Howl with Allen Ginsberg. Breakfast with literary champion Kurt Vonnegut. Or spend a month of Sundays with John Updike.
It's what you might call a novel way to spend your vacation. This season, thousands of writers and would-be writers will be lured to a summer or early fall writing conference featuring just such luminaries. Other conferences offer such "literary" experiences as reviving Faulkner's South over a catfish supper in rural Mississippi, picnicking with Norma Millay (Edna St. Vincent's 93-year-old sister) or exploring the "river as metaphor" -- firsthand -- while canoeing Maine's Penobscot River.
Writers conferences aren't just for professionals, says Thomas Clark of Cincinnati, managing editor of Writer's Digest Magazine. Participants range "from the deadly serious to the Sunday scribbler." The Annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference (July 28-Aug. 2), for example, attracts a "mixed group -- Faulkner scholars, housewives, used-car salesmen and high school teachers," says Ann Badin, conference coordinator.
With writing genres such as the romance novel, inspirational literature, poetry, science fiction, space writing and computer writing, an ever-growing number of conferences seem designed to help attendees indulge special passions. Consider: "Moonlight and Magnolias Romance Conference," "Comedy Writing Workshop," "The Mark Twain Sesquicentennial" or "Of Dark and Stormy Nights" (for mystery writers). And with more than 400 conferences held in Canada, Mexico, Nassau, Greece and the British Isles, as well as all 50 states, writing could get to be a habit.
Despite the hype, conferences serve important functions: cultivating young writers and sustaining the writing profession. Nicholas Delbanco, director of the Bennington Writer's Conference, sees the increase in conferences, many held on college campuses, as a reflection of the profession's growing acceptance in the academic world. Conferences have proliferated since the 1960s and early '70s, when writing programs were widely introduced to college curriculums.
At the same time, "You can't get a BA in free-lancing or in novel writing," says Clark. "If you're serious about learning more about the craft, a workshop is one of the few avenues to get instruction." Conferences, he adds, have become the territory for publishers' "scouting missions."
Michael Whelan, former president of Washington Independent Writers and a writer by profession, says, "I wanted time away -- an extended period without distractions to get back in touch with literary writing."
No conference is alike, but they characteristically involve a series of lectures by eminent guest authors, individual conferences with faculty, and workshops. Some conferences build in writing time between sessions. While many provide for open readings, they often happen spontaneously. "You can find a reading any time of the day or night," says Carol Knauss, director of Bread Loaf.
Workshops teach the craft of writing or explore related topics -- "How to Write a Novel in a Year," "Exploring Touch and Massage as Avenues to the Creative Unconscious" or "Using Personal Experience in Your Writing" -- or, they allow the writer to actually develop a manuscript.
Writers are drawn by the constant quest for inspiration and, almost always, by the rare chance to join a community of writers. "Most writers work in isolation," says Delbanco. "It's a comfort to go public for a while." According to organizer Randy Roark, the Naropa Institute's concentrated four-week writing program, for instance, produces "real intense friendships" that extend well after the conference is over. The Bread Loaf Writers Conference, says Knauss, is specifically designed to provide an opportunity for such dialogue.
Always there is dialogue. And readings. And more dialogue.
And, says Clark, "the networking that goes on is incredible." Whelan, for example, is optimistic that contacts he made at the Bennington Writing Workshop may lead to an introduction to an agent. Many conferences have agents, editors or publishers on hand to contribute their expertise and contacts.
Writing conferences are secondarily "a great way to combine professional renewal with the family vacation," says Clark. And -- depending on circumstances -- they may be tax-deductible.
Many accomplished writers make a habit of conferences, particularly the cream of the professional conference crop: Bennington, New York University, Johns Hopkins University, the New England Writers Conference, the MacDowell Colony, the Long Boat Writers Conference and the 60-year-old Bread Loaf in Vermont, the granddaddy of writers conferences.
Acclaimed writers Alice Walker, Eudora Welty and the late Truman Capote, to name a few, are all veterans of conferences as students.
Practically speaking, it's no surprise that many conferences are found on college campues. With dormitories and cafeterias, continuing education departments equipped to operate the programs and, often, the need to supplement their summer income, colleges and conferences are a natural match. Furthermore, "part of the mind-set of a college is to teach," says Clark.
Conferences are not always associated with universities, however. The independent Aspen Writers Conference International was organized to bring intellectual stimulation to the townspeople of Aspen, says director Ruth Ganz. Writers, chosen on the basis of submitted samples, are given the chance to do what they love best, at little cost.
Although writing programs are clearly in demand, the market dictates sophisticated marketing techniques. Consequently, conference planners tout big-name lecturers -- George Plimpton, Rita Mae Brown, William Burroughs. This year the New York University's Summer Writers Conference features memoirist (and New York mayor) Ed Koch.
The exotic backdrops of some conferences often serve them well -- Maui, southern plantations, the Colorado Rockies, Cape Cod. The International Women's Writing Guild (IWWG) books its annual conference at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where attendees, in their spare time, can enjoy a traditional "race breakfast" at the nearby Saratoga race track or the area's famous mineral springs.
But local scenery is only one guide to choosing a writers conference. Because of the variety and number of conferences, it pays to shop around:
1. Consider any special interests. Chances are there is a conference to accommodate your penchant for children's literature or your desire to meet other ethnic poets. Diverse interests for the Appalachian region to specific authors are represented.
2. Talk to someone who has been to the conferences you find appealing. A firsthand witness, says Delbanco, is an invaluable source of information.
3. Investigate the caliber and accessibility of speakers. "If you look behind the scenes at some of the workshops," Delbanco warns, "you'll find that writers are given the chance to applaud some eminent author from a respectful distance."
4. Take into account your own skill level. "An Updike," advises Clark, "is not going to be able to tell the beginner very much. Instead of talking about how to create a plot, he's going to be talking about the intricacies of plot."
5. Look at the conference's time frame. Do you need a week of writing or four? Conferences can last from one day to six weeks.
6. Consider the conference's costs, which vary radically depending on length and, in some cases, whether college credit is earned. They range from about $50 to as much as $1,000. Financial aid is available at some workshops. If the conference does not include room and board, figure these costs into your budget and find out how accessible and expensive local hotels are. Identify the "hidden" costs of eating out, getting to the seminars or traveling back and forth to the airport, for example.
7. Ask yourself how important being with other writers is to your experience. If camaraderie is a priority, look for a conference that includes housing and student interaction.
8. Research the conference's format. Some combination of workshops, lectures, writing time and individual consultation is typical. Some conferences, however, allow little real time for writing. Says Knauss of Bread Loaf: "You won't finish a novel here." Others offer the chance to complete projects-in-progress. Student critiquing may be an integral part of the conference structure.
9. Finally, a word of caution: examine your motives. While some conferences emphasize writing for personal growth, others are promoted as highly academic or primarily for creative writing. Still others are more professionally oriented. A writing sample may be required for admission, for the concern for compatibility works both ways. Says Delbanco: "What I worry about is the workshop junkie who goes from conference to conference and who substitutes the business of being a writer with the business of writing."
"The biggest thing is to be very clear on what you expect. Then you can better judge the conference from its literature," says Clark.