On the Founding of WC&F: Community for Writers
Kelleen Zubick | May/Summer 1995
Every writer can benefit from a literary model, even Dante who followed Virgil down the smoldering paths among the inmates of hell. For better or worse, it's stimulating to meet our models in the flesh. It's wonderful if they live up to expectations and continue to be a source of inspiration; it's disappointing but still useful to discover tyrants, jerks, or the just plain fallible and human—in which case one may learn to break free of them and establish one's own style and voice. Just as certain, a writer needs feedback about his or her work. Having selected her own society, Emily Dickinson may have been an oddly self-contained writer, but she wrote that letter to Higginson. She wrote it, and sought her first public reception. And it may not be completely off base to imagine that in such a gesture lies the origin and justification of the modern conference: a writer needs readers, advice, and company.
The writers' conference as we know it emerged in the '40s, but the past twenty years have brought a proliferation of writers' conferences and festivals: now, more than 300 conferences and festivals in this country alone offer writers one sort of community in which to develop, discover, and consort. A conference's or festival's intimacy, relaxed atmosphere, and the level of seriousness with which faculty and participants attend to writing, reading, and listening, are conducive to rich experiences with literature. In addition to academic writing programs, writers' conferences and festivals provide a multitude of opportunities for writers to meet each other, to discover new works and study craft, to connect with agents and editors, and to find new sources of inspiration, and, sometimes, even to discover a mentor. "The primary purpose of a writers' conference," said William Stafford in an interview with Claire Cooperstein, "(is) to learn to be self-critical, to become aware, through interaction with other people, that language is social." Earlier, Stafford took pains to explain what he didn't want to do as a teacher: "It would certainly be possible for me to take a poem and say, 'This is what you ought to do with it—this and this and this. . . if I did this, (students) might think that language is something you could learn—chop it up and play it like checkers . . . I would not want to consolidate these feelings—that there are certain limited moves we can make to revise a poem toward publication. I think that what we can learn (at a writer's conference) is much richer than that."
My personal experiences attending one and two week-long conferences are corroborated by directors and faculty who report many kinds of developmental gains for participants. The urgency inherent in the conference/festival format can enhance a participant's relationships with his or her teachers, fellow attendees, their work, and their discussions. It's worth emphasizing that the beneficiaries of such experience do not become writers at that instant; they were writing before they walked in the door. But unquestionably they have learned something about writing which may clear up old problems and set them on new paths, and which in turn may lead to further developments and improvement in the quality of their work or their ideas about works.
To this end, conferences, festivals, and MFA programs are interrelated in a beneficial way. They are all allies sharing some of the same purposes, goals, methods and faculty. There are differences, too, from which the culture as a whole stands to benefit. Since, for most people, attending a writers' conference or festival does not entail a proportionately large commitment of time or money, this perhaps more manageable investment may appeal to a wide range of people who, for a variety of reasons, do not wish to extend or formalize their learning as a writer. On the other hand, conferences and festivals also offer those who are unable or disinclined to enroll in university programs the opportunity for serious continued education and for formal assistance in developing their craft. Many cannot afford to take a year or two away from their jobs or their families to devote themselves to writing, but they can afford to attend a conference for a week or more. Conferences attract participants of diverse ages and backgrounds and contribute to the continued vitality of reading, writing, and critical speculation.
The relatively short duration and highly concentrated milieu of a conference creates intensity, excitement, and focus. Moreover, conferences and festivals are among the most active and wide-reaching presenters of writers to audiences in the U.S. each year. The Guide to Writers Conferences, published by ShawGuides—one of the most comprehensive lists of conferences, workshops, seminars, residencies, retreats, and organizations available—describes ". . . 344 sponsors of 100s of programs in 45 states & 10 countries." If only 200 of those 300 conferences are "traditional" literary conferences, and if each conference presents to a wider community an average of ten writers, that amounts to ten readings at 200 conferences annually, or some 2,000 readings a year. Since most conferences make their readings and lectures available to community audiences, even a conservative estimate of an average of 50 people attending a given reading or lecture results in a yearly conference and festival audience for both established and emerging writers of 100,000.
Nor is the estimate of writers' book sales—good books—generated by these gatherings a meager or insignificant one.
Like university creative writing programs, conferences are forums where current literary and social issues may be faced openly and discussed expansively. Because the latter are even less encumbered in some ways—many essentially remake their programs annually—conferences are often able to discern the larger public interest and articulate it more quickly than are other institutions whose nature, personnel, and concerns remain relatively static. Through panel discussions, diverse "theme" programs, frequent and varying hiring practices, changing local audiences, emphasis on community outreach, openness to innovation and accommodation of the differently-abled, conferences and festivals contribute to the spectrum of dynamic literary activity in this country.
As university creative writing departments well know, support for literary programs these days is hardly easy to secure. Writers and their work remain controversial, and are often seen as subversive. While many acknowledge these attributions as a blessing—as a means for individuals to examine and invent themselves and their culture—the number of funding partners who wish to be associated with such dynamism is relatively small. Certainly the current political climate contributes to this: with a majority in Congress that would prefer to see our federal cultural agencies gutted, if not altogether eliminated, it's hardly surprising that public support for literary programming is ever harder to come by.
Another reason for limited support for literary programming has to do with how little is known about such programs, their audiences, and how the programs tesselate nationally. Less than two percent of philanthopic dollars is spent on literature in this country, and yet this figure hardly makes sense when one considers our wealth of literary programming. One suspects that literature's lack of institutionalization, funding, and trained full-time employees all contribute to why we aren't more sustainable as well as visible to private and public funders.
Concerned that literary conferences and festivals remain viable despite low levels of resources and staffing, five years ago, Michael Pettit, Director of the Mount Holyoke Writers' Conference, and Kurt Brown, Director then of the Aspen Writers' Conference, envisioned a national public service organization for directors of literary conferences and festivals, similar to the ABA for publishers, the MLA for English departments, and AWP for creative writing departments. This led to the founding of Writers' Conferences & Festivals (WC&F), which, since its first meeting of 35 charter members in 1991, has grown and formed under the guidance of its members and board to provide a number of services of value in running a writers' conference or festival.
Now in its fifth year, 63 members strong and growing, Writers' Conferences & Festivals continues to develop programs mindful of its original mission: to provide members with a dynamic professional management forum and information service; to respect the autonomy of members and encourage their programs' diversity; to enhance the excellence of individual programs and provide them with national visibility; to assist established and emerging writers by providing the professional opportunity for teaching, reading, and lecturing; and to combat censorship and advocate in support of strong and unrestricted federal cultural agencies, freedom of expression, and literacy throughout the country.
It's impressive how, with just a little support, directors' dedication transforms ideas and vision into such solid programs. Traditional literary conferences such as the Indiana University Writers' Conference, Bennington Summer Writing Workshops, Santa Fe Writers' Conference, the Charleston Writers' Conference, and the Napa Valley Writers' Conference, to name but a few, still afford participants an opportunity to meet and work closely with our finest established writers. In a different light, programs like Fishtrap, Imagination, the Snake River Institute, the Art of the Wild, Clarion, and the Writers for Racing Project offer specialized literary and writing forums. Fortunately, at any stage, given the burgeoning of writers' conferences and festivals in addition to writers' centers, retreats, colonies, and university creative writing programs, writers need no longer find themselves in cultural or community vacuums. True, the notion of community for any particular writer perhaps now must be a larger one than writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Hart Crane certainly found available for themselves, but the remarkable thing is that it can be this much larger and diverse, and yet provide so much support to the individual creative work and its audience. This is the achievement as well as the promise offered by the complement of writers' conferences and festivals to literary life today.
Kelleen Zubick is the Executive Director of Writers Conferences & Festivals. She holds an MFA from Arizona State University and lives in Denver, Colorado.