I just returned from teaching at the West Virginia Writers’ Conference, so I’ve decided to rerun this old post.
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 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:
- A supportive group of folks who took my work seriously. In their company, I felt like a writer.
- A smart group of folks who told the truth, but as delicately as they could.
- Exposure to the literary life, and contact with agents and editors.
- A network of friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with today.
- Dedicated workshop leaders who were more interested in teaching than in playing the role of “famous author.”
- 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. When I teach, my one objective is 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.