June 14, I attended the Saturday only portion of the 58th annual Wesleyan Writers Conference (WWC) held at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. It was my first time at this conference and, with one exception, I’m only commenting on the Saturday only portion of the event.
Lack of Evaluation Process Suggests Complacency or even Arrogance
It appears the people who run the conference feel there is no need for a conference evaluation process. When I asked the people staffing the registration table if they had an evaluation form, they looked at me like I was asking for a refund.
This seems incredible. If you are doing things right, wouldn’t you want to be able to use attendee comments to advertise for next year’s event and if there are problems, wouldn’t you like to know about them so you can fix them?
From discussions with previous attendees it appears as if the conference is in decline in terms of the numbers of participants and the quality of the faculty. That’s all the more reason the conference organizers need to create an evaluation process.
It’s possible the conference’s long history and reputation may have lulled the organizers into thinking they don’t need to hear from attendees. If so, they are making a huge mistake.
Saturday Only Program
The WWC is now a four-day conference––starting on Thursday and running through mid-afternoon on Sunday. There is also a Saturday only option, which is what I chose.
The Saturday only attendees joined the four-day group for one day. This was fine except for one huge problem. The four-day attendees received readings in the poetry, novel, and short-story classes for Saturday’s session that the one-day attendees did not receive.
As a result, Saturday attendees sat through classes much of which might have been held in a yet to be discovered variation of the English language, because while we recognized the words, they made little sense not knowing the context.
This could have been easily remedied. The instructors could have been asked to determine the readings in time for the Saturday attendees to be notified or even sent copies of the readings.
That would have not been possible for the novel class where half of the session was devoted to one student’s chapter, but the instructors should have been told to structure their Saturday class in way that would not exclude one-day only attendees.
Adding insult to injury, the faculty of one of the Saturday sessions decided he would discuss a memoir he has been working on about his life as a surfer instead of talking about the subject listed in the program, which was writing about social and political issues.
I’m not sure how much to blame the conference organizers for New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan’s arrogant, insulting presentation. Finnegan did warn us at the beginning of the session that his presentation would not be on the program topic and might be muddled.
I suppose we could have walked at that point. I wish I had done so as the session was a total waste of time. I learned nothing about writing a memoir, as unlike most memoirs Finnegan’s seems to lack any purpose other than to allow him to publish an ode to himself.
I’ve nothing against surfing. Readable memoirs have been written on all kinds of obscure topics, but lacking any organizing principle or rationale for writing this book other than his agent and editor seem to have nothing better in their slush piles, this is one that not even the most ardent surfer is likely to find irresistible.
The Good That Outweighed the Bad
As a golfer, one good hole can make up for a below average day on the links. In the case of this year’s Wesleyan Writers Conference, one good experience made the day worthwhile for me. Others might not have been as fortunate.
As a side feature of the conference, attendees are invited to submit a portion of a work in progress for a faculty member to read, comment on, and discuss in person. I submitted the first thirty pages of House Divided, a political thriller I started earlier this year. The pages were assigned to award-winning novelist Salvatore Scibona who was also the novel instructor for the week.
Scibona’s feedback made my attending the conference worthwhile. He treated me like the serious writer I want to taken for, an attitude which I saw in his class as well, and we had a great discussion during which I got excellent feedback.
The fact that I gained a great deal from attending this year’s Saturday WCC was not, however, a credit to the conference organizers other than their having invited Scibona as the novel instructor. A certain lack of oversight, evident in the way William Finnegan approached his class, suggests their choice of Scibona was as much a matter of luck as of good planning.
1. Either drop the Saturday only portion of the conference or find a way to include the attendees as something more than eyewitnesses for their $225 fee.
2. Provide copies of discussion material in advance to the extent possible.
3. Make it clear to presenters that that they are expected to stick to the topic they were invited to speak on.
4. Create an evaluation process inviting attendees to comment on all phases of the conference, including communications from the conference organizers.
Without these changes I will not be attending the WWC in 2015 nor would I recommend it to others.