Summering at the NYS Writers Institute: 5 Lessons from & for Skidmore 

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For these two weeks, I have the pleasure and privilege of participating in the NYS Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. If you’re not familiar with this fantastic workshop, you can learn the particulars here. In brief, though, the Writers Institute offers two-week or four-week sessions for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction workshops. Students are grouped into classes of 13-17 writers to meet 3 times a week for 3-hr classes. In between, there are daily readings in the evening, followed by a reception for mixing with other students, faculty, and visiting authors. Non-class days also offer craft talks with visiting authors. Finally, each student has a single individual meeting with their faculty member to discuss questions and receive one-on-one feedback.

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And did I mention the faculty? Esteemed doesn’t even begin to cover it. In aggregate, they have won almost every literary award available. These two weeks feature Amy Hempel, Rick Moody, Henri Cole, Adam Braver, and Paul Harding.

Just a few a days into my stay here, I thought it helpful to jot down some tips for next year’s attendees, along with what I’ve learned so far.

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1) The housing is clean, air conditioned through central air, and relatively new, but spartan. Standard dorm room style. I recommend, if possible, bringing your own towels, sheets, and pillow just to make your stay as cozy as possible. What is provided for you (basic bedding and two towels) are functional, but two weeks is a long time and a little comfort goes a long way while you are working so hard.

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I love my bike!

Along with that, I’ve found having my bicycle with me to be quite advantageous. The campus has well-kept bike paths and although town is close enough to walk to (maybe 20 min), having a bike makes it that much more accessible for a quick trip to check out the shops or grab a nice coffee. If you are driving, parking on campus is free and accessible, and no permit is needed for your bike either.

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Amy Hempel and me after class one day. . .

2) I am in the Advanced Fiction workshop, which Amy Hempel is teaching this week and Paul Harding will lead next week.  I cannot stress enough how generous all of the faculty are. Coming from an academic background, I’m used to talent often being partnered with ego. At Skidmore, where many of the faculty have been returning for over a decade, this is absolutely not the case.  They are genuinely interested in their students and in helping them grow. There is no belittlement and no showing off. Amy Hempel has been the epitome of this to me–in her class, she will introduce you to myriad works by talented writers, but rarely mention her own pieces as reference. Her genuine pleasure in working with developing writers and with her fellow faculty at Skidmore is apparent. So far, having her as a teacher has been revelatory, and I mean that without any sense of hyperbole. To be such an excellent writer and also a transformative teacher might seem unlikely, but Amy achieves this with what can only be described as graceful ease. That, in essence, is Skidmore.

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3) On a more pragmatic note: Bring your copies of the faculty and/or visiting author’s work. Seeing my note above, it’s no surprise that they will generously sign it for you and often include a note as well. Don’t be shy about it. All of the faculty will have a reading at some point during your stay, with a reception to follow where you can get it signed along with other students. Don’t have a copy to bring? Each reading features a table where you can purchase copies, and the proceeds go towards Writers Institute scholarships.

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4) Your tuition for the institute covers your meal plan at the dining hall on campus, but does not include any purchases at the on-campus cafes. The hours for the dining hall are also fairly restricted (e.g., breakfast ends at 9:30), so bringing some snacks or purchasing a few items when you get there might be helpful. There is a kitchen in each apartment, but no dishware or silverware. I ended up buying a few odds and ends for breakfast each morning, along with a Tupperware and spoon to eat my yogurt. The food in the dining hall is varied and offers plenty of options for the health-conscious or vegetarian/vegan. One thing to note: you will be sharing the dining hall with summer camp groups that are mainly rambunctious adolescents. Not to worry, though–there are plenty of seats in the dining commons that are set away from the noise, so you can enjoy a quiet meal if you so choose.

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5) For class, you will receive manuscripts from your classmates to comment on and then discuss at the next class. It’s very beneficial to include a short note at the end of each piece, noting what worked first (please don’t forget to always include something positive), and then highlighting areas for improvement. Some classmates get hung up on providing detailed in-line comments or only examine what they think needs work. Sharing work creates such vulnerability for a writer–offering praise for what you liked is not only kind, but also opens the writer up to accept the critical feedback you are offering. The old adage remains true: Treat their piece the way you’d want yours to be treated.

 

Writing Conferences: Promote & Support at the Same Time

Conferencing doesn’t have to be all about competition. . .

Conferencing, in any profession, can be a daunting task.  Even though you know that you will be surrounded by throngs of like-minded individuals with similar goals and interests, there is also often an undertow of competition.  Yes, we are all writers/artists/scientists.  Yes, we are all striving for publication/sponsors/grants.  And yes, if there is only one slot open, I hope I get it instead of you. The posturing can be draining to any attendee, where we feel like we need to be constantly “on.” From the moment we eat the stale breakfast pastries offered to participants to the moment we agree to another post-modern debate over a nightcap (even though we’d rather just have some peace and quiet in our hotel room), it’s easy to feel like a contestant rather than a paying attendee.

Thankfully, as my mother constantly reminded me during my childhood, there remains the option for “everything in moderation.”  We can attend a conference, promote our own professional goals, and still remain supportive to the writing community at large.  In other words, to quote one of my favorite scientists, Patty Hawley (who, by the way, I met at a professional conference and who embodied this sentiment herself), we can both “get along and get ahead.”  In fact, according to Hawley’s work examining social development, those of us who balance these characteristics often achieve the most.

As an American woman, in particular, I find this sentiment especially relevant. Culturally, there is still an emphasis on femininity being equated with selflessness, which can leave women at a disadvantage (or at least feeling uncomfortable) in competitive arenas like a writing conference.  But, if we approach the situation with the goal to remain both agentic and supportive, we can promote not only our own goals but also a greater respect for the “feminine” traits of cooperation and connection.

If you’re looking for a few other ideas, check out the Huffington Post’s survival guide to the Association for Writer’s & Writing Program’s Conference (AWP).

Looking for a conference coming up very soon?  Check out The Writer’s Digest Annual Conference.

What do you think?  Do writer’s conferences excite you, exhaust you, or achieve both in equal measures?