Beyond AWP: The Benefits of Attending A Smaller Writing Conference

April 14, 2014 § 2 Comments


Creative Nonfiction magazine’s marketing associate Jennifer Stewart guest blogs on the merits of smaller, more intimate, more accessible conferences, now that the annual AWP Extravaganza packs in upwards of 13,000 writers. (Jennifer makes a more specific pitch for CNF’s own smaller conference, just a little over a month from now, on the CNF website, in an article entitled “Ten Reasons Why You Should Attend CNF’s Writers’ Conference.”)

AWP Bookfair Madness

AWP Bookfair Madness

You have bills to pay.  You have a job demanding your attention.  You have writing, of course, and never enough time to do it. Bottom line – why should you spend good money to travel somewhere else to listen to other people talk about writing?

Despite the financial cost and the travel time, going to conferences is a vital part of being a writer.  This probably isn’t new information to you, so we won’t even need to mention the usual things people say about conferences, the networking and the panels and the (occasional) open bars and the stories resulting from that open bar that you will wittily deliver to friends back home. And while you can get plenty of those experiences at a big conference like the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, which can be a delightful (if somewhat overwhelming) experience, there are myriad other writing conferences around the country, many of which can offer a more intimate and focused experience.

I would also argue that you can get more out of a smaller conference, which provides more intimacy and more face time with attendees and presenters. Likewise, smaller conferences, because of the intimacy they breed, invite more honesty, more guard-down talk about publishing, and what’s really going on.  It’s a rapidly changing environment and the role of the author in the process is expanding.  Smaller conferences are a good way to get a feel for this fluidity, and perhaps some inspiration for how you can make this dynamic work for you.

Some of these smaller conferences can be considered half conference, half writing retreat; some focus on what’s trending in publishing.  The best ones, perhaps, offer a little something of everything. Here are four good reasons to invest in a conference this year:

  1. Inspiration — Because conferences take us out of our daily lives and plunk us down in unfamiliar territory, they can be energizing, even if (sometimes perhaps especially if) you have a disagreement with a presenter, writer, or speaker.  This is energy you can translate to the page.  Some conferences even help people along by offering workshops, boot camps, or individual writing sessions.  These sessions force you to get words out, because, well, people are watching.  Writer’s block disappears when you realize you might be THAT writer, the one who couldn’t start the assignment. Which leads us to the next point:
  1. Accountability — If you go to even a few conferences, you’ll realize that this writing world, this literary world … it’s small.  That brunette you talked to at AWP last year, whose name you couldn’t remember even if a firing squad was involved?  You’re going to run into her again.  And when you do, you want to be able to say, “Yes!  I’ve written the essay I told you I was working on.”  So just in case she’s at the conference, you’ll draft that essay, so help you, you will.
  1. Camaraderie — Social media is great; of course it is. And who could live without email?  But electronics can’t compete with face-to-face interaction.  Suppose that brunette tells you about submitting to this new trendy literary magazine she found out about on Twitter.  They rejected her.  You tell her about how you submitted to a different trendy new literary magazine and your work was also rejected.  Maybe you go on to tell each other about a contest or a call for work and eventually you both get published and it would never have happened if not for (insert conference name here).  This sounds like networking, but really, that’s just a fancy way of saying, “make friends who work in your industry.”  It happens quite naturally at a conference.  And this can, perhaps, be most helpful in the agent arena.
  1. Access — You can, of course, meet agents at bigger conferences, but at a smaller conference you often get more face time with them, and you can even arrange this in advance.  Some conferences offer manuscript critiques with agents and editors, which means they read your work before they ever see you.  You are automatically off the slush pile, and you are likely to get a more thoughtful and detailed response, even if it’s still a rejection. In other words, smaller conferences offer meetings with agents that have the potential to speed up the publishing process.

We should stop thinking of attending a conference as a luxury, or as penance for being a writer.  Writing conferences do good.  They can be fun.  And perhaps most importantly, they help writers be writers.  And we need all the help we can get.

Jennifer Stewart is the founder and director of Burlesque Press, which hosts the annual Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball in New Orleans, and publishes The Burlesque Press Variety Show.  Jennifer was also the winner of the 2010 Faulkner Wisdom prize for Novel in Progress for her novel Wanton Women.

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§ 2 Responses to Beyond AWP: The Benefits of Attending A Smaller Writing Conference

  • Amy Wright says:

    Great points all. Yes–“Writing conferences do good.” I am a big fan of regional conferences especially so we can connect with our nearest communities. Writers can learn something from the food conscious consumers who promote local produce!

  • Reblogged this on BurlesquePress and commented:
    I recently wrote this piece for Brevity Magazine about smaller conferences – its no shock we’re fond of them here at Burlesque Press! But do make note of the upcoming Creative Nonfiction Conference, May 23-25 in Pittsburgh, PA. Several Burlesque Press staff members, including myself, will be there. Come see us at the conference!

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