Taking the Temperature of Writers’ Conferences

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the old thermometers, the ones that you had to keep under your tongue for four minutes, the ones you had to shake down with an expert snap of the wrist, the ones that made you squint in order to make out the level of the mercury that told you your temperature. Believe it or not, I’m now the owner of a thermometer very much like this, only this one contains Galinstan, “a non-toxic, Earth friendly substitute for mercury.” You still have to hold it under your tongue for four minutes.

I was surprised to find out how impatient I was for those four minutes to pass, accustomed to the quick turnaround of a digital thermometer. I’d been lured into the world of instant gratification. Shame on me. If there’s one thing being a writer teaches me, it’s the art of patience. Results come in increments; sometimes, many more than four minutes pass between them. A career happens over a lifetime and not in a few seconds.

When I was just starting out, I decided to attend some writers’ conferences. It turned out to be a smart thing for me to do. Now, as I teach in a number of conferences each year, I try to keep in mind the person I was when I was a participant. I try to remember that I was nervous and just a little scared to have my work talked about by published writers and the other participants in the workshop. I try to remember that I often felt very far from home, a little bit like the boy on his first day of school. I was lucky, though. The writers’ conferences I attended gave me exactly what I needed:

1.         A supportive group of folks who took my work seriously. In their company, I felt like a writer.

2.         A smart group of folks who told the truth, but as delicately as they could.

3.         An exposure to the literary life, and contact with agents and editors.

4.         A network of friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with today.

5.         Dedicated workshop leaders who were more interested in teaching than in playing the role of “famous author.”

6.         The sense that with hard work and continued practice I could be better.

Maybe as I’ve taken the temperature of writers’ conferences (groan), I’ve given you something to think about. If you decide to attend one, stay open to learning, check your egos at the door, get to know people, give the sort of effort and respect to others that you want for yourself, leave with a sense of purpose and a direction to follow with your work. I’ll be teaching at conferences this summer in: Oxford, MS; Rowe, NH; Yellow Spring, OH; and Montpelier, VT. My one objective, as always, will be to enter a participant’s work with thanksgiving for its gift, with an understanding of what the work is trying to do, with plenty of praise for what’s working well, and with some suggestions for continued work. I hope I’m successful in returning each participant to his or her writing space with renewed vigor and a genuine excitement about the work that lies ahead.


  1. Auburn Sandstrom on February 11, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    I met you at a conference years ago and was able to attend part of a memoir course you taught that weekend. Got to hear your editor talk about your special collaboration on The Bright Forever. Had several memorable conversations with you in the lobby. I appreciate the quality of your kindness, presence and generosity. I have known and worked with many many writers and teachers of writing, but none who make themselves so genuinely accessible. Thank you, sir.

  2. Lee Martin on February 12, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Auburn, I very much remember meeting you at that conference. I enjoyed our conversations greatly. Wishing all the best for you and your work.

  3. Sophfronia Scott on February 12, 2013 at 11:06 am

    This all makes sense and none of it surprises me. I have heard much about your generous, on-target teaching skills. I hope I’ll get to experience them in person one day soon. Also, I’m teaching at a one day conference in Columbus, Ohio on March 23. If I don’t see you in Boston for AWP perhaps we can meet up then.

  4. mo pigeon on February 15, 2013 at 3:19 am

    Loved the details in the article Lee, including the descriptive details about the old mercury thermometers, ‘expert snap of the wrist’ and the need to ‘squint’ to read one. Also liked the reference to ‘patience’ that is a necessary part of being a writer. On your list…I particularly found myself grinning and nodding agreement about conferences with authors that actually want to teach, rather than just be adored and fawned upon. Present company excluded though 😉 Admire…admire, genuinely admire your work.

  5. Risa Scranton on February 15, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Rowe, MA, not NH. Just sayin’. And I’m very much looking forward to seeing you there again this year!

    • Lee Martin on February 16, 2013 at 6:20 pm

      Aaarrrgh! Risa, I had the nagging thought that I might have made that mistake. Thanks for noticing! My sincere apologies.

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