Taking the Temperature of Writers’ Conferences

Since we’re in the midst of writers’ conference season, I decided to rerun a post this morning:

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. In a few weeks, I’ll be teaching a workshop in the novel at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. 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. Carl Wooton on July 21, 2014 at 11:16 am

    Solid advice. I’m looking forward to the meeting at VCFA next month.

    • Lee Martin on July 23, 2014 at 9:34 pm

      Looking forward to it, too, Carl.

  2. Ben Greenfield on July 21, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Lee, Laney told me it will all be spellbinding!

    • Lee Martin on July 23, 2014 at 9:34 pm

      Love the pun, Ben! See you soon.

  3. Jude Whelley on July 21, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    I can tell you, after attending AWW 2013, you meet your objectives beautifully!

  4. Meryl Peters on July 22, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    Lee: Wish I could be there. So good to see you albeit briefly at AWP. You succeeded all those points for me six years ago at RopeWalk.


    • Lee Martin on July 23, 2014 at 9:33 pm

      It was good to see you, too, Meryl. Keep doing the good work!

  5. Mark Lupinetti on July 23, 2014 at 8:33 am

    A line from a Roger Rosenblatt essay: “A novelist friend describes summer workshops, where writers often squirm in the light of excessive adoration, as petting zoos.” I promise, Lee. No heaving petting.

    • Lee Martin on July 23, 2014 at 9:33 pm

      I promise not to squirm too much. See you soon, Mark!

  6. Melissa Cronin on August 10, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Knowing you, Lee, I’m confident that you will fulfill your objectives with stunning success. I hope to make it to VCFA during the conference to say hello.

    • Lee Martin on August 10, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      Thank you, Melissa. Hope to see you there!

  7. Dawn Boyer on August 16, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    “to enter a participant’s work with thanksgiving for its gift…”

    That is perhaps the most beautifully phrased sentiment I’ve ever read from a writing teacher about approaching a student’s work. During writing conferences, participants can feel so raw, so vulnerable, and so damned off balance from all the exhaustive stimulation and new experiences that deep inside, a quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) voice inside pleads, “Please tell me my writing matters, that it’s good, that my story is worth telling.” Yet what can prevail (sadly) is a gestalt of tough veneer that makes many an attendee pretend he or she doesn’t care or doesn’t want to hear it. (I call bullshit on that one.) Most often, we imagine other workshop participants scanning our stories for any weakness, eager to point out flaws because they have to say something, after all, to prove their worth as readers, and sadly, that worth is based on “fixing what’s wrong” rather than building on what’s right (it’s an ill-guided and misperceived notion, but it happens). We also imagine our workshop leaders as having the ultimate wisdom, the key to the Guiding Light, and if we’re off balance, we can forget that all writers are human and no one has all the answers. In the end, it is the story’s writer, and no one else, who has what it takes to bring the story to its fullest glory. The teacher and other students are there to serve–as readers and as guides. It’s the service part that can so easily be lost. To know that one leader out there not only approaches each student’s work with deep gratitude but makes a public statement about doing so gives me hope and faith that there are indeed writers who deeply care about teaching and take seriously and reverently their responsibility to help a student grow. Thank you. This touched me profoundly. And it has been a great pleasure and privilege to meet you and talk with you a bit here in Vermont.

    • Lee Martin on August 18, 2014 at 12:16 pm

      Hi, Dawn! Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. As we were saying in Vermont, the workshop format immediately leads people to believe that something is wrong in a piece of writing and it’s the job of the readers to offer advice on how to fix it. While it is true that sometimes a writer has missed a step or an opportunity with a manuscript, our obligation, both as a reader and a writer, is to the text itself. In other words, we should be interested in identifying the artistic choices a writer has made and the effects those choices have created. Then we need to ask ourselves what a piece of writing is trying to do–what experience is it trying to create for a reader. Are there certain choices that could be rethought, or new ones that could be made, to help the piece more fully realize its intent? That’s where our focus should be in the workshop. I hope you have a grand year, Dawn. Keep doing the good work!

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