Recap of Conversations and Connections Conference

This weekend, I spent my time in Washington, DC for the Conversations and Connections Conference, held at John Hopkins University and sponsored by Barrelhouse Magazine and The Potomac Review.

The conference has several benefits. For one, the price of registration is only $70, and you get a lot of free stuff, including a book and  subscription to a literary journal, among other items. Beyond the cool free stuff, Conversations and Connections is less daunting than some of the larger conferences, such as AWP, especially since it’s only one day long. Furthermore, the event organizers do a fine job ensuring fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction are well represented on the panels. The conference does a good job too of balancing craft talk with practical advice on writing, such as how to write an engaging cover letter for a journal or whether or not to enroll in an M.F.A. program.

I was part of a poetry publishing panel late in the day, and the audience was attentive and had a lot of questions. Because Conversations and Connections isn’t so massive, there’s a chance to chat more with the panelists throughout the day and during the after parties. It’s a great way to meet other writers and editors, and that alone is worth the price of admission.



Our panel on working with small poetry presses.


My book All That Remains at the conference.


My friend/fellow poet Dawn Leas on a panel about M.F.A. programs. The panel was moderated by another friend, Shelia Squillante, an associate editor for PANK and associate director of Chatham University’s low-res M.F.A. program.

Joyce Carol Oates Gives Writing Advice in 140 Characters

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012 - Portraits
Acclaimed writer Joyce Carol Oates recently took to twitter to dispense some sound writing office. All of her tweets can be read here. My favorite tweet is “The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.” This advice should be included in the syllabus of every undergraduate creative writing class and MFA class. I also like her advice to “Be your own editor/ critic. Sympathetic but merciless” and to “Read, observe, listen intensely!–as if your life depended upon it.” The last piece of advice is especially important as a way to cure writer’s block. I find myself most inspired and ready to write after reading and observing, which require space, time, silence, and patience. To add to Oates’ tweet and to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, poetry is words on the page surrounded by silence. So, if you’re been in a writing funk lately, dig into a book, or go somewhere and observe a scene. It will help, I promise.

Some Tips for New Writers

This afternoon, while enjoying one of the last days of summer vacation with my niece at Kirby Park, I met another resident who told me he’s interested in writing, and he asked what advice I’d give a new writer. My conversation with him made me want to come home and write down the basic feedback I would give to anyone just starting out.

1. Write daily. This is the first piece of advice I give to anyone. Even if you have a full-time job and family, make time for writing daily, even if it’s for 10 minutes. Serious writing should become a habit, much like exercise. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. The muse isn’t going to show up if you don’t put the time and effort in. My writing schedule is pretty standard. I do it in the morning for at least an hour, usually more. I start by journaling and freewriting, and then I move to drafting or revising a new poem. Once I’m done teaching for the day, I often return to my writing in the evening and do revisions then. This schedule won’t work for everyone, so find a time that works best for you, no matter the time of day or night.

2. Find a writing community. Most of your friends or family that aren’t writers won’t care about the great novel you just read or the book of poems you’re revising, so it’s important to find a community of writers to connect with so you can get support and feedback. Writers need other writers because otherwise, the world feels like a lonely place. You can find information about writing workshops in your local art papers. If you live in a rural area where there aren’t any workshops, find some online. While completing her senior year creative capstone project last year, a student told me that she was part of an online writing community that gave her frequent helpful feedback on her novel-in-progress, and that feedback showed in her work.

3. Read as much as possible. This can’t be stressed enough.  No matter your genre, you should be reading as much as you can. If you’re a poet and serious about the craft, it’s crucial to understand the traditions, movements, and key players that came before so you have a better understanding of what’s happening now and what’s already been done. A poet’s work should possess a “historical sense,” in the words of T.S. Eliot, meaning not only some resemblance to traditional works, but also an awareness and understanding of their relation to one’s own writing and contemporary literature. This belief can be applied to any genre of creative writing.

4. Don’t stress over publishing credits. Before you worry about seeing your name in print, focus on finding a writing community, reading, and making your writing as strong as possible. If you put the work in, the publishing credits should come.

Finally, if you have some extra money or belong to a local library, check out some craft books on writing. I always find them useful. My favorite ones for poetry are Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns, The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo,  The Poet’s Companion and Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizzio, and A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver. There are plenty of others too in all different genres. Just noodle around Google.