The Write Time and Place ~ 2015 Chuckanut Writers Conference
You know when you hear something that particularly helps your writing, mainly because it comes at a time that you need to hear it? About midway through an MFA program, I learned to let the lessons roll over me and not worry whether or not I truly understood something or found it relevant at the time it was presented, because eventually, when I was creatively ready, I would decipher its meaning and it would become critically relevant to the story or essay I was trying to write.
Each writer’s development of course takes its own pace and, to me, one of the fun things of being a writer is figuring out your pace and working with it rather than against it. For example, I’m slow. I write something and often put it down for years before starting to revise let alone submit it. So I’ve learned to just write and write and write—and then set aside the new pages and dig around in my old stuff for a story to finish off. It’s been interesting to realize that what I write today I often don’t intend to begin submitting for a few more birthdays. I’ve learned to live with my stories for a while so that when I revise, I’m in touch more deeply with the true arc of the story and less distracted by leftover attachments to any line or phrase or even character. But eventually I get around to it, and often what sparks me to pull out that patiently waiting story is something I hear in a class or at writing group or at a writers’ conference.
Writers’ conferences, to me, are particularly useful because of the multiple faculty and numerous presentations. The odds are extremely good that I’ll be exposed to a fresh perspective that helps me solve a lingering problem in a story or sparks me to begin a new one. Every year since its debut, I’ve been honored to participate in the Chuckanut Writers Conference in some fashion. I think I’ve had almost every job: emcee, guest speaker, faculty member, panel host. All of those roles have been wonderful in different ways and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to contribute to the event, but my not-so-secret glee in attending the conference is to be able to cruise around and connect with so many different writers over the two-day event.
Each year I walk away able to list the specific “sparks” from that year’s conference that have had a profound effect on my writing life. Here’s just a few from recent years:
- Having a total girl convo about hair in the hallway with memoirist/essayist Claire Dederer, just before heading in to listen to a panel she was on, where she delivered amazing advice about writing nonfiction and fully committing to one’s chosen genre for a specific story. I grew up as a fiction writer but have crossed into memoir in recent years. Claire’s insights helped me to better see how my fiction skills and techniques can often help but also inadvertently hamper a memoir effort and how to compensate for that.
- Going to one of the breakout sessions that WWU professor and writer Bruce Beasley (on the conference faculty that year), also attended. We were sitting in the same row and got paired up for one of the writing exercises, so Bruce heard a short excerpt of an essay I was working on at the time. I felt that I got every square inch of his creative attention, as he listened closely and gave me thoughtful and insightful feedback that helped me to polish the essay, which I’m happy to say later was published.
- Sitting at lunch and looking around a table filled with past students of mine from over the years. It’s extremely rewarding when students flourish and become friends and peers. It’s something that has kept me motivated and smiling, and spending time with this group at the conference was an experience I will treasure.
- Having a writer I hadn’t met walk up to me out of the blue and say that she’d read more than one of my stories and wanted to tell me to keep up the great work. It’s always wonderful and encouraging when someone tells me they’ve appreciated something I wrote, and the added surprise of it coming from someone I don’t know is still hard to get used to. Since then Janet Bergstrom, who is a wonderful writer and blogger, and I have become friends, which makes the experience that much more meaningful.
- Meeting co-editor of Clover, A Literary Rag Norman Green during a breakout session. He asked me to submit to Clover, so of course I did. Published locally by the Independent Writers’ Studio, Clover releases its summer issue each year at the conference, and I’m delighted to say that my story “Two Houses Down” will appear in this summer’s issue (yep, I wrote the first draft about three years ago). You can meet Clover editors Mary Gillilan and Norman at the conference, learn how to submit, and also purchase a copy of the gorgeous letterpress journal.
- Laughing myself silly along with everyone else in the audience at Jeff Bender‘s hilarious take-off on The Odyssey at one of the faculty readings. It was brilliant and a reminder of how ridiculously fun and funny great writing can be. My writing is habitually dark, whether or not the story warrants it, and remembering Jeff’s beyond freakin’ funny tale helps me to keep perspective and to revise in a way that suits the story rather than my own tendency.
- I could go on and on! But I don’t need to, because if you don’t already have your own versions of such instances, you will if you head to this year’s conference on Friday–Saturday, June 26–27.
The place and personality of the Chuckanut Writers Conference makes these marvelous types of encounters possible, and if you’ve been to the conference, then you already know what I mean. A unique joint effort of Village Books and Whatcom Community College, the annual conference is held on the college’s gorgeous campus in Bellingham, Washington. Walking in, you’ll be greeted by the wonderful conference team and then pick up your packet, including a conference program booklet that is a keepsake. WCC’s Syre Center has a huge foyer, where you’ll find tables hosted by area writing organizations, such as Red Wheelbarrow Writers; Independent Writers’ Studio; Chanticleer Book Reviews; Whatcom Writers and Publishers, and many more. You can stroll around and find out information about writing classes and programs, submissions, local events, and also sign up for the open mics that will conclude the conference festivities on Saturday evening in historic Fairhaven. Conference co-producer Village Books offers an on-site bookstore for both days of the conference, featuring awesome titles by conference faculty. In addition to the included lunches, there’s also a handy snack and coffee bar in Syre Center, so the overall atmosphere for both days of the conference is super inviting and convenient.
The breakout sessions and panels featuring individual conference faculty are held in the Syre and Heiner buildings, which sit across from each other on an expansive open plaza. That’s one of my favorite parts of this conference, because everything is super accessible and you’ll go back and forth between the buildings a few times each day, enjoying the sunshine and chances to mingle out on the plaza. There’s outdoor tables and benches, so you can take your lunch outside or just hang out and take a break, which of course turns into a plot discussion with some writers you just met.
This year’s spectacular faculty features a list of pros new to CWC as well as a few returning favorites. Something new this year is the addition of master classes on the Thursday prior to the main event. Hannah Streetman guest posted about the master classes, and you can find all the info you need to plan your conference experience on the conference website. I do suggest looking over the schedule in advance to begin making decisions about which presentations and panels you absolutely don’t want to miss. This year I’ll host the panel on agenting and marketing, featuring both literary agents and publishing consultants. One of my students texted me a few days ago to get some agent pitching advice, so I’ll also point you to a post I wrote based on a pitching 101 lecture I gave at CWC.
The discounted early bird rate ends May 28, so if you’re thinking about signing up for the conference, now is a good time! I hope to see you at this year’s conference, making your own friends and finding your own stories. Be sure to come and say hi and let me know how your day is going. I’m guessing it will be great!
XO Laurel Leigh
May 25: Join me at Village Books for Open Mic Night this coming Monday at 7 p.m. in the Readings Gallery. May’s optional theme is memories and history. Each writer has seven minutes to read their work. For the last couple of years, we have had a fun tradition of writers reading parts of a longer story over two or three weeks; these serial stories are addictive!
May 30, May 31, June 1: Seattle’s Hugo House is holding three screenings of James Franco’s film adaptation of David Shield and Caleb Powell’s timely book I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The screenings will begin at 7 p.m. and be followed by a Q&A (read: fight) with Shields and Powell, who authors the wildly popular blog Arguments Worth Having. Hugo House’s author “debates” are epic. Just sayin’. See the movie trailer.
May 30: Stories We Must Tell: An Evening of Poetry with local favorites Matthew Brouwer, Kevin Murphy, Carol McMillan, Betty Scott, Jasmine Jean, and Tsena Paulson. 7 p.m. at Presence Studio on Cornwall Ave., in Bellingham. Don’t miss this fabulous lineup of poets!
May 30: Writing Ourselves Open: A Day-long Writing Retreat with Matthew Brouwer, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Allied Arts of Whatcom County on Cornwall Ave., in Bellingham. Matthew is such a gem in the classroom. If you haven’t yet taken one of his workshops, now’s the time.
Sully the Salamander: Like Sully’s webpage!!! Sully the Salamander is the artwork of New Jersey–based author/illustrator Mike Allegra. Known as “Writer Fellow”—his blog is called heylookawriterfellow—Mike led some of us in Whatcom County WA and beyond on a merry chase around Facebook and WordPress in pursuit of one of his famed doodles.