Are Small, Local Writers’ Conferences Worth It?

I used to think that you had to be a “real” writer to go to a writers’ conference. Otherwise, how could you justify spending the (often considerable amount of) time and money to go to one?

To me, a “real” writer is someone who:

  • Writes creatively.
  • Writes every day.
  • Has been published.
  • Has been paid for her writing.
  • Claims writing-related expenses on his tax return.
  • Has a manuscript ready to show an editor or publisher.

I write every day, but sometimes all I write is in my journal; I couldn’t possibly call everything I write “creative.” I have been published, but not very often and rarely for pay. I never make enough to qualify as a business, which means I can’t claim expenses against that business. And although I have tons of unfinished manuscripts, I don’t have one that I feel is ready to show to anyone.

Still, I decided to take the plunge and attend my first writers’ conference this past weekend. It helped that the cost was only $40 (free if you had a student I.D.). That included three workshops, a keynote speaker, two meals, access to authors and small presses selling their wares, and readings by the workshop presenters. Incredible, really, but I was still apprehensive about whether or not I was wasting my money.

I couldn’t get to sleep the night before the conference. I was worrying about silly stuff like whether or not I’d be able to get up on time, find a place to park, and what I was going to wear. I tend to do this before every event I go to. In fact, I worried so much about going to my class reunion last year I ended up not going at the last minute. I guess you cold say I’m a pessimist: I always expect things to go wrong.

However, I don’t think you have to be a pessimist to have feelings like this before a writers’ conference. Unless you’re supremely confident about your writing ability (and experience), it’s easy to worry about feeling like a fraud (again, not a “real” writer). Or you might be afraid that you won’t get much out of the workshops or that the speaker would be uninspiring. I was even worried about whether I’d be able to stay awake.

One thing that gave me pause (and that explained the low fee, I thought) was that I had never heard of any of the writers that were going to be at the conference. As it turned out, that turned out to be an advantage, for two reasons:

I didn’t feel overawed by the authors’ “star quality” and could relate to them as real people. I wasn’t intimidated by their reputations nor did I discount their examples by thinking, “Well, sure, he could do that—he’s famous!”

The authors’ advice hit close to home since they were all local (meaning in-state) writers. If they could get grants from the local arts council, maybe I could, too. They had experience with local presses. They were people with whom I could network.

In short, the fact that the presenters were not much different than people like me made them more accessible. The bar wasn’t too high for me to imagine reaching it.

That isn’t to say that these writers weren’t top-notch. I was very impressed by their writing and their knowledge of the writing process. They had so much to teach me, and they weren’t too “big” to deign to do so.

One thing that surprised me was that I felt so at home. We were all bound together by our common love for the written word. I was asked several times, “What kind of writing do you do?” instead of, “What makes you think you belong here?” It was assumed that we wouldn’t even be there if we weren’t committed to using language to communicate with the world; in other words, if we weren’t writers.

Now that I’ve attended this conference, I’m sure I’ll be attending more. I can’t afford a lot of them—maybe only one a year—but I’ll certainly be more open to opportunities like this. Just remember that there’s a lot more that unites writers than divides them. Every writer “gets” what it’s like to be a writer and most are excited about sharing what they know with their fellow writers.

And a small, local conference is a great way to start to experience the camaraderie of writers.

For more particulars on this conference, check out the information on the Columbus State Community College’s website.