Taking the Temperature of Writers’ Conferences

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:

  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. 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. 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.


  1. Rhonda Hamm on June 12, 2023 at 8:41 am

    This was my first conference. I was blessed to have you for a teacher. I have poured over my writing looking at places where you would do it differently and use more beautiful words filled with the past and emotion, where another teacher would use language to make you see not describe and yet another would use an alternative way of telling this story. Everything you write here is true. I wish I had started this years ago 🤷‍♀️

    • Lee Martin on June 13, 2023 at 9:59 am

      It’s never too late to begin a journey.

  2. Connie Kinsey on June 12, 2023 at 9:20 am

    Lee, I enjoyed your session on character at the West Virginia Writers Annual Conference so much. Your teaching and mentoring skills were very much on display! I will never forget that you took the time to stop me and praise my open mic performance. Never underestimate what those small actions mean!


    • Lee Martin on June 13, 2023 at 9:59 am

      Thanks, Connie! And thanks, again, for that fabulous reading.

  3. Leslie Kenney on June 13, 2023 at 2:03 pm

    I’m grateful for the time you spent with us at the WVW summer conference. At the last session of the last day, you said, “and I will leave you with this last thought…” and though I knew the end of the weekend would come, I didn’t want to accept it. I wanted to remain in the warmth of smart engaged and engaging peers. I needed a transitional time between the sparks and intoxication of the weekend and the mundanity of being back home. So I asked Siri to avoid highways for my 30 minute commute so that I could put my arm out the window in the light rain and wave the faster cars around me as I snaked a two hour drive home. I stopped occasionally to write new thoughts. By the time I got home I was ready to be home. Thanks for your time with us.

    • Lee Martin on June 14, 2023 at 11:04 am

      Leslie, it was my pleasure to work with you and the others at WVW. I find there’s always an afterglow following a good conference. In fact, Cathy and I were so busy talking about the conference we missed our exit onto 33 and ended up taking 77 all the way up to Parkersburg. It added about 20 minutes to our travel time, so all in all not so bad.

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