Welcome to the Literary World: Conferences, Retreats, and Hobnobbing With Like Minds

Gerry LaFemina


Although some writers conferences date back to the 1940s and ‘50s (Bread Loaf being the most prominent, which featured among other literary luminaries, Robert Frost and Louis Untermyer), poet, editor and writers conference organizer Kurt Brown notes that “the rise of writers conferences really took place during the 70s, 80s and 90s when these (mostly summer) programs spread from border to border and coast to coast.” It’s not surprising, as conferences allow writers an opportunity to escape their day-to-day routine in order to be immersed in literary fellowship.


More than 20 years ago, poet Peter Murphy discovered he wrote best when he was at writing colonies, but since he couldn’t get away often, he started to check into a hotel for one weekend a month in order to have a writer’s weekend. When he told writer friends about his routine, they asked if they could join him. It wasn’t long before he booked 15 rooms in a hotel in Cape May.  Although he initially thought he might not find enough interested writers or that he would lose money, 20 writers signed up — so many that he had to bring another workshop facilitator on board to help. Thus was born the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, which this coming January will celebrate its twentieth year, and will boast more than 200 participants. Murphy says that the Getaway has about a 50 percent retention rate, and that of those original 20 writers, six have been to every Winter Getaway.


At first glance, that might sound uncanny, but for people who go to writers conferences regularly such commitment to a community isn’t surprising at all. Perhaps this is why the number of conferences is growing steadily, with programs springing up in all 50 states and across the globe. Many of these programs are associated with colleges and universities, but many of them, such as the Winter Getaway (and its offshoot workshops across New Jersey and in Wales) are independent events created by writers, community writing groups and other institutions.


Fiction writer George Dila, a self-described “conference junkie,” directs Ludington Visiting Writers in Michigan, which hosts a variety of writers conferences, most recently this fall’s “Blood & Tea” program, a conference for mystery writers. Dila says that his programs provide “inspiration, learning, courage and community” and elaborates: “The act of writing is a lonely endeavor, and most writers struggle with the same issues: issues of craft and art, bouts of self-doubt, publishing worries. Good conferences can be just what the doctor ordered for the writer plugging away at it on his or her own. It is also ... where a writer often finds strong, new friendships.”


Poet Joy Gaines-Friedler, who has attended numerous conferences including the Winter Getaway, agrees, saying she returns to certain conferences “because I left the previous year filled with inspiration, excitement, renewed energy for writing (and reading) and for the dear friends I've made and reconnected with there.”  Friedler, who doesn’t have an MFA (as many writers do), notes that going to conferences allowed her to work with a variety of great teachers in a variety of locales — some close to home, some further afield — so that “because of writing conferences, [she] had already ‘earned’ the degree.”


Time and again though, when talking to directors, faculty members or participants, writers involved with retreats and conferences return to the importance of community that is supportive, and an environment that is conducive to writing. 


Kurt Brown, founder of Writers Conference and Centers (which has since been rolled into one part of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), explains, “Writers’ conferences are valuable in that they are social as well as literary, and allow participants to meet and work with established writers, as well as writers on their own level, and the exchanges — both personal and literary — might be crucial to those involved and last a lifetime.”        


Cave Canem began as a writer’s retreat for African-American poets in 1996 at Mount St. Alphonsus Conference Center in Esopus, New York and eventually moved to the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. It has since “grown from a gathering of 26 poets to become an influential movement with a renowned faculty and high-achieving national fellowship of over 300," according to its website. The community of writers expands well beyond the conference, with two book contests, anthologies and a variety of national events. The Cave Canem community is a who’s who list of African-American poets, including Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte, Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethaway.

Cave Canem is fortunate to have a great deal of funding for scholarships and other programs; its website announces that to “join Cave Canem’s fellowship, one must attend the organization’s week-long writing retreat, [which is] offered tuition-free to 54 emerging African-American poets. Annually, approximately 30 fellows return for their second and third times; approximately 24 are first-time participants.”


Many other programs aren’t fortunate enough to have the means to offer such opportunities.   They are not cheap to run, nor cheap to attend. As writers conferences try to establish their “differences” from other conferences — by bringing in bigger name keynotes and faculty, inviting publishers, editors and agents to interact with participants, shrinking workshop sizes and offering better hotels with better amenities — their expenses go up and so do the tuition and fees. Conferences, after room and board is factored in, can cost well over a thousand dollars for three or four days, and that’s without buying books, grabbing drinks or coffee as you build that community, or even traveling expenses.


For instance, The West Chester Poetry Conference, a premier long weekend for writers and critics of formal and narrative poetry, is $650 for registration alone; add to it a meal plan and lodging in the dorms, and the grand total is $1,250. If you opt to stay in a local hotel and eat out it can be considerably more. The conference, though, provides opportunities to hobnob with luminaries of formal poetry and poetics, including editor of Poetry Chris Wilman, poet Kim Addonizio and former NEA Executive Director Dana Gioia. The conference is so popular that many poets are regular attendees, and they praise the weekend’s sense of community.


Furthermore, just as traditional writers conferences allow for writers without an MFA to have an MFA-type experience, programs that focus on science-fiction and fantasy writing, romance writing, graphic novels, formalist poetry, Christian literature and playwriting often allow writers who may feel on the fringes of a literary landscape often defined by academia to have a supportive environment.


The annual Science Fiction Writers Conference at Kansas University’s Center for the Study of Science Fiction seems almost reasonable at a rate of $500 for 12 days, “exclusive of meals and housing.” The conference “is intended for writers who have just begun to publish or who need that final bit of insight or skill to become a published writer.” Running concurrently with this conference is a science-fiction and fantasy novel workshop. Although the goals of this workshop include community building, workshop leader and author Kij Johnson says the goals of the program “are to generate the best possible chapters and an outline for a writer's submission packet [and] to learn what will be necessary to complete or revise the novel with an eye toward publication.”


Ultimately writers conferences are as much about the career as the community, which includes fellowship but also networking.  Many conferences, such as the Unicorn Writers Conference for genre writers (including cookbooks), offer “pitch” workshops and opportunities to work one-on-one with agents and editors, as well as time in writer-led peer workshop.  Many conferences talk about publishing — banking on the names of editors and agents — without discussing the changing nature of publishing, often leaving such discussions to answers in informal Q-and-A sessions and after-dinner conversations.


More importantly, retreats and conferences give writers of all levels reasons to write, a place where their work and their aspirations are taken seriously, a place where they can escape from the quotidian, so that they can get to their work, often in a more desirable location. Really, what writer from the northern states wouldn’t want to go to Key West Literary Seminars in January to work with the likes of former Poet Laureate Billy Collins?  At $450, plus meals and lodging, it’s a bargain.


Author Bio:

 Gerry LaFemina is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Sara Star NS (Creative Commons); Painting by Carl Purcell.

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Painting by Carl Purcell
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