Conferences, Residencies, and Retreats

I don’t believe I have ever attended a writers’ conference that I didn’t walk away with beneficial information and inspiration.  This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Mid-Tennessee Writers’ Conference sponsored by WRITE-MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University).  I came away inspired and with some new insights on the writing life.

If you have a passion to do something, I’ve always believed you should invest where your heart is—writing is my passion, and I’ve spent a heaping plenty attending conferences and workshops across the eastern part of the U.S. (as far north as Columbus, Ohio, as far east as New York City, as far west as Texas, as far south as New Orleans, and Fairhope, Alabama.  Those are just the boundaries—I’ve attended conferences in many places between those boundaries. Some of these include Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Kenyon College, Indiana University, SCBWI in Atlanta, Rope Walk, Monroeville Conference, and numerous others.

I have met many would-be writers who have never attended a conference or workshop or reading or showing of the art form they so much love.  They write within a tiny bubble—their home office or at the island in the kitchen. If you are an artist—painter, musician, writer—you don’t have to travel too far to find something of interest to you—perhaps that is a reading by a writer, a showing of art at a museum, library, or book store or perhaps the local college is sponsoring a workshop for musicians.  Somewhere, there is something that will enrich your life and feed your passion.

This weekend at MTSU, I had the opportunity to learn about techniques to break out of writer’s block; I learned about the writing habits of some of the world’s greatest writers; about the ability to hold on when publication is long-delayed and seems impossible.  I also had the opportunity to be in the company of other writers who inspired me, and—not least—I made some new friends, and reconnected with old friends.

In short, we should all invest in those things that make us richer.  Invest in those things of the heart.  Invest in those things that sustain our passion for life.  That means an investment of time, energy, effort . . . and dollars.  At least, that’s my take on things.


As a writer, one thing of late that I have considered is my motivation to continue writing.  Not my motivation for publishing, but my motivation for writing.  I think all of us have fairly similar motivations to publish, and those reasons are straightforward and can be summarized in three observations:

  • Publishing affirms our efforts. It says our work is good enough to share with others.  Publication is a pat on the back that says well done. Your writing has merit—others want to read your work.
  • The second reason we all want to publish is because we want to be paid for our work. To earn a paycheck from writing is the dream and end-goal of every writer.
  • The third reason is to bolster the resume. Publications—especially publications of real merit—look good on the resume, and that opens the door to new opportunities.

So, our motivations to publish are indeed straightforward.

The more difficult question to answer is:  What motivates us to write?  I submit that when we can answer that question with personal clarity, we will know what we want to write, have a clearer vision about the process, as well as understanding more fully why we invest in the endeavor.  Some avenues to explore are:

  • I write to consider my past in relation to my present and my future.
  • I write to allow myself the opportunity to walk in the shoes of individuals who lived in bygone times. This motivation sends the writer into research and into thoughts about individuals who lived, and breathed, and worked, and loved in times that are now part of our collective history.
  • I write to amuse and entertain. Daily life is hard and full of stress. I write to lighten daily burdens for myself and others.
  • I write to reflect and understand contemporary social and personal conflicts. The writer, Jodi Picoult, does this. She places characters in the middle of current social struggles and allows the reader an opportunity to explore particular issues from a specific character’s point of view.
  • I write to explore certain ideas or themes. Certainly Annie Proulx explores the themes of surviving, and achieving self-respect, and gaining love without pain in The Shipping News. Richard Russo explores the theme of moving into the future instead of stagnating in the past in his novel Empire Falls. In a novel-in-process that I’m working on, I’m motivated by a desire to explore self-forgiveness and moving beyond personal accusation.
  • I write to explore particular types of characters—to get inside their heads and walk in their shoes.
  • I write to understand friends or members of my family.

There are as many motivations as there are writers, but when we begin to think specifically about what motivates us, the steps from beginning to end of the novel become clearer.  We understand what we want to achieve—what we can offer that is fresh and provides new insight.  Understanding our motivation to tell a particular story will keep us going–will help provide the strength and insight to write and see the project to its conclusion.  I think understanding our motivation to write, will also provide greater insight into SELF.


Most of us have heard the advice for successful, productive living–do a few things and do them very, very well.  The first step in that process is to decide what those few things are.  All of us have lots, and lots, and lots of things on our plates.  So how do we limit?

After some thoughtful consideration (really working things through), I wrote (in thick permanent marker) five things on 3×5 cards that are most important to me.  Now that little stack of cards stays on my desk. I can pick those cards up at the close of day and evaluate how much time I’ve put into the things that are most important.

If I failed to be faithful to what’s most important in a given day, my stack of cards is a reminder to turn my attention back to those things the next day. As writers, it’s so easy for writing time to get squeezed by all kinds of demands on our time. Those cards remind me of ways to avoid the “squeeze” and locate the writing time. Here are a few things I’ve discovered to allow time for my writing:

  1. –Say “no” more often, thus making writing time more available.
  2. –Get up earlier to write.
  3. –Write in small blocks of time.
  4. –Cut back on social events.
  5. –Find ways of doing things faster.  (I’ve learn to speed read, for example.)
  6. –Set a timer and force activities into tighter timeframes. (Amazing, but it works–thus, limiting time for unessential things and allowing more time for those few things that are important.)
  7. –Downsizing our lives to allow for what’s important.

if it’s important, we’ll find time for it.  We all just need constant reminders of what’s really important to us!!  Write on!!