Napa Valley & Santa Fe: Two Conferences, Two Perspectives

This year I did not one but two writing conferences back-to-back on the west coast. This called for lots of heat and water and immersing myself in the arts. I was glad to do so, but after a couple weeks did miss home, sort of.

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Postgraduate Writers Conference (2010 Edition)

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!

Writing groups & workshops can be really helpful…if you find the right one.

Writing groups, workshops, or getting insight from people you trust are all necessary in the artistic process of writing. No matter the genre or the scope it's important to have a critical eye look at you first draft (or drafts) and help you flesh out your novel, story, poem, personal essay, etc. Definition A writing group may be just that: a group that writes together. Or it may be a group that writes together and critiques one another’s work within a session. The basis of a workshop is that the entire session is dedicated to appraising each other’s work. It’s important to differentiate the two in your mind and decide what you may want in terms of help with finished pieces or just a push to write on a consistent basis.

Atmosphere Writing groups and workshops are overly available and not, which is a Catch-22 of sorts. Mind you there are many groups/workshops out there full of "writers" but not necessarily writers with a critical eye. From high school on I've been in workshops and among people that vary from being overly analytical of your work (If you’ve never done that how can you write about it?) to not giving a damn because they aren’t serious (This class was supposed to be an easy A.) or just want to get as much feedback as they can for themselves (Enough about me, what do you think of me?). When you hit the jackpot and find not just one, but several people in a group who are outgoing and help you tackle the problem(s) in your manuscript it can be the best thing ever. When you experience those who just don't know what it is they do and don't like about your work, people who go on to focus on simple things like the overuse of one word, or simply say “I liked it” can make you downtrodden.

I’ve experienced good and bad writing groups/workshops in and outside of the academic environment. Students in my undergraduate and graduate courses were not “in the know” in regards to proper workshop etiquette and would either blatantly bash your work or roll their eyes at the thought of it or remain mute throughout the semester. In a smaller writing group outside of class things may be better or worse. Perhaps you have a thick skin and want to hear every last issue with your piece or maybe you want people to handle you (and your work) with kitten gloves therefore you need to hear the good along with the bad, preferably in that order. In the real world, with no instructor acting as mediary/Yoda there’s even more of a chance that people won’t stick to their guns about attending group regularly or providing feedback as there’s no threat of a bad grade on one’s transcript.

Etiquette For those of you who may not be familiar with the workshop environment here are some tips:

1)    Sharing means caring  Everyone has a story to tell, so try to be polite and professional when attempting to critique another writer’s work. Sharing one’s work isn’t an easy thing to do and to be bashed by people you may or may not know can hurt the ego. So be kind and try to acknowledge the good and bad of a piece to show you care about the work itself and seeing it progress. Example: “I enjoyed the visuals in this piece and how much you made me feel in the moment as a reader in the first few pages. I completely saw the environment I was in in 1920s Mississippi. I did think there was a bit too much description at times and would suggest cutting certain parts. For instance...” 2)    Don’t be afraid to speak up if something doesn’t make sense – Some may gloss over the points they don’t understand and just focus on what made sense to them in a piece. This can hurt the author because they can’t see what you as a, hopefully, objective reader can. After rewrites and plotting the author is so connected to the piece they may not see the glaring holes that you do. So if there’s anything that didn’t strike you as clear make sure to mention it and not worry if you may be the only one that missed something. Example: “I’m not too familiar with The War of 1812 so there were aspects of the battke scenes I couldn’t get into fully. Maybe you could be a bit more descriptive of the lay of the land and the machinery used then or add footnotes to certain things for those who may know to skip and those who don’t to take a look at?” 3)    Multiple reads are a good thing – When writing a formal report sometimes you re-read portions of the work your focusing on to get a clearer sense of what you’d like to say about it. The same goes in a writing group/workshop. What you may have missed the first time around you may suddenly see in the second or third read. Or you may notice elements of the story that don’t work upon an additional read. I’d suggest reading a piece at least twice before providing feedback to the author, more if time and length of piece allow. 4)    Keep an open mind – Many of us have our favorite genres. Some love science fiction and fantasy while others abhor it. Some love chic lit, others prefer literary fiction, some literary non-fiction, some historical books. We all have something we prefer over something else. Yet in a writing group (unless it’s focused towards speculative fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, YA, erotica, etc.) we have to be open to all sorts of genres. Just because you may not read YA doesn’t mean you won’t be able to provide suitable feedback to a member in your group. If character development is off or the setting isn’t clear than these are things that can be helpful whether you’re a fan of the genre or not.    Example: “I was really into this. The narrator is funny and brought me right into the plot with his acerbic wit. Some of the more technical aspects of what makes speculative, speculative and not solely sci-fi I may be not know, but as a story I am entertained and would continue reading after the first few pages because I like the characters and setting.”

Of course, there may be times when you really cannot get into the work because you’re just not too into the genre for specific reasons (language seems too artistic and not focused, reminds you too much of Virginia Woolf and you can’t stand her) this is also a good time to mention you’re not the reader for this person’s particular style and can note the reasons why. Either way you’re helping to provide the author with some feedback as to who their audience should be, in which case this also helps them to know to narrow things down when submitting pieces to magazines or agents. Example: “I’m sorry. I tried reading it and it made me a little uncomfortable because of the heavy religious undertone throughout. I thought it was well written and held the main argument in the piece. But also felt it was kind of biased, so I’m afraid I couldn’t give it a fair read as you may have wanted. I just don’t think I’m the reader you may be reaching out to in this piece.”

The Good and the Bad There are writing groups that are open call and some that tend to interview participants before allowing them to enter the arena. In the case of the latter it may be a payoff because you know that the interview process is routine and that others have been through the same thing. Knowing a group takes applicants and their work seriously can only be a plus. I would warn one to be weary of groups where no meeting is necessary and one just throws their work into the fire. It’d be best to meet with members first, see how they treat one another and critique, then make a firm decision.

Something else to be weary of is writing groups with friends. Like everything in life there can be a good and bad side to this. I became friends with writers I met at an international writing conference. When we returned to our respective homes I got in touch with those in my area and we decided to meet monthly and discuss each other’s work. Since it was established that we were serious enough to pay through the nose to go overseas for a writing conference it turned out to be a positive meeting of the minds locally. On the flip side, I’ve attempted writing groups with friends of mine I knew wrote and these get-togethers were more happy hour hangout sessions than writing/critique sessions. Plus, friends may flake out more than those you don’t know because they expect you to understand. Hell, you saw your friend just last week at karaoke, you know what the deal is! This can make things murky so that the excitement in the beginning drops off slowly then steadily once other things get in the way. In these cases if you have friends who are serious pin them down, now. If it’s easier to just do some e-communication with them to get feedback on your work and vice versa this may be the route to go.

Move Forward Just because you may not have anyone with a critical eye to readily look at your finished draft(s) doesn’t mean you should pump the brakes on your writing completely. Continue to progress and proceed with other work. Heck, it wouldn’t hurt to give a piece a rest for a bit if you’ve been living with it for months or years before taking another crack at it. Let the manuscript marinate!

But in the mean time, be on the look out for writing groups/workshops in your area and see what they’re about. You might even consider going for a graduate or post-graduate degree to focus more on your writing and meet published authors that can give sound advice. Just. Don’t. Stop. Writing.

Here’s a list of places you may be able to give and get feedback on your writing: $ denotes fee

Online Writing Groups/Communities Critique Circle Goodreads Book Excerpts group Gotham Writers Workshop – Offers some free and fee-based courses online or in-person.  ($) Mediabistro – Offers online and in-person classes/workshops. ($) Mike’s Writing Workshop Online Writing Workshop The MuseItUpClub Critique Group ($) Writer’s Digest University (formerly Writing Workshops Online) ($) The Writers Studio

Workshops/Writing Groups Asian American Writers Workshop Craigslist - Every so often someone may post searching for writers to join a group in the Writing section. East Harlem Writers’ Circle (NYC) - Become a fan on Facebook! Freebird Writing Workshops (NYC) ($) Gotham Writers Workshop (NYC) – Offers some free and fee-based courses online or in-person.  ($) List of Latin focused writing groups Mediabistro – Offers online and in-person classes/workshops. ($) – May list some writing groups/workshops seeking new members to meet regularly in various locations throughout the US. Morningside Writers Group (NYC) - Offers workshops in fiction, memoir, speculative fiction, and screenplays. ($) 92nd Street Y (NYC) Unterberg Poetry Center Writing Program for poetry and fiction workshops. ($) NYC Latinas Writers Group - Become a fan on Facebook or a friend on Myspace! NYC Writing Coach – Editor provides one-on-one help and workshops. ($) New York Writers Coalition New York Writers Workshop ($) The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop (NYC) ($) The Writer Magazine list of Writing groups (USA) The Writers Studio

Also try:

Local colleges/universities – Beyond workshop classes for degree students colleges/universities may also offer workshops for continuing education students. Alumni may be searching for people interested in starting a group on or off campus. (Here are a few places offering free writing courses online.)

Various writing conferences, residencies, and week-long (or longer/shorter) workshops go on across the country (and world) throughout the year. Poets & Writers has a list of residencies and conferences or you can try ShawGuides or Google ones by genre/location. You can apply for financial aid for many that are connected with colleges/universities or apply for grants you may already have from school or fellowships.

OR you can form your own group/workshop by placing an ad or conferring with friends (serious writers need apply!).

The Postgraduate Writers Conference at VCFA (2009 Edition)

College Hall at VCFA 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.