The History of The Writers' Conference
week in January I received a brochure from an annual writers’ conference I
attended over thirty years ago. Brochures from this conference have followed me
from move to move, from the North to the South, and they have changed
considerably since I first started receiving them. The staff fiction writers
are no longer big “literary stars,” and the mention of editors and literary
agents is done carefully, promising nothing other than their presence and some
interaction with the people who are paying to attend.
The suggestion to enroll in the conference I had attended had
come from a former professor, who had become my mentor. I had finished writing
my first novel, Realities, less than two months before the conference was
scheduled to start. I had also found an agent. By the end of my second day
there, I had stopped taking notes at the lectures and had begun taking notes on
what I was observing. I had never been in an atmosphere so intense, not even in
graduate workshops I had audited when the professor/poets teaching them lost
control of the discussion.
The experience stayed with me. I
wrote a novel about it and sent it to my new agent, who told me that I couldn’t
say the things I said in the novel in print. My first thought was that of
course I could, I am an American. My second thought, which I articulated, was
to ask for my manuscript back.
knew the novel was too long, so I put it away, then took it out five years later
to work on it again. This pattern continued every five years until I felt it
had the right balance. The result my book,The Writers’ Conference.
During the years I was working on The Writers’ Conference, writing workshops and
conferences proliferated. They are a multi-million-dollar industry now, and
they have become creative in the ways they take participants’ money. Today
there are “pitch sessions.” At a conference in Florida last fall, aspiring writers
paid forty dollars for a ten-minute session to pitch their books to an agent.
On a forum I follow, an aspiring writer who was appalled by this practice
called pitching “begging.” You can decide.
Some agents attend conferences to
sell their books, which supposedly tell how to write best sellers. They have
sold thousands of these books, which I’ve noticed haven’t been followed by
thousands of best sellers.
One of the lures of conferences is
having one’s work criticized by a published writer. At the conference I
attended, my manuscript was assigned to a brilliant, acclaimed writer who told
me that I should re-write the novel, changing it from the first person to the
third person. At the time, I thought he was wrong, but he was brilliant and
acclaimed so I doubted my own judgment. In fairness to him, I had submitted
three chapters from the middle of my manuscript. Perhaps if he had started
reading it from the first chapter, his call would have been different.
was lucky. Realities was accepted for publication three weeks later.
I didn’t have time to make the change he suggested, which would have ruined the
I am not against writers’
workshops. I think they can be beneficial if the writers conducting them are
good teachers. But being a famous writer does not make that individual a
skilled teacher. And teaching is a skill, just like writing. It has to be
learned. Writers who can teach can show how to structure a story, how to
develop characters, and how to write description and dialogue. Struggling poets
can learn about rhythms and line breaks and the repetition of words. Some of
the writers at the conference I attended were skilled teachers, but not all of
writers have another alternative. They can learn by studying other writers.
Tillie Olsen, who wrote Tell Me a Riddle, which is
a staple of women’s literature courses, was fond of saying that she got her
college education at the New York public library on her lunch hour. It was
there that she taught herself how to write. Her financial circumstances didn’t
permit her to attend a writers’ conference, so she found the best teachers on
Read an interview with Marian on Tempest Works:
My First Lesson in Point of View
When I was in my early teens, my mother had a subscription to The Ladies Home Journal. I wasn’t interested in the stories or the recipes, but I was fascinated by the column, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" The column had a simple format: first, the wife would relate her grievances in the relationship; then the husband would tell what he felt was wrong with the marriage.
The first time I read the column, the wife immediately had my sympathy. Her husband didn’t make an effort to remember her birthday and their anniversary; he belittled her in front of their friends by telling jokes at her expense; he spent weekends either golfing or napping instead of participating in activities with her and their children. No wonder their marriage was in trouble!
But then I read his side. She’d plunged them into debt by spending more than he was earning. Although she didn’t work, their house was a dirty, disorderly mess. When he’d married her, she was slender. Now she was grossly overweight and unappealing.
It was a eureka moment! For the first time, I vividly saw two sides to the same story. Years later, when I was writing The Last Season, The Story of a Marriage, I often thought about the column "Can This Marriage Be Saved."