“Who here has been to a writers conference before?”  Matt Burgess asked at the welcome dinner last night.  I was one of a very few old veterans.  Most of the youngsters at the table were newbies; I envied them their innocence.

Here I am at the Chesapeake Writers Conference  — as a participant.  I’ve been a presenter at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference and the International Historical Novel Conference, so what am I doing sitting around a table with aspiring writers listening to another veteran author’s advice?

Because I have so much to learn.

Writing is a lifelong process, a way of life. It’s essentially a solitary endeavor. So how do we practice? How do we refine? How do we connect with other writers? One way is to attend a writers conference. But conferences can be expensive and time-consuming. Really – are they worth it?

I’ve attended a number of conferences over the years.  In 1996 I entered, and won, the Maui Writers Conference.  The following year I signed with my first agent, again at Maui.. I  participated in the Napa Writers Conference at a week-long workshop led by Michael Cunningham, who subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Hours.  I’ve attended numerous shorter conferences, such as the Aspen Writers Conference (see my post The Night Editor-in-Chief Myrna Blyth taught me to pitch). I’m a decorated veteran — complete with war wounds I don’t like to talk about.  Are writers conferences worth it? It depends on what you’re looking for.

If you’re looking to “be discovered”, I’d say probably not.  A powerful query letter is usually more effective than a pitch session at a crowded conference with a hung-over, jet-lagged literary agent who won’t remember your well-rehearsed pitch nor read anything at the conference.  Mass meetings of wannabe writers are not the best venue for being discovered.  Whatever that means.

But If you’re looking for motivation,  if you’re seeking a mentor, if you’re looking for tangible ways to write better, write more productively, if you’re looking for critical  feedback on your writing (take a breath so you can finish this run-on sentence), if you’re looking to establish new literary connections and to recommit yourself to the writing life, then yes — writers conferences can be worth the cost.  If you do your homework, commit yourself, and follow through when you return to the real world.

Before you sign up, ask yourself: What do I hope to achieve? How much time do I have to commit? How much can I afford? Am I willing to travel? Conferences can last a day, a weekend, a week. The focus can be on craft, or it can be on publishing and marketing. Be aware and chose which one best suits your needs.  But how do you know?

You can type “Writers Conferences” into your search engine to discover upcoming ones. I subscribe to New Pages —  which is how I found out about the Chesapeake Writers Conference I am now attending. Hosted by St. Mary’s College of Maryland and directed by Jerry Gabriel, author of Drowned Boy (winner of the Mary McCarthy Short Fiction Prize), this year’s week-long event features novelists Patricia Henley and Matt Burgess, nonfiction author Ana Maria Spagna and poet Elizabeth Arnold.

I chose this particular conference because the emphasis is on the craft of writing rather than publishing and marketing.   And because of location – St. Mary’s City, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, less than a hundred miles south of my birthplace in Anne Arundel County.  I felt a primal longing for my roots (forgetting how hot the motherland is in early July…)   Although I had never heard of any of the presenters I researched their published works, read a selection of each, and was hopeful I could learn something from them. All are literary authors, not commercial bestsellers.  My goal is to get back to the craft of writing, not the business of selling.

The structure of the Chesapeake Writers Conference promises to be intense, with morning and evening lectures, and various optional activities.  Afternoons are spent in focused workshops to critique each others writing.  These sessions are led by the featured presenters and participants choose which one they’d like to attend.  After reading Matt Burgess’s novel Dogfight; A Love Story, I chose his workshop, which he describes as “descriptive rather than proscriptive.”  Today is Monday and the first workshop is in a few hours.

After the conference is over I’ll post a wrap-up and let you know Was it worth it?