Love Thy Neighbor: The Value of Regional Writers Conferences by Dan Brady
I attended DC’s Conversations and Connections conference for a few years and always found it to be an inspiring opportunity to converse and connect, so I asked Dan Brady—from Barrelhouse, one of the conference organizers—to write something about it. (Full disclosure: Real Pants is a Wi-Fi sponsor this year, so here’s hoping ALL the connections are smooth.) Dan has written a valuable essay that notes lots of reasons for people to attend any event like this, not just CCDC. And this is not a pitch, he says; “the conference is probably going to be sold out by the time you read this anyway.” No doubt that’s true, because they run a great event. If you’re thinking of attending a regional writers conference, this post is essential reading.
Like it or not, the AWP Conference is the biggest gathering of writers in the country. Fourteen thousand writers in one place. That’s an amazing opportunity to meet friends, learn about magazines and small presses, and see the living, thriving culture of writers and readers. Most writers come away from AWP excited, if also exhausted. After three days of marathon readings and making questionable decisions regarding new books and one’s credit limit, it’s nice to be home.
But now that we’re all back, how can we continue to foster that sense of community? Is meeting up for three days a year really enough to satisfy that need? There’s the internet, duh. But there’s also a strong, growing movement of regionally based writers conferences.
From Philallia in Philly to Open Press in LA, local literary communities are banding together, organizing, and nurturing each other’s work right here at home. At its worst AWP can become a mess of anxiety and self-serving networky badge-gazing. Cheaper, less stressful, and locally focused, regional conferences give writers a chance to really engage each other as people, as neighbors living in the same community.
For the last decade, Barrelhouse has worked with local partners to put on the Conversations and Connections Conference. Our next one is this Saturday in DC (Buffalo Small Press Book Fair is also this weekend!). Not to toot our own horn too much, but it’s been an amazing rallying point for the DC literary community, especially the independent literary community.
By the end of this year, nearly 2,000 writers will have attended a Conversations and Connections conference since we started this thing and we’ve seen great, tangible results come from it – literary magazines started, writing that’s been published, new reading series popping up – because of meeting people in person at these events. We try to keep costs low for participating writers and about 50% of the registration fees goes right back out the door to other participating literary magazines and small presses, thousands of dollars each year. You can read more about that aspect of it here.
On the local level, when you know that you might see these people again and again around town, everyone takes their ego down a peg. A lot of the posturing goes away. Conversations becomes way more personal and way more practical. What we’ve seen is that the spirit of the group becomes more about what we can learn from each other and less about what we can get from each other. One of our favorite conference evaluation quotes of all time is “”Everyone I met was really open and encouraging and seemed to be there for the same reasons. Did you guys screen out all the a**holes or something?”
Most people who come to the conference are just starting to get serious about publishing their writing. They want to know how it all works, who are the main players, what are the beginner’s mistakes to avoid, how to find out about new books, how to get involved in what’s happening around town. Maybe they want to start a literary magazine or small press themselves. We see a lot of MFA students. We see a lot of MFA graduates who are looking to reconnect with a writing community after a few lonely years outside of their program. We see a lot of writers who are coming to the game later in life. They have real stories to tell, but don’t know where to take them just yet. We see really polished writers who have been working away, publishing poems and stories for years, but want to talk to people like them who are struggling through the same systems. Everyone is there for the same reason: to improve their craft, figure out what this whole writing life thing is, and how they can be a part of it.
George Saunders said when students come to an MFA program it’s like they’ve been walking around on ice skates all their life and the MFA program finally gives them a pond to skate on. Local writing conferences do the same thing. They give people a place to belong and a five-gallon bucket to lean on if they don’t have their legs yet.
Amber Sparks said this:
“I first went to a Conversations and Connections, bought an issue of Barrelhouse, and then summoned up the courage to take a Barrelhouse course online. That whole process was the beginning of everything. I had been reading and submitting to all these VERY SERIOUS MFA lit journals, what I call my humorless Lorrie Moore stories, and then I read Barrelhouse and I was like, YES. THANK GOD. A mag that realizes you can be serious and funny and desperately sad and more funny. It was a revelation.”
I’m glad Amber came to the conference and it opened things up for her. Since then she’s been back many times as a panelist, including this year. But I think that sort of transformation of how you see yourself as writer and what the world of writing looks like has to take place on a pretty intimate scale.
Face to face, with the accountability of a local community, we’re forced to stop pretending. We let ourselves be vulnerable, questioning, curious, collaborative, just based on proximity alone. The dream of your book reaching 14,000 writers at once is a good one, but it can also be paralyzing. As Steve Almond said in one of our keynotes a few years go, writers should “set the bar a little lower.” Take the pressure off of themselves. Scaling down to a local level is a great way to do that.
Of course, we’re not the only ones doing this. Here’s a quick list of some regionally organized conferences. There are tons more. If you’ve got one in your area, tell us about it in the comments.
- Conversations and Connections – DC, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia
- Letters Festival – Atlanta, GA
- CityLit Project – Baltimore, MD
- Winter Wheat Festival of Writing – Bowling Green, OH
- The Brooklyn Book Festival – Brooklyn, NY
- Buffalo Small Press Book Fair – Buffalo, NY
- AJC Decatur Book Festival – Decatur, GA
- Open Press – Los Angeles, CA
- Midwest Small Press Fest – Milwaukee, WI
- Midwest Writers Workshop – Muncie, Indiana
- The New York City Poetry Festival – New York, NY
- CUNY ChapFest – New York, NY
- Philalalia – Philadelphia, PA
- APRIL Festival – Seattle, WA
- Twin Cities Book Festival – St. Paul, MN
This isn’t some pitch for Conversations and Connections. Chances are you don’t live in the DC Metro Area and the conference is probably going to be sold out by the time you read this anyway. I do think there is real, practical value in this regional approach to strengthen local literary communities, give writers a sense of belonging, and a way to connect with their peers. Writing can be an isolated and isolating vocation. But this, this might work for you. Find a regional conference near you and give it a try or, if there’s nothing where you are, get the community together and start one. You’ll grow as a writer and so will everyone around you.