Writing in the Age of Writers’ Conferences

"Reading Girl," by Matisse

“Reading Girl,” by Matisse

I have revised my writing and improved it, and I have revised it and gone to hell.

Years ago an instructor at a writer’s conference advised us not to show our work to our family.  Family members, he pointed out, have already seen you naked.  Join a writers’ group.

The instructor was wrong on one count:  my husband very much liked the short story I’d submitted:  it was partly autobiographical, set in a poor urban neighborhood, and there was a scene where a family walked its pet goat down the street.  He recognized that scene.

When the instructor trashed the story in a private conference, I asked why I had been admitted to the workshop.  I did not realize then that writers’ conferences are a big business.  They are a place where one can learn to write, but more than one had been shocked by the instructor’s bluntness. He took us too seriously, and one can only hope at the next conference he loosened up.

He taught us to imitate his style.  No adverbs were allowed, sentences had to be short and simple, and  every story had to be quirky: my story “Suzanne’s” was set in an erotic bookshop, about a woman discontented (no!) with her life; there were drug dealers in another story; and in another a character had an affair with his sister-in-law.

Though the instructor was very good at spotting who would be published–a mystery writer, and a woman who wrote “issue” novels– he did not encourage anybody who wrote what I wanted to read.  Somehow the writers I though very good were never heard of again.

I did not write much fiction after the conference because I had no idea who my new characters were.  Quirky?  They were quirky, but in retrospect I would  have been better off writing for my own enjoyment about characters like myself.  I wasn’t writing for publication, and  I was shocked that my fellow students  already wanted to know how to get published. Most of us needed to work on our writing.

And now, all these years later, I have thrown out almost everything I wrote.

Here are a few lines of an autobiographical novel in verse I started writing some years back, about my friend L, who died at age 48 of complications from diabetes, and me.

Performance art
happened frequently
in our town
[when we were young].
Tree pods
nicked the lawn where we sat drinking coffee.
We caught one and said,
“What is this?”
We were supposed to be in math.
I hadn’t done homework since 1969.
We gathered pods and took them to the secretary’s office.
She smoked and shuffled papers.
She talked on the phone.  She looked at us.
“We need to xerox these,” we said.
“A project.”
She absently waved us behind the gate.
She didn’t care.
She knew us well.
We were always in there for this or that.
We skipped class.
We stole the pink pad of passes from the office.
We were permanently excused from classes.
The college counselor called us into her office constantly.

We glued the xerox
onto someone’s locker.

We couldn’t stop laughing.

We liked the boy
whose locker we had adorned
with phallic art.


See you tomorrow with another blog.

9 thoughts on “Writing in the Age of Writers’ Conferences

  1. It’s hard to find good writing teachers who do not tell you what to do but show what it means to be a writer. Show don’t tell seems to be their basic principle yet unable to practice it. Hope you didn’t get discouraged!


    • Andrea, you’re right: “show don’t tell” it is. Everybody’s style is different, and somehow there wasn’t room for different ways of storytelling at this conference. But I did learn some good basics, and I wrote a lot afterwards.


  2. Why did you stop writing??? I wanted to hear more!!!

    As for ‘training’ writers – my Eldest Child goes to a writers’ group every week and they pretty much sound like your conference, teaching them to write in a particular way. And I think they do the adverb thing too, which my OH disagrees with violently. Fortunately, EC tends to write what he wants to write, but I don’t think the other attendees are as strong-minded…


  3. There’s an advert in the latest London Review of Books that made me laugh:”workshops are for jerks. What you need is an editor”.


  4. Karen, yes, the adverb thing! It does teach you to write “clean” prose, but it all sounds the same after awhile, and I do believe most of the writers I like use adverbs occassionally. Good for EC for standing up!

    Catherine, I must see this ad right away. How very funny!


  5. ““Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
    –Flannery O’Connor

    I love to write, I have so much stuff but recently I came to the conclusion that I can’t write fiction because even though I can create very good characters I can’t make them do anything. I can’t even make them open a door.
    I went to a couple of writer’s workshops here in Montreal. My main problem isn’t the instructors but the other people in the group. Maybe it’s just me but participants are only worried about their own text and don’t really care for other people’s. So if the workshop was to critique your peer’s work it was useless.

    I agree with the LRB ad, I would love to have money to pay an editor.. I’m sure that among my piles of notebooks and GB of computer files there is something worthy of revising -if I may say so- 🙂


  6. Catherine, I have now read the “jerk” ad. How very funny!

    Luisa, Flannery O’Connor went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She did have good teachers who stifled best-sellers.:)

    Writing fiction is hard, but you have your NANOWRIMO thing, no? So you’ve got something to work with. Since it’s a cold winter, we should all work on our manuscripts. Of course I’ve thrown most of mine out!


  7. I go to the MidWestWriters Conference every summer and have learned so much. What I like most is HOW much they cram into three days for a very small price, considering, and how I do not ever feel I am hearing the same lessons recycled over and over. Different teachers, different writers, it’s all good.

    Doesn’t mean I always agree with what they teach, of course, but I have to say that when I apply what I learn, my writing is improved each time.


  8. Elizabeth, I do love the idea of these conferences, and so much depends on the writer/teachers. So glad you’ve enjoyed your. Some have lovely exercises, read aloud from writers they like, etc. It varies. And I think three days is a good amount of time (mine was MUCH longer). I learned a lot; and the posh teacher “learned” much more about who we were and what we could do. You can’t take a bunch of amateurs and give them hard-core criticism. We were adults on vacation! Sure, serious about what we did, but we could learn without being totally devastated. He realized this and adjusted his “curriculum.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s