Many accomplished authors go their entire lives without attending a writers’ conference, either as a speaker, teacher, or workshop participant. No Tin House, no Iowa, no Bread Loaf, no Sewanee. Many writers actually attend several writers’ conferences, year after year, and never publish a line. Regardless, many writers consider the experience of participating in a top-notch writers’ conference a valuable investment in their craft. But not, however, for the reason one would admit.
The average American full-time worker wants to spend his or her two weeks of vacation at the beach, touring Manhattan or Europe, or seeing Yosemite or Yellowstone, not rising early every morning in a cramped college dorm room, eating cafeteria food, attending lectures and readings by writers, and participating in workshops where his or her writing submission is scrutinized and occasionally eviscerated. As for me personally, I could think of few more tempting ways to spend one to two weeks. I discovered this years ago, attending the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference, and when I was a teenager, the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference. And I know that I will attend a writers’ conference again—probably several—in the course of my life and career.
But why do writers really sacrifice $1500 to $2500 in tuition, room and board, and transportation–whether by air, train, bus, and taxi, or a combination of these–to attend a conference? Do writers usually get valuable advice or critiques on their work? Do they go to ask a great writer a vital question–for example, if they should they rewrite their novel-in-progress in first person? Do they do it because they feel that they will emerge as better writers? Do they do it for escape and for adventure, to have fun (see the idea of vacation stated above)? Or is it a combination of all of these reasons?
I believe for most conference attendees, it is indeed a combination. But after the conference shuts its doors and the participants have settled back into their ordinary lives, if a participant wants to attend another conference in the future, I believe that participant knowingly or unknowingly does it for one overarching reason.
That participant will reapply to draw rejuvenating inspiration from the connections forged at those conferences. Additionally, that inspiration also often comes from writers the participant merely watches read from their work. That attendee may never even interact with them.
As for me, sipping ice-cold Oregon microbrews at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop with novelist Robert Boswell (I also attended his class), dropping in on a reading by Antonya Nelson in the outdoor classical amphitheater there, and speaking with Horton Foote and Andrew Lytle (now sadly both deceased) in Sewanee, these are among the great memories of career as a writer. The reason I would return to conferences, more than anything, is the rejuvenating inspiration I drew from these writing legends.
Like many other conference attendees, I returned home with inspiration and renewed vigor to write and edit my work. The insightful critiques, the excellent writerly advice, the sheer escapism all played a factor in me wanting to return. But one reason stands above these: maybe nothing I could think of, as a writer, is more inspiring.