Summer Writing Workshops: Investment or Indulgence?


For the record, at this point this is an entirely hypothetical question. I may or I may not have applied to the above writing conferences (I have certainly considered all of them) for a workshop this summer, and in any case I’ve yet to find out if they’ll take me. In some ways, this is a better time, however, to consider the value of such a conference than when I do/do not get in. I’m just trying to figure out their value.

I’ve attended one, the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop, five summers ago. I was afraid to go (social anxiety, professional anxiety) and had no idea how my writing skills would compare to those of other attendees. There was an application process, but is Tin House really going to turn down paying customers? (They say they have 1,000 apps a year and an acceptance rate of 34%). It cost a lot of money (a couple thousand dollars, by the time you travel and pay tuition) and a lot of time (7-8 days). I chose to apply to Tin House because it was a little less money and a few days’ less time than the other two. And also because I really wanted to work with Ben Percy, whose workshop I applied for and got in to.

In spite of my misgivings, I went. I made a few good writing friends. I maintain active and mutually supportive contact–we’ve met at every AWP since, I think– with one woman, the amazing Karen Stefano, whose story collection, The Secret Games of Words, I reviewed here. I also got excellent writing advice from Ben, in both the workshop and an additional mentorship (for which I paid extra but also for which I was selected from a pile of manuscripts given Ben for his review). And the continued professional support and mentorship from Ben has been invaluable and, frankly, one of the biggest (and best) surprises of my writing life.

Now five years has passed and I’m writing mostly longer fiction and it’s hard to get feedback for longer projects. So I’ve thought about applying to another writing conference, maybe trying to find, as I did at Tin House, a writer (whose work fills in the holes of my own) to help me get a good start on a new novel ms.

There are, of course, alternative experiences. It seems AWP has a new mentoring program it might be worth looking into. They’ve got a very tight application window, but it’s on my calendar. I also live in Minneapolis, home of the Loft Literary Center, where mentorships and opportunities for manuscript review abound and where I think I might even be able to get help procuring a specific mentor. Here, I don’t have to spend a fortune and I can continue my magazine-writing work and I can eat with or without company, as I wish. Here, I don’t have to consider every night if I’m going to feel like an ass if I drink/don’t drink, dance/don’t dance, say the literarily correct thing or not.

Here I have a roommate I like. A lot. And he says sweet things, not unkind, rumor-fueling ugliness-es, about my (clearly lovely) snoring.

In what little I’ve read about one conference, the hierarchy of who eats with whom would send most middle-schoolers reeling. I’m old, folks. I didn’t need that before and I certainly don’t now.

Clearly what I DO need is some help. Have you gone to one of these conferences, and was it worth the time and money? If mentorship is the goal, what other suggestions do you have?



  1. I’ve attended two conferences and met interesting people and attended a workshop that may or may not have helped fuel my writing career. So yes, in that sense it was valuable and necessary. But honestly, the name dropping, the constant bids and squabbles for attention, the desperate need to rub elbows with the established writers/agents/editors, etc., and the behind-the-back snips and snorts and gossip, all turned me off.

    I think that extroverted writers fit better with the conference scene. I’m a huge introvert, and being around people all morning, afternoon and evening was exhausting.

    That’s my take. I did apply and was accepted at a conference for this summer. But after I factored in plane fare, tuition, housing, meals and workshop fees, it was a too pricey. Plus it takes place a day after a marathon I’m racing, and getting on a plane immediately after running 26 miles doesn’t sound like fun, lol.

    Hope this helps. Take care and good luck with the conference decision.

    1. Cinthia–Thanks so much for your response. I really wanted peoples’ opinions, and you’re the 1st to give me one! I think you’re right about extroverts vs introverts, and since I’m mostly the latter (and really can’t stand the negative things you mentioned–name dropping, gossip, etc.) I’m feeling more empowered to do it my way–get a mentor, yes, but in more of a one-on-one situation, if I can. Thanks again for reading and responding.

  2. Having a mentor is valuable, and it sounds like that’s specifically what you’re looking for. Conferences are great and all that, but maybe you don’t need all the “extras” (and hassles) at this point if you want to work one-on-one with someone. Both The Loft and the AWP programs sound like they’d be perfect for you. And you get to stay with a roommate that you like and who likes you! 🙂

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