Defeating Conference Regret

April 24, 2017 § 14 Comments

zz Sarah Evans.jpgBy Sarah Evans

The first type of writing conference regret typically hits shortly after the event begins.

You’ve just walked out of your first breakout session, one that you picked after poring over the descriptions and presenter bios to decide which one was right for you. In the hallway, you bump into attendees who went to a different session — one you’d considered but eventually rejected — and all of them are buzzing about how amazing their presenter was, how their notebooks are filled with words of inspiration, how the whole conference was worth it for just that one talk.

You sigh, because even though the session you picked was quite good, it never seems to live up to the mythic-level one you didn’t attend.

This happened to me last May at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh. Organizers asked us to choose our first session months in advance of the event, and I wavered between my top two picks: “Structure for Long-Form Nonfiction” and “What Do I Write About?”

I picked the first, a session that offered a solid nuts and bolts lesson, specific tools and devices we could try with longer works. Among other things, the session leader analyzed the techniques Jeannette Walls used in the opening of her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” advocating that we start our story, like Walls, “close to the peak of action, right before a defining moment” — before leaving that scene and going somewhere else in the story for a while. The result: you make the reader want to ride along to find out how that opening scene will conclude.

“I already know this,” I thought at first — I had used this technique for years in my magazine writing. But as I continued jotting notes, a question nagged at me: Why wasn’t I also using this technique for my memoir-in-progress? I wrote in the margin of my notebook, “Open memoir with me meeting Mom at 7-11 after the funeral.” Minutes later, I walked out of the talk satisfied that I’d gleaned several potential ideas to play with when I got home.

Then I ran into the people who had gone to the other session. They talked about how inspiring it was, how the session leader had given them all these great nuggets of wisdom to remember and reflect upon, adages like, “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning.”

Regret rushed in. I appreciated the nuts and bolts, but also hungered for those motivating tidbits to remind me why I was a writer. I definitely encountered some later in the conference, but as I flew home afterward, part of me still wondered what else I might have missed.

Those precious post-conference days are when you may encounter another form of conference regret: wasting your inspiration. You come home with your brain and your notebook brimming with ideas and notes, and then … you do nothing with them. If you’re like me — a writer who also works a pays-the-bills job while raising a young family — it’s easy to return to that former life of not always writing, of pushing it aside until later when you’re less busy and less tired (which never happens). You have high hopes for what you’re going to do with your conference inspiration, and then you leave that notebook closed on your desk.

This time around, the new idea about how to open my memoir just wouldn’t leave me. I thought about it throughout the conference and on the plane ride home. It continued to taunt me as I attended office meetings and wiped runny noses. So within a week of returning to Oregon, I sat down and wrote. I only wrote about a page and a half, but I could tell it was the best I’d written in a while. When friends asked me about the conference, I told them how I’d written this new prologue for the book I hoped to finish someday, and how jazzed I was about the new direction. They smiled and nodded — most of them weren’t writers, so they didn’t understand the import of this development. Inside, I rejoiced that for once I hadn’t completely squandered the weekend.

I wish I could say that prologue turned into a regular routine where new chapters poured out of me every week. Instead, my kids and my regular life stepped back in and I’ve actually written very little of my memoir since then. But just getting that prologue onto the page was a game-changer. It led to me digging out old chapters to revisit with my writing group, thinking about the structure of my memoir often, and feeling reinvigorated about returning to the project.

Months later, I entered the prologue into the Oregon Writers Colony Writing Contest, and it won third prize for nonfiction first chapter. Take that, conference regret.

So the next time I come out of a session and hear the other attendees gushing about their presenter, I will smile, but I will not feel regret. I got what I needed out of the day, and that is what conferences are all about. And the next time I leave a conference, I’ll try harder to write something immediately after, even if it’s brief. It’s better than nothing, and it could signal a new beginning.

I didn’t even get to the third type of conference regret: when you meet that famous writer you admire and you blabber on or say something stupid. If you figure out how to defeat that one, let me know.


Sarah Evans is an Oregon writer who is working (sometimes) on a memoir about her teenage years as a punk-rocker in small-town Texas. She is a graduate of the MFA in writing program at Pacific University. Read more about her at


§ 14 Responses to Defeating Conference Regret

  • maylynno says:

    Very inspiring.. but I have a question: what do u do when u go through days and weeks without being able to write anything ? I mean by this how do u gain your creativity back? Are there any tips/advices? Thank you

    • Sarah Evans says:

      I wish I had a good answer to that! I find that I’m often thinking about my writing even when I don’t actually write anything for weeks, and that does help keep my creative juices flowing. I am part of a writing group, and just meeting with them every month also keeps my writing brain going — I often find that critiquing their pieces gives me new ideas about my own work.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Conference regrets. I get that. The very best session is the one where I start writing immediately while the speaker is still talking, where I put notes in my journal and have trouble following what is said from the podium. But yes, I often regret that too. We want it all, don’t we? We want the listening and writing and revising and the whole of our lives to come clear as sunshine. I regret not going to that conference. The fourth regret.

    [And hello from a fellow Pacific grad!]

  • Madeline Bodin says:

    Thank you for this. I sincerely thought I was the only one.

    • Sarah Evans says:

      One of my favorite things about this blog is that I’m constantly reading posts by other writers who grapple with the same issues I do! It’s nice to not feel alone.

  • The same thing happens with a business conference. And I had the problems for years, job, family, writing. But I did learn lessons at every writing conference even after having published 11 novels. And just being with other writers who have the same passion I do is worth the regrets for what I didn’t get. But I always see a glass 1/4 full

    • Sarah Evans says:

      I agree that one of the best parts of conferences is getting to talk writing with other writers. Glad to hear that conferences are still useful even when you have a lot of experience already!

  • Thanks for posting this Sarah. By some happy synchronicity, the point about launching into the action then going somewhere else in the story for a while, is very pertinent to an issue I am grappling with in my own writing, and has prompted some useful reflection. My main question is how much of a detour will the reader tolerate once their interest has been piqued? I will go back to The Glass Castle and take a look.
    I will be attending a writers’ conference (my first) in June, so will see what I can glean.

    • Sarah Evans says:

      Your question about how much of a detour will be tolerated is also a tricky one. Good luck to you!

  • So can relate. Thanks for the interesting observations to ponder further and compare with my own experiences. I often feel this one: how is it that I seem decades older than most and yet still write with passion but also don’t have a published? I sometimes think it is best to attend day workshops and absorb the smaller, best bits, enjoy the company of other writers, just keep at it and continue to read widely and a lot. And congratulations on your third place! (Oh–I write in Oregon, too.)

    • Sarah Evans says:

      I think keeping a positive attitude, like you suggest, is the best thing to do. I know of some really amazing already-published writers who still struggle to get their next book published. It’s not just you!

      • I lost my publisher after 11 books. They are no longer publishing mysteries only westerns, and no way will I write westerns. I have gone in a new direction using my journalism background and working on a book Coat Hangars and Knitting Needles about pre-Roe v.Wade abortion and doing it passionately, something I had lost in my last two novels. I cannot not write. I only hope this book gets published and if not I will do self publish. meanwhile I will have lived my passion. My age s 74

  • TYPO (embarrassment): I meant “published book.”

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