Port Townsend Writer’s Conference: Goals, Rewards, and Caveats to Consider When Looking to Attend a Conference

Picture of Jordan Hartt

Author: Jordan Hartt

What are the benefits of attending a writer’s conference, retreat, or workshop?

Literary reading and writing allows us to communicate our point of view, it allows us (I’m talking about the reading and writing process, here) to understand the point of view of other people, and it builds empathy. We’re not the same person after we finish readingThings Fall Apart, for instance, or The Grapes of Wrath. We see the world differently. We aren’t the same people as we were before. When we read—when we read honest, true literature—we grow. When we write—when we write honestly, when we write truthfully—we share so that others may grow by seeing things from our point of view. This is the value of reading and writing, and only a few other things—true conversation, selfless service, honest travel—can offer similar results. So a “conference” brings together a lot of different readers and writers, but instead of going through the empathy process on the page, we cram with each other into these workshops to go through the same process as individuals, through conversation. That’s when the conference or workshop is at its highest, best level, when the individuals in them are coming in with an egoless, selfless desire to learn other people’s stories and tell their own. Honestly and truthfully. When the ego gets involved, or when a conference becomes about hierarchy or this or that type of nonsense, that’s when the conference or workshop model breaks down. The model can only work when we deliberately check the “self” at the door in order to tell the stories we truly have to tell, as opposed to the stories that we think will get people to like us, or will please past instructors, or past lovers, or whatever. The benefit of attending a conference, retreat, or workshop is to put oneself into an environment in which breakthroughs are possible. It’s up to the conference organizers and the workshop instructors to put that environment in place where good things can happen.

When deciding to attend a conference, how important are the writing styles of the guest faculty and workshop instructors?

I don’t think the styles are that important, but I do think that it is the faculty’s overall teaching ability is important. Faculty don’t really teach style; they teach fundamentals and technique. Style is for the individual to decide. However, there are many great writers who are lousy teachers. There’s really no reason to study with them. I won’t name names. So, when deciding to attend a conference, it’s crucial to make sure that the faculty member can actually teach. There are writers who are incredible teachers. I don’t mind naming some names, here. If you’ve got a chance to study with Dorothy Allison, say, or an Erin Belieu or a Gary Copeland Lilley or a Sam Ligon or a Jennine Capo Crucet—you gotta go for it. I’m leaving out many dozens of other great ones, which is horrifying to me, but let’s move on. When deciding whether or not to attend a conference, make sure that the person you’re going to be studying with is a great teacher. You’re spending money to go—or if you’re not spending money, you’re spending your time—so it’s important to do research. Conferences and workshops are great if they’re done right.

Should one be concerned about their level of experience? Who is the ideal attendee?

At some places, it’s really more of a pyramid scheme. The “peon” writers support the “great” writers financially, in this sort of pyramid-scheme idea that eventually the “peons” will become “great.” But that’s not how it works here at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. Here, we’ve got attendees from rote beginners to people who have published multiple books/won multiple awards. But everyone comes together to learn and grow. Literary writing is hard. Writing great literary writing—and by that I mean the kind of writing that is honest, that is true—is one of the hardest things that there is. And we can do that in isolation. But sometimes it’s fun to write with other people. It’s good for us.

What should a novice writer look to experience at a conference? What should an experienced writer look for?

I mean, it’s really all about what the writer’s individual goals are. There are careerists; there are networkers/social climbers; there are people who want to get laid; there are people who are running from something, or toward something, and sometimes they don’t even know what they’re running from or toward; and there are people who, refreshingly, actually want to become better writers. There are over two thousand writers’ conferences in the United States alone, so whatever a writer is looking for, they’ll be able to find it somewhere. People come to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference for intensive instruction in the craft of literary writing. Both the novice and experienced writers should look for a great writer who is also a great teacher, who will inspire, instruct, and build community.

More specifically, what should someone who is already attending graduate school for creative writing seek out in additional workshops? And what should someone who is preparing to apply to graduate school look for?

The only way to become a writer is to get the ass in the chair and write. Nothing outside of that matters—not graduate school, not conferences, nothing. What the workshop does—the only thing it does, really—is provide the writer, when it’s working properly, with new perspectives. The MFA degree isn’t like an MD degree. I’m really not even sure how much value the MFA degree even has. Being a writer isn’t a matter of what piece of paper you hold: So conferences exist for those who want to constantly challenge themselves throughout their lives to approach their work from new perspectives. To challenge themselves constantly to make new breakthroughs.

About how many people attend PTWC? And what’s the ideal size? Is it the bigger, the better?

We serve 300 writers per Conference. I’ve seen breakthroughs happen in groups of two. Or one. Or fifty. I like people, so for me, the more the merrier. But there’s also a kind of anonymity that can happen in a large group that doesn’t allow people to approach their best work. So we try to have gatherings of various sizes—for 300 people all the way down to one person, in a room, writing.

What are your goals, as a writer, at a conference? Has this shaped the experience you aim to create at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference?

Basically, I’ve tried to create a conference that I’d be willing to attend. I think I’ve succeeded.

How has the concept of the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference evolved in the last five or so years?
That’s a great question. Some backstory: we were founded in 1974 as sort of a deliberate response to conferences that were fully invested in the literary pyramid scheme and all the nonsense that comes with that. We wanted to get away from all that and actually help people learn to write. So for nearly 40 years we’ve been obsessive about two things: about teaching pure literary craft (no genre stuff, nothing like that, and no agents, or editors) and about a totally Marxist approach where everyone comes to learn and teach and grow as writers and as people and everyone is respected and honored—and pushed. Anyway, so to get back to the question: we’re at our best when we stay deeply within that vision of teaching and learning. So all changes over the past five years have been minor structural changes to make sure that we maximize learning. People spend a lot of money to come here, and invest two weeks of their year to become better, more serious literary writers. Our job is to make sure that they have enough coffee (and booze) to do that.

There is a large range of experience at the PTWC, and also a large age range. There are undergrad as well as graduate writers, there are people working on books, and there are people of all ages who have just begun. What is the most rewarding aspect of this diversity?

It gets people out of their gated communities, out of their fucking silos. We do have separation within our workshop model—we have advanced classes, for example—but all of our gatherings, open-mikes, etc., are deliberately designed to get writers thinking and talking outside of their narrow experiences. Stepping out of one’s echo chamber is really the only way to grow as a writer.

Have you worked for/at other conferences? Attended other conferences? If so, what separates those experiences from PTWC?

I try to go to one other conference a year, or every other year, just to stay fresh and see how other people do things. It helps keep things fresh at the PTWC. I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve been to, although you see a lot of the same faculty at a lot of them. I feel like, overall, the conference model for how we, as readers and writers, connect, is valuable only when honest, purposeful community is built through the power of reading and writing. Whenever and wherever that can happen is when the conference model is at its highest and best level.

Jordan Hartt is a writer, writing teacher, and community organizer who has run the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference since 2008. Creative work has appeared in about a dozen journals and magazines.