To Go or Not to Go: Tackling the Existential Writers’ Conference Question

Bread Loaf.Yep, it's that gorgeous.

It’s that time of the year when the question of summer plans begins to be real.  And for writers, often that means deciding whether or not to apply for a writers’ conference or residency. I’ve never done a residency–unless you count the fantasies in which I’m in a woodsy cabin with lunches delivered on trays.  But I’ve been to three writers conferences (Bread Loaf twice and once to Southhampton). Each conference gave something to me that was irreplaceable, something that I could not have acquired in any other way but by attending the conference.

But I think in some ways low expectations and even low self-esteem (can it be a good thing?) served me well at these conferences. I didn’t go to the conferences thinking I’d walk away with the promise of a book contract. I know that many people do go to conferences with the hope that they will score big, and I think they are usually the ones who find the conferences to be disappointing.

Frank McCourt at Southhampton

My experience at Bread Loaf far outstripped my experience at Southhampton, but the Southhampton conference also holds a soft spot for me as well because of Frank McCourt.  Bread Loaf’s campus and history seem to inspire very literary and interesting dialogues.  I remember sitting under one of the big shady trees there with a diverse group of women writers of different races, ages, abilities and sexual orientations having a spontaneous conversation about the women’s movement.  I had this moment when I thought, “This is one of the best discussions I’ve ever participated in.  I can’t believe how lucky I am to be sitting here.”

Here’s a little about my experience at each conference:

Bread Loaf 2001

I went to this conference as a participant (as opposed to a scholar or fellow, who pays little or nothing to attend). I had a handful of publications in small literary journals and a few in Brain, Child magazine and was part way through my first (never-to-be published) book.  Two important things happened to me at this conference.  One: I became friends with another writer, Christina Adams, who was at the exact same place in her career as I was. Christina was writing a book about her son’s autism, which made her about 5 years ahead of the rest of the country.  Christina and I maintained our friendship after the conference and cheered each other on through all sorts of career ups and downs, including the publication of her first book, A Real Boy, and mine.

The other great thing was having Antonya Nelson as my workshop leader. Antonya is a brilliant short story writer and in that class, I learned how to revise a story for unity and cohesion.  She actually taught me a “trick,” (which I wish writing teachers would do more often) for manipulating the imagery in the opening paragraph so that it forecasts the tone of the story.  At the end of the conference Antonya told me she was nominating my workshop story for the next year’s Best New American Voices.  My story didn’t make the final cut, but Antonya’s endorsement gave me a great shot of confidence.

Southhampton 2003

When I went to this conference, I’d finished my first (never-to-be published) book, Light Sleeper: The Making of an Unlikely Mother and I had an agent (!) who thought the book would easily sell (!) and was just about to send it out(!). I was pretty wired.  I was also on the verge of a divorce, but I didn’t know that yet.  I arrived in the worst frame of mind for a conference: all I wanted from being there was to advance my career, and I felt sort of impatient with anything else.

Frank McCourt’s story-filled teaching style was the perfect antidote to that. It was like I was the restless cub and he was the older lion saying, “Okay, enough of that nonsense. Sit down and listen to some stories.”  I’ve written at length about my experience with Frank, so if you want to read those posts, start here.

One of the sort of strange and spectacular things about Southhampton is the number of celebrities that sort of happen in. I guess it’s a Hamptons thing, but I didn’t expect to be standing in line in the bathroom chatting with Jane Pauley about her son or talking to Mel Brooks (that’s right, I actually talked with Mel Brooks about writing dialogue. I guess I should write a blog post about that).  If you’re into random celebrities sightings (isn’t that Alan Alda over there?), this could be the conference for you, but I have to say, my heart belongs to Bread Loaf.

Bread Loaf 2004

This time I went to Bread Loaf as a scholar in nonfiction, which meant I thought I was cat’s meow except for the minor fact that my personal life had morphed into a Nightmare on Elm Street (divorce) and my book about motherhood had officially been turned down by every publisher my agent (not my current agent, btw) sent it to.  I’d been so depressed that I hadn’t been writing and all I had to turn in to my workshop were these scribblings about divorce.

But my workshop was fantastic. I got a chance to work with Ted Conover, and I made another new awesome writer friend, Kathryn Kefauver (one of the funniest people ever).  And then, after the conference, this magic thing happened that is the magic that conference attendees always hope will happen.  I got a leg up.  Ted Conover wrote me that a friend of his was starting a column for the New York Times—what’s it called? oh, Modern Love–and that divorce piece, it might just be right.  And the magic went like this: the piece was published, I wrote more about divorce, I met my current, awesome agent and he said “write a proposal,” and I did and there was an auction and Rachel Klayman at Crown bought the proposal and that was how my book How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed was born.

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2 Responses to To Go or Not to Go: Tackling the Existential Writers’ Conference Question

  1. I am going to apply for Breadloaf 2011, it looks amazing.

  2. Pingback: What We Write About (or, as I was taught to say, About Which We Write) | Writing is My Drink

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