By WENDY STERNDALE, second-year student in the Writing and Consciousness MFA program
Whenever I’m at a writer’s conference I feel slightly giddy among admired writers who struggle with words on the page, just like I do. When listening to an author who gets it right, it can feel like all of us are breathing in unison.
Maybe you’re like me. As a practicing writer, I search for answers to craft-related questions through other writers’ examples. How far can we stretch the truth in creative non-fiction before it becomes a lie? What makes prose flow as beautifully as poetry and still retain its clarity? When authors and poets read their own work, the emphasis they use sometimes answers these and other questions. Literary conferences are some of the best places to listen to best-selling authors read and discuss their craft. Over the last year, I have attended three conferences, and in early 2012 will return to the biggest one, Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
The most recent conference I attended, LitQuake, happens over all of San Francisco every October. Most events are free or very inexpensive, making it accessible financially, if not logistically. Our own Carolyn Cooke read from and discussed her latest novel, “Daughters of the Revolution” in a lovely South of Market theatre. Many events are in bars, reiterating the impression, whether true or not, that San Francisco is a writer’s town, and that San Francisco writers drink a fair amount. At historic and poorly ventilated Vesuvio’s in North Beach, readers yell from the balcony to listeners sweating in history, a standing room only crowd. I imagine beat writers did the same thing 50 or so years ago, with or without a conference to justify them. A parade of listeners then strolled across Columbus Ave. to Tosca’s Restaurant where a former mobster, a lawyer, a local satirist, and a few others read from their thrillers at an event called, “These Mean Streets: Reality and Fiction Collide.” They agreed that if the truth could get you killed, fiction is preferred.
LitQuake culminates with LitCrawl on Saturday night in the Mission District, when bars and restaurants open for an evening of reading, listening, walking, drinking, and eating. Some of the second year MFA students, along with a couple of instructors in the Writing and Consciousness program, signed on to read current work to fellow students, teachers, and complete strangers. I only looked up once for the briefest moment, and kept on reading. I didn’t die.
Conferences vary in expense and delivery. The elegant Napa Writers’ Conference is scheduled every July in the beautiful Napa Valley wine country. Paid participants get individual and classroom-style coaching with well-known writers and the other attendees. This is a smaller conference that offers more opportunity for personal conversations with admired writers, perhaps at one of the shared meals. The expense may be out of reach for some. Craft lectures and readings are open to the public for a smaller fee. Students can attend these for free. The evening readings include wine and views in stately local wineries.
If you go to the next AWP conference coming up in Chicago, you may get the impression that everybody reads all the time. It is huge. It spans two hotels, both of which are already sold out for the Feb. 29–March 3, 2012, conference. In any given timeslot there are about 25 events to choose from. As of today, Nov. 28, 2011, their website lists 77 sponsors. Students can attend for free with four hours of volunteer time. Last year, after two solid days of craft lectures and readings by best-selling, award-winning authors, and other equally captivating writers, a fellow student and I dropped to the floor of the enormous Bookfair near a post with an outlet to charge phones. We had created an impromptu salon where participants collapsed for a moment to rejuvenate before venturing off to pour more ideas into an already full heart and head.
Maybe you are like me and are learning to clarify what you have to say, your point of view, and to hone the way you say it. Conferences provide fresh and unique inspiration through exposure to writers we may not have the opportunity to meet. At the upcoming AWP in Chicago, instructor Sarah Stone and second year MFA students Karina Knowles and Lois Smith will be on a panel, “The Improvisational, Inspirational Workshop,” discussing how to develop workshops that inspire participants, build community, and cure blocks instead of causing them, and help writers discover new stories and new possibilities for existing stories. Perhaps I’ll see you there.