As much as it pains me to write this, we're in our last week here at Jentel and man did that get the creative juices flowing! Our regular gatherings diminished (though we did cook regularly for the group) in lieu of everyone wanting to work, work, work. Me, I definitely pursued morning (kinda), afternoon, and evening hours. Where as we started on a kind of 9a-5p grind that quickly moved to a 9a-11p grind with the reality settling in that we wouldn't be here much longer! (insert sad face here)Read More
After such a splendid time last year I decided to return to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for the 15th Postgraduate Writers Conference (PWC) in Montpelier, Vermont. The Postgraduate Writers Conference targets graduate students as participants, thought it is not a requirement for entry. Something that I do enjoy about this conference is that entrance is not based on writing samples, but on interest. Montpelier is a great location, quiet, serene, and away from major urban areas, so you can utilize the atmosphere for being creative and focusing. Just as I did last year I ended up holing myself in my dorm room with my laptop and flash drive and just worked away.
Of course, I wasn't the only one. The population for this conference is an older crowd, retirees, parents, full-time workers, and so on who utilize this time away from home and responsibilities to really focus on writing and revision. Revision of course being one of the most daunting parts of writing.
After speaking with several people on their graduate school and writing conference experience it stood out even more that PWC is one of the tops from the participant perspective.
Many conferences pack your day with events so that you may have to pick and choose what you want to attend and what you want to forgo. And when you're a first time participant you may not want to forgo anything unless you feel yourself nodding off or the strong, strong need to write compels you to type away on the keyboard or scribble on a notepad. This year the conference director, Ellen Lesser, did some finagling of the schedule to make sure no events overlapped. So you could go to a lecture at 1:30 on writing in the real word and then one of film editing as it may relate to editing a poetry compilation at 2:45. You want to do some freewriting before workshop on Wednesday? Sure! We'll have a "yard sale"! Want to do a quick hike before going to workshop to work off all those pancakes with Vermont's own maple syrup? Done! Oh, did you want to visit the Montpelier Farmer's Market this morning, then workshop, then go swimming this afternoon? Bam, at your leisure!
I found it very pleasant to have the option of not having to pick and choose, though like I said, I was writing most of the time and missed many events but those on the final days.
While there are always hiccups when organizing something where people come in from places all over the country and need to organize room & board, daily activities, food, and so on and so forth. But the fact that it's easy to get in touch with either Ellen or conference coordinator, Anne, who are the most pleasant women you'll ever meet and no matter how frazzled they are never shut your needs down is something I highly appreciate.
Sometimes good experiences can make you ignorant to the bad ones out there as well. One of my workshop mates and another woman working on her novel had both just come from horrific experiences at the Wesleyan Writer's Conference weeks prior. They both had the same instructor who barely acknowledged or viewed their work, felt that faculty and students were segregated at all turns (in particularly during meals), and that the conference coordinator who seemed so kind and informative via e-mail was cold and dismissive in person. Since the Wesleyan conference has no workshops, mainly lectures and a one-on-one conference with a published instructor/writer on your submission it was devastating to learn that not only did they feel unwanted, but their work itself was not even read--more than likely skimmed--is a great blow to someone who may not have shown their work to anyone before then and is trying to grasp at any positive reinforcement you can get because you have no one else to help you can cause one increasing self-doubt if not all together dash their dreams.
I was glad that the two women I spoke with came to PWC after such a bad experience and got to experience how a conference should be. That your workshop leader is more than happy to sit with you during breakfast, lunch, or dinner and discuss their obsession with Facebook. That they are willing and wanting to extend class discussions during lunch while interrupting discussion to get a piece of peach cobbler real quick. That they hold extraneous lectures or writing sessions to get the mind, blood, and hands flowing before a 2+ hour workshop. That these published writers we may look on in awe (or perhaps skepticism) are truly invested in your work, sitting proudly and listening to your piece at the participant readings and giving you a standing ovation when you're done.
So, that's my second plug for the Postgraduate Writers Conference. While I don't know if I'll attend again next year due to finances or pursuing other opportunities to write and critique during the summer, I do know it will be at the top of my list to return to for it's affordability and comfort. And I always get so much writing done when I'm there, major bonus!
After all the inspiration that overwhelmed me, along with some bad stomachaches, from the Pan African Literary Forum last year I decided I needed to be active and continue on with another writing conference this summer. However, I decided to stay stateside.
I narrowed it down to two conferences, both of which I heard about via Poets & Writers magazine. P&W started to dedicate a section of their magazine's bi-monthly space to conferences and residencies, and the Postgraduate Writers Conference in Montpelier was one of those mentioned. I had never been farther north or east of the US, only to some parts of Ontario in Canada. And hearing that Vermont is lovely I figured it wouldn't hurt since the travel to the nation's smallest capital would be cheap, plus it wouldn't cost me as much as it would to go across the world.
One of the things that solidified my decision to attend this conference was the consistent and friendly communication from the program's director, Ellen Lesser. When I emailed people at the other conference I was interested in I got various delays in response. And when it came down to the wire for me to make my decision and know my status I didn't get an answer for a week or so and then having found out I didn't get my first (and only choice for an instructor) I was offered an opening in a genre class rather than the literary class I had requested. This subpar way of getting me to join the conference by the director to fill in some gaps irritated me because it was obvious that he didn't have any idea of what my work was about and how it wouldn't fit with the workshop he was trying to sell me on. I quickly contacted Ms. Lesser and said that I was hoping she still had an opening in her short story class. Within the day Ellen responded back and I hot-tailed it to the post office to buy stamps and send over my deposit.
The Postgraduate Writers Conference has several things going for it in my opinion:
- Clientele: Target attendees are those with graduate degrees or in the process of getting a graduate degree. Hence they'll have familiarity with the workshop process.
- Size: Workshop classes are no larger than 6 or so people. For a five day conference this means that people will be critiqued thoroughly and possibly have time left over for additional discussions in workshop classes. One of my classmates told me the Suwanee conference has 15 people in a workshop and at Pan African Lit Forum that number can range from as few as four to as many as ten.
- Classes: The separation of classes from larger scale works and smaller works was a big draw. There were two workshops for novels, two for short stories, three for poetry manuscript, one for poetry, two for non-fiction, and two for YA. Not a lot of conferences split up fiction between novel and short story. Usually the two are lumped together. So knowing beforehand that someone's piece was short and being able to judge it on that made classes run smoother and more efficiently in my opinion since a larger work didn't have to be discussed (except in my and another classmates case in which we're doing linked short story collections). I do hope more conferences and perhaps even some graduate programs split the two up so people can focus more on the structure of a condense story and others on the evolvement of a larger work.
- Location: The capital of Montpelier has a nice city in the downtown area that is only a ten minute walk down a hill from the Vermont College of Fine Arts campus. There are plenty of nice eateries in downtown Montpelier and the population there is extremely polite and helpful. Of course it's nice to have a car to go further out, but not necessary.
- Staff: Full of reputable authors and poets there's definitely a strong roster of people who truly care about helping you develop your work and are adamant about one-on-one sessions with their students.
- Full Schedule: This can be a good and/or bad thing. With the packed schedule for readings, lectures, workshops, additional classes, evening social events, hiking, etc. it can get pretty jam packed. What I appreciated most were the Participant readings where one could hear the work other people in other workshops were reading. This proved to be helpful in being more social when admiring someone's work a fruitful discussion on craft could commence. (Not all conferences do this for the participants and considering size it can be understandable.)
- Cost: Compared to some conferences the cost for room, board, the conference itself, and food came in under $1200. Not including travel costs you're pretty much covered while there. And Montpelier isn't an overly pricey place either. Comparing food prices to those in NYC it's comparable or comes in less.
I think everyone has their worries when entering a workshop. Will people like my work? Will they get my work? Did they even pay attention? Will we get along over the course of the intense five days of workshops and such? And so on and so forth. Seeing that the population at the conference averaged fifty years of age it was good to find out that these people being older made them even more determined to finish their project and hone their craft. They took things seriously, which was a stark contrast to the younger generation I dealt with during my MFA program where many didn't get 70s references or deeper meaning and couldn't (or wouldn't) read between the lines. This time around I met two PhD candidates, a mom and lawyer, an entertainment professional, and a retired English high school teacher in my class who (to my surprise and amazement) read through my two stories thoroughly, providing detailed feedback and concrete advice that helped me immensely. After a while I considered my comments trite after hearing the deep readings done for my works. And our instructor Ellen Lesser proved to be the Braniac of everything! She delved so deep into our works at one point each one of us was left scratching our heads, considering her comments, while in the same breath pointing out that Ellen is a "genius."
For the first two evenings I was a bit of a hermit working on some writing I neglected for the past two months and focused on that. At the halfway point I got more involved in events and got to know my workshop mates a bit more. At different junctures in our life we all had a lot in common nonetheless. Good sense of humor, an enjoyment for letting loose through alcohol, the love of the craft and wanting to make it and ourselves better at it, love of food, and a general concensus that this conference was a really good thing for us.
In lectures I met one of the sweetest women, Sue William Silverman--A non-fiction author who got through and wrote about incest and being a sex addict. She has an affinity for pink and the brightest smile you'll ever see. Her lecture was amazing and in the end bringing up two voices (voice of innoncence and experience) as a tool for non-fiction authors to express themselves was a valuable tool for me writing a character with reminiscent narration. I also attented a lecture about the difference between YA and Adult fiction to hear author An Na break it down to voice. She believed that the voice being present in the action and that of an adult looking back and analyzing these events is the main (and not necessarily sole) difference between the two genres using The Lover and The Chosen as examples. An Na also notes that many of these can cross over to one another, but that authors need to know the difference and not just assume YA literature is "dummed down" literature for the audience. So much of it is rich and intense as is adult fiction so it's not good to assume that your audience isn't as advanced as you'd think.
I met and admired the YA classes reading from their books, the non-fiction writers delving into their lives, the poets reflecting on everything around them, and the fiction writers composing an interesting story and reading it emphatically. And I never hesitated to tell someone when I liked their work. It initiated lots of great conversation from my perspective as a person writing for a more adult audience and engaging in some deep conversation with the YA group and how hard it's been for them to create the worlds they illustrated behind the podium and on the page. I met retired women focusing on writing about subject matter important to them or exorcising their demons. I met young mothers trying to carve a certain amount of intrigue in their story to entice readers. I met men writing about talking dogs and people writing about being raised by hippie, poet parents. And I learned I needed to work on structure and not so much on voice.
I met the most amazing, generous people in a span of five days and am going through some heavy duty withdrawal I must say. I missed my bed and not having to walk down a moth-riddled hallway to the bathroom in the middle of the night (that's dorm life in the country for you). Yet, I didn't miss television. I didn't miss the day-to-day monotony of work and rush hour.
Now, I miss being embroiled in talking about writing on a regular basis. I miss hearing new work that excites me from people all over the country. I miss waking up at 7am and being served pancakes with Vermont's own maple syrup. I miss our daily workshops and readings. And I miss the bright sun beating down on the Vermont College of Fine Arts campus and slowly setting as I sit in front of my computer to plunk down my latest thoughts for my collection in MS Word.
I received a hilarious e-mail from workshop mates these past couple of days referencing things only we'd get and also crying out for the daily intake of cookies we got at lunch & dinner everyday. I'd strongly suggest going to the Postgraduate Conference in Montpelier if not for yourself then for the community because I assure you, you'll be invigorated to keep pushing yourself to get your story out there. If it's important to you it'll be important to them.