August 2018: The Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference

This month I attended the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference which ran August 9-11 at the downtown Chicago campus.   The conference is a mix of sessions and panels on writing craft and the writing business, primarily geared towards fiction and creative non-fiction writers as well as poets.  Here are some of my takeaways from the conference and my tips for getting the most out of professional conferences and maximizing your comfort.

Writing Business: Residencies, Resumes, and Contests

  • If you are interested in applying to a writers’ residency, this website was recommended by several attendees has an excellent guide to applications.
  • Writers’ organizations and residency hosts are starting to acknowledge that many people experience significant barriers to attending a residency–especially writers with disabilities, writers who have children and are primary caregivers, and writers who have limited or no paid vacation time.  The Chicago Artists Resource lists several artist-in-residence programs that prioritize accessibility, including the MacDowell artists’ community.
  • Residency applications, as well as many other professional writing opportunities (such as querying an agent) will often require an artist’s resume.  If you have never compiled an artist’s resume before, these are the items you should generally include: your education; conferences or workshops you’ve attended; awards you’ve won; selected publications; press (i.e. if you’ve been interviewed or had articles written about you); related professional experience (i.e. day job stuff that’s germane to your writing).  It’s not hard and fast, so pick the categories that reflect your experience and omit the others.
  • Here is an example of an artist’s resume.  She is a visual artist, but the principles are the same.
  • Some advice on assessing contests fees–there isn’t a clear cut off point on when a contest fee is excessive, it is all about context.  Most contests have fees between $5 to $45, but you need to consider what you are sending.  If you are submitting a novel for a publication deal (and you’ve vetted the publication details of course!), then $20 is not unreasonable, but if you are submitting a flash fiction piece, then $20 would be excessive.
  • For marginalized writers, contests can be a possible avenue to reducing the role of bias by an editor, since editors usually don’t see the names and personal details of the writer.  It doesn’t eliminate it, but one of the panelists, who is a woman of color, said that this was a reason she enters writing contests.

Writing Craft:

  • I really enjoyed the session on writing the body, taught by Kathleen Rooney  I thought that the first session would be about describing physical experiences–and we did discuss that–but Kathleen pushed us to focus on how we approached writing the body.  What cultural lenses and filters do we automatically use when we begin to write about bodies?  The session pushed me to reconsider how I approach writing physicality.
  • I also enjoyed the session on organizing long-term projects, taught by Amin Ahmad.  Amin was an architect before he began writing novels and he walked us through how he used to approach designing a building and the way he uses that blueprint (no pun intended!) for designing a long-form writing project.  I found it to be a very useful way of thinking about the writing process.

Tips on Maximizing Your Comfort at Conferences:

  • You do not have to attend all days or all sessions to get a lot out of a conference.  I used to try to go to every session, panel, keynote address luncheon, networking happy hour, regional chapter meetup dinner, and late-night vendor-sponsored karaoke party before collapsing in my hotel room and then doing all again for another three days.  Now I pace myself more and even though FOMO is particularly persistent at conferences, I remind myself that it is better to be present and healthy at fewer events than exhausted and half-listening to everything.
  • Bring writing materials to sessions–I know, I know, this seems like a no-brainer, but here is my secret:  I don’t just write notes about the session, I also write down story ideas, blog posts, projects, and other lists.  I find listening to conference lectures and panels and performances to be very mentally stimulating and I’ve started embracing the flow of ideas that happen.  I still pay attention to the event but I let myself free associate as well and paradoxically this helps me stay more focused on the topic.
  • Bring layers, a water bottle, and snacks.  Conference rooms vary wildly in temperature and having a cardigan or shawl (or best, a big soft wrap I can roll up and stash in my bag) makes the experience a lot more pleasant.  Even if the conference provides water and snacks, it is nice to have a refillable bottle and you never know when a session will run over or if there won’t be enough food.
  • When meeting new people at writing conferences, I enjoy asking what they like to write or if they have any current projects they are excited about.  It is a very accessible question that can be answered by anyone at any point in their writing career and avoids the “What do you do?” or “What have you published?” questions, which can be very anxiety-producing for a lot of people (which makes people less likely to talk to you) and frankly, aren’t very interesting questions.  I’m much more interested in what people are interested in (which may be their jobs or their publications, but I’ll let them tell me that).  It is also subtly different than “What do you write?” which you get asked a lot at writing conferences, so it stands out a bit more and is a nice change of pace.

Last but not least–if you are going to a conference, it is worth it to print out business cards (Vistaprint has good deals).  I forgot mine two days in a row and I hate scribbling out details on scraps of paper that get lost and crumpled.  Do as I say, not as I did!