As a pilot, I’m more than familiar with the term “recurrent training.” It means meeting the standards for a particular pilot certificate or rating one time isn’t sufficient for safety. Airline pilots have to undergo training every few months in order to keep flying passengers. Even private aviators in general aviation aircraft have to retrain in order to keep flying legally. Quite often, a pilot’s insurance company will require it to ensure coverage.
As a writer, I carried that discipline into my authorship. In my retirement I began going to writer conferences and workshops. I knew I could write, but I also knew there was a lot about writing I didn’t know. I needed to rectify that. Writer conferences and workshops also provide the added benefit of being around other writers, and one of my favorite conference/workshop pastimes is talking with writers about writing. That’s another thing the pandemic has screwed up: virtual conferences/workshops are good when you have nothing else, but they’re not quite the same.
Conference vs Workshop
Now, these are my personal, working definitions.
A writer’s conference can have hundreds, even thousands of writers in attendance. It’s mainly structured around panels on specific subjects. You go to the panel, listen to the panelists, and have a limited time to ask questions–as long as you don’t start to discuss your work, i.e., no specific questions and certainly no one-on-one time with any of the authors on the panel.
This isn’t a criticism. I’ve learned a lot from panels like this, and part of the learning is understanding that whatever slump you’re in at the moment as a writer, each of the panelists has been there, too. How they overcame obstacles is a learning experience.
A writer’s workshop is more focused. Now, there can be short workshops–half a day, even an hour or two–wherein you do get some individualized attention. I prefer the multiple-day workshop, where the attendees either critique a piece of each other’s works or are generative workshops, where you create original work sometimes on the spot.
There are pros and cons to them both. A writer’s conference can feel impersonal and overwhelming to the writer who is more of an introvert. We extroverts and people-watchers love them. A writer’s workshop can be terrifying to a writer unaccustomed to critique or who doesn’t like being put on the spot or having attention focused on him or her.
I will say if it hadn’t been for a large writer’s conference I attended for several years in a row, I never would have sat at the same lunch table with Ursula K. LeGuin and would never have “met” Seamus Heaney in a hotel corridor. If I hadn’t attended a writer’s workshop (This year will be my tenth year.) focused on critique and met established authors who became my mentors, my novels never would have been published.
Old Dog, New Tricks
This year I decided I needed to freshen things up. Oh, I’m still going to my regular conferences and workshops, albeit virtually, but I’m trying a new one which is a combination of a conference and a workshop.
For several years I’ve looked at the Muse and the Marketplace conference, based in Boston, MA, and sponsored by a writer’s organization called GrubStreet. My intention was to go in person with a writer friend and visit friends who live in Massachusetts. Well, COVID-19 had other plans, so this year I’m attending virtually.
The first week, starting today, as a matter of fact, there will be the panels of a typical writer’s conference. There were several interesting-sounding panels to choose from in each time slot, but the benefit of a virtual conference is that I can dip in and out of more than one conference without having to disturb anyone by leaving my seat. (Also, all the panels will be recorded and available to paying attendees for two months after the conference.)
I’m “attending” panels on “Infusing Your Fiction with Social Justice Themes,” “History Walks with Us,” and several others about suspense in your story, social media marketing, writing trans characters, revision, and plotting. Quite the full week.
We take a couple days’ break, and then, the workshop starts: “You Are Here: Writing Place in Fiction.” This is a critique workshop, where I submitted 20 pages of a work in progress, as did the five other workshoppers. We’ll spend five days discussing each attendee’s work–over ZOOM.
Much as in my flying days, I took every opportunity to fly with a more experienced pilot or took every training opportunity offered me, the same holds true for my writing. I have many years of experience in writing and editing, but I’m one old dog who, after some grumbling, likes new tricks.
GrubStreet also hosts virtual shorter workshops on specific topics. Check out their website HERE.