Writer’s Conferences v. Writing Workshops: Considerations, Values

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I was asked recently to put together a brief comparison of sorts of writer’s conferences versus writing workshops around the idea of exposure to editors and publishers.  This is what I came up with:

The view from the Wildbranch Writing Workshop: Craftsbury Common.
The view from the Wildbranch Writing Workshop: Craftsbury Common.

It seems to me that there are really two types of writer’s events — writing workshops and conferences about writing, the latter usually including a bookfair, publishers’ exhibits, or the like.

The biggest and perhaps best known example of the conference about writing is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference and bookfair, which usually draws at least 5,000 people.  The panels cover a very wide range of writing topics.  For example, I chaired a panel at the NYC AWP conference in early 2008 on “the future of environmental essay.”  Large conferences such as these are excellent venues for attending panels of very well-known writers and visiting (and being overwhelmed by) publishers’ booths.  I can’t recall the number of exhibitors at the bookfair, but it must be well over 400, I bet.  In New York in 2008 and Denver in 2010, the journal I edit — Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments — did/will have a table.  Visiting tables/booths and talking with editorial staff (and sometimes contributors) is the best way to learn about the publication short of actually purchasing it (or, in our case, visiting it online).  Like smaller writer’s conferences, it’s not a venue for submitting work, but rather for identifying publications you’re interested in submitting your work to (whether individual literary journals or book publishers), talking with the editors to get a sense of what they’re interested in for upcoming issues, and rubbing elbows with other inquring writers.

Smaller conferences are not so overwhelming, and often provide a more intimate experience and opportunity for connecting even further with an editor.  I think of this summer’s Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) biennial conference in Victoria, BC.  With perhaps 400 attendees, the panels are smaller and last longer, the panels and events are tailored in this case to a specific set of literature — environmental literature and literary ecocriticism — and there are more opportunities for networking, especially with editors and contributors.  The exhibitor can be much smaller; there were perhaps ten or twelve exhibitors at ASLE, Terrain.org among them.

At both settings, readings are offered.  In the case of AWP, they’re offered both as part of the program and outside of the official event — dozens of them nightly, it seems.  For example, in Denver in April 2010, Terrain.org is teaming up with Hawk & Handsaw: The Journal of Creative Sustainability and Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing to host a reading not affiliated with AWP but which, we hope, will draw fans of those publications and people interested in place-based literature — even as it will conflict with one of AWP’s big poetry readings.  At ASLE, on the other hand, it seemed appropriate not to schedule an off-site reading but rather to attend the two or three scheduled evening readings.

At the other end of the spectrum, though still related of course, are writing workshops.  Staying in the environmental literature genre, I think here of the Wildbranch Writing Workshop held over a week each summer in northern Vermont.  While one or two journals may be represented — Orion magazine (the Orion Society) is the primary sponsor, so always participates, and sometimes editors of other journals attend either as speakers or students (that was my experience in the summer of 2007) — there is little opportunity for editorial interaction unless it’s part of the workshop.  At Wildbranch, however, that opportunity is a distinct and important part of the overall workshop experience: the year I attended, Orion’s editor-in-chief Chip Blake agreed to read every participant’s submission and provide individual feedback.  That’s not common, I think, but is certainly valuable.  What also isn’t common except at workshops like Wildbranch is the ability for students to meet with and really hang out with the instructors.  I had the good fortune of spending time with Scott Russell Sanders and Sandra Steingraber, two writers/activists whose work I much admire.  I’ve kept in touch with both of them.  It’s true that as an editor myself I may have more opportunity to maintain our contact, but that the opportunity is there in the first place is pretty special.  I doubt you dine at every meal with your instructor and other participants, including sponsoring magazine editors, at most workshops.  But every writing workshop has some unique opportunity, I’d wager, and I suspect all of them develop a sense of community among the students that may continue well after the workshop.

So is there value in either or both of these approaches — the writer’s conference versus the writing workshop?  Definitely.  At the conference, the writer receives broad exposure to publications and access to an array of panels across genres but doesn’t receive instruction.  The opportunities to meet publishers at booths/tables are many.  At the workshop, the writer receives individual (small group, really) instruction and usually may sit on a few panels offered when the instructor-led workshops are not in session.  Exposure to publishers and editors is limited, though.  It’s really a question of what the writer is after.  For me personally, they all offer benefits, but I can only go to so many larger writer’s conferences like AWP, especially if I’m not one of the presenters.  And I could only attend a writing workshop (mainly due to cost and, at a full week often, time off) every now and then.  But Wildbranch for me was incredibly beneficial and affirming.  And the ASLE conference, held every other year, is an event I plan not to miss if I can help it.  I don’t feel much community at AWP because of its vast size, but I definitely do at ASLE and Wildbranch.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.