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Get Away and Write

23 Aug
Writing Outside

Writers can get inspiration (and a whole lot of work done) at residencies or artist colonies.

A friend and I have talked recently about applying to writer residencies this year for next summer. Some of them are free of charge and require a minimum two-week stay with maximums of five weeks or more. Some cost money but offer scholarship and work-study opportunities.

 After attending a writers’    conference and realizing that much of it is focused on publishing and getting an agent or editor, I decided that what I really need to do is get away and write, free of distractions and responsibilities.

My friend and I have begun doing some preliminary research, and have made a list of some of the more well-known ones. Many of the ones on our list are the most competitive, with 10% acceptance rates (slightly lower or higher, depending on genre). For fiction, many of them want anywhere from 15 to 25 pages of fiction, the equivalent of one short story or a novel excerpt. I’ve been working on one particular short story that I think has promise and hope to send out both for publication and as my writing sample for these residencies.

If I had any doubt about the benefits of attending a writer residency or artist colony, those doubts were immediately brushed aside after reading this essay by Alexander Chee about the worthwhile experiences he had at three different residences (Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; the MacDowell Colony; and Civitella Ranieri).

My goal at a residency or artist colony would be to work on my short story collection. At this point, I have only written two stories that would work as part of the same collection, and need about eight more.

It seems that I got things backward this year; if I were to give advice to writers deciding between attending a conference or a residency, I’d recommend the residency first and then the conference. It makes sense to go to a conference with a finished work, or at least the first draft of one.

I look forward to next summer. Who knows where I’ll end up?

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A Few Things I Learned at Squaw: Part 1

19 Jul

It’s taken me a few days since my return to figure out what I wanted to write about my experience at Squaw Valley. Overall, it was a good one and I learned a lot, but not what I expected to learn.

One of the things I learned is that the Boston-area is a great place to live as an aspiring literary writer. In addition to the universities and programs like the Harvard Extension School, where you can take any number of creative writing courses (for a pretty hefty price tag), there are several non-profit organizations that offer creative writing workshops that are high quality and much more affordable: the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, the Boston Center for Adult Education, and my absolute favorite and (in my opinion) the best option, Grub Street.

One thing I heard from other participants at Squaw was that they were so happy to finally be part of a community of writers at Squaw. I definitely felt like I was part of the Squaw Community — a unique and inspiring one, for sure — but it’s not my first or only community. I have a number of good friends in the Boston-area with whom I attend readings, literary events, classes and workshops. We talk about craft, story ideas, problems we’re having with our work. We push each other to improve and call each other out when we’re not working hard enough. It’s really a wonderful thing.

Going to Squaw did allow me to meet fantastic people who are also very talented writers, and whom I now count among my friends. I feel lucky for that, but sad that some of them live so far away (thank God for email and Facebook!).

Another thing I learned is that the publishing industry is ruthless. I’ll admit that I went to Squaw thinking it would be a fun, weeklong summer camp for writers with overfull wine glasses and parties and late night conversations–and those things happened, of course–but we also went to a few talks and got to actually talk to literary agents and editors (and in my case, get workshopped by an agent…welp!) and it was astonishing to learn just how competitive it is to get an agent, and then get published–forget getting people to actually read your work . I remember at one point looking around the room at the 100+ fiction and non-fiction writers and thinking to myself, “Holy fuck, all of these people are writing novels.” And that’s just a small segment of the people who applied and got accepted to Squaw, and an even tinier fraction of the people who are sitting at home writing novels right now. Thousands and thousands of people. Maybe tens of thousands. Maybe a million. What we’re trying to do is insane.

So I went through a couple of emotional days of crisis where I drank wine and couldn’t sleep and wondered if I should quit. It was one of those lame existential things where I lamented my lack of genius/talent and felt sorry for myself. I dwelled on the negative and discounted the positive comments people made about my work. I figured that I probably sucked.

And then I got over it. It’s arrogance, I know. But I think you need to have some of that to make it. You need to have that thick skin everyone talks about. You need to be ready to go to battle for your work. I didn’t realize just how hard it would be. But now I do.

Which brings me back to community. I think there are people who go to conferences to be discovered. They arrive with a finished manuscript, they mingle with agents, they are ready. I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure that very few people actually do get discovered at conferences. A majority will most likely leave the conference without a contract. Some might be lucky enough to get positive feedback from an agent, maybe an email address.

But even if you leave a conference without a contract, you’ll leave as a member of a community. And that means something. I’ll digress for a moment to admit the following: I haven’t started a novel. All I have to show for myself is a handful of decent stories that I’m still polishing, hoping to get them ready to send out for publication. I’m plodding along at a turtle’s pace. But when I am ready, I know that I’ll have a community of writers there to support me. And that’s the most important thing.

Writing Until 4 a.m.

1 Jul
4 a.m.

Sometimes the hours slip away.

For a while, I was going through a bit of a writing slump, which was untimely because I was taking a 10-week flash fiction class at Grub Street where I was given prompts and expected to come to class each week with a new story. The class started off great: I was brimming with ideas of what to write, and some of my best pieces came about in those first few weeks. But by week six, I’d started to lag. We were expected not only to write ten stories over the 10-week course, but also to read and critique our classmates’ stories, adding up to about 12 stories/week.

For whatever reason, I think all the reading and critiquing sapped my energy and my creativity. I don’t know why it happened, but I do know that I wasn’t able to write flash or really anything creative at all for about four weeks. I felt panicked and guilty. I wondered why I couldn’t sit down and focus.

And then I got some excellent advice from a great writer and friend: 1) Cut back on the time and energy I was spending critiquing my classmates’ stories and  2) Keep focused on what was most important, which was revising the short story I would be bringing with me to Squaw.

When I skipped the last week of my class and began brainstorming ideas for my short story, something unexpected happened: I had ideas and energy and drive again. I could sit and write for hours without distraction. And it felt really good. Last night, I wrote from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. I revised and rewrote and then printed out what I wrote and made notes in the margins, crossed out words, sentences, paragraphs, added new ones in their place, then went back and made those changes. By the end of it, I was tired but giddy. I finished the first major rewrite of a story I first wrote eight months ago.  And I think this version is much improved from the last one. In other words, it’s ready for critique, and sometime after that, Major Rewrite #2.

It’s a small success, but I’ll take it.

Squaw Valley Community of Writers 2012

26 Jun

Just two weeks from now I’ll be participating in the Squaw Valley writers conference in California. This will be my first conference and I’m excited, but admittedly a bit anxious, too. I do feel incredibly lucky that I was accepted and awarded the William Turnbull Memorial Scholarship. Since I will be flying in from Boston, the scholarship made it possible for me to attend.

squaw_valley

Squaw Valley in summer.

I’ve looked over the schedule for the conference, and it looks jam-packed almost every day. I’d like to take advantage of every opportunity, so I have a feeling I won’t be sleeping much. But that’s OK. I don’t expect this to be a vacation as much as a camp for writers: after all, I will be sleeping in a bunk bed.

In the meantime, I’ve been heavily revising the story I plan on submitting for workshop. I want to bring something that I’m relatively happy with, or at the very least, something that doesn’t horrify me. Because the conference is affiliated with two very good MFA programs (UC-Irvine and UC-Riverside) and seems like it is one of the more well-known of the various conferences around the country, I do expect the level of work will be of a certain quality, all of which puts added pressure on me to bring my best work.

I hope to continue to make updates here of my experiences at Squaw, and upload photos of what I expect will be a stunning (and inspirational) landscape.

Tracy Staedter

Science writing, editing and workshops

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