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So, You’re Going to a Writers’ Conference?
Disclaimer: The writer of this article is a past participant of the Tin House Writers’ Workshop. She was in no way encouraged—either financially, or otherwise—to say that the Tin House Writers’ Workshop is better than any other writers’ conference, though, of course, it is.
Amendment to Disclaimer: Blackmail is the currency we trade favors for.
So, you’re going to your first writers’ conference! How excited are you!? First things first: put your right hand around your left shoulder and your left hand around your right shoulder and give yourself a hug! It takes courage, patience and a substantial amount of financial sacrifice to consider oneself “a writer”, but you are going to a writers’ conference. You got it done!
Regardless of where you’re going to, or for how long, we’ve compiled some been-there-done-that tips to help you have the best, safest, and healthiest workshop of your life. Without further ado, writer, here they are:
Have your elevator speech ready: As a writer, you spend most of your time gallivanting in an inflatable fun palace where people share your love of Garamond and get your snarky jokes. Alas, not everyone lives in your bouncy fun house. Many people do not understand what a writers’ conference is, and this will include the supervisor who is allowing you time off and the people who are going to be looking after your offspring/pet(s)/plant(s) while you’re away. You would be well advised to come up with a one-line description of the place that you are going that does not make you sound like a fanatic narcissist. Can’t come up with one? Use mine: “I’m going to a summer camp for writers.” Yes, it makes me sound like the ambassador of dweeb, but it’s better than, “I’m going to study under the illustrious writer such and such to have him reconsider the syntax of my thirty-five page prose poem in the bucolic town of whosie-whatsit….” Snooze.
What to pack: Because of Machiavellian event planning, many conferences will stick you in a small room with a complete stranger to sleep. Here’s what you’ll need to make the most of this situation:
• Ear plugs
• Scented candles
• Flip flops, a robe, towels. (Be aware that “linen service” means “two terry hand cloths.”)
• Ok, I was just testing you with the scented candles. A lot of people out there have olfactory sensitivities, be courteous!
• A framed picture of your cat
• Clip-on reading light
• If you’re anything like the roommate I had at the [redacted] writers’ conference, you’ll want to bring a pack of Post-Its to write passive aggressive notes on. Just stick ‘em on your roommate’s pillow. Yes!
• Sleep mask
Did I pick the right teacher at my writers’ conference?: Probably not! First time participants tend to go with the big fish at the conference, the most famous, most impressive, most literary star! Here’s the thing about the big fishes: the big fishes are tired. This is the one hundred and eleventh literary conference they have taught at this year. Sometimes, you’re better off taking a workshop with the underdogs, the lesser knowners who still need to throw around some verbal Krav Maga to get ahead. Do some online research to find out who has taken a workshop with your preferred teacher. Be that crazy person who Facebook messages total strangers to ask what their workshop experience was like. Listen, in most cases, you’re paying quite a bit to be there. You deserve to get it right.
Will I make friends?: You will, and far too early. After 1 ½ days with your “friends”, you will realize the miscalculation of the bonding instinct that caused you to imprint on the first three people you stood next to at the Director’s welcome speech, but by that point, you will have already swapped manuscripts and swizzled contraband Zinfandel behind the cafeteria together, so now you’re stuck. Heed this warning, conference goer: Eat with a different group of people for a minimum of four meals before deciding whom you do and do not like.
Will I cheat on my girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse: That depends. Are you going to a conference that takes place in a town and state with a jarring amount of e’s? If you answered ‘yes’ to this question, not only will you remain faithful, you’ll get some writing done!
If you answered ‘no’, let us explore further. Are you going to a writers’ conference that takes place on a mountain? Is this mountain in a state whose motto is “Nothing Without the Deity?” Congratulations! You’re going to come home with a crush on Benjamin Percy, regardless of your sex!
Are you going to a conference on another mountain? Say, on a mountain without any cell phone service? A conference that is ten sacrificial, locust stinging, hallucinatory days long? (Awkward pause.) Good luck!
Should I read at open mike?: Most conferences will offer an open mike night for contributors. If you’ve never read before in public, this is a great opportunity to see what it would feel like to be a famous writer who spent a lot of his or her own money to travel to Nowherelandia to a do a reading for six people. Sign up, read slowly, and don’t go over time. Seriously, don’t.
What is up with the woman with all the pins on?: She is called a “Lifer.” She has been to this writers’ conference seventy-two times. Every year, she buys a variety of conference paraphernalia to affix onto her hat. She will refer to all of the teachers at the conference by their first names. If Charles Baxter is teaching, she will call him “Chuck.” If she is in your workshop and it isn’t too late to do so, switch out. If it is too late to do so, beg. She will use expressions like, “I’m just not buying” and “I really need more from” when talking about your work. You will hate her. The woman with the pins on cannot be destroyed.
I just called a taxi: Of course you did. It’s the fourth day of the conference. You can’t take it anymore. Dear trembling contributor: reach down into the virtuous depths inside you; access that stalwart place that allowed you to revise your experimental novel seven times; call 24-7 Taxi and cancel that cab. It is a recognized phenomenon among both participants and organizers that the forth day at any conference just completely sucks. People start to hate each other. The food—you can only take so much. You will second guess your calling. If you have been sexually deviant, you will regret it very much. Everything will be sturm and drang and mushy tater tots. But fear not, little writer. That night, there is a dance!
OMG, my workshop: OMG, indeed. If, after your workshop, you’re unable to say whether or not your classmates liked your piece, congratulations, broheim, your shit has just been workshopped!
Most writers will get thirty minutes devoted to their piece. Here’s how this goes down:
• The first 7 minutes: Garrulous affection and effusive complements, MC’d by the prof.
• Next 5 minutes: Public floundering, embarrassment, inarticulation.
• 3 minutes: The woman with the pins will admit to something she “needed more of.”
• 10 minutes: Everyone else suddenly remembers lots of things they didn’t like.
• Last 5 minutes: You will be asked if you have questions.
• Your question: Why do I write?
Many teachers will give you annotated copies of your manuscript after your workshop. I’d advise taking an indecent amount of time to read through them. Remember— your classmates were put in that room to comment on your work. It’s unrealistic to have expected nothing but complements. Do, however, filter the criticisms before you revise your story. With distance, you’ll recognize the comments that were truly helpful and the ones you can do without.
Why are the male editors from Tin House always standing next to one another? This is a good question! The male editors at Tin House need to stand next to each other to perpetuate their mojo—a vital form of energy invisible to the naked eye. You may approach them at cocktail hour but only as a group—when separated they lose the power to send out form rejection letters.
Should I say yes to the Facebook friend request from the woman with the pins on?: Shit, she found you? No.
Courtney Maum is humor columnist for Electric Literature and writer for [adult swim]. Courtney’s work has recently appeared online in The Rumpus, Bomb Magazine, Thought Catalog, and others. A frequent reader at NY-based series and a Literary Death Match champion, she can be found on Twitter at @cmaum or at her satirical Department of Homeland Security twitter feed @githomesafe