Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Camp For Writers

Trust me, no one loves the solitude of writing more than I do. I crave small, dark rooms. I relish working alone and in silence. If it were possible to write in a vacuum, I would. But I know, and we all know, that we can't. We need other people, not only to read our writing, but to critique it, massage it, cajol it, and sometimes even like it. So we join writers' groups, or apply to MFA programs, or apply to writers conferences, all in hopes of finding that writerly community where our work, and our personalities, fit in.

So how many of you are considering (or are already planning to attend) a writers conference? I've been attending the same conference for eight years now, and I can't imagine a summer without it. *FULL DISCLOSURE - I work for the
Southampton Writers Conference, so yes, I'm biased.* Having said that, there are a lot of conferences in the country to choose from, so you'll need to figure out what you are looking for in a conference experience before you find the one that is right for you. Are you looking to study with a particular teacher? Are you looking for industry contacts/meet-and-greet opportunities? Are you looking for a friendly, fun atmosphere or a more competitive one? Are you looking at conferences that are sponsored by MFA programs that you would like to apply to next year? It's a good way to learn about a program without making a commitment. It also gives the program a chance to learn about you, which may help them when assessing your MFA application (and a letter of recommendation from a workshop leader never hurts either).

So what interests you about the conference experience? What would deter you? I'm more than happy to give advice based on my own conferencing adventures. Let the comments begin.

*Also, a suggestion from a friend: "Read MFA programs' literary journals and magazines. Again, another window into prospective MFA programs. You can take a stab at reviewing one, too. NewPages has an open call for reviewers. See their
website for guidelines."*


Jennifer said...

I went to Tin House last year and loved it. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a conference. I got a lot out of both my workshop and the craft lectures. Oh, and the food was great, too--vegan blueberry peach coffeecake for breakfast anyone?

I'm headed to Prague to study with Stuart Dybek this summer. I think it's going to be great.

BookGeek said...

Great post and awesome idea. I have only been to a small university writers workshop weekend which was immensely helpful. I may need to look into a longer one.

Patrick said...

Hi Sally Jane,

Sorry if this is a little off topic, but do you have any insight into the Stony Brook MFA Program? I've been accepted for the Fall and have gotten a great vibe so far.

Sally Jane said...

Hi Patrick!

First, congrats on your acceptance! As an alum and a current employee of the program, I welcome you to our family and I can't wait to get to know you and your work.

As for insight, ask me anything and I can fill you in (except on the issue of credits and other technical aspects of fulfilling SB requirements - I attended way back when it was LIU, so I know bupkis about the SB system - best to email Carla). But I can talk for hours about how amazing the faculty is, how they will all devote personal time to you and your work, how you can be very self-directed and focus on what interests you most while at the same time receive exposure to all genres and writing styles, how the conference will quite possibly change your life, how the program and the campus are going through some exciting new changes and opportunities, etc.

So what are you looking to get out of your MFA experience? Will you be taking classes primarily in Southampton or Manhattan? Let me know how I can help!

Sally Jane

Sally Jane said...

Thanks for your comments @Jennifer and @BookGeek! Let me know how it goes.

Sally Jane

Patrick said...

Thanks for offering to help.

I'd like to know more about how the Manhattan Track works. Are students able to study full-time at the Manhattan facility, or do they end up splitting time between the two campuses? Ultimately, I'd like to be more Manhattan-based. My wife and I would be moving from Los Angeles. She's an actor, so being close to the city works better for her. That said, I grew up on Long Island and love Southampton. And the Conference? I'm really excited about that!

I'm also curious about how the average full-time student makes it all work. I know SB is open to both full and part timers, but I'd really like to go all in and fully immerse myself. Do most people work a full-time job on the side?

As for what I'm looking to get out of my MFA experience, there's a lot: time to write, a deeper knowledge of literary traditions, a great community, etc. Most of all, though, I want to make the commitment to my life as a writer. I believe an MFA program is the dedicated leap, both artistically and practically, that I need at this point.

On another note, I'm happy to see you writing for this blog. From what I can tell, Stony Brook is an amazing program that deserves more recognition on forums like this.

Thanks again,

Sally Jane said...

I agree, the Southampton MFA definitely deserves more recognition :)

Are you on Facebook? If so, go to the Manhattan Track MFA page - http://www.facebook.com/pages/Manhattan-Track-MFA - you can post as many questions as you want and Magdalene, the Manhattan Coordinator, can answer them. But as far as I know, yes, you can do Manhattan full-time (though I believe you are then required to attend the summer conference), and yes, pretty much everyone is working full-time too. That's why all the classes are nights and weekends.

And if you want to take a Southampton class, then it's only 2 hours away, so the commute is doable. There are various means of transportation that will get you out there.

Hope that helps! Good luck with the move!

Sally Jane

Brooke said...

Wow. The Southampton Writers Conference looks incredible. Aside from the excellent teachers, what do you like about it? Was there a lot of time to write, or was the week packed with scheduled activities? Do you think it falls into the friendly, fun atmosphere? More, more! Tell me more! :)

Sally Jane said...

Hi Brooke!

Glad you asked. Yes, the entire day is scheduled with workshops, craft lectures, readings, etc. If you are taking the conference for graduate credit, then you are required to attend everything you can. If you are not taking it for credit, then you have more flexibility with what you choose to attend. And the daily shuttle bus to the beach is often a worthy distraction :)

And yes, I would definitely describe it as fun and friendly. The Director, Robert Reeves, refers to everyone as members of the family, and that's how we treat them. Everyone is on the same level, whether they are students, faculty or guests. We are all working writers.

What else? I love the creative spirit, the supportive atmosphere, the wonderful and lifelong friends, the beautiful scenery, and the emphasis on craft.

Feel free to ask more!

Sally Jane

Monique said...

I've spent two of the best months of my life at the Vermont Studio Center, and one of the most challenging weeks of my life at Squaw Valley. I recommend both experiences highly.

Matt said...

My post keeps getting removed automatically after a few seconds. (Good thing I saved it first!) Maybe there is some length limit, so I'm going to try to post this in 2-3 parts.
Part 1: I could always be a better reader of all things creative writing (the journals, writer interviews, and blogs like this), but I have to say that this is one of my favorite blogs on creative writing that I’ve “discovered.” Also, it remains my #1 favorite blog about the creative writing MFA. . . . With that out of the way, I can now put down some comments and questions.

First, the comments:
I have a disastrous record for applying to MFA programs. With three separate years/occasions and several programs yielding nothing but rejection letters, I finally realize that a change is needed. (Yes, I can be a slow learner at times.) Three years have passed since my last failed effort, a completely different graduate degree has been earned, and yet more time has been used for gradual maturity of self and development of craft. I refuse to let it all go to waste.

Matt said...

Part 2:
Furthermore, I have learned something else—not from myself but from my wife. I recently watched her go from despondency as a PhD student at a third-rate institution in an irrelevant program to a position of reclaimed self worth at a first-rate institution in a program ranked in the top ten in the nation for her field. (And, yes, I know that “best” this and that, “top-ranked,” etc. are problematic, but I need to convey the leap that she has made.) Two things contributed to this change and success. One, she studied her a-- off to take the GRE yet again and score her highest marks ever. More importantly, she attended a month-long seminar with a leading figure in her field, and she built a rapport that ultimately yielded acceptance and plenty of funding at her new program of choice. Now I realize that all disciplines are different. After witnessing this process, though, I am seriously considering following suit, especially if I want to even remotely have a chance for acceptance by “the name” programs to which I aspire.
So as I continue this month to search around for info on summer workshops (rather late, as usual), I find it serendipitous (though I do not believe in such things) to find this post, “Camp for Writers,” posted only days ago on my favorite MFA blog. Maybe I will find some answers. . . .

Matt said...

Part 3:
-What are some favorite and/or reputable summer writing programs in the U.S.? (So far, I’ve looked at Southampton, Iowa, UMASS, and NYU, none of which are feasible for me.)
-Every bit as important: what are their approx. costs?
-What are some recommended summer writing programs that last longer than just a week?
-In light of my wife’s experience above—where she attended a summer seminar led by a particular leading scholar but at a seminar NOT really connected with that scholar’s own “home” institution and program—I ask the following. . . . Does anyone know if any poetry MFA faculty from any of the following specific schools regularly or irregularly hold(s) a summer program/workshop—regardless direct/official affiliation between that summer program and that faculty’s home school or program: Univ. Iowa; UT, Austin; Univ. MI, Ann Arbor; Univ. WI, Madison; Univ. VA, Charlottesville; Cornell; or Brown?
(Regardless, I realize that I likely need to inquire to each dept. anyway. I thought I’d still ask here, however.)
-How many others have found their “in” to a MFA program via a summer writing workshop/program they attended?
-What other suggestions would you offer about summer writing workshops/programs?
Thank you!

Jennifer said...

Matt: I would say look into Sewanee, Tin House, Bread Loaf, and Kenyon. You want to apply right away. And, unfortunately, I'm pretty sure the deadline has passed for Bread Loaf.

Brooke said...

Why was Squaw Valley so challenging?

Sally Jane said...

Hi Matt,

Well, I can't speak to other MFA programs and their faculty, but I can say that there have been several Southampton Conference participants that went on to become MFA students, so I know it is an "in" that has worked here.

As for faculty that teach workshops at conferences outside his/her home institution, attending that person's class could certainly work to your advantage, but probably only if you can get him/her to write you a letter of rec. If that particular faculty member is not on the admissions committee of his/her home institution, then he/she will probably never see your application or know to put in a good word on your behalf.

And on a separate note, in order to increase your chances of acceptance, try looking at some of the smaller programs out there. The schools you mentioned are the ones that EVERYONE applies to, and there are plenty of fantastic programs with much higher acceptance rates.

And don't forget that most conferences have scholarship opportunities, so don't be scared away by the initial cost. Find out what it would cost if you won a scholarship, and then decide. Worst case scenario, you can always decline to attend if they don't bring the price down low enough (keep in mind you'll probably have to pay something, just not full price).

Hope this helps,
Sally Jane

Matt said...

Jennifer & Sally Jane, thank you for the feedback. In addition to your suggestions, I've also come across the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, which seems to have some workshop leaders w/ just outstanding creds. Of course it's still pricey--and only 6 days. But has anyone else had experience w/ that festival's workshops?

Though it looks very promising, I just can't find many mentions about it online.

And, Sally Jane, I do appreciate the advice on casting a wider net. But I'm in a place right now where I really want the best or nothing. I've two other degrees (both from smaller programs & lesser "name" institutions), and I know first hand where that gets you in terms of the connections, acceptance into other programs, and teaching jobs--not very far. . . . I understand that things are exponentially more competitive where creative writing is concerned: thus I'm determined to keep trying to get in to the best, b/c frankly I'm tired of doing all of the work and seeing little payoff b/c of where I earned my degree. . . .

Matt said...

I don't know if folks are still reading/contributing to this post's comment thread. . . . In addition to some of the above questions, I have a new pt. I'm very curious about: does anyone have any experience/comments to offer about the prestigious Univ. of Iowa's workshop(s) they offer in the summer term(s)? Specifically, 1) I believe that the program's stock response is that attending the summer workshop (far less selective/competitive than admittance to the full program) offers no advantage to MFA applicants. . . . I wonder who has attended the summer term workshop and then been accepted to the full MFA program? Also, I notice that many writers w/ degrees from elsewhere who attend the summer workshop of course include that on their CV. . . . What weight does that carry (if any) when hunting for the college teaching jobs? Thank you! (And I'll just post on the "mailbag" if I don't see any responses.)

John said...

I think camps are really great for teaching writing skills.

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Unknown said...

I attended the Clarion West Writers' Workshop in Seattle and it was the greatest learning experience ever. I highly recommend a workshop environment for up-and-coming writers. http://tinyurl.com/a8tkfya

Unknown said...

I attended the Clarion West Writers' Workshop in Seattle and it was the greatest learning experience ever. I highly recommend a workshop environment for up-and-coming writers. http://tinyurl.com/a8tkfya