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Summer Lovin’

Dear Betsy, Since January is the season to apply for summer writing workshops, I wonder what you think of them. For someone who is on draft 10 and year 5 of a novel he started during his MFA, is it worth $1,000 to get a manuscript evaluation at Tin House? Or is that nuts? Other than improving the writing, I imagine the workshops are good for networking. So if a fledgling writer is going to blow a few grand on a workshop, which one? Breadloaf or Tin House? Sewanee or Provincetown? Do you shoot for faculty you admire or authors who write the kinds of book you are writing and might help you land an agent? Thanks in advance for the wisdom and insight. Loyal blog reader

This belongs to Betsy Lerner

Dearest Loyal: I’m going to be honest with you. There is only one reason to go to a summer writing workshop and that is to get laid. I’ve been to four or five writing workshops as a student and I never got laid. This was a huge disappointment. Huge. And I’m not even going to talk about the “dance” they hold in the barn at Breadloaf, aka “Bedloaf.” It’s ridiculous. EVERYONE gets laid. There’s even a faculty fuck pad where everyone leaves their own bottle with name tags! Name tags!

I went to my first summer writing workshop at Johns Hopkins. I wanted to get the poet David St. John for a teacher but I didn’t. Good story? However, a met a woman who would become a lifelong friend, my client, and my best reader. Workshops: three thousand dollars. A reader you trust: priceless.

I think workshops can be extremely valuable. That said, I don’t think you can necessarily choose your teacher, and networking opportunities may or may not present themselves. Go because you need a shot in the arm, or some solid feedback, or the feeling of community. Go because you know you’ve been working on that novel for way too long and it’s time to pony up. Go because poets wear ballet flats and novelists play poker, because of conversation overheard, because you might get some writing done, because it might be fun, because a writer you admire is sitting at the next table, and because you might get lucky.

Any feedback from the summer conference world for my loyal reader?


39 Responses

  1. Have been debating the same issue. Do I have to win at poker to get laid?

    • Not if it’s strip poker. Sounds like Summer Stock when I was an actor. We all got laid. But we were “Just Kids.” Ah, I miss the 70’s.

  2. As a teacher, I attended lots of reading/writing/math and science workshops. Most of them were good. As a writer I’ve only attended three workshops so far. The best one was the Highlight’s Foundation Summer Workshop at Chautauqua. Wonderful classes and excellent opportunity to network and be mentored by an author or an editor. If one applies early enough, they have scholarships. 🙂

  3. Being trapped in Arizona with my tiny children at the time I was stuck at the ASU Writers Conference (reknowned, I know…) and this is all I heard over all five days each year: a frowsy-haired woman with a fanny pack, polyester pants, and gym shoes on would stand up in every session I was in and say, “What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction?” And the whole conference would just grind to a halt. So, as long as there’s screening of the work and the writers, I think you can learn a lot, but for contacts? Eh.

  4. By extension, to get published I should go to a cathouse?

  5. I’ve never been to a workshop, but if you’re writing literary fiction and the workshop is featuring some very well known authors, it might be a good place to network and make some connections, assuming you have the money to burn. The literary fiction world is a hard one to break into and it might help to have some of these more famous workshops under your belt. I don’t think it’s worth $1000 to have your ms evaluated, but I do think you should start something new. A ms gets stale after 5 years.

  6. as token Canadian, i can report that The Banff Centre is a screw-o-rama.

    it wasn’t me.

  7. Yes, my husband teaches at one of those things, and let me tell you, it’s one big hormone.

    Though to be fair he seems just as excited about the free ice cream at every meal.

  8. I’m already getting laid with blissful, ecstatic high-energy frequency, so it’s hard to justify shelling out the money for a pricey workshop. And I do think the focus on literary fiction often leaves us non-fiction writers out in the cold while the others whoop it up at the fuckfest. Is fuckfest one word or two? Fuck fest?

  9. Oooh, I have so much to say on this topic. So much. Most of it thoroughly inappropriate for a public forum not my own. So…yeah. Conferences. Good times.

    Loyal, I think if you live outside of one of the cities with a thriving lit community, a conference can be a good place to meet/commiserate/sleep with your peers. (I’m kidding about the latter. Sort of.) Although I’m curious, if you’re 3+ years out of an MFA program, do you not have a peer group in place, people with whom you exchange work and ideas on a regular basis? That has always been the big allure of an MFA to me. (Another grass-is-greener scenario, blown to smithereens.) Let me ask you this: if you’re on draft 10/year 5 of a ms, what is the desired outcome of a manuscript consult? I mean, your deep down desire, truly. If it’s validation (and I’m not judging, I get it), that’s a steep price tag. I have a couple of friends who have been writers in residence…yeah, you know what? I can’t tell those stories here. Sigh. Bottom line: conferences are good for connecting with your peers, spending some concentrated time talking about writing and a wonderful boost of “we’re all in this together” attitude that will carry you through some lonely nights at your desk when you return home. If you can justify the price tag for those benefits, I say go for it. Also, most of the conferences referenced above offer full-ride scholarships/fellowships. FREE is always GOOD. And don’t be intimidated to apply. I am completely unpublished and I’ve been awarded several residencies and fellowships over the past 3 years.

    • Shanna, thanks for the encouragement to apply for scholarships. Maybe I’ll meet you at a conference one day and you can dish me the dirt that you can’t share here. I haven’t been to a conference yet (though I ran a workshop at an ashram in India for some monks once—does that count?), but it sounds like it would make a fun “vacation” at the very least.

  10. I was wondering the same about you.

  11. Conversation’s getting sketchy here, Betsy. Might be time to call in the vice squad or change your url, so you can avoid the dregs of society (myself included, per my first comment above).

    To put myself back on topic though, I think it would be good to distinguish between writers conferences and writers workshops. Different focuses and, I’ve found, slightly different audiences.

    • This is the problem with the Comments section of any blog; things get out of hand.

      And, yes, Betsy, please DO explain the difference between conferences and workshops. I think I know, but I’d like to hear it from you.

      • A conference has a key note speaker and lots of sessions about writing. Sometimes a tote bag or mug comes with the price of admission.

        A workshop is where you have a teacher and a group of writers and their work is shared and critiques. Most workshops offer readings and talks and other stuff like conferences. But your writing workshop is the centerpiece.

        And, of course, more fucking at workshops.

  12. I was just at your site—it’ll never work, Kyler. I’m female, married, and pretty strict about my vows. You’re cute, though! 🙂

  13. You’re cute too, Sherry.

  14. Never been to workshops or conferences or any such thing. But Tin House is just down the street from me, so I might pop in to see what they’re all about.
    Now on to the good stuff! This is the best online conversation I’ve eavesdropped on all week.

  15. Would you say, Betsy, that at conferences you’ll find more “famous” writers (relatively speaking) and at workshops more hopeful schlubs like myself?

  16. The Naropa Institute in Boulder can be pretentious inside and out, starting with the writing program’s name, “The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics,” but the summer program is really interesting.

    It runs four weeks and each week has an onslaught of new artists, from many fields in and out of writing. And the regular, highly sound writing staff is there throughout. There are readings every night, lots of events, discussions in the big tent every afternoon led by major talents, and the workshops in the morning.

    I went for three of the four weeks about 13 years ago, and found it extremely enriching. It was a whirlwind. I needed the rest week 2/3 through.

    I highly recommend it. (Unless it has completely changed.)

    And Boulder in the summertime is hard to beat. If you can take more time off and do some hiking in the Rockies . . . If that can’t crack open an over-ripe manuscript, try Cambodia.

  17. OMG…I went to Breadloaf as a non-fiction writer the year I turned 50…green as grass, never workshopped…only one w/o MFA, or so it seemed, very patronized by my workshop leader…tho’ TA…great guy…Michael Perry-(who loved me even more as we sat on the porch & a yellow jacket got in my dress & I immediately pulled it down, revealing a lacey bra…) thought I should be writing about my “sacred hunting”…do not “look like” someone who can hit a bull’s eye @ 100 yards…Anyhow…The first night or so…I was so jet lagged, stood at the very end of the picnic line in a daze- behind a woman & her little girl, dumbed down by being so exhausted, (tho’ some sweet guy had bumped me up to first class for my cross country flight!!!) So this woman turns to me & says, “I’m Betsy Lerner.” Holy Shit, I thought to myself. I did manage to say…You’re the reason I’m here:)):)))) She said…You’ve gotta get some rest….I did meet with her w/regard to the work. She liked the title of my friend/mentor’s book, “The Fourth Day.”
    I did actually go because of Betsy!!! Actually wanted to get an old friend’s work to her…did I say I was greener than grass???

  18. you just made me spit my afternoon coffee on my monitor.

    “There is only one reason to go to a summer writing workshop and that is to get laid.”

    so funny. please put that on a t-shirt, i will buy one for everyone in my writing group!

    thanks for all of your words.

  19. […] Betsy Lerner (in her always-blunt fashion), says: There is only one reason to go to a summer writing workshop and that is to get laid. She also describes those 10-minute agent-meet-writer meetings as drive by […]

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