Today we’re proud to feature Lori Jakiela as our fourteenth Authors Talk series contributor, reading her essay “Vox Humana” for her podcast episode entitled, “No Such Thing as an Ordinary Life: What Studs Terkel Taught Me About Being a Writer.”
“I believed that my life was too ordinary, too small to be worthy of art,” Lori explains in reference to an eighteen-year-old self and much-younger worldview. It would soon be challenged by an encounter with the famous historian Studs Terkel, whose abilities as a writer Lori seamlessly links to his genuine interest in people’s lives. Listening to her speak about the influence Studs had on her development – both as a writer and as a person – brings to mind the importance of having mentors and idols, and of allowing them to change you. Perhaps most importantly, it reminds us of the importance of having curiosity about all people, and appreciating their varied roles in art.
You can read Lori Jakiela’s work in Superstition Review, Issue 12 and Issue 6.
More About the Author:
Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoirs Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books), Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette) and The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press), as well as the poetry collection Spot the Terrorist (Turning Point) and several limited-edition poetry chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Rumpus, Brevity, Superstition Review and more. Her essays have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize many times, and she received the 2015 City of Asylum Pittsburgh Prize, which sent her to Brussels, Belgium on a month-long writing residency. She has also received a Golden Quill Award from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, was a working-scholar at The Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and was the winner of the first-ever Pittsburgh Literary Death Match.
She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the writer Dave Newman, and their children. A former flight attendant and journalist, she now teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and is a co-director of Chautauqua Institution’s Summer Writing Festival. Her author website is http://lorijakiela.net.
For several years, we have featured audio or video of Superstition Review contributors reading their work. We’ve now established a new series of podcasts called Authors Talk. The podcasts in this series take a broader scope and feature SR contributors discussing their own thoughts on writing, the creative process, and anything else they may want to share with listeners.
If you are considering attending a writing conference sometime in the future, I hope this finds you well. Maybe you have heard of Bread Loaf. Maybe not. I hadn’t heard of it until one day, two fall semesters ago, when my Creative Writing teacher at Mesa Community College told me, in that way he always expressed his opinion, as if he were open to hearing your objections, not because they were valid, but because he believed there was value in standing up for yourself, that if I wanted to be a serious writer then I should attend a writing conference and if I was going to attend a writing conference, it might as well be Bread Loaf.
The name, which stands out in that vaguely preppy sense, of something old and prestigious and yet quite silly, comes from Bread Loaf Mountain, named because it was shaped like a loaf of bread. It is 89 years old and an off-shoot of the ridiculously small (my high school had just as many students) Middlebury College in Vermont.
I had reservations about attending. First, and sadly foremost, I have never felt comfortable around other writers. I find myself secretly hating them and wishing, when they talk of things like theme and the occasion of telling, that they would shut up or, at the very least, change the topic to something less troubling like religion or politics. Second, though a very close second, attending Bread Loaf, as I was invited to attend, sans fellowship, would clear out my savings and leave me broke. Third, going would mean stepping down from my Middle Management position at the company where I’ve worked for the past 5 years, because, of course, Bread Loaf dates coincided with blacked out days on the store manager’s calendar, meaning no time-off allowed.
I am telling you this up front, so, as you read my mixed thoughts, you will still believe me when I say that, if you love to write, then you should do whatever it is you can do to attend a writing conference like Bread Loaf.
Let’s go over the facts: To attend Bread Loaf it will costs around $3000 and that will include just room and board and your tuition through Middlebury College. That’s for your workshop, whether it be in Fiction, Poetry or Nonfiction, and for your shared room up on the Mountain in one of the Houses. You can, as I did, choose to stay off campus at a nearby Inn (there are two of them, one about 8 miles away and another about 16 miles away) or even look up cabins that are listed at a discount rate for Bread Loafers. If I had inquired a little sooner, I would have been able to stay in a four bedroom house with a full kitchen for only one hundred dollars a night.
To get to Bread Loaf, I drove North out of Burlington for a little over an hour and then passed through Middlebury, almost without realizing it, then drove up to Ripton, a town with one white Lutheran Church (that hosted a play based off of Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth while I was there), an old country store that sold turkey sandwiches wrapped in plastic wrap and worms for fishing, and The Chipmann Inn, where I stayed. After Ripton, you have to just go a little further up the Mountain, past the Homer Noble Farm where Robert Frost stayed before leaving with Homer Nobel’s wife. Then you are there, where the road plateaus and the view opens up.
Every other day you go to Workshop. When you are not at Workshop, you can attend craft classes, which cover things such as The Art of the Paragraph and Using Autobiographical Elements in Your Fiction. Every morning you pick up your copy of The Crumb, the Bread Loaf Newsletter, and it tells you what readings and talks are going on that day and who is coming to the Mountain and who is leaving. I got to listen to the editors of the New England Review talk about what they most looked for when accepting a piece of writing (they have to love it). And the preferences of the publishers of the small press Graywolf (they have to love it, and it has to be something they can see other people loving). And I heard from one wise editor, from an organization whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, speak about how he is finding more and more writers who are worrying about their social media presence, their Twitter followers, the way their book cover will be designed, but not worrying half that much about the quality of their work. The work, he said repeatedly, comes first.
If you do go to a conference and there is off-conference housing, I do recommend taking that option. I think I would have gone crazy spending 10 days up on the Mountain, surrounded by people like me. I escaped every night with my girlfriend to Middlebury, to one of its two bars that was open past 10. Sometimes I would skip out of Bread Loaf in the middle of the day, growing tired of readings and talks by editors, and we would shop around Middlebury and walk through Middlebury College. You have to leave writing eventually, I think, in order to keep finding things to write about.
After my story was Workshopped, and it was a good Workshop, I got, like everyone else, a one-on-one with my Workshop Leaders.
I met my first Workshop Leader, a woman with long black hair and a hard face, in the Bread Loaf Barn, where the dances were held and the Bar was open every night till 10ish. Because it was cold this summer, there was always a fire in the fireplace, and the night before I had almost fallen asleep there in front of it.
She and I talked about my story briefly. I didn’t have many questions. Then we talked about MFA programs and writers I should read. This was her sixth time teaching at Bread Loaf. She looked around the barn and talked about the stories she had heard in the earlier years of its existence. There was more drinking and sleeping around. A lot of older men writers invited up younger women. She said her favorite story was about Richard Yates, who got drunk or high or both and climbed one of the buildings and had a prophetic vision which ended with him shouting out that he was God.
She smiled and said that for a long time, people joked that it should be called “Bed Loaf.”
My next Workshop Leader was less comfortable talking. He had been that way in Workshop, too. He had good things to say and he would often lead the discussion, but it took him time to find the words and then even more time to find what order to place the words in.
We met out on the front porch of the main office and enjoyed the view, sitting on an old bench that creaked beneath us.
When he spoke, his hands were out in front of his chest and his fingers were tense, as if grasping at some machine with knobs and wires.
He had held a craft class on James Joyce’s use of epiphany in Dubliners; a craft class I had very much wanted to attend, but the time didn’t fit with the rest of my schedule. I have always felt like the epiphanies of my stories are never realized, that my characters are dancing around this great realization that would shatter the lives they had been trying so hard to live. But nothing ever resolved. It was the biggest critique of my story, that I didn’t allow my characters to grow and I should allow them to do more.
He spoke to me about taking time off in between undergrad programs and grad programs, about working a little, traveling a little. The next day was the end of Bread Loaf and I’d fly out with my girlfriend around four in the afternoon. He asked if I had any questions about my story and when I said no, he said “Good. You know what you need, you just need to. . . .” and he went quiet and scrunched up his face and held his hands out in front of his chest and contorted them into something like claws.
It took me nearly an hour to rearrange my luggage to include the books I bought/was given and my carry-on bag was replaced with a broken portable typewriter I bought from a small antique shop in Middlebury. It is still waiting for me to save the sixty dollars it is going to cost to fix it.
When I was a sophomore in college, my creative writing teacher, Gail Adams, mentioned to me that I might want to consider attending this thing called the West Virginia Writers Workshop. I was a painfully shy girl, majoring in psychology and taking a creative writing class as an elective. Gail, somehow in that miraculous way she has, saw something in me and took me under her wing. She hooked me up with some funding through the university and, come July, I found myself nervously sitting around a table with several other writers and workshop leader, Pinckney Benedict, an intimidating presence to be sure.
While I don’t remember a ton about the actual workshop now (other than I was scared to death and barely said a word), what I do remember was the excitement of being around so many other writers—men and women at all stages of their careers and of their lives. We were all very different, but we also had things in common—we loved words, and we wanted to do something with that love. And thus began my romance with writers’ conferences.
Since then, I’ve attended many workshops and conferences—some more successful for me than others—but what never changes is the happy feeling at the end of the day of community, of finding ones tribe (no matter how eccentric, strange, or disagreeable members of that tribe may be).
Let’s face it, writing—the very hard center of it—is a solitary enterprise, and I’ll admit that most days, I love that quality. I, like many writers, have always been a bit of an introvert, and don’t mind being alone for a while with just my computer and my words (unfortunately, this happens very rarely these days, but that’s a different blog topic). Writing conferences and workshops, though, give us the chance to blink into the sunlight; maybe get some advice from other writers on that tricky story, essay, or poem we’ve been stressing over; and not feel so alone for a little while.
At this point in my life, I’ve attended a variety of conferences and workshops, so I feel as though I can offer some advice when it comes to choosing the event that is best for you, and how to get the most out of your experience. I’ll start with just a brief discussion of the different types of conferences out there, and the benefits of each.
So far in this entry, I’ve been using the terms “conference” and “workshop” pretty interchangeably (and the events often use them interchangeably, too), but the truth is that not all are meant to be the same. In my experience, a “writer’s workshop” typically has a workshop element, meaning that you (the writer) will submit a manuscript weeks before the actual event. That manuscript will be distributed to the other people in your workshop group, and you’ll come together during the designated time to talk about the pieces, all under the guidance of a workshop leader (usually a successful writer who’s getting paid as a faculty member at the workshop). This is how the West Virginia Writers Workshop (WVWW) that I mentioned above, works. In addition to the individual workshop meetings, there are usually also “sessions” or craft talks offered so attendees will get the opportunity to meet the other workshop faculty, as well as learn about specific themed topics and usually do some writing exercises. There are also usually evening readings by the faculty. The WVWW ends with an open mike where many of the participants read snippets of work they’ve done over the weekend. (Full disclosure, I attended this workshop for several years, and now work for WVWW as the high school participant coordinator, so maybe I’m biased, but it’s an awesome workshop. You should come).
Similar to WVWW is the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. This is the country’s oldest women writers conference (though men are welcomed too), and the lovely city of Lexington fully embraces the event and the writers who travel from all over the US to attend. There are panels, as well as the option to do a workshop (though this is not a requirement to attend). This low key/low stress event is often the perfect place for a newer writer, just getting her feet wet, while also providing experienced writers the opportunity to work with amazing staff. This year, I worked with National Book Award Nominee Bonnie Jo Campbell.
The full workshop is often the most expensive (though both the WVWW and the KWWC are huge bargains at $350 and $195 respectively), but participants do usually get personal feedback from an admirable writer. These are also usually the events that last the longest (one reason for the increased price). Many, though, try to combine room and board with the tuition so that participants can save some cash, or they offer campus housing when possible. WVWW participants stay in West Virginia University’s dormitory, which creates a fun and nostalgic atmosphere. There is also often scholarship or fellowship opportunities available to help offset costs for some participants. Bread Loaf, one of the country’s most famous workshops, allows some lucky participants to perform a sort of “work study” to reduce their costs.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the “conference”. At a conference, there typically is not a workshop element and, instead, participants attend many sessions and readings. The most well-known writers conference is of course AWP, a massive annual event hosted by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. The conference changes location each year (last year was Boston, the year before Chicago, this year Seattle), and hosts thousands of writers for four days. This conference revolves around panels where writers speak about specific topics, some related to craft, others organized by theme. There are many readings and a gigantic “book fair” where participants can learn about tons of presses, journals, and writing programs. It sounds great, right? It is, but it is also expensive (travel, hotel, conference costs) and it can be incredibly overwhelming. AWP is important at certain stages of a writer’s career, especially if that writer is also looking for an academic job; however, it is not the be-all-end-all. If you’re not ready for the extreme conference like AWP, there are plenty of other options.
One of my favorite conferences is the Press 53 Gathering of Writers, a newish event that’s been offered just twice by the small press, Press 53. The Gathering of Writers is an intensive one-day production held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It’s relatively inexpensive (under $200) and intentionally small (no more than 53 writers can attend). Participants attend sessions offered by the faculty who are usually writers in the Press 53 stable, have a nice lunch provided by the conference, and then go to a reading at the end of the day. Because of the intimate setting, it’s easy to meet new people and talk to the faculty. There is no hierarchy; the faculty is not kept apart from the participants (as they sometimes are at the more prestigious conferences). It’s a great day, and well worth the money.
There are usually conference options locally, especially if your state has a writer’s group or if there are colleges/universities in your area. I’ve attended the Winter Wheat Writers Conference on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio for many years. This is an event that hosts every level of writer, from undergraduate students all the way up to writers who have published several books. Another local conference that I’ve always enjoyed (both as an attendee and as faculty) is the West Virginia Writers, Inc. Conference, held annually in Ripley, West Virginia. Here, there are many sessions offered over several days, but the real story is community. There is an incredible, welcoming atmosphere at this conference, be it in the classroom or around the bonfire at night. Check out your local events. Chances are that you can find a conference near you that is inexpensive, as well as fun and engaging.
There are probably many other “kinds” of conferences/workshops/gatherings/events that I’ve missed. The rule here is that there is no rule. Each event has its own guidelines, its own flavor. That’s one of the things that make these events so great. You can find what’s best for you and mix it up each year.
Now, for some Dos and Don’ts (and some advice from other writers)
Do know why you’re going. Don’t have unreasonable expectations.
If you think that you’re going to become best friends with the famous writer who is giving a reading/presenting a craft class/leading a workshop, you will be disappointed. Sometimes a friendship will develop, but that has to happen naturally. If you believe you will get a book contract or agent, you’re going to be disappointed. Sure, this does occasionally (rarely) happen, but you can’t expect it. There is no easy route to publication or contracts. You have to put in the work. The reason to go to a workshop is to better your craft through attending sessions, sharing work, and talking to other writers. Going solely for any other reason is probably going to be a waste of money.
Gretchen Moran Laskas (author, Midwife’s Tale and Miner’s Daughter): Don’t think that a conference is a substitute for the actual hard work of writing itself. There are always some people who are sure it’s just a matter of meeting the right person, making the right connection, having the inspiration, paying the right price, when in the end, it still means you sitting in a chair putting words on the page.
Do go to work with the famous writer that you’ve been cyber stalking if you think he/she will teach you something. Don’t be closed off to the possibility of meeting someone new.
Some conferences have both junior and senior faculty. Don’t ignore the “new guys”. They’re often the ones who are most willing to chat with attendees and who have their fingers on the pulse of the literary world. Be willing to learn from everyone, including other participants.
Phyllis Wilson Moore: If you find a comfortable atmosphere (I’m thinking Hindman Appalachian Writers Workshop or WVW) it is much easier: Low key, comfortable dress, reasonable accommodations, peer acceptance. I will always treasure attending Hindman where even the big name authors mix and mingle with the group and even join in the chores.
Do be open to socializing and making new friends, but Don’t feel like you have to participate in every event and go to every session.
You might need some alone time, and that’s perfectly okay. I personally get caught up in the “I must get my money’s worth” mentality, which often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Take some time if you need to. Decompress. Maybe even write a little if the inspiration hits you.
Maggie Duncan: I like a writing conference where not only do you bring work to have critiqued but you also have writing exercises. My favorite in that respect is Tinker Mountain. I’ve always gained something from writer’s conferences, even if it is merely networking opportunities and even if it is just a one-day conference.
Rhonda Browning White: The most important thing, as I see it, is the networking. Connect with other writers. Stick around the for the after-hours cash bar, even if you sip on Diet Pepsi or water. The best information, encouragement, advice and support is often received when the work day is over, and the authors, editors and agents are relaxed and ready to dish about the business and life of writing.
Wilma Acre: Go with an open mind. I learn something in every session I attend–even though it is sometimes what NOT TO DO. Reach out to people. If you see someone sitting alone, ask “May I join you?” Almost all of my friends are people I have met at writing events.
That being said: Do attend events and get your money’s worth,but Don’t be afraid to break away.
Some of my most successful writing event related moments have been on side trips, when I left the workshop and ventured out. As I mentioned earlier, a workshop can be a bit overwhelming (especially big ones like AWP) and a side trip can provide some much needed rest and perspective. There is also something to be said in favor of visiting someplace while all these ideas about writing are fresh in your head. This might create an exciting new piece of writing for you. One of my very favorite side trips is to visit Jeffrey’s: Ohio’s Largest Antique Mall (according to Jeffrey) near Bowling Green, Ohio. Visiting Jeffrey’s has become a tradition for my friends and me when we attend the Winter Wheat conference. There are so many strange and unusual items at an antique store, not to mention tons of history. Definitely fertile ground for any writer.
Melissa Minsker: Do as much as you can and write down everything! So many great ideas and inspirations happen at a writing conference.
Kirsten Beachy: Take a break! If you’re suddenly inspired or too weary to pay attention, sit out of a session or two and rest or write.
Do understand that you’ll have to pay more for the bigger conferences, but Don’t take out a loan, cash in your 401K, or reach beyond your means to attend a conference.
I have nothing further to say about this. Just don’t.
And finally: Do go expecting to write, but Don’t be disappointed if you don’t.
A conference/workshop is a whirlwind. Often, every moment of your time is scheduled and, even though the events are all great, you might be too busy, tired, or plain out overwhelmed to write. That’s okay. Don’t feel like a failure if you don’t leave with a new story, essay, or poem. It will take a while for all the information you’re receiving to sink in. In that way, a writers workshop is the gift that keeps on giving, long after your time there is done.
Brad Eddy: The likelihood of getting anything work/writing related accomplished while attending a conference is an astonishing 0.00001% (and I rounded up).
Laura Morris: Get caught up in the energy of the conference. You’ll come up with a million ideas for new pieces. Take that energy home and use it.
In this blog post, I’ve tried to offer some helpful advice based on what I’ve learned over my several years of attending writers workshops and conferences, as well as what others have learned; however, these are the things that work for us. Just as each conference is different, each writer’s needs, desires, and processes are different. You’ll just have to start doing some research and attend the events that look interesting to you. Or, come to one of the ones I’ve mentioned here and look me up. I’m almost sure to be there!
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Keith Ekiss.
Keith Ekiss is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Poetry at Stanford University and the past recipient of scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley Writers Conferences, Santa Fe Art Institute, Millay Colony for the Arts, and the Petrified Forest National Park.
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