Dani Shapiro
August 16, 2009

On Writers Conferences

I’m heading to Sun Valley, Idaho tomorrow, where Michael and I will be speaking at the Sun Valley Writers Conference. This particular conference is unusual in that no teaching is involved. Writers–some very famous writers–come and give talks, and the audience is made up of smart, literate people who may or may not aspire to write. It seems to model itself more closely on something like The Aspen Institute than say, a Breadloaf, or a Tin House–discussion, rather than implementation. Dialogue, rather than honing craft. I’m excited about this conference for lots of reasons: seeing old friends, gorgeous dry mountain weather, possibly even some white-water rafting or fly-fishing. But more than anything, preparing for my talk there gave me a chance to deepen my own thoughts about memoir. I’ve been thinking a lot about memoir lately, on the cusp of the publication of my new one, as well as the reissuing of a new edition of my first one. But musing is not the same as giving a talk. Giving a talk forces one to articulate ideas into a clear narrative. (It also involves being entertaining and funny. And the wearing of decent shoes.)

Sometimes writers ask me what I think about conferences, given that I direct one. It falls into the same general query about whether writing can be taught. Honestly, I don’t think writing can be taught. I think craft can be taught, I think books can be suggested, minds can be opened to new writers, new vistas. But whatever that thing is–that combination of gift and tenacity and capacity for story-telling–that makes someone a writer, that, I’m afraid, can’t be taught. Or at least I’ve never figured out how to teach it. So why go do these things? Why apply to Breadloaf or Tin House or Sewanee or Sirenland? Some aspiring writers go because they think they’ll meet editors or agents, and while they very well may get a ten minute audience with any of the above, most of the time, nothing will come of it. Other writers go to network, to meet other writers, which is a completely valid reason–it can create a sense of community, reduce the sting of isolation. Other writers to go study with a particular writer they admire, or to workshop a story that isn’t quite there yet. They go to be together. They go to validate what it is they do with their hours in front of the page.

As I pack my bags for Sun Valley, it occurs to me that no matter how different these conferences are–large, small, exclusive, exotic, intimate, businesslike–they all have one thing in common. In this time of doomsday reports about the decline of serious readers–when iphones and ipods and webisodes and an endless stream of apps vie for our attention–attendance at conferences is booming. We have a hunger, an appetite, a desire to understand how words, when put together in a certain order, create music.