. That's for the readers to decide. That's why writers need to get their work out there; it's not complete until it finds a reader. And getting their work ready is a process that, yes, can be taught.
What's the most surprising thing students at a workshop might discover about the writers who lead the sessions? Is that over dinner we'll talk about the wine but not about writing?
Andre: Perhaps the most surprising thing they may discover is that our lives tend to be very much like their own. We have spouses or partners, kids, dogs, mortgages to pay, tuitions to pay, houses to clean, groceries to buy and cook, cars that need tuning up, taxes we're putting off, personal flaws we're trying to recognize and work on, gym habits, bad habits, old friendships we try to maintain, new ones we try to find the time to nurture, jobs, daily duties and errands we don't have time for but do anyway, on and on, all while STEALING the DAILY time to WRITE, whether we feel like it or not.
When master novelist Thomas Williams was asked why he writes, he responded: "That's easy. I write so I won't die before I'm dead."