by Gay Degani

One of the things I did on my vacation was to go to the lovely city of Charleston, South Carolina to attend the Crazyhorse Writers’ Conference I flew three thousand miles to do this because I wanted to have an opportunity to meet the staff of a print magazine and find out what lit journals are looking for these days.  The answer, of course, was exactly what I expected: strong stories with characters who are both recognizable and unique, writing that is fresh and original, and content that reveals something about our humanity.  I knew this before I went, so why was it so important to me?

I had been turned down for a residency and had no back-up plan.  At the very least, I wanted to go somewhere to be with writers.  The Crazyhorse Journal newsletter arrived in my email the next day announcing their upcoming conference—the first in several years.  Crazyhorse!!  Charleston!!  Bret Lott, author of Jewel!!  Only $199!!  I signed up.

Part of the appeal, I admit, was being 2500 miles closer to Washington D.C. where I could to see “The Joy” after the conference.  This is Emily Joy, my four-month-old granddaughter.  I figured she might be as excited about my visit as I was. So I packed a bag.

The conference.  It was perfect.  Each morning we had a “master class,” my phrase, not theirs.  They would be too humble to say this.  But each one was.  Let me introduce them to you here:

  • The art and craft of poetry by Sherod Santos
  • The art and craft of creative nonfiction by Robin Hemley
  • The art and craft of fiction Doug Dorst and Anthony Varallo
  • The business of publishing by Bret Lott and his long-time agent Marian Young.
  • Evening readings were presented by Doug Dorst, Sherod Santos, Robin Hemley, and the editors of Crazyhorse

When Robin Hemley started talking about the layers of the writing process—thinking about each element separately as you work a story—I cried.  Should I confess this?  Well, I did.  Because I’ve been to many conferences and this was the first time someone explained drafting in such a clear way.

Here’s what he said and I’m paraphrasing here: We have to start with the idea for the story and take it to the end before we really know what we have. Then we need to look at it and understand what it is the story wants to say and then write another draft.  Next comes figuring out if we’ve said it the way we need to say I. What comes first? How should it end? What scenes best enhance the underlying theme?  (I don’t think he said “theme” per se.  Maybe he said “meaning.”  I can’t remember.  I wasn’t taking notes because my notebook would have been swamped with tears).  After this, take the time to look at each scene to make the language clear, the details concise, the emotion beneath the action authentic.

The idea here wasn’t that I hadn’t actually figured some of this out, but that someone thought about the writing process in the same way and shared it.  I know most strong writers do all these things, but I had never heard one talk about it before.  All of the resident and guest faculty talked about slowing down the process, letting it happen, taking time to give space between creation and final product.  This made me think about the times I’ve sent a piece out long before it was ready, something I’ve been realizing.  Patience IS a virtue.  So I thought, hey, this is worth the trip.  Validation that I was on the right track.

There were many many other things that made the trip of value to me.  The excellent faculty as I’ve said, but also my peers.  These writers were working writers, who understood that this isn’t an easy path.  They were willing to share doubts, offer advice, and laugh at the things that make the writing breed different from others.  (“Where’s my phone I need my phone right now.  See that guy over there in the tutu walking down the street.  I gotta jot his down.”)  The open mic was one of the best I’ve ever attended, the prose strong, the delivery equal to the stories.  There were engrossing conversations in the main meeting place over sweet rolls and coffee, at lunches at some place called Bananas and Caviar, and at the receptions for the faculty readings.  I enjoyed everyone I met and hope to stay in touch with them via the dreaded, but somehow necessary Facebook.

Also I was able to sit down with Bret Lott to discuss a story.  His advice helped me write another (maybe the sixth or seventh?) draft and now it’s clearer, deeper, and, I hope, most of the loose ends tied up.

And lastly, there was the city of Charleston itself.  Although I kept wandering around wondering which way was south, I felt like I was in an enchanted place.  The azaleas there  are amazing.

With all that said, let me reassure any of your who are considering doing this, that conferences of equal quality (and for all skill levels) take place year round over the US and abroad.  I recommend to writers—especially new-to-the-game writers—to figure out a way to spend time with kindred spirits whether you have to fly, drive, or walk.  It does YOUR spirit good.

What does a writers’ conference entail and how is it different from a workshop?  I couldn’t find an authoritative definition so I made up my own.   There are three public events for writers (other than converging at Akbar Lounge): conferences, workshops, and residencies.

Conferences are gatherings that consist of panels of writers and/or speakers who discuss craft, the business of writing, and the writing life.  These may be one-day, a weekend (lost or not), or several days.  They may contain workshops and/or break-out groups where specific topics are discussed or frenzied writing goes on usually with amazingly good results. They often feature readings by famous and not-so-famous-but-you’re-glad-YOU-have-discovered-them authors and/or a chance to pitch to agents and/or chat with editors.  Good ones put you at tables eating overcooked salmon with writing icons.  Some conferences have workshops and some don’t.

Workshops have many of the same elements of a conference, but promise to sit you down with peers and a published writer and help you see your story through other eyes.  This is a very good thing.  These can be short or they can go on for weeks depending on the kind of workshop you need.  What happens at the good ones is there will be a lecture or discussion or panel at some point every day and an opportunity to interact with your own group or class.

In the classes, you read everyone’s piece and they read yours.  Some of it will be like lightning striking and you can’t wait to get back to a keyboard.  Some of it will be like lightning of another kind where your hair ends up standing on end and you wanna smack someone.  But it’s a process.  The nice thing about workshops is the bonding.  Because you are reading stories about your fellow students, you get to know them fast.  There’s usually some crying (the good kind and the bad kind), but most of the time, you learn more in a week or weekend than you could learn on your own in a year.

Residencies are different in that the purpose is to have “a room of your own” to write.  There may or may not be someone—an editor or instructor—who will guide you.  Sometimes you are on your own which is probably why you are there.  There is bonding too if the other residences are the social types.  Food and lodging are  kept stressless because you pay in advance (or have a grant or scholarship) and don’t have to cookt.  Your mind can focus on the story at hand.  (I guess jail might work).  These are loose definitions based on my own experience.  Please use the comment section below to share your own thoughts about conferences, workshops, and residencies.

Here are two links to help you find a conference or workshop that appeals to you, Poets and Writersand SHAW Guides.