The Importance and Benefits of Attending Writing Conferences
It is a well known fact that writing does not happen in a vacuum; it takes community— conversation with both past and present texts and writers (even if that conversation is merely the act of engaging in a collection of poems, a novella, or a play, etc.), networking, workshopping, and fostering an environ of writers, local and national, to toss a draft to for some feedback, criticism, or encouragement. Many writers, students mostly, have a built-in community through other students and faculty in their selected programs. Other writers, perhaps post-graduates, students of non-English degree backgrounds, or those with no collegiate experience at all, may not have the advantage of a pre-existing community at their disposal. Here is where I strongly encourage an outreach to attend writing conferences. I recommend this to all writers, those students with already established communities and those who lack personal face-to-face and draft-to-draft time with other writers.
I attended my first week long writing conference several years ago at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York and I have made it a personal goal to try and attend one week long conference once a year. First off there is the romance of travel. There are always regional conferences to look into but national conferences can transport you to new and inspiring landscapes, cultures, and people that will take you outside of own background to foster, refresh, and broaden your creative palette for future drafts. Being in a new landscape can also sometimes make you focus on your own hometown more minutely rather than the current locale in which you find yourself. This absence of the familiar can forge a writing study on your town of birth that you may have never come to had you not left to experience other landscapes. I, born in Ohio, transplanted to Georgia, and most recently relocated to Texas, found Bronxville inspiring. Also, with New York City only a thirty minute train ride away I admittedly crept away for a day of the conference to traipse about Gotham and be engulfed by the city’s history and current culture. The city, however, only made me focus more on my Georgia home by the sheer and drastic differences it presented. Had I not experienced a day in our nation’s most renowned metropolis I may not have written many of the poems I have written to this day. As a result of that 24-hour escape, I returned to the conference to begin drafting poems that were more focused on domestic settings and rural landscapes.
Secondly, you are going to meet other writers that I stress you should absolutely, most defiantly keep in contact with once you leave the conference. This is the key to building up your personal and accessible community that will only serve to benefit you in the future. These writers will vary from students (possibly like yourself), non- collegiate writers, the workshop leaders (experienced, published writers and faculty from across the nation), editors of journals, keynote speakers, etc. You may find yourself among your idols, your own personal Mick Jaggers of the writing world, your writing royalty. Engage with them, ask them questions, remember that they are there to help better your writing and offer suggestions. I have seen a few fellow students, when given the opportunity to sign up for some one-on-one workshop time with their favorite writers, choke on the stardust they themselves created around a particular author or from the fear of sharing “crappy” drafts. Don’t choke. It is the worst thing you could do. Don’t idolize somebody to the point you can’t access them to help. Admire, yes, but do not let the chance get away to receive valuable input on a draft of work.
Keep in touch with the peers you will meet. More than likely you will create a virtual community and correspondence once you leave the conference. The more eyes and feedback you have available to utilize on a draft the better. Not to mention, your community will be far reaching as many attendees come from all over the nation and sometimes the world. Many backgrounds will approach your future drafts to help enhance your skills and creative awareness to get you to a publishing stage (if that is your ultimate goal). The purpose of a community is to not only help you workshop but to promote and support. Social networking can work wonders for writers. For example, you proudly get a short story published in a journal. Your peers from the conference, who may happen to span across five states and two countries, will gladly share your published victory online and encourage their friends to read your work. Free marketing and press, folks. How much better can it get? Remember, this is all the importance of keeping touch with your conference alums.
You will want to keep in touch with the faculty as well. This may be a little bit tougher than keeping in touch with peers. The writing faculty will have busy schedules once they leave the conference, classes to teach, journals to edit, their own writing life to continue, and they probably come in contact with hundreds of young writers a year. More often than not, some faculty members will invite you to keep in touch and give out their contact information. If they do, contact them soon after the conference while your face and writing is fresh in their mind. Thank them for their time, remind them where you met, and that you greatly appreciated their help and input on your drafts. Some editors of journals will also encourage you to submit your work. If they encouraged you, do it. What is truly awesome through your mutual interaction at the conference is that a faculty editor may have invited you to send your drafts through their personal email rather than be filtered through the journal’s normal submission slush pile. If you were given this type of advantage, by all means don’t let it slide. You got the one up, thanks to conference networking and attendance, that many others would die to have. These writers, with their publications, talent, and experience, will become part of your community too, but you have to be the one to put in the work to stay in touch and submit drafts to their publications. They will rarely, if ever, reach out to you, you must keep your presence known or else you will slip into the cracks of their memory banks.
Most importantly conference time is priceless writing time. All the above mentioned will be fruitless if you do not produce drafts. You have one week free of work, family distractions, class, and normal daily life to just write. There is plenty of time given at conferences between workshops, craft talks, and readings that is allotted for just writing. Try to remember that while it can be easy be distracting to explore an intriguing landscape for days on end—city-life, a mountainous countryside, seaside temptations, an Italian villa (if you are to be so lucky)—that your sole purpose for attendance remains to write, produce drafts, and leave with promising material to continue work on once you return home. Now, the harsh reality I must include is that attending writing conferences, especially those lasting a week, is expensive. My goal of attending one every year has sometimes been delayed due to lack of finances. A sad, but true actuality in this particular facet of the writing community is the tuition required to attend. Keep in mind you will have to pay for tuition, room and board, food, transportation, and possibly airfare, to and from the conference and whatever other shopping may happen along the way. Don’t get discouraged, there are ways to lessen the costs of this worthy and beneficial experience.
Almost all conferences offer scholarships (full or partial), fellowships, and work-study programs that you can apply for to help with the cost. If you are a current student, you may want to check with your home institution to see if there are student travel funds or scholarships available through your particular department. Apply for everything presented to you through both your university and the conference. I know some writers will take out a small loan, (sometimes conference attendance can reach into the $1000s and higher) either a student or personal, to attend. It will be up to your best judgment to do so. If you can find it feasible in your finances to take out a loan, I do not think you will regret your decision once you get to your conference. The experience will be well worth it and will only better your writing and enhance your opportunities to publish. The community of writers, contacts, and knowledge you will leave with will outweigh the actual cost of conference and stay with you well into your future. So go and seek out a conference. Check with your department, search the back of writers’ magazines, stalk one of my favorite places, the University of Pennsylvania’s call for papers listserv, scan AWP’s website (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), or just ask other writers. Community is out there; make yourself a part of it.