Every year in January I receive a brochure from an annual writers’ conference I attended over thirty-five 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 very 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 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.
I 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 was my novel, 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 “pitching sessions.” Aspiring writers can pay over one hundred dollars for an opportunity 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.
I 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 novel.
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 them were.
Aspiring 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 her own.