I’m a Writing Conference/Workshop Junkie

by Tisha Reichle

I don’t know if it’s being surrounded by the energy of other writers or pretending for a week, a few days, an afternoon, that I’m a student again, but I sit dutifully in the hotel ballroom chair or at a classroom table or around the cozy fireplace with a view of nearby nature, and listen carefully, take notes, ask thoughtful questions, and offer my insight when appropriate. In 2015-2016, I attended more than ten different conferences and workshops, traveled to seven cities, and spent a lot of my teacher salary. Various notebooks strewn about my apartment and a pile of receipts can attest to this. The experience thrills me every time and after each one, I’m eager for the next.

There are many writing conferences and workshops to choose from in the US and abroad. Which one is “the best” depends on your needs as a writer, your budget, and your desire for distance (or not). I usually looked for conferences/workshops in summer when I wasn’t teaching, in places I love (like New Mexico), where a writer I admire is an instructor, or a topic I’m passionate about is the focus. This strategy led me to my first workshop, Flight of the Mind, in 1995 in Eugene, Oregon with Helena Maria Viramontes. Continue reading

Goodwill and Gratitude: Twelve Years with Poets & Writers

by Jamie Asaye FitzGerald

For the last twelve years, I’ve worked for Poets & Writers, Inc. Founded by Galen Williams in New York City in 1970, and guided for over thirty years by the steady hand of executive director Elliot Figman, P&W is the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers. Its mission is to foster the professional development of poets and writers, to promote communication throughout the literary community, and to help create an environment in which literature can be appreciated by the widest possible public.

I was hired as a program assistant in 2005, and have directed the California branch office of P&W and its Readings & Workshops (West) grant program for the past three years with the help of program coordinator and fellow poet Brandi M. Spaethe. I didn’t understand at the beginning how foundational the organization’s mission and key values of service, inclusivity, integrity, and excellence were, but over the years these tenets have seeped into my bones and informed my work and my life. I consider my time at P&W as post-post-graduate work—my unofficial PhD in literary community.

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Submitting on a Budget: Network

by Lisbeth Coiman

Where writing has become a self-employment enterprise, tracking expenses is vital for the emergent writer struggling to build her brand. Conferences, books, subscriptions, writing courses, memberships, tracking sites, and submission fees all add up quickly to a limited writing budget.

Arguably, artists can create great work without ever attending conferences, reading peers’ books, or participating in workshops, but writing great pieces is only one step in the process of getting published. Unless the emergent writer enjoys the benefit of a well-connected literary circle, a consistent flow of submissions to literary journals, contests, and online magazines is the only road to publication. Gaining access to information about submission calls takes up most of the money set aside to submit work. For that reason, submitting to publications on a regular basis on a shoestring requires a well thought submission plan.

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Embrace Your Ignorance and Just Get Started (again)

by Rachel Sona Reed

The best part about having to repeat Algebra in high school was the amount of class time it gave me to write fiction. I had been doing this since 4th grade, using interstitial moments gained by finishing work early to scribble the stories, scenes, and sentences bubbling up into my consciousness before they spilled out of my brain and evaporated.

Like the tragedy that follows any bout of hubris, these epiphany-fueled, frantic (epi-frantic?) creative outbursts struck less and less, until writing became “something I used to do.” By college, my fiction, much like reading for pleasure, seemed to have officially left my life. My irrepressible urge to write hibernated so I could allocate energy to more intense academic work. Xanga, LiveJournal, and the many blogging platforms that have come since also played a role in redirecting my creativity away from its first love: fiction.

In truth, the structure of my life had changed, and I hadn’t realized that meant my writing practice needed to change with it. There were no more free moments in class to indulge my imagination. I’d have to find the time elsewhere.

Time presented itself in the purgatory between graduate school and a viable career path. I started a novella, and a personal research project. The creative parts of my brain began to stir, but were soon diverted toward volunteer, and later full-time work for nonprofits. This was certainly fulfilling in its own way. I was valued for my ability to turn a phrase and get our press releases reprinted in local papers. But I missed being overcome with an idea; I missed my inner 4th grader.

About a year ago, I decided missing my former hobby compulsion wasn’t enough. I would have to start thinking of it as a serious pursuit and give it the time it needed. Especially since I aspired to publication. The only problem was how to begin. There was so much to know, and by this time I was 30.

I want to pause here and reiterate some advice I’ve heard from many other writers; advice that’s applicable to life in general: have your own definition of success, and pursue your own goals. Otherwise, we waste far too much time comparing ourselves to incomparable colleagues. We are the only versions of ourselves, so we may as well embrace this reality and aspire to our unique manifestations of awesomeness!

At this point, my writing goals were amorphous, and my definition of success was broad: I wanted to publish my writing, whatever type of writing it ended up being. Because WWS excels at supporting women who target literary publication, I’ll focus on resources that have aided that aspect of my journey from uber-newb to the ever-abundant “emerging writer.”

Writing Groups

Starting out with, I knew I would have to pick something among the overwhelming variety of paths and resources–many of which I couldn’t even see–or remain a paralyzed non-writer. So I decided joining a local writing group would be my first move. Ideally, this would provide an external pressure to keep me accountable to my own goal of producing creative writing.

Meetup.com was a helpful resource to learn which groups were nearby, and after participating in a few of them and meeting people, I settled into the one that felt best. Everyone is working on different types of projects, but we share the common goal of supporting one another by providing thoughtful feedback. One thing I learned through the process is we don’t always find the right group at first, and what constitutes the “right group” might change over time.

Conferences

A month or so after dipping my proverbial quill into the world of feedback groups, I learned about BinderCon. On a whim, I decided to volunteer and thereby attended my first writing conference. It was a revelation. The rooms were filled with intelligent, successful, confident writers, none of whom were men. Panels and workshops discussed revolutionizing literary representation, finding and asserting one’s expertise, and so much more. It was inspiring to meet and learn from women who were making a career of writing. Publication was possible!

I’ve found conferences to be a good way to open myself to new ideas, meet interesting people, and learn practical tips about the industry I’m just beginning to navigate. If a conference provides volunteer opportunities, this is often a way to secure a free or discount ticket without having to be on a panel. You might miss a session or two during your volunteer shift, but attending is still valuable.

Women Who Submit

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many ways that Women Who Submit and its members have paved the way for my little creative renaissance. As it happens, I learned about WWS at a happy hour meetup held a few months after BinderCon. I had carpooled with a woman named Jenny, who organizes the San Gabriel Valley Women Writers group and is far more outgoing than I am. She started chatting with WWS organizers, Tisha Reichle and Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, who soon shared the work they were doing with WWS. Jenny asked them to speak at an upcoming meeting, and that’s where I first felt the swell of I could do this, too course through my consciousness. Thanks to their presentation, the mystery of it all wasn’t quite as inscrutable.

A few months later, I attended an actual WWS submission party and was treated to the official orientation. Tisha and Xochitl provided concrete submission tips, insider information about the world of literary journals, and a cover letter template I could actually follow. They made the submission process both comprehensible and accessible. Tammy Delatorre’s presentation at February’s meeting resulted in my very own manageable contest submission plan. All the members of WWS I’ve met have instilled confidence by being themselves and putting their writing into the world. Everyone has their own goals and methods, but once a month they come together and form an unstoppable force of collective awesomeness.

Online Resources

Websites like The Review Review, Poets & Writers, The Write Life, and Write On Sisters, to name a tiny fraction of what’s available, offer strategies and tips about the writing process, the business side of things, and available markets for our writing. I keep a folder of bookmarks just for writing-related websites that I can check in with as needed.

An alternative to websites are podcasts, which provide similar information in a different format. Plus interviews with interesting people! I’m partial to Ditch Diggers, Longform, and The Other Stories (again, to name but a few of the myriad options available).

Creative Revolution webinars, hosted by Leigh Shulman and Jeannie Mark, helped me discover my writing goals and formulate a business plan. It’s one of those “living documents” that you can use as a guide and modify as your life and goals change.
Applying all the tips and philosophies gained through online resources is always the tricky part, but knowing where to find some of them has been invaluable.

Classes

Like thousands of people around the world (this sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you it is not) I signed up for the University of Iowa MOOC last October. It offered message boards to connect with other students, peer feedback on writing assignments, and video lectures from published authors. An ostensibly great opportunity! Unfortunately, I stopped checking in half-way through and stopped completing assignments even earlier, learning the valuable lesson that online courses are not my optimal educational environment.

Much more effective has been a UCLA Extension course on Creative Non-Fiction. It meets in a physical classroom with a real, live instructor. (The future is the past, people.) What’s more, the class has opened my to the possibility of writing in that vast genre, and has resulted in several essays I’m shopping around. In sum, being a writer means I get to be one of my favorite things at the same time: a student.
Embracing Ignorance as an Opportunity to Learn

Some of my biggest hang-ups have to do with the often insurmountable mountain of my own ignorance. How does the publishing industry work? What genre should I focus on? Should I be networking more? The best way to overcome this, I’ve found, is to embrace my ignorance—of course you don’t know anything yet; you’re new to this!—and just do something. Anything. Doesn’t matter. And above all, write.

My definition of success evolves as I learn more about the many genres, publications, and industry machinations. But having a group of peers who offer mutual support, alternative perspectives, and connections to resources has remained a necessary constant. That’s what’s so wonderful about Women Who Submit.

I still don’t know what I’m doing much of the time, but I’m getting better at celebrating my small triumphs as I learn bits and pieces of what it takes to be a working writer who aspires to publication. When I can, I remind myself that I’m in a learning stage, and will likely remain here for the rest of my career. There’s always something different to delve into, after all. So I try to enjoy the process as much as possible. I seek out new resources, push past my shyness to meet other writers, and every so often work up the courage to submit.

Taped above my desk is a motivational phrase I came up with to remind myself how easy it can be to get started: Conditions don’t have to be right to just write. Some days I even take my own advice. And on days I can’t see it through the self-doubt, I try not to beat myself up about it. Small steps. Incremental progress. My destination may be unknown at times, but I’ll get there, wherever it is, and so will you.


Final Note: I’m pleased to report that I composed the first few paragraphs of this post in my head while I was driving the Arroyo Seco Parkway back from my UCLA extension class. My inner 4th grader is alive and well.


d9f1c19a-a9de-4f11-89a2-0f7a7d5e920bRachel Sona Reed left her job last fall to pursue freelance writing full-time. She is still discovering what genre(s) she should focus on, but as of this posting she writes grants for local non-profits, fiction, mediocre poetry, and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared in Angels Flight • literary west, Hello Giggles, and Rose City Sisters, among others you probably haven’t heard of. You can read her more fanciful fiction at tinyletter.com/lostisfound. She has been blogging at contemporarycontempt.com since 2011, and no you may not read her livejournal.

Twitter: @seriousrachel

Awareness into Action

by Ramona Pilar

For many artists, creation takes the form of protest. They are tasked, chosen, or ignited somehow to use their mode of expression to make sense of incongruity/injustice and provide individual solutions to inherent systemic challenges, obstacles that became embedded into the status quo long before any of us were alive.

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Jesse Bliss, educator, writer, and activist, created the chapbook I Love Myself Golden to, in her words, “cultivate self-love and respect in the young women she encounters in the [juvenile] halls.” Bliss has been leading creative writing workshops within the juvenile hall system in Los Angeles for upwards of 10 years. Through her experiences she became impassioned and has since dedicated her work as an artist  to advocate against the Prison Industrial Complex. She was compelled to create this book to address young, incarcerated women who are, in this society, of the most invisible and vulnerable populations.

The book itself was created as the result of a workshop series she developed through InsideOUT Writers and was supported with a grant from Poets & Writers. It is intended as “a love letter, speaking piercingly to all young women in and outside of physical bars.”

Through the years of working with this community and hearing the girls ask questions such as how to give birth, Bliss was moved to create something to give to them,  but she didn’t know exactly what. “What to Expect When You’re Expecting… [would be] totally insulting to them. That’s for upper and middle class people.” Bliss drew on her experience creating chapbooks through her creative writing class at Inner City Arts to craft I Love Myself Golden for this one, specific demographic. “Because it’s been in my heart for so many years, I already [knew] what it should look like… I feel like a lot of us don’t do these types of things because there’s no time, there’s no money. So my first thought was, ‘How can I make this succinct, and how can I make it to size for them, and who can I find that can illustrate it that will really appeal to these girls?’”

Enter Alfie Ebojo, aka Alfie Numeric, a brilliant artist and writer based in the Los Angeles area. Her artwork has a surreal whimsical aesthetic overlying a weighted gravitas in the subject and composition, reminiscent of Mark Ryden and Margaret Keane. “There’s beauty and pain coupled together [in her work]… There’s young women of color… expressing their pain in a way that also shows strength and beauty…”

IMG_4406 “’For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.’ A head nod to Rudyard.” – 2011 Acrylics on wood

While the initial aim of the chapbook was inspired by the young women who had questions around motherhood (some of whom were soon to be new mothers themselves), the scope expanded. “I realized it couldn’t just be for those girls; it had to be for all the girls because they were all susceptible to the same circumstance, of pregnancy…it was all connected. It was not separate. The same things needed to be said to the girls who were not pregnant…I feel like all young women in our society are targeted to think and believe that we’re not worth anything because it’s a big money maker: ‘You’re not pretty enough. Your size isn’t right…’ By empowering girls, they’re taught that there’s other options.”

The Roots and Wings Project, founded by Bliss, is a “politically charged, socially transformative theatre company that brings attention to truth and provides stage and space for stories of the unnamed, unspoken and misunderstood through theatrical innovation and multi-media collaboration.” Having written and produced theater for most of her career, this chapbook marks an expansion to other forms of writing. “Theater is my #1 vantage point as an artist, but I’ve always written poetry…Since the time my daughter’s been born, I’ve been noticing that I really should let my work live on the page…and [let other forms of writing] open up a new world for me.”

Bliss, along with partner Peter Woods and publisher Mark Gonzalez have organized an event inspired by the chapbook, which is not so much a chapbook release as it is a platform for “elevation, transformation, conversation,” with the book itself as a catalyst. The event will be held at Espacio 1839, a collectively-run boutique, art gallery and radio station located down the street from Central Juvenile Hall, where some of the workshops took place.

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Activism and self-determination can have a wide breadth of incarnations; some manifestations emerge in the form of dedicated, tenacious protest. Some inspire individuals to take on the vocation of creation, conjuring, crafting and bringing into existence the very needed thing that hadn’t yet materialized, that was waiting for that one particular voice and vessel to bring into this realm. Hechiceras and hechiceros del arte, mediums who produce the work that affects, inspires, ignites and heals.


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Ramona Pilar is a writer, performer, emotional fluffer and native Californian. She is currently working on a collection of essays entitled “Darth Vader Abandoned his Daughter and Other Thoughts Along The Heroine’s Journey.” She can occasionally be found troubadouring with her band The Raveens.

 

 

Jesse Bliss is a playwright, director, producer, actress, poet and veteran arts educator with her work produced around the world at venues such as the United Nations, Edinburgh Festival, Lincoln Heights Jail, S.P.A.R.C at the Old Jail in Venice, The Last Bookstore, The Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, Casa 0101 Theater, Theatre of Note, Occidental College, UCSC, UCLA, and California Institute of Integral Studies to name a few. She has taught and created curriculum for Center Theatre Group, The Geffen, Inner-City Arts, Unusual Suspects, J.U.I.C.E. and Inside OUT Writers among others. She is a featured artist in Kate Crash’s LA WOMEN and in Yahoo News’ SHINE Documentaries. Ms. Bliss is a grant recipient from the Flourish Foundation and recently from POETS and WRITERS for writing workshops for incarcerated girls inspiring her chapbook I LOVE MYSELF GOLDEN. Jesse is Co-Producer of KPFK 90.7’s THINK OUTSIDE THE CAGE. She is Founder and Artistic Director of The Roots and Wings Project. http://www.therootsandwingsproject.com.