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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Won’t You Look Down Upon Me, Jesus

This may be the last post I will ever write. Tomorrow, I am driving to the Adirondacks to participate in a writers’ conference. In the first place, I am a crappy driver. In the second, it’s like a five hour drive and they are expecting torrential rain. On top of that, the  organizer sent directions and explained that the last thirty miles or so are really really dark, that there’s no food after 7pm so I should stop at an earlier exit if I want dinner, and there will be no one there to greet me — an envelope with a key will be waiting for me. I am sincerely hoping I don’t smash my husband’s luxury sedan. I am sincerely hoping that dark the stretch of road doesn’t devour me into a Blair Witch nightmare, my life ending in a series of handprints on a concrete wall.

If this is the end of the line, I just want you readers to know how much I love you. Commenters, thank you for hitting the ball back and improving my game. I never imagined blogging would bring such an extraordinary group of writers into my life. If I do survive this craven bid for self-promotion at the Blair Witch Writers Conference, think about coming to my next craven bid for self-promotion at the SheWrites Fundraiser Launch next week. It’s in Manhattan. We can take the subway together.

Tell me about your experiences at writers’ conferences, especially the bad stuff. xoxox

31 Responses

  1. I’ve never been to a writers’ conference, but I googled the one you’re going to. It’s in my backyard. The Sagamore and the gorgeous scenery are worth the hell you might have to go through to get here.

  2. I’ve never been to one either but I have fear of driving too and go figure I live in Los Angeles. Writing workshop at the end of a treacherous drive up a road off some hellish single lane near the reservoir.

    Almost didn’t go and so very glad I did. Met the man I’ve learned more from than anyone I’ve ever known. No lie.

  3. The Sagamore is gorgeous! I live about 45 minutes south, I had no idea there was a writers’ conference this weekend.

    It’s not that bad, I promise. The grounds are beautiful so it will be worth it :0)

  4. Hilarious. Your blogs is now my favorite thing to read. If I knew how to subscribe to these things I would; instead, I just wait for your tweets (I lurk).

  5. OH GOD. There’s a typo. I HATE when that happens! I meant, YOUR BLOG, no S.

  6. 1. couldn’t sleep
    2. hit on by two young lesbians
    3. hit on by one old man
    4. climbed a mountain
    5. didn’t write one fucking thing
    6. drank increasingly more red wine with each passing day
    7. blown away by the poets who recited each evening and overstimulate me so much that i
    8. couldn’t sleep

  7. I’ve never been to a writer’s conference, but I know of several people who have disappeared on that stretch of road you mentioned. I mean, literally, disappeared. If you do find yourself lost in the woods in total darkness, maybe you could twitter the whole thing until the end. Not to wish you any bad luck but that could be a good read and possibly informative. Or, if all those stories I’ve heard from close friends are all lies, or you’re very lucky, be nice and fake it.

  8. “Tell me about your experiences at writers’ conferences, especially the bad stuff.”

    I’ve only been to one. It was the Southwest Writers’ Workshop Conference (I think that’s what it was called) ten years ago. I won an invite to it in a local short-story writing contest. I’m about as sociable as a blister, but I went anyway. It was free. More than free, it was a prize. Hey–I was a prize-winning writer!

    There were good things about it, but you asked for bad stuff, so here goes: the first evening of the conference was a Friday. That day’s mail had brought me a demand letter from an attorney retained by my ex-wife to leverage some financial adjustments from me. When I got to the conference my mood was sour. If I’d tried to talk to anyone, all that would have come out of my mouth would have been pointless vituperation, so I didn’t. I had a double brandy and otherwise kept my mouth shut. After I got home, late that night, I phoned an old friend of mine and told her my tale of anger and woe. While I was talking to her, a noise came from outside. It sounded like someone bouncing a basketball on a concrete sidewalk. It was late at night for ballgames, so I asked my friend to hold the line while I looked out the window to see what was up. The house I lived in then was right behind a freeway, with an exit ramp coming down practically in my back yard. There was a car parked on the shoulder of the ramp. It had been there when I drove home. Now it had standing next to it a fellow who was hammering on its driver-side window with a big rock. I got back on the line with my friend, told her what was up, and told her I had to go, I had to call the police. I called them, and sometime after the fellow had succeeded in breaking the window and stealing whatever there was in the car to steal, the police showed up. They flashed their red and blue lights and did whatever else they do at that time of night in that situation.

    “But wait!” you say. “What about the conference?” Well, there’s not much more to tell. It lasted several days, most of which I missed due to a previous engagement (my job). I went to a few workshops, met an agent who later had the opportunity to reject one of my novels, and attended the big dinner where one of the people at my table was the editor of a litmag I wanted to be published in but haven’t been yet, another was a woman I’d gone to high school with many years before but who didn’t remember me and writes Christian children’s books, and a third was a woman who got very, very drunk. The great majority of the people at the conference were genre writers and wannabes (I am not a genre writer). It was worth it, but that’s only because it didn’t cost me anything other than the time. It was very educational and I’ve never gone to another writers’ conference.

  9. As if the long, dark roadway into nowhere wasn’t bad enough…arriving with no one there and having to find an envelope with a key…well, I would have never had the nerve to even start the car to make the journey! I am in awe of your guts! You go girl!! 🙂

  10. Oh, Betsy, we have so much in common. I’m about to drive through the hills of West Virginia tomorrow evening to teach (oh, the irony!) a writing workshop to a a group of literary aspirants at a Hare Krishna women’s retreat. The thought of a plane wreck, coupled with the paranoia that I’ll be leaving my husband behind to remarry after I’m gone, isn’t making this a little fraught, don’tcha know.

    I have no idea what I’m going to say to them yet, maybe just make everybody read their work and critique each other, and if they didn’t bring any work, I’ll make ’em do timed exercises, and if they balk at that, I’ll read them my stuff. Nobody is really that interested in writing at these these events, but it pays my way to the retreat so I can hang with old friends I haven’t seen in a year or so.

    I’ve never been to a “regular” writers’ conference. I’ve heard that it’s basically orgies in between workshops. True? I guess it’ll have to wait to find out when I get back from India, if I survive the air travel.

  11. IS making this a little fraught

  12. Betsy, I started thinking about you driving alone up here in the mountains in the dark. It really does get black, you have to be careful that you don’t hit a deer (even in the daytime), there’s no cell phone reception in a lot of places, and some of the back roads have been washed out by the downpour. Since I’m old enough to be your mother, I’ll act like her. Start driving this morning so you get here before the sun goes down. Have fun and enjoy the view .

  13. Sounds like fun, Betsy.

    My story: Breadloaf and the roommate who got up every hour to pee in the closet.

  14. My last writers conference rocked, and I picked up a new understanding of how I ought to have been writing the protagonist of my WIP. It absolutely changed my perspective, and I’m rewriting my novel because of what I learned.

    The previous two conferences…no. The culture of the conference was not to let anyone’s precious little feelings get hurt, so the editors requested EVERYTHING, by hard copy. And then wouldn’t reply afterward because naturally they’d requested two hundred manuscripts and had no time to deal with them. And the writers were crushed with the waiting, the fretting, the disappointment.

    I wrote the coordinator to tell her why I wouldn’t be returning. She said she’d bring it up with the editors. But from what I hear, that conference is still the same.

    Editors and agents should be able to look a writer in the face and say, “This isn’t quite up to speed yet.” That’s why we’re going to conferences: to LEARN. Not to have someone falsely stroke our egos. We want to learn and improve, and we can’t do that if you say (as someone said to a friend of mine) “We want to publish this!” instead of “It’s too long, too convoluted, and all your sentences are the same length.” (that guy never heard from that editor again, despite a few nudgings. That’s just wrong.)

  15. As my mother would say, call when you get there.

  16. At the very first conference I attended as a wee baby editor, taking my first pitch appointments, everything I saw was so beyond the pale that I thought I was being hazed. I was also the only editor present who worked in commercial fiction, which meant I got every genre pitch, whether or not I was qualified to evaluate it.

    When a gentleman writing SF sat down to tell me about his post-apocalyptic novel featuring dolphins who spoke Swedish (apparently the book was filled with jokes playing on the infamous Sweden-Norway rivalry), I expressed concerns about the marketability of the concept. The author brushed aside my critique by explaining that “in book 6 of this 10-book series, we find out it’s all a dream.”

    It was a long 10 minutes for both of us.

  17. I’ve never been to a writers’ conference, but I did join a writers’ group in Manhattan that cost many hundreds of dollars and was run by a well-known magazine editor. It was horrible and I left after four weeks and demanded my money back (which I didn’t get).

    Half the women in the group (of eight) were depressed and were writing about being depressed. Week after week they’d bring in pages, and pages, and pages of free-association about their misery. Then the other half of the women in the group would tell them how brave they were for writing it all down and bringing it to the group to read out loud. I resented that I had to sit there and listen to FIRST DRAFTS.

    If you want a welcoming, non-judgmental reader for your raw pain, I’m not your girl. I don’t think there’s a fine line between a writing group and group therapy: I think it’s va ast, concrete, Great Wall kind of line. I’ll never join another writers’ group again.

    I, too, am heading up to the Adirondaks (well, foothills of) this weekend. It’s too early for leaf peeping, so pack a nice Sancerre.

    • Vivian: What a horror story! The writing group you describe makes me reassess my prejudice that everything literary is better in New York City, and evokes gratitude for the smart, funny bunch of writers of my group here in Bümphuk, Florida (aka Gainesville). I was always awed by them, now even more so. Might you consider just starting your own group?

  18. I haven’t been to any writers’ confs either, and after reading these comments, I’m not eager to change that.

    I did some years back, attend a couple of week-long summer workshops at a writing place I won’t name in a New Engladn location ditto, and while there were pleasures to these classes, I hated having to read and give a fair critique to the manuscripts of my fellow students, some of which were dreadful and not-in-an-interesting-way bizarre. I don’t think critiquing other people’s work helped me in any way, and I know it sure didn’t help them, as their critiques of my submission were equally useless to me.

    It’s probably no coincidence that the creative writing workshop I have taken over and over these last couple of decades is about generating material, and NOT about then picking it apart.

  19. I made the mistake of reading a chapter of my YA novel during the open mic period at a writing workshop. Something was wrong with the microphone — or, at least, with the way I was using the microphone. It went POP POP POP with every paragraph or so that I read. I should have stopped and adjusted it. Or maybe someone else should have stopped me. But no, I just kept going, except for the one time I said, “Umm, can everybody hear me okay?”

    I finally reached the end. There was a pause of approximately ten thousand years before a smattering of applause from the audience. I sat back down with an acquaintance of mine, who looked at me and said, “Hmm, a work in progress, I guess?”

    Then the next guy got up to read. Before he began, he snarked, “I hope everybody can HEAR me okay.” Then he read his work. They were 100-syllable poems about purple nipples. Lots of applause.

    After that, I went to a breakout session that purported to be about unleashing your creativity or somesuch thing. It turned out to be about unleashing your creativity as a marketer. And worse, we didn’t even get tips on marketing — it was more of how the speaker herself had marketed her three niche nonfiction books. Her husband was onstage with her, and he kept catching my eye and winking at me. I managed to make it through the whole session. Then I got up and ran away.

    (I’ve gone to a lot of good workshops and conferences, though. But probably the best thing I do, writing-outside-the-house-wise, is go on a retreat with my critique group every year. This year DID involve braving treacherous mountain roads to reach our cabin, but it was well worth it. Hope you made it to the conference okay, Betsy.)

  20. The worst of the rain is over, the fall colors are beautiful and the temperature is very cool. There has been some flooding, but I don’t know about around Raquette Lake. Pack raingear, sensible shoes (muddy, rough terrain), a sweater or some fleece, drive carefully and watch out for moose. Local drivers will fly by you on blind curves in the fog, but they know the roads, so don’t try to keep up. It’s a beautiful, quiet area of the mountains you’re heading to and I hope you have a great trip! I’ve never gone to a conference/workshop before, but I’m going tomorrow and looking forward to it. Heading out at 6am and hoping I remember to follow my own advice.

  21. I was asked to teach for a week at a certain midwestern conference. However, after I arrived, I found that only two people had signed up for my workshop. At their request, I asked that they be put into other, full-sized workshops. Which left me with nothing to do for a week. I drank, sat in my room, gazed out at the midwestern landscape, wrote a crabbed, bitter little short story, and was totally humiliated.

    Also, I met a write I thought I admired, found out he was a jerk.

  22. Hope you made it safely home from the conference.

    Woodhull puts on a good nonfiction writing retreat–or did. Nothing bad to say about it except that we had to scramble to cue up for coffee from a strange little machine during breaks. It was very obvious we shared at least one writerly addiction. Actually, I even liked that part as it was kind of funny and we got to chat as we waited.

    Went to Breadloaf with me moms a couple of times in the 70s–no writing just squaredancing, listening to stories, swimming and squeaking my chair at readings. Nothing bad to say about that either, really, except that I had a crush on one of John Irving’s sons and was too shy to talk to him. And yeah, in retrospect, even that was kind of nice.

    Can you recommend any conferences or retreats in the Bay Area?

  23. Never been to a writers’ conference…

    Where you’re going sounds kind of like where I live. In the boonies!

    My advice: take a video camera and film it all, including you talking to the camera as you drive.

    If you disappear, likely the camera will be found and not unlike the ‘black box’ in an airplane, at least we’ll know what your last moments were like 😉

    Seriously, have fun!

    Jeni 😉

  24. Couldn’t get me to do it, Betsy– no way, no how. But, uh… good luck?

  25. Not to shine on this damp and dreary parade or anything but.. I’ve been to a few weeklong writers’ workshops out here in paradise and each one of them has been helpful, encouraging, even inspiring, and fun. I’ve had great teachers who knew not just how to write well but how to teach well. We did the workshop / critique thing and we all got and gave blunt feedback. But it was civil, constructive, eye-opening. On slow days, when I’m writing, I will even open my notebook of comments from our teachers and begin by writing to their suggestions. My fellow workshoppers were competent writers, some of them very good, a few got connected to agents while we were there. We were treated with respect and care, and treated to several good craft talks during the afternoon. I made some friends I keep in touch with even now, and it was fun.

    Best of all, they gave me concrete help that has made my writing stronger. I’d go again in a heartbeat if I can afford it. Of course, I’m picky. I think it really matters where you go. Is it juried? Who are the faculty? Are the facilities conducive to working? Who are the other students? And what is their track record, in terms of reviews?

    To pour down even more shiney amidst the rain, I am also lucky enough to be part of a weekly critique group that is extravagantly talented, useful, honest, constructive, and fun. Spoiled. I guess. It too has strengthened my work beyond measure.

    I really hope others of you might find your way to a good writing workshop/retreat. Maybe it’s the length that also strengthens the event. A full week. Not a weekend but a serious classroom setting for five days. Pretty darn cool.

    Meanwhile, dear God, Betsy, you can’t stop blogging. So drive safely and stop for a gourmet meal and make sure your caffeine supply is ample. And not to sound endlessly selfish about it, you are too gifted and a wonderfully unique, fresh voice in this industry! And besides, your family — I am sure — loves you.

    • I agree with Jan. The week long ones (Napa and Squaw for me) without a doubt made me a better writer. Not always easy to hear the critiques, but definitely to the point.

  26. I’ve not been to a writers’ conference, but the one nonfiction workshop I attended was both helpful and fun. Since my old job was to organize conferences, I still have a knee jerk reaction to the idea of going to something with name badges hanging from lanyards and group dinners.

    Anxiously waiting for your return to the blog and us.

  27. A girl staying down from the hall in my dorm had passed out from a combo of prescription drugs and vodka. A decision was made to monitor her breathing (rather than take her to the ER where they’d likely treat it as a suicide attempt) and the lead security from the college hosting the writers’ conference was sitting beside her bed holding a bucket which she’d pretty much filled with puke. Something about him gave me the creeps. I called my friend who was on the faculty and said, there’s something weird about this guy. She said go in and introduce yourself, see what you think. I did and he asked me to watch the girl while he rinsed the bucket. I pulled the covers down enough to see she she had pants on and tried to talk to her but she wasn’t making sense. When the guy came back he slid behind me, pelvis to butt, amping up the creepy factor so I called my friend and said I just don’t know, come see what you think. She did and asked the guy if there a female on duty. He said no but I’ll be leaving in 30 minutes when my shift’s over. She said leave the door open until you go then close it. She came into my room and we talked for close to an hour. When I went to walk her out we stopped to check on the drunk girl, my friend going into the room first. Caught the security guard literally on the downstroke. My friend threw her phone at me and screamed, dial 911, report a rape. We locked the security guard in the bathroom until two other guards arrived and then sat up most of the night with the police. They decided not to prosecute because the girl refused to do a rape kit. She was newly married. She left the following morning and and eventually sued the college and the conference. Still haunts me.

  28. Now that the weekend has come and gone, how did you survive? It wasn’t like a scene from “Deliverance” I hope.
    Actually I was there and thought it all went extremely well, although it was a bit chilly near the lake. The view couldn’t be any more breathtaking.
    Now I know why I’m always alone after lunch is over…I’m missing out on the orgies!
    It was a great presentation, very helpful. Critiquing my novel upset one writer because I used the words ass and horny, but the overall response from the group gave me the extra confidence to continue on my second novel, and build a platform to make myself know. Now you know me. Should a starving sci-fi agent come knocking on your back door, feel free and throw us both a bone.
    good conference.

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