21 July 2012

On the Road Again

Last weekend was a little unusual.  I didn't mow the lawn, I didn't doze off in the backyard swing, I didn't attend a sporting event that included our four-year-old grandson, and I didn't watch a single Netflix movie.  What did I do?  Well, I think you'll be proud of me: I went to a writers' conference.

The truth is, I've never been particularly fond of conferences.  There are exceptions--I've thoroughly enjoyed the Bouchercons I've attended, and I'm planning to go to this year's event also, in Cleveland--but in general I've viewed most writers' conferences in the same way that I viewed sales meetings in my business days: they were a nice way to get together and have refreshments and see everybody, but they didn't often accomplish a whole lot.  All in all, I'd rather be working than talking about working, and I'd rather be writing than talking about writing.  Besides, literary conferences are usually far-flung, and I'm no longer enthused about the idea of traveling.  The half-zillion miles I logged with the Air Force and IBM have made me perfectly content to stay within my own zip code.
But I've decided I might've been a little too hasty.  The conference I attended on July 13th, 14th, and 15th has made me rethink my position on the matter.

Hop along to Cassity

About six months ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to be one of five "featured authors" at the second annual Turner Cassity Literary Festival this past weekend.  Sponsored by the local Cultural Arts Center, the three-day festival is a gathering of writers and readers from all over the southeast and beyond, held in a rambling century-old home on tree-lined Campbellton Street in Douglasville, Georgia.

My wife Carolyn and I left home early last Friday (the 13th!?) to drive the four hundred miles to Douglasville, a small town about twenty miles west of Atlanta.  The weather wasn't the best--we were greeted with the same kind of afternoon/evening thunderstorms we had left behind in Mississippi, and even when it wasn't raining the humidity made us feel right at home--but it was a great weekend anyway.  The food was good (and plentiful), the accommodations comfortable (and conveniently located), the conference site beautiful (and appropriately "literary"), the people friendly (and smart), and the subject matter . . . well, the subject matter involved what you might expect: an appreciation of the writing of others and the improvement of your own.

The unusual suspects

The guest lineup of authors consisted of three poets (Dan Veach, Annmarie Lockhart, and Alice Lovelace), one novelist (Patricia Sprinkle), and one short-story writer (guess who).  Each of us taught two ninety-minute workshops and held individual critique sessions on Saturday, and then participated in readings and signings and Q&A's on Sunday.

I knew I would have a good time with Patti Sprinkle because we think the same way, she and I.  Not only do we both write fiction, we both write mystery fiction, and we had already swapped a number of e-mails over the years.  I wasn't so sure about the poets.  (As I think I've mentioned before, both here and at Criminal Brief, I'm not a poet and I noet.)  But I was pleased to find that I liked the poets and their work.  Dan Veach, I discovered, is not only a talented writer and illustrator, he's the editor of Atlanta Review--and the two ladies are gifted poets as well as outstanding speakers; Annmarie delivered the kickoff speech and Alice the closing address.  Both presentations gave me goosebumps . . . and remember, I'm too uncouth even to understand most contemporary poetry, much less enjoy it.

Friends and countrymen

On the first of our three rainy nights in Georgia, I found out that one of the attendees--actually, the wife of the head fred--had graduated a year behind me in high school, back in Kosciusko, Mississippi.  (Tell me it's not a small world, after all.)  I hadn't seen her in more than forty years, and after we caught up on which of our classmates were still alive or in rehab or out on parole, she and my wife hit it off and spent much of the conference talking about everything from grandchildren to politics to quilting projects.  I also met some delightful and interesting "aspiring" writers, and began what I hope will be longtime friendships.

When Carolyn and I finally arrived back home Monday afternoon, I told her the same thing I mentioned to you at the beginning of this column: I now have a different view of that weird phenomenon we call writers' conferences.  I still think it's more fun to just sit down and write--no question about that--but now and then, if the time's right and the stars are aligned correctly . . . it's also fun just to talk about writing.

I'm hoping they'll invite me again.

A word to the wordsmiths…

What are some of your favorite writers' conferences?  Which, if any, do you attend regularly?  Do you choose conferences based mostly on genre?  Location?  Cost?  Featured speakers?

Also, who's planning to go to this year's Bouchercon?

Save a seat for me.


  1. Well, I'm going to try to make it to Bouchercon this year! (The title "Hot In Cleveland" may mean something else if the heat wave hasn't ended by then!)

  2. Jeff, I look forward to seeing you there. And I'm hoping things will have cooled off considerably by October. My most vivid memories of Cleveland are of COLD weather.

  3. John, it sounds delightful. I've stopped worrying about whether I "learn" or "accomplish" anything at cons since feminist psychology taught me that women are relational--it's normal that what I really go to these things for is the schmoozing and the hugging. I won't make it to Bouchercon this year, but I'll be at Killer Nashville. Malice is always a big lovefest for me, and I loved Murder in the Magic City in Alabama the year I went there.

    BTW, I am a poet and there's not that much difference. Both are storytellers, though as a poet, I used to say, "All my stories are true," whereas, like all fiction writers, as a novelist and short story writer, I say, "I lie for a living."

    PS There's even a lie in that last statement--can you spot it? ;)

  4. Liz, it's too early in the day for me to spot ANYthing--but I do admit I enjoy the schmoozing and visiting with old friends at conferences. And I too loved Murder in the Magic City. The fact is, I probably don't disLIKE conferences; I just don't get around to going to that many.

    As for poets vs. fiction writers, I've heard that short stories are actually more like poems than novels, in that they can't include any (or at least many) wasted words. And yes, we're all storytellers, and fiction is indeed (as Lawrence Block said) nothing but a pack of lies.

    Have fun at Killer Nashville!

  5. The following comment, which failed to post correctly, is from Herschel Cozine. (Sorry about the difficulty in posting, Herschel, but thanks for making the effort! Thanks also for the kind words; I suppose this means I'll be picking up the bar tab next time we get together . . .)

    Herschel's comment:

    When I was writing for children I attended the annual SCBW (Society of Children's Book Writers) conferences in Santa Monica. I was an avid and dedicated attendee and looked forward to the conferences

    I rarely attend conferences any more. Call it lethargy, aversion to travel, senility, or all of the above. I attended Bouchercon in Indianapolis a few years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly. I got to spend time with a writer of some note--John Floyd. I would like to attend the one in Cleveland, but won't be there, (see above).

    Wish I could have attended your session in Atlanta.

  6. Hi John,

    To me, getting together with old friends is the entire purpose of attending cons.

    So, yes, I'll do my best to save you a seat at B'con.



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