Earlier this summer, I attended an exceptional writing conference, hosted by a highly respected literary magazine. The week-long event was scheduled meticulously, with several hours of in-class time each day, afternoon craft discussions, and nightly readings from our critically acclaimed faculty members. From 8 AM to 8 PM, we were on the move and engaged pretty much non-stop. Upon reviewing our daily schedule, I noticed that towards the end of the week, there was a special session carved out so that those who had received scholarships to attend could publicly read their work for the rest of the students and faculty. While I thought it was wonderful that the scholarship recipients had a chance to share their work, it made me wonder – what about us, the students who had paid to attend?
During lunches and dinners, classes and talks, I had come to very quickly bond with my fellow participants. They were smart, engaging, welcoming, and so diverse – people from all over the country, with such different styles of writing and vastly different lives. On the bus on the way to class and over coffee in the mornings, we hungrily asked each other, “What kind of stuff do you write? What’s your process? Where can I read your writing?”
I realized that if I didn’t make myself very annoying to the organizers, we wouldn’t have the chance to share our work with each other, and we would leave the conference without something I specifically go to conferences to gain – a writing community. I knew that while it was invaluable to spend several hours each day with a prolific, brilliant, and widely published author, after the conference was over, that author and I wouldn’t become best friends or long-distance writing pals. (I mean, a girl can dream, but let’s be real.) The greatest long-term benefit I would derive from this event would be from my peers – the people that I would keep in touch with, send rough drafts to, visit when I end up in their cities randomly. We were all learning, growing, hungry to improve our craft, and working to build our own networks of writers and creatives who, as we progressed in our journeys, would help and support us in very unique and intimate ways. I became a persistently buzzing fly in the ears of the organizers until I was granted unofficial use of a vacant room for a couple of hours.
Out of 30 conference participants, 20 signed up to share their work. We went so far over time, an employee of the building actually asked us to leave (citing that we hadn’t actually booked the room – details, details), and we were forced to continue the rogue reading in another un-booked room the next day. In the end, all 20 readers got 7 minutes to share their work – and boy, did they share.
I knew for sure that I would be blown away at the nightly readings from our faculty members – after all, they were highly successful authors. It was a sheer delight to hear them read their work, but again – I was not surprised at how delighted I was. Similarly, I knew that each class session and craft talk would leave me with pearls of wisdom, incredible insights, and advice that I could apply to my writing and my life. On those two counts, I was pleasantly affirmed each and every day of the conference. However, the sheer brilliance and emotional fortune of the student reading surpassed every expectation I had. I knew I was arguing for something important and worthwhile, but after I got a sneak peek into those 20 writers’ souls, I suddenly felt like I had stumbled into a new family, a group of people that I grew to know impossibly well after only four short days.
Each person read work that truly represented who they were and what they cared about. I was moved to tears by a short story about a young man struggling with poverty and incarceration; I was doubled over laughing at the missive exploring robot fashion accessories; I was swept away by lilting and verdant meditations on nature and beauty. Political poems, essays good enough to grace the pages of Rolling Stone, fictional worlds I couldn’t invent if I tried – my colleagues delivered one hit after another, and by the end of our two-day marathon, we were hugging, and crying (OK fine, I was crying), and complimenting, and celebrating. To cement the long-term effects of this love-fest, I collected every single reader’s email address and created an unofficial conference mailing list, so we could keep in touch moving forward.
Up until the close of the conference, my fellow writers thanked me for organizing the reading, and even though I said “you’re welcome” about a hundred times, I wish I had said “thank you” back even more – if they were not willing to show up and read their work, and if they did not place a high value on student sharing, I would have been bugging our very busy conference organizers for nothing. I was grateful to get a public shout-out from the organizers during one of our evening events as well. I want to be clear – the absence of a student reading did not sour the incredible benefits I gained from this conference. When I relay my experience to others, I beam with pride and excitement that I was even considered to attend. The week I spent there was truly a unique (and perhaps once in a lifetime) experience, and regardless of what was missing, I am unendingly grateful I had the chance to attend.
But I hope that next year, when it comes time to plan this wonderful conference once more, the organizers remember that while gaining insight and feedback from accomplished, brilliant authors is incredibly important and inestimable, allowing students to share their work – whether they paid to attend or were granted scholarships – sends the message that we are held to the same standards of excellence, that we are similarly valued for our contributions and opinions, and that no matter where we are in our journeys, we are seen and recognized as writers, one and all.