The One with the Yale Writers’ Conference

When I graduated with my MFA back in January, I feared falling into the dreaded “Post-Stonecoast Slump”. I promised myself that I would continue pursuing my writing projects and seeking out opportunities for professional development. So, I spent the first three months of the year querying my YA novel with little success. Then I sold my first piece of writing in April, a feature on writing workshops in adult literacy communities, to The Writer magazine. I suspect this gave me the momentum to attempt Camp NaNoWriMo in April. My goal was 35,000 words toward my historical fantasy project. Forcing myself to churn out the words for the draft wasn’t pretty and at times painful, but I met my NaNo goal and I finished the 72k word draft by the second week of June.  Now I am on track to revise the historical fantasy novel and submit it to my readers by mid-July.

This past spring, I heard that Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (of The Weird fame) were going to be teaching a worldbuilding workshop at the Yale Writers’ Conference. I had never heard of the YWC, and I work IN New Haven. After doing a little research, I learned that the Yale Writers’ Conference is a relatively new program which  offers writers from all over the world the opportunity to spend up to 14 days having their work critiqued by a faculty of prominent writers and talented editors in various genres, all on the Yale’s beautiful New Haven campus. The YWC is the only conference I know of that calls Connecticut home. The nutmeg state has a sad lack of opportunities for writers. It seemed like the perfect opportunity.

I applied and got in. Despite the steep admission fee (and complete lack of scholarships) I decided to attend the conference, and looking back on that decision I’m glad I did. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons (all opinions are my own):

PRO: LOCATION. New Haven is a great city overflowing with history and culture. Though I work in New Haven, I have never taken the opportunity to visit some of the gems the city has to offer, like Blue State Coffee (a café which supports local non-profits and serves GF items); the Peabody museum’s dinosaur exhibit; the Yale Art Museum (with a Van Gogh!). There are countless restaurants, libraries, and cafes where you can sit, write, or just chat with new friends.

CON: LOCATION. Yale’s campus is divided into residential colleges (a tribute to the Oxford/Cambridge system on which it is based) sprawling out all over New Haven. The dorms and dining hall were in one part of campus, the orientation was held a half mile away in an old auditorium, and each class was held in a different building. Perhaps these room assignments were done intentionally to force us to experience more of campus. But I felt that I wasted a lot of time hoofing it from one place to another all day. Perhaps in the future they could make things more centralized.

PRO: THE WRITERS. I met so many funny, fascinating people during my four days at Yale. I also heard some personal stories that seem stranger than fiction. Some of the other writers in my workshop traveled from as far away as Australia and Brazil! My workshop had great chemistry and we often ate meals together or explored the city. We writers like to pretend we enjoy our solitude, but it is very invigorating to be surrounded by people who enjoy discussing the same nerdy writer problems as you.

My workshop, led by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer.
My workshop, led by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer.

CON: SCHEDULING. Each day of the YWC followed a similar pattern: breakfast, workshops in the morning, lunch, then several hours of free time until dinner. There were two evenings of organized student readings, but they were set-up last minute. I think the organizers missed out on an opportunity to draw a larger audience for the readings by asking a faculty member to present a short lecture (on a topic of their choice) before the readings performs by their class. These themed readings could have been promoted in advance so that students could plan to attend. As it was, I felt that the readings were an afterthought that was sprung upon us. Also, I didn’t like having so much free time when I paid a lot for the conference experience. Writers are like children (or cats) in that sometimes we have to be forced to do what is good for us. There are pluses and minuses to giving people the afternoon and evening free, but it limits the number of learning and bonding experiences between attendees who are used to solitude.

PRO: WORKSHOP. I have zero complaints about my workshop with Jeff and Ann (although I wish the last day had been 3 hours instead of 2). The VanderMeers were patient and funny. They challenged us to write outside of our comfort zones in longhand (hand cramp!). I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience because it was so different from my Stonecoast workshops. For example, I am used to having to read and critique the work of everyone else in my workshop and discuss my comments with the group. In the YWC workshop, I didn’t read anyone else’s writing, so I went in blind, not knowing what anyone else wrote. Jeff and Ann were the only ones who read my manuscript and they met with each student to provide a one-on-one critique. This allowed us to spend our workshop time writing instead of rehashing critique comments.

The basis for their workshop, Jeff's "Wonderbook" is chock full of writing exercises and inspiration. Click the picture to order on Amazon.
The basis for their workshop, Jeff’s “Wonderbook” is chock full of writing exercises and inspiration. 

CON: NO BOOK TABLE. We were at a conference for writers and there was NO BOOK TABLE anywhere in sight! This seemed like a HUGE oversight to me. What if students wanted to purchase the books written by their workshop leader or another faculty member? What if a student wanted to sell copies of their newly released book to classmates? There are several independent book stores in New Haven who would have been eager to partner with the YWC and staff a book table.

My experience was overall a positive one. I met many fascinating people and new writer friends. However, I found the workshop to be the only thing of substance the conference had to offer.

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