Writing Conference Realities: On Criticism, Tote Bags, and Finding One’s Voice

Writing conferences are vacations for me, full of new sites, creative people, and must-have books. Sometimes the food isn’t too good, and sometimes it’s yummy. Sometimes the hotels are noisy, with lumpy beds and no free toiletries. Other times I sleep like a fat baby, my skin smelling like lavender from the tiny lotion in the bathroom. Mostly, though, these writing conferences are like life: some fascinating and uplifting parts, along with a few disappointments. And so it was at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington.

Knowing full well the damage that traditional critique workshops can do to a writer’s energy and self-esteem, I’ve sworn off them since being introduced to the much more civilized approach put forth by Amherst Writers and Artists in 2005. Twice in five years I’ve let myself wander off, and I’ve regretted it both times. Last weekend was no exception.

I signed up for a well-known writer’s sessions at the Conference because of her reputation in the nonfiction world. That’s my favorite genre, and I want to learn all I can about doing it well. Shortly before the Conference started, I received an email from the organizers saying the Famous Writer wanted us to draft two short pieces on certain topics before we arrived. I didn’t think much of the request, not having been told we would be critiquing one another’s work. And I didn’t have time to complete the assignments anyway.

Soon after the first session began, I knew I’d made a mistake. There were 12 attendees in the room, along with the Famous Writer. She asked us to read what we’d written in response to the prompts sent to us before the Conference. It wasn’t long before such phrases as, “Here’s what you did wrong,” “Get rid of that,” and “It’s not working for me,” came flying out of the Famous Writer’s mouth. When she asked me to read, I declined. When she asked me to respond to other people’s work, I commented on only those spots I found to be strong or memorable. I saw faces fall around that able, faces belonging to women who had never read their work out loud before, and women who were just beginning to entertain the idea that they might be able to write. (I’m all for editing one’s work and facing the realities of what needs to be improved upon; just not with writing that is newly born.)

As I made my way from the Lexington Public Library where we were meeting—a great facility in a walker-friendly downtown location—to a nearby restaurant for lunch, a young woman who had been in Session One with the Famous Writer stopped me. She wanted to know if my reasons for not reading, and for responding only in the positive, had anything to do with the way the Famous Writer was conducting the session. (During our introductions I had said that I worked as a writer and workshop leader in Nashville.)

“Yes,” I said.

“Is there a way to do this without shaming the writer?” she asked.

“Yes,” I responded, wanting to burst into song. This woman gets it. I proceeded to tell her about the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method, which changed my life. (New work is treated gently and with emphasis on what is strong, allowing writers to find their voices before criticism has a chance to silence the quivering creative spirit.)

This precious young woman told me she was so discouraged after Session One with the Famous Writer that she wasn’t sure she even wanted to try to write. I hope I convinced her otherwise. We both said we weren’t going back for Session Two.

The next morning I went to hear Heather Sellers, a woman I think I’m half in love with, not only for her way with words, but also for her way with the world. She was funny, and supportive, and engaging, and honest. I saw another refugee from Session One with the Famous Writer in the room, soaking up all the encouragement and inspiration she could from Heather. Just like me. (In the picture here she’s the thin, well-known one on the right.)

I also got a fabulous tote bag—long shoulder straps, zipper pockets—always a plus at a writing conference, and delicious food memories from Jonathan’s at the Gratz Park Inn, where my husband, Precious, and I stayed. Quail with blackberries, and homemade banana pudding in a chilled Mason jar for dessert. Yummy. (I would have appreciated a head’s up—and maybe a reduced rate—from the Inn staff when I made my reservation regarding the renovations in progress so that the big hole in the bathroom ceiling, the peeling paint in the bedroom, and the rusty nails on the walls in the sitting area wouldn’t have been such a disappointment, but that bed was so comfortable, and the complimentary toiletries so elegant, that I’m already anticipating a return visit.)

So all in all I got what I came for, including the affirmation that there’s more than one way to workshop. The Kentucky Women Writers Conference is a good value for the money, and I look forward to attending again in 2011.

Look for Heather Sellers’ newest book, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, due out in October 2010 from Riverhead.