Dreams of a New Kind of Writer’s Conference

Last week I said I didn’t get why writers decided on the academic conference model for their annual get-togethers. I mean, I get it: we’re writers in the academy. To be allowed into the Ivory Tower and be subsidized by it, we had to play by some rules. Is that it, really? I don’t buy that we need to be scholarly in our conferences?even though our travel costs are, on the whole, covered by universities. Or: I don’t buy that we need to be scholarly the way scholars are scholarly.

To that end, here’s a few ideas on how to make a writers’ conference not only more enjoyable, but a better place for the transmission of new ideas:

  • Ban the reading of written papers. I acknowledge I’ve got a low threshold for boredom, but I can’t be the only one perpetually bored by these. The thing with the paper is that despite its endgame (i.e., being read aloud to a group of quiet strangers) the aim of the paper (delivering new ideas about writing) doesn’t offer room for most people to make it listenable-to and engaging. It’s a written thing, and as writers we work to make it our own?when what it should be is everybody else’s. Ban the reading of written papers.
  • Ban the reading of PowerPoint slides. Just because you have visuals doesn’t negate the above.
  • Require any PowerPoint-style lectures to follow a PechaKucha format. Limit of 20 slides, each shown for just 20 seconds. That’s 6 mins 40 seconds for you to get new ideas across. It’s Twitter for conference presentations. Or, I don’t know, pick some other format?but provide restrictions, as Oulipan as they need to be, that writers will rise to the challenge of.
  • Early deadlines for panel materials. Often the panelists on a panel don’t all know each other (when they do, get up and leave the room). This can be made a productive thing. Get half of them to turn in to the conference their materials (notes, slides, etc.) one month prior to their timeslot. Then send these materials to the other half of the panelists, who in putting together their talks should in some way acknowledge and respond to the first half’s. In short: force a conversation to happen across the panel. (Bonus outcome: no first-draft papers that were written on the plane ride over.)
  • Strategize a few They-Said/They-Said panels. I say “strategize” because these can’t just go to anyone, but similar to the above, I’d much rather watch Writer A and Writer B size each other up at the dais on where they each stand on, say, place in nonfiction?with more of a two-way interview format going on than, of course, a debate?than I would Writer A talk, then Writer B, then Writer C, and then Writer D. A and B don’t need to disagree on anything, but each should have strong, new ideas and be curious about the other’s. Here’s a model in print of what I’m talking about, with Jennifer Egan and George Saunders talking about the future in fiction.
  • On- and offsite readings need to showcase unpublished work in progress. We can all get access to polished work through the books/journals they’re in, but what’s hard to get access to is an artist in the midst of a project?except, of course, when we convene each year. So let’s take advantage of that moment by getting exposure to, and then maybe talking about, the anxiety of being only partially done with something.
  • Accept only panels that have a diverse body of writers. I was talking about this with a friend at NonfictioNow. They blamed the whitewashed nature of the conference for its paucity of new ideas. And I thought: Wait, it’s not like the only new ideas are about race or gender. And then I realized: This wasn’t their point. It’s not that the only new ideas in writing, or the academy, anymore have to do with identity. It’s that a diverse environment stewards the airing and dissemination of new ideas. We conference in order to share new ideas. Put a bunch of different people in a room and you’ll end up with a dozen new ideas before lunch. Try it with people who share most things in common, and odds are those commonalities will get celebrated or reminisced about. Those are old ideas. They’re maybe even tired ideas. A writers’ conference shouldn’t be a family reunion, as much as we all annually miss each other.
    • POST AWP16 UPDATE: Four white women is not a diverse body of writers.

I need to run to an appointment here, but that’s just a few off the top of my head. There are imaginative ways of doing anything. AWP is like the missionary position of conferences. Let’s all try to be sexier.

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