Monday, July 24, 2017

Why Writers Should Attend Writers Conferences

Nearly two weeks later, several thousand dollars lighter, several pounds heavier, I’m back from the Southampton Writers Conference. I had planned this to be a one-time thing, a treat to celebrate my upcoming 50th birthday, but it was so wonderful I might have to do it again.

Many writers’ conferences are centered around meeting and pitching to agents, which is understandable. As soon as the germ of an idea hits, many writers split their time between writing their new piece and worrying that some other writer is working on the same thing. It becomes a race to finish the draft and get it out to agents as soon as possible, before Stephen King has a chance to finish his.

It’s easy to say, but… don’t do this.

Instead, attend writers’ conferences where the emphasis is on craft. They will make you a better writer. And better stories will attract the attention it takes to get sold in the traditional marketplace.

These conferences center around workshops, where an instructor—often a well-known author—works with 10-15 writers, focusing on 15-25 pages of their work. These instructors often read from their latest works in the evening. Other conference activities include special presentations from folks in the publishing industry (yes, including agents), a play written by conference attendees past or present, receptions, etc.

Here’s what you’ll get out of attending one:

1. The chance to have your writing treated respectfully by people in the industry. There is no more satisfying kick in the pants than having a well-known writer pore over your words and offer in-depth commentary. If you’re in a rut or just between drafts, this feedback alone can get you writing again.

2. The people you meet. Not only do writers conferences offer the chance to form lasting friendships with folks in the same boat you are, suddenly you have many more beta readers or critique partners ready to read your finished manuscript. It’s a good kind of pressure to get you to finish your project.

3. Writing prompts and exercises. If you’ve been concentrating solely on your work in progress, conferences offer assignments that will get you out of your writing comfort zone. Below I’ve pasted a short story I wrote for an exercise in Meg Wolitzer’s class. It’s not my usual voice—I generally write in first person—but I’m proud of the result.

4. Craft lectures and classes. Many conferences offer learning opportunities in addition to the workshops, bringing in bestselling authors to talk about their processes and answer questions.

5. The break. Just the act of taking time off from work and home responsibilities to focus on your writing life will help you take your work more seriously.

6. Introduction to MFA possibilities. Many of your fellow attendees will be MFAs or will be taking classes toward one. And some of the conferences are affiliated with MFA programs. If you’re considering that degree, a conference is a good first look. Many MFA classes follow the same workshop format.

If I’ve convinced you, Google “writers conferences 2017” to find one that suits your needs. Note the application process and deadlines—most of them limit attendees and require a writing sample to be accepted, so it’s not something you can usually sign up for last minute.

The next conference on my agenda is the annual Writers in Paradise conference held every January just a few miles from me. (I swear I didn’t know about it when I named my blog!) Their application process opens August 1, so if you’re interested, get those pages in quickly!

Here’s my piece from Meg Wolitzer’s workshop. The challenge was to let the action and details tell the story.

# # #

When Jennifer went into the laundry room that morning, Pepper struggled to her feet, her legs slipping almost comically on the slick tile floor. Jennifer squatted onto the floor and gently lifted the dog by pushing up her stomach until her legs straightened. The black lab licked her wrist eagerly, ignoring the empty food dish near the washing machine.

She already had a vet appointment scheduled for later in the week, but while the kids were eating breakfast, she moved it up to that afternoon. After she hung up the phone, she opened the refrigerator for her usual bowl of Cheerios, but somehow both milk cartons were empty.

In the drop-off line at Tuckerman Middle School, she told them, almost casually, “I’m taking Pepper in today. Do you want to go with me?”

Her words hung in the air, seemingly pregnant with meaning, until she turned and saw them engrossed in their phones.

“I have tennis after school,” Nick said. “Matt’s mom is driving us.”

“I have drama club,” Wendy said. “You don’t want us to skip, do you?” She sounded almost indignant.

“No,” Jennifer said. “I wouldn’t want you to skip.”

When she got home, Pepper had made a mess in the kitchen, and perhaps feeling guilty, had tried to eat the evidence, thus making things worse. Jennifer helped the dog into the yard, where she squirted her off with a hose that the landscaper had left lying across the mulch around the bushes. He wasn’t scheduled to return for a few more days, but the grass was already too long.

Pepper fell. Jennifer hoisted the dog back up, getting warm wet dog mess all over her jeans and tee-shirt. Her clothes were nearly as old as the dog – thirteen – and she decided to throw them away after her shower. Unlike other women in the county, she didn’t shop for sport and she didn’t consider her clothes as a competition. Maybe if she’d been a size six instead of a sixteen, she would have enjoyed dressing. But the local boutiques never stocked clothes for her, anyway.

She spent the rest of the morning and afternoon on the computer, proofreading college essays written by other people’s children. Once she’d edited impressive opinion pieces submitted by leaders in government and industry; now she read draft after draft about how building houses in Louisiana changed the trajectory of a life once only devoted to soccer, lacrosse, and chess club. The dog lay under her feet, occasionally lifting her head to lick Jennifer’s bare foot. Jennifer rubbed her fur with her toes.

By the time two-thirty rolled around, Pepper was again unable to get up. Jennifer propped open the door to the garage, hit the garage door opener, climbed into the cab, and moved the mini-van to the driveway. After opening the back door, she squatted next to the dog, put her arms underneath the girl’s stomach, and lifted with her knees. Pepper weighed nearly fifty pounds, but Jennifer was able to waddle back to the mini-van and hoist the dog into the trunk.

The vet was a holistic type, who had told Jennifer to cook for Pepper – ground turkey and vegetables—and who poked her with acupuncture needles once a week while the kids were at their various practices. Today, as Jennifer struggled to open the door with Pepper in her arms, the receptionist gave her a strange look and immediately nodded her into an open room. It was bigger and more comfortable than the other rooms she’d seen, with several couches and tables that sported boxes of tissues.

Jennifer lay Pepper on the fluffy blanket on the floor and scooted next to the dog. Pepper curled her head in Jennifer’s lap.

Dr. Cason came in immediately. She sat cross-legged beside Jennifer and put her hand on her leg. “I heard you carried her in today.”

Jennifer nodded, suddenly unable to speak. The vet took Jennifer’s hand in both of hers.

“It’s time. It’s been time. She’s been holding on for you. She needs you to let her go. Can you do that? Can you let her go?”

When Jennifer nodded again, the vet stood up. “I’ll give you a few minutes together. Then we’ll start the protocol. She’ll be asleep first. It will be fast and absolutely painless.”

Jennifer stroked the dog in her lap. Her first baby. She and David had gotten her from the pound, a stray whose distended nipples revealed she’d recently given birth. Perhaps the owner had kept the puppies but kicked out its mama. The dog had rewarded them with intense devotion. When Jennifer’s own babies were born, Pepper had groomed them as if she’d given birth to them herself.

“Are you ready?” Dr. Cason placed an IV in Pepper’s leg as Jennifer leaned over the dog, the tears flowing freely down her face. Pepper tilted her head and licked the water off Jennifer’s cheeks. When her cheeks were dry, Pepper laid her head down and closed her eyes.

“Such a good girl,” Jennifer murmured. “Such a good, good girl.” The dog was motionless on the carpet.

The vet placed her stethoscope on the dog’s chest. “It’s over,” she whispered. “She only needed a little nudge.”

Afterward, Jennifer filled out the paperwork to have Pepper cremated. There would be paw prints made; fur saved. The package would come in the mail in the next several weeks.

Wendy and Nick were still not home when Jennifer returned. She walked upstairs, shut her bedroom door, and laid down on the bed. A few hours later, she woke when David turned on the light. Stripping off his work clothes, he asked, “Where’s the dog?”

Jennifer sat up. “I had to. The vet said it was time.”

“Good. I’m glad you took care of that.” He disappeared into his walk-in closet, returning a few minutes later in his tennis clothes. “I’ve got doubles. I’ll be ready for dinner around seven.”

He slipped out the door, his tennis shoes squeaking as he hurried down the stairs and into the garage.

Jennifer got up and walked to the top of the stairs. From this vantage point, she could survey the entire house – their bedrooms upstairs; the kitchen, living room, family room and office below. There was nobody there but her.