Posted in Writing

Do Conferences Really Help Your Writing?

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When I started seriously writing fiction in 2010, I thought all I was going to have to do to get an agent and get published was to write a great book and send out a tantalizing query letter. I didn’t need to be social to be a writer, after all. I didn’t have to go to parties, any literary events. And I certainly didn’t have to go to conferences.

When I moved back to Reno in early 2011, my grandfather Ralph told me about a one-day writer’s conference being held at TMCC on a Saturday and suggest I go. “Maybe you’ll meet some other writers,” he told me. “And maybe you’ll learn something.” I had such an ego in 2011, three novels completed, and an offer of representation soon to come, I assumed, that I skipped the conference, not thinking I needed it. I spent the rest of 2011 holed up in my room writing — I wrote the first drafts for five different novels that year, still a record — and while I was producing a ton, I wasn’t learning an important part of the writing process that isn’t talked about much — being a part of a larger community. Whether someone is focused in creative writing or scholarly writing — or both, like many graduate students — making new contacts and connections plays a major role in a successful writing career.

After I took my first writing workshop in the spring of 2012, I learned that maybe I did need to branch out of my bedroom and seek help to better my writing. I made a few great friends in the class that I’m still close with to this day, and with a couple of them I’ve attended writing conferences, both in Reno and elsewhere. I went to the TMCC writing conference for the first time in 2012, and have attended each year since.

In the summer of 2012, I went to a conference in Los Angeles called RWA, a romance writer’s conference that had about five other men in its pool of at least two thousand attendees. I definitely felt like a fish out of water at that one, but some of the talks — including one about LGBT content in young adult fiction — certainly hooked me, and the conference also gave me the opportunity to spend a whole afternoon pitching agents my YA novel, Over the Rainbow. It was terrifying to spend ten minutes telling my story to an agent who could potentially read it and sign me as a client, and while I didn’t get an agent in the end, I certainly welcomed the experience.

In 2013 I went to a different writer’s conference in Los Angeles — SCBWI, which I’ve attended twice and have absolutely loved since my first morning soaking in the inspiration from working writers of children’s fiction. I’ve spent some surreal hours at SCBWI in LA — picking the brain of Stephen Chbosky, the author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower; and talking LGBT content in children’s fiction with Tim Federle, the author of one of my favorite middle grade novels, Better Nate Than Ever. Since my passion is YA, I count myself lucky to have found a community in SCBWI that wants each and every one of its members to succeed.

Writing conferences inspire me in so many ways. They’ve helped me better my writing. They’ve allowed me to tell other writers I admire how much I respect their work. But a new kind of conference reared its head soon after I started my MA in English at UNR in 2013, something I didn’t quite know what to do with or how to respond to — the calls for papers at academic conferences.

During my first year in the program, I received at least thirty e-mails about calls for papers, for conferences that were about all sorts of nonsense, certainly nothing that applied to me or my interests. As someone who loves to teach and who might pursue jobs at the higher education level someday, I didn’t really understand how important academic conferences were, and if I needed to attend any. Finally, in the fall of 2014, I received a call for papers that finally suited my interests: a three-day celebration of the work of Thornton Wilder, novelist and playwright most famous for Our Town. I didn’t know his other plays, and didn’t know any of his books.

But I did know one thing about Wilder: he had collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on the script for his 1943 thriller, Shadow of a Doubt, starring Theresa Wright and Joseph Cotton. I also knew Wilder was a closeted gay man, and that Hitchcock liked to feature gay characters in his films, at a time when homosexual characters couldn’t be depicted on screen — think Rebecca, Rope, Strangers on a Train. What if I wrote a paper arguing that Uncle Charlie, the villainous character in Shadow of a Doubt played by Cotten, was a repressed homosexual? I’m not one for scholarly writing, I’d much rather spend an afternoon writing fiction than composing an academic paper, but this topic interested me enough that I decided to send over an abstract and see if there was any interest.

Two months went by. Maybe two and a half? I had long forgotten I had even sent the abstract. And then one morning I turned on my phone, looked at my e-mail, and saw the message that my paper had been accepted for the 2nd International Thornton Wilder Conference. I couldn’t believe it, first that this academic conference wanted me, a lowly fiction writer, not a PhD candidate or a true scholar of any kind. Second, I couldn’t believe where the conference actually was — Newport, Rhode Island. How was I going to get to Newport, Rhode Island? And how the hell was I going to afford it?

I was about to write back that I didn’t have the means to travel across the country, but soon after I received a follow-up email — a generous donor of the conference promised $700 to all graduate students attending the conference. While it turned out to cost me about $1000 in all my traveling and housing funds, this donation allowed me to attend my first ever academic conference, and what a blast a of a long weekend it was. In June 2015 I flew to Boston and took a bus for two hours down to Newport, where a group of about seventy scholars spent three long days discussing everything to do with Thornton Wilder. I learned so much about his life and his work, I got to see the town he lived in and wrote about in his final novel Theophilus North, and I made some connections and friends.

Most importantly, on the second day I got up in front of about sixty people — including Wilder’s own nephew— and, for the first time in my life, read out loud a piece of my writing to a group of this magnitude. The actual reading part wasn’t nerve-wracking to me; I knew my paper was well-researched and unique, and I had read over it at least twenty times in the days leading up to the conference. I was most nervous for the Q&A following my reading, worried that some professor would throw a tough question my way that I would have no idea how to answer. The previous day another MA student had answered extremely well a hard-to-understand, rambling question from a scholar that I would have had no idea what to do with.

Thankfully, not only did my reading go well, with many coming up to me at lunch afterward to tell me how much they liked my paper, but also the two questions tossed my way I managed to form somewhat intelligent responses to. My time in Newport was a grand adventure, and even if this conference didn’t necessarily further my fiction writing in any way, it made me more comfortable to stand in front of a group of people and read my work out loud.

Many years ago I rolled my eyes at conferences, but now they’re in my blood. I realize their importance, I understand how they play such an integral role in the creative and academic life, and I look forward to what I’ll get to experience next, whether it’s a conference in my backyard here in Reno or far across the country.

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