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.



Giving Away Our Art

Today I “gave away” a story of mine to a website. It’s not even one that showcases creative writing. It was just a “Share Your Story” set-up. Most of the stories there were simply things like “I have been depressed for 20 years” and “I have tried X (medication) and it doesn’t work for me.” Mine is an essay I wrote for a contest. I was one of seven finalists (I’ve been telling myself that surely there were more than seven entrants!). But I realized as I submitted the story that my writing is not about being published traditionally but about getting my stories out there in the hopes that what I’ve written can help someone else. Not only that, but just because most of the other stories are more like notes, doesn’t mean that they aren’t real writing. The writers may not consider what they wrote to be “creative writing.” But anything that we create is art, and what is art but self-expression?

I would gladly write for free–at least for awhile. I haven’t developed the commercial mindset. As long as my writing is published, I’m happy. The money is just a form of validation and the way that this society measures success. By that standard I am only remotely successful. I have made exactly $1400 in all the years that I’ve been writing. But one of my proudest accomplishments was the publishing of “Grief Garden” (see archives, 12/19/05) in an anthology called From Eulogy To Joy. I’m proud not only of the piece, but because of the venue in which it was published. I felt honored to be included in an anthology about how people have dealt with the loss of a loved one. I have no idea how many people have read my essay, or what they thought of it, but I know it’s there, available to anyone who picks up the book.

What does it really matter if we’re paid for our art? Oh, sure, we’d love to be able to make a living doing what we love. For one thing, then we’d have more time to do it. But I’m going to write anyway. And a lot of what happens to me at my “day job” informs what I write. I’d miss out on that input if I didn’t do anything else but produce my art.

Of course, being paid is just one way to be recognized. I doubt that any of us would complain if we were mentioned in a public venue as one of this century’s greatest writers, albeit an unpaid one. Maybe it would be better if no one was ever paid for his or her art. Then we could be sure that what was created was done for love of the art itself. I know I can tell a difference in my writing when I’m trying to write for publication and writing “for myself.” I usually don’t care for the former. I don’t always care for the latter either, but at least I’m free from anxiety when I’m writing. Anxiety makes it difficult for me to be creative. I do better in an atmosphere of complete self-acceptance. When I feel that I have a God-given right to write.

Of course, with that right comes responsibility. (That’s what “they” always say.) I have the responsibility to write as well as I can, to not put out any junk, at least not in my final versions. If God gave me the talent–and I believe that He did–then He intends for me to share it with the world, whether I get paid for it or not. He didn’t say, “Don’t feed the poor unless you get paid to do so.” He said, simply, “Feed the poor. Give away the shirt on your back–don’t sell it to the poor man who needs one. Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

What if art were never shared freely? Sometimes I think that’s a danger in this society when admissions to art exhibits, concerts, and plays are more than the average family spends in a week for groceries. (Or longer.) But when I open my eyes, I see that art is all around us, free for the experiencing. It’s in the clothes we wear, the way we decorate our homes, the gardens we share with the neighborhood, even in the meals we cook. It most certainly is in nature. But I also see it in architecture and other man-made things. The only difference between these kinds of art and the kind the artist produces is that the artist is trying to reproduce in some way and interpret the meaning of the art in ordinary things.

I’m not saying that it isn’t a worthy goal to be paid for our art. I just know that worrying about that stands in the way of my free self-expression. Art is to be shared or it is only the creator’s possession. It may cost money to produce, and even to share, but being paid should never be the main motivation. That robs the artist of his joy.