Yale hosts inaugural writers conference
By Bennett Lovett-Graf
Like any other contact sport, writers conferences have become something of a rage across the United States. From the 87-year-old grandfather of conferences – the Breadloaf Writers Conference held every summer at Vermont’s Middlebury College – to its younger progeny, like the more youthful 20-year-old Sewanee conference at Tennessee’s University of the South, opportunities abound for writers seeking the wisdom of established professionals. In all of these programs, like-minded individuals huddle together for two to three weeks looking for that golden ticket to publication and, more satisfyingly, literary recognition. For some, the experience will be about mastering their craft; for others, it will be about making connections. But as any writer worth his or her salt will tell you: it’s always about both.
From June 12 to June 22, New Haven will become the newest beneficiary of this rage for writing, as Yale University plays host to its first formal writers conference. The Yale Writers Conference brings together a star-studded cast from Yale’s faculty and beyond, including such critically acclaimed writers as novelist Tom Perrotta (author of Election and Little Children, both major motion pictures), National Book Award winner Julia Glass (Three Junes, The Widower’s Tale), fantasy novelist and Yale faculty member John Crowley (Lord Byron’s Novel and Little, Big), and nonfiction writer M.G. Lord (Forever Barbie, and just this year The Accidental Feminist). During the 10-day conference, participants will have their work cut out for them meeting in two-and-a-half-hour workshops every other day with a Yale faculty member serving as workshop leader, attending the master classes and craft talks by visiting writers, and listening to guest speakers. (For this year, Ira Silverberg, the new literature director at the National Endowment for the Arts, will speak.) Midway through there will also be a brunch with Connecticut writers and at the conference’s conclusion, a series of panels peopled by independent press representatives, literary agents, and editors at major trade publishers.
“Yale is very excited to see a conference like this get off the ground,” noted executive director and conference organizer Terence Hawkins, a New Haven attorney and writer (author of most recently The Rage of Achilles from Casperian Press).
With over 200 applicants for a coveted 96 spots, Hawkins had fearlessly stripped down the application process to a request for just basic information and a writing sample. Applicants were then selected solely on the strength of their samples.
“Something is clearly in the water,” Hawkins mused aloud, pointing out how much literary talent there is in and around New Haven and throughout Connecticut. “What at first started as competing ideas for a book festival and a writer’s camp at Yale evolved rapidly into a writers conference that we thought could distinguish itself in two ways from others already out there.”
The first was the sheer strength of Yale’s writing faculty, both within its English department and throughout the rest of the university. The second was the degree of close contact Hawkins wanted participants to have with the writers themselves.
“At many writers conferences, it’s not uncommon for visiting writers to come in, give a talk, collect their money, and head out the door,” Hawkins said. “This time around, we wanted our visiting writers to spend real face time with the participants.”
Visiting writers must not only teach a two-and-a-half-hour morning master class for up to 25 students — so every student gets to take one master class — but they must also stay through the day, lunching with the participants and then giving in the afternoon a two-hour reading and craft talk. In short, a full day’s commitment.
While most of the conference is limited to paying participants, there will be opportunities for public participation, with readings and panels in and around the New Haven area. For further information about the conference and these free events, please check the website for the conference at http://www.yale.edu/summer/writing/index.html.
Bennett Lovett-Graff is the publisher of the New Haven Review.