The Joys and Perils of Writing Classes, Conferences, and Retreats

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Disclaimer: I have taught writing classes for more years than I care to claim, and am currently on the Board of Directors of Wordcrafters in Eugene. We hold writing classes, retreats, and conferences.

I love writing conferences, retreats, and classes. I love attending, I love teaching, I love networking. I love picking up that writing tip, that craft detail, that golden nugget that I never knew, or once knew but have forgotten. I love making new friends (introvert that I am) who are as socially inappropriate as I am, because being with a group of writers is where I can be comfortable being my weird self.

Susan Wiggs speaks at Wordcrafters 2014

Susan Wiggs speaks at Wordcrafters 2014

Before I was published for the first time, I became a member of a small “teacherless” writing group where we all taught each other and ourselves to write. When I was first published, I suddenly realized how little I knew, and went on a quest to find out more. I went to as many local, regional and national and international conferences that I could afford. When I became proficient enough and published well enough, I went to them because I was invited to be a presenter, but the best part was always sitting in the other sessions, taking notes, listening to those who had gone before, sucking up their wisdom and the droplets of truth that fell from their lips.

But there is an addiction lurking in there, at least for me. Staying in a hotel room in a new city, hanging in the restaurants and bars with my friends—old and new—sharing war stories of the publishing world, meeting people who could possibly further my career, finding new ways of promoting myself and my work… this is all great fun, but it does not put words on the page.

And really: Writers write.

Eventually, we must pause in this quest for writing knowledge, because truth be told, nothing will teach us to write like writing. And being edited by a professional editor. That is where the real learning takes place. Practice. If all we did was party with our friends, nothing would get written. We would very successfully avoid the empty page and think we were busy being writers.

And then, once published, there is a short window of time in which to promote that book. This also takes time away from the keyboard.

So over my long career of writing, editing, teaching, publishing, and helping give a leg up to those coming along behind me, I have formulated time-constraint advice for those within whom the fire of fiction burns:

  1. Go to as many local, regional, national, and international conferences as you can. Go to as many writing classes as you can, go on as many retreats as you can. Invest in this real-life education, which you will not get in a far more expensive MFA program. Go to some conventions, as they’re different and fun. Soak it up. Learn all you can. Have a concrete goal—written down—for every event you attend, and make sure you accomplish that goal.
  2. Stop after two years and put your butt in the chair and get some writing done.
  3. When your book comes out, set aside promotion time—six weeks, I say, and hit the road. Take advantage of every person you ever met at any of the conferences, workshops, retreats that you attended when you were learning (you got their email addresses, right?). You might revisit some of those conferences while you’re promoting, because promoting is a completely different skill set than writing. And again, you’ll learn a lot by talking with those who came before you.
  4. After your designated promotion time is up, go home, put your butt in your chair and write.
  5. As long as a book is in print, keep promoting yourself and your work, but go easy. This is no longer your main focus, and you can burn out your friends by talking about it. Most people don’t bombard you with the details of their working life. If you want to impress them, write another book.

My very first editor told me: “You take care of your writing and your career will take care of itself.” While there is much truth in that, it isn’t entirely my experience, as I care more for my career than anyone else does. But if I don’t take care of my writing, I don’t have a career at all.

So: Go. Learn. Enjoy. Network. Have fun.

And then go home and do the painful thing: Write your truth.

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