I suspect few, if any, of the eight dozen “students” who attended the eight-day Eckerd College Writers Conference, went away dissatisfied. That, in and of itself, is remarkable and a testimony to the conference organizers and staff.
While many of the students may have experienced a twinge of dissatisfaction when contemplating the status of their writing careers or the quality of the document they submitted for the workshops, I can’t imagine any left without a glimmer of hope and clear guidelines to improving their craft.
The faculty readings, from Tim O’Brien’s remarkable Things They Carried (1998) to newcomer Attica Locke’s second novel The Cutting Season (2013), were nothing short of inspirational. They reinforced each student’s justification for dedicating themselves to writing.
The craft lectures were helpful though not uniform in value. Sterling Watson gave two lectures––one on sentence structure, the second on revisions––both seemingly drawn from Creative Writing 101, which ninety-eight percent of the audience must have taken at one point or another. On the other hand, Attica Locke’s presentation using Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel as a foil, was refreshing and encouraging. The other sessions were good, but a couple of the faculty writers talked down to the audience––especially during the faculty round-table.
For me, the greatest value came from the workshop––six three-hour sessions during which we dissected twelve student pieces under the guidance of our workshop leader, the award-winning writer of literary mysteries, Lori Roy. As the week went on, both students and leader elevated their games. Each morning we zeroed in on the key issues in each person’s story, then extrapolated to general themes including character want versus need, character traits, and structure––areas most of us need to do more work in.
Though I groaned at silly mistakes in my pre-industrial fantasy piece, including using the word “okay” four times, I was pleasantly surprised by my classmates’ mostly positive comments. They pointed out places in my chapters that needed attention and identified the chasm that existed between my synopsis and my opening chapters. I came away knowing what needs to be done to strengthen the work along with the tools to get that job done.
I also gained from conversations with student writers not in my workshop. I didn’t come across a single person so taken with their own brilliance that they didn’t have time or interest to learn about their fellow peddlers on the stair-master of literary body building.
A final lesson learned: it’s easier to see problems in someone else’s work than in one’s own. Hence, the value of being in a critique group or having critique partners is not just that you get valuable feedback from others, but just as importantly you learn to see things in your own work as well. For that reason and for so many others, I rate attending this writers’ conference a major step forward in my writing career and expect my faithful friends, family, and readers will not have to wait very long to see the results.