Sunday, April 6, 2008

Conversations and Connections Writer's Conference

I spent Saturday in Dupont Circle at the Conversations and Connections Writer’s Conference. I can’t praise this even enough.

I’m not much on writing classes or workshops. I’ve attended them and I’ve taught them. But what I always come back to is that you can learn to write, but you can’t be taught to write. While this may seem like an oxymoron, I think experience will bear this out as a truth. You learn to write by writing. A lot. Sure, you need someone to show you how to write sentences, how a dictionary works, what the different verb forms are. But once you’ve got the rudimentaries down, after that it’s all milage.

The keynote speaker was Mary Gaitskill, the National Book Award nominated (and National Book Critic’s Circle Award nominated and PEN/Faulkner nominated) author. She said something along these same lines. She talked about “craft,” a term bandied about by critics and writing teachers, and how “craft” has very little to do with good writing. Because good writing is “art.” We discuss “craft” because it is something we can get our arms around. We can analyze it, explicate it, and talk about it in a relatively concrete way. But it’s hard to talk about “art.” It’s more mysterious. But it is what makes the difference between a great novel and a mediocre one.

I’m not convinced there is any such thing as craft in writing. What, exactly do we mean by “craft?” Whether you say “he said” or “he uttered” or “he exclaimed” (or even “exclaimed Bill”) after a line of dialogue? Is this “craft?” Is the plotting of a story “craft?” (If so, then it’s not a very exacting kind of “craft,” like turning a table leg or mixing mortar the right way so it holds the tessera correctly; there are so many ways to write a story, who can say which is the right way? And very often, a new, innovative way that had never been taught, never even thought of before (Faulkner? Joyce?), is often held up as great art.) So what, exactly, do we mean by “craft?” Maybe how hard you hit the keys with your fingers? How many words-per-minute you type?

Setting my misgivings about writing workshops in general aside, I attended this conference with an open mind. I was rewarded with some great sessions about the business of publishing fiction and poetry, writing a novel, and web publishing. I found these discussions encouraging. The novel session in particular: it was like therapy. I got to hear published novelists talk about the ups and downs of writing a novel, their own set backs, challenges, habits, and strategies very much mirroring my own. It let me know that I haven’t quite gone ‘round the bend just yet, that I’m still in there moving ahead in the right direction.

Some of the participants included Rachel Adams, the editor of Lines and Stars, who published my story A Day Like Any Other in the magazine’s inaugural issue last year. Also in attendance were the folks from Potomac Review, No Tell Motel, Gettysburg Review, and Failbetter.
The best thing about this conference was the bang for the buck. It was for real writers; what struggling writer can actually afford the hundreds (even thousands) of dollars to attend many of the writer’s conferences that have proliferated over the past decade? Conversations and Connects was $45, and it included a free book, a subscription to a literary magazine of your choice (I chose The Gettysburg Review), and a “speed date” with a literary editor. I hope they hold this conference again next year.

A final note: the reason I haven’t kept up my blogging is directly related: I’m about 100 pages into writing a new novel, which sucks up my creative energy more than I thought it would.


Serena said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the conference. This is the second time I attended this conference, and for someone with little cash, it was very informative.

Writing is a hard and lonely process sometimes, but like everything else, you have to work at it, which is what I took away from this conference.

Anna said...

I was glad to find your review of the conference and get someone else's take on it. I also was there, and I agree that it was a great value and it provided a lot of useful information.

Serena said...

If you are interested in another literary event in the area, please feel free to visit this post: