Wesleyan Writers Conference 2014 (Pros & Cons)

For almost 60 years the Wesleyan Writers Conference has been held for several days on the Wesleyan University campus in Middletown, CT and this year was my first time attending. When applying I was aware of the distinct format of this conference in that workshops were not conducted. Instead there were classes on craft lead by faculty for an hour and fifteen minutes over the course of 4 days. In addition, attendees registered for the entirety of the conference would get a one-on-one manuscript consultation with someone on faculty in your genre of choice (poetry, non-fiction, or fiction).

So let's break down the Pros of the conference:

  • Community. As I told many other attendees one of the best things about a conference is that I have met many dear friends, fellow artists, and critique partners through them. For several days I get to engage with other artists who are serious about their craft, interested in discussing it and learning more about you, and also enamored with all things literary. I had great conversations with people and learned much from doctors, medical assistants, and students about life that I may not have otherwise.
  • Atmosphere. The Wesleyan campus is beautiful, clean, and green. The spaces on campus were open and had many windows. The last two days of the conference it was bright and sunny so as to truly reflect the expansiveness of the campus while also taking in the quaint community that is quiet overall and very residential.
  • Faculty. In the classes the faculty structured for these few days there was a lot they wanted to pack in a short amount of time, which I admired. Each member really wanted you to get the bang for your buck in trying to not only examine texts to better your own but also giving exercises to hopefully get those neurons firing. The one-on-one consultation I had with Roxana Robinson was quite helpful. While Roxana may have 'rules' for good prose she also stands by seeing what the writer's intent was. It was one of the first things she asked me when we met. "What did you intend at the end of this piece because this is what I got." And that is key for me.
  • Staff. Anne Green was quite friendly when she and I spoke. There had been delays and mishaps in terms of actually getting things settled but Anne is very kind and you really feel like she knows and cares about what you are doing, which is evident since she's been running the conference and the writing department at Wesleyan for years. When she and I met late Wednesday evening she gave me a big ole hug.
  • Food. Depending on your dietary restrictions this may or may not be a positive. I would like to note that there were vegetarian options at every meal. Vegan was a bit harder only because of the cheese element in many dishes, but otherwise it was decent. However, if you are gluten free it may be a bit harder as breads were available at every meal and for the first two breakfasts this was a large portion of what was available. But there was always fruit and yogurt and grains as well, as well as vegetables, and sweets! The cost per day for food is over $60 and this, as I was told, was because they pay the food staff very well at Wesleyan.
  • Downtime. Because there are no workshops there's no pressure to read and critique a handful of manuscripts prior to the conference. So there's more time for you to go to classes or to lounge around and do your own thing. By days 2 & 3 I did more of the latter to return to an empty suite and write. In classes you did get readings (short ones no longer than 6 pages) and perhaps even a writing assignment but overall there was no need to carry a stack of pages and go through each one repeatedly to discuss them each day.

Other specific highlights for me were Tracie McMillan's talk--which I had hoped would be better attended or better advertised--about Food & Writing and turned into more of a discussion on how to use food to write about other things like ethics as Tracie does. Amy Bloom's reading and talk where she kept it very real insisting on persistence when it comes to being successful as a writer (meaning getting published). Another was Wesleyan alum Alexander Chee and former Wesleyan instructor Paul La Farge's reading on the last full day as their pieces had lots of humor in them. Also Salvatore Scibona's class, which delved deep into the lines and how to edit them better while focusing on specific attendees work kept people enthralled and returning to his class each day.

Moving on to the Cons:

  • Connection. Since this isn't my first conference I did have something to compare it to. And again, I applied with the knowledge that there'd be no workshops. I was glad for this particularly because I'm in a workshop at home and steadily reading my CPs work. So a break was nice. However, I did notice that in not having a workshop there was a lack of connection. Yes, I met many cool participants who are fun people and we had great convos but I also realized how much you connect with other participants as well as the instructor in an actual workshop. Often, I was simply a story to a person until we met at the conference and felt like we knew each other more. I have connected with authors I admire because they read my work and heard how I discussed others in class. There's an impression made when you sit with a group of people for several hours a day reading something that they're passionate about. And in Wesleyan catering more to one-on-one sessions than the workshop environment there's a disconnect that I realized I missed. Roxana Robinson was helpful in reviewing my work and was happy to discuss it for as long as I needed (within the 30 minute time frame) but it felt as though I had handed her a check to do a job.
  • Boarding. I will also admit that I am biased. For my undergrad and graduate degrees I lived with my mom and later my (now) ex-husband and commuted to and from classes. So whenever I go to a conference and they have boarding it is often on campus and this is when I'm introduced to dorm life. The boarding was a nice set up at Wesleyan. It's a suite with a living room, kitchen, and five separate bedrooms (that lock). Oddly the toilet is separate from a sink that is separate from a shower. Don't ask me why. And in no way will I ever think that sharing one toilet or shower with five people is a good thing. No matter if you are in an industrialized or indigenous society, there should be limits. The beds: hard as rocks. The pillows: so thin they're non-existent. The walls: thinner than those in any NYC apartment I've lived in! The locks: in stereo. You could hear everything your suitemates did from pulling out a chair to turning in bed. Now, we were warned about the thin pillows but the beds were insanely high for all except for one writer who had the build of an Amazon. Before this becomes a Yelp-type rant lemme say that  there's not much that could be done because this is a place for teens. I'd say if you can't adapt to your surroundings, then don't do the dorms.
  • Scheduling. Things ran late. And it seemed that the focus was on faculty and their thoughts and not on the participants' work. The participant reading was held after 10pm on the last full day of the conference and fellows yet no faculty and only the collegiate staff members were in attendance. Even those who were there for support steadily drifted away after the third or fourth person read tired and ready for the hard mattress. Faculty readings were at 8pm, fellows at 9:30pm and mind you we still had some work to do in classes. There was always something from classes to panels to a craft talk to dinner to a reading with little time in between to do it all. At other conferences I've been to participant readings were in the afternoon so faculty could attend and spread out over a couple days so more people could read. Since this was one of the few times I could hear other participants work I was interested in learning more, not less and not drifting off to sleep while someone was in the middle of a sentence or stanza.
  • Organization. Once here, for the most part, it seemed that things were in order. Beforehand not so much. I went weeks before knowing if I got aid and then there was confusion on what aid I was getting and how much. And then I had to get everything together within 3 weeks when I should've had 2 months. There was also confusion in the dissemination of information once here in terms of when things would be available, if I'd get more toilet paper in my suite (thankfully one of my suitemates found some [Thanks, Jane!]), where was this class, how many handouts were needed, did everyone know that the location for dinner had changed, what room was this in, can I use a phone?!? So some hiccups along the way. But Anne always availed herself if and when she could and the staff of Wesleyan students and grads tried hard to accommodate even if they weren't sure of what to do.
  • Diversity. In terms of faculty it was lacking, and this includes the fellows who aided in reviewing manuscripts and had craft talks. Johnny Temple (publisher of Akashic Books) was one of the only people to bring up the diversity issue mainly in terms of the lack in publishing as an industry as well as writers. Even the panels, lacking. Beyond Alexander Chee there was not much in the diversity department and it showed. I'm not saying all conferences I've been to have been better at this but there's been at least some indication of such and in showing more diversity in faculty and panelists I can guarantee there'll be more diversity in registrants.

I also want to add that Wesleyan offers scholarships and it's through a very generous one that covered half of my tuition that I was able to attend. In terms of whether or not you'd want to attend I think that comes down to you and your wants/needs. As an introductory conference it may be a good one with classes from faculty that serve as mini MFA or English Lit/Craft sessions for anyone who may be unfamiliar with some details and authors and how people do specific things in their work. I think for anyone who really wants to focus on their work it may not be as helpful depending on who reviews your manuscript and how much time you'd like to delve into it if you feel it needs work. Sometimes hearing a few opinions rather than just one can be more beneficial. I am glad I experienced this conference and met funny, cool, and talented writers. And, despite the pros and cons, getting time in this community and away from the hecticness of home is never a waste.