Writers Conferences: My Year of Living Quietly
October 18, 2017 § 4 Comments
Ellen Birkett Morris
I remember my first summer writing conference. It was set in a charming small town in Ohio. Workshops met in rooms that looked like something out of Hogwarts or in small cottages with inviting porches. The workshop leaders were smart, funny, and supportive and, oh, the students. Spending a full week with other writers was transformative. We talked about books and how hard writing was and writers and how hard writing was. After a few days it was as if we were all residents of a small island, a literary oasis.
I’ve kept up this habit of going to summer conferences over the years where I hear great writers read, gain insight into the craft and get that hit of writerly comradery that I crave. But this year finances and other circumstances made it hard for me to get away. This year I’ve spent the year writing—generating new work, revising, looking through my files for stories that were half-finished or abandoned and giving them a second look. I’ve also spent the year reading, not craft books but literature high and low. I’ve read international writers, popular writers, writers of every gender and background. I’ve read carefully and slowly, taking note of how they drew me in (if they did), how they kept me reading, and what made for a satisfying ending. I’ve eschewed the buzz of networking and reading for my peers in favor of getting back in touch with my instincts as a writer and broadening my sense of what stories can do.
It may be purely a coincidence, but I’ve found myself taking a different approach to my work. I am less satisfied with my first efforts. I am taking the time to explore the various paths a story can take and asking myself which of these paths is truest to my characters. I am pushing myself to take my stories further and questioning the story’s ending. I am asking if I have best exploited the dramatic potential of the story. (An insight gifted to me in a conversation with the writer Lee K. Abbott.)
In the quiet of my home office I am taking the information I have learned over years of summer conferences and integrating it into my writing practice. I feel my writing getting better.
I know that I will be drawn back into the warm fold of writing conferences again, but for now I am sitting alone doing my work at the intersection of where knowledge meets practice and this holds an excitement all its own.
Ellen Birkett Morris’ essays have appeared in The Butter, The Fem, The Writing Group Book, The Common, The Girls’ Book of Friendship and South Loop Review. Her fiction, poetry, reviews and interviews have appeared in Antioch Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, and The Rumpus. She is the author of Surrender (Finishing Line Press), a poetry chapbook.