Why You Should Go to a Writer’s Conference…Now

6538566_sToday’s post is written by our fiction director, Kat Gonso. 

For years, I talked myself out of attending a writers’ conference. I’m not good enough. What if I don’t make any friends? It’s too much money.

Each spring I’d wistfully review the websites and begin writing my Bread Loaf application before snapping my computer shut, crawling into bed, and beginning my night-long Netflix binge. But last year, after some heavy pressing from my writing group, I decided to give it a shot. I applied to The Sewanee Writers’ Conference and was accepted.

For weeks, I told myself I couldn’t go. I’m not good enough. I won’t make friends. It’s too much money. My writing group continued to encourage me and I found myself polishing a 20-page manuscript that would be reviewed by my instructors, Christine Schutt and Allen Wier, as well as 11 total strangers.


As you can assume from the title, this story has a happy ending. Here’s what happened:

I talked about writing.

I mean really talked about writing, perhaps for the first time since graduating from my MFA program six years ago. The conference was a magical utopia of craft discussions and lectures. We gushed about our favorite books as we hiked and read our work aloud to each other during dinner. I was immersed in writing and nothing else (no bills to pay, papers to grade).

Most importantly, I had the opportunity to talk about my work. I have a writing group that reads my stories every other month and while their feedback is invaluable, I found that the strangers I most feared offered insights that my writing group could not. At Sewanee, my writing was decontextualized. The other writers hadn’t read my previous body of work. They didn’t know me or my style. For example, I’ve always identified myself as a flash fiction writer. My workshop was concerned that I was limited myself and pushed me to write longer works, novels, prose poems. Now, I no longer identify by one genre or style. It’s freeing.

I acquired confidence.

Everyone bragged, which was intimidating at first. But then I started bragging too. I was published last month. I recently finished a story. It didn’t feel pretentious or weird because we were all doing it. Everyone knew what a Pushcart was. Being surrounded by so much talent felt good. I left believing like I could write a million novels (for the record, I have not). I took that confidence with me and on the days I feel like I’ll never write again (I can be a bit dramatic) I remember my peers at Sewanee and their support and acceptance. I email them to brag when I have a story coming out.

I met successful, professional writers.

I met editors and instructors. I spoke to bloggers and screenwriters. After speaking with each, I took a little nugget of wisdom, a trick of the trade that I put in my back pocket for later. I even collected business cards.

I gained a community.

While my workshop had its ups and downs, we became a strong community of writers from around the world. I still keep in touch with several of the other students. In fact, three of us have a workshop that we call The Pleasure Cruise. We took a group photo on the last day of class. It’s framed, perched on a the windowsill behind the desk where I write as a reminder that I have a group of writers scattered around the world that believe in my writing.

I got advice.

The best piece of advice I got from the workshop was from Christine Schutt. She said that you must write about what embarrasses you. You must find the most horrifying thoughts inside of yourself, the things you’d never want anyone to know and you must write about them. Since the conference, I’ve thought about shame and guilt and embarrassment. These thoughts have worked their way into the lives of my characters subconsciously and consciously, subtly and overtly, quietly and loudly. My work is much more complex.

Perhaps this story is idealized. There were moments of annoyance, people I didn’t like, and days when I didn’t want to deal with anyone. But, overall, the experience brought me home a new, more dedicated and confident writer.

This year, I’ll be attending the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and studying with my literary hero/crush Jim Shepard. I once had an email address named after one of his books. I’m sure I’ll tell him this.

While the deadlines for most writers’ conference applications has passed, I suggest you look up those deadlines now. Mark them on your calendars. Or, even get a jumpstart on your application. There’s no time like the present.

KatGonso_headshotKat Gonso was raised outside of Cleveland and currently lives in Boston. She divides her time between writing short fiction and teaching composition at Northeastern University, where she is also the Writing Center Director. Her most recent fiction can be read in Corium, Crack the Spine, and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. Her flash piece, “A Pinch of Salt,” was the 2013 winner of The Southeast Review‘s World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest. Her fiction chapbook was recently named a semi-finalist in the Black Lawrence Press Black River Chapbook Competition. The same manuscript was also a 2014 semi-finalist in The Florida Review’s Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Contest. 

Photo credit


  1. It’s amazing what talking to people who share your passions can do, huh? A few weeks ago I talked to two other poets for an hour–all about poetry!–and still when I think about it I feel buoyant.

    So, it looks like I have to look up writer’s conferences (I still haven’t attended one)–and share this post right away!

  2. Anthony J Mohr says

    You will have a great week with Jim Shepard. I was in his group at the Sirenland Writers Conference and credit him for kicking me up a level. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. This is an interesting post.

    For me, the opportunity to talk about writing is really invaluable. It helps me to charge my batteries in a way that nothing else match. Besides, after such talking sessions, new intriguing ideas start forming into my mind.

  4. Dianna Zaragoza says

    Great article.

    I’ve been thinking of this myself. I have lots of friends and family that love me, but I really want to reach out to make more writer acquaintances and friends who are equally into reading and writing.

    Do you think conferences for genre writing would help more than just general writing conferences? I think I’m leaning towards finding conferences that focus on my favorite genres.

    • Dianna, you’ll get a better sense of which particular conferences are a good match for you by checking out the information offered on their websites. They should provide a bit of detail about what workshops or events will be offered and who the speakers will be, so you can decide whether or not those experiences are going to be beneficial to you. Good luck!

  5. “I’m not good enough. I won’t make friends. It’s too much money. ” So true 🙁 Why I end up never going! But maybe this time, thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Hi Kat, Thanks for writing this; it makes me want to try going to another writer’s conference. I think I’ve been to a total of 5 or 6 writing conferences, but I always came away feeling more defeated than inspired. I couldn’t put my finger on the why until I recently went to two book festival/conferences. At the book festivals/conferences I found the vibe among writers and authors to be so much more collaborative and less competitive. We talked about the love of writing, the books themselves, and writing as a way of life. I think too often at the writer’s conferences I found myself hearing how hard it is to get published and the ‘tricks’ to getting published, but it seemed discouraging to me. I’d reach out to a few writers throughout the day at the writer’s conferences but I never found the type of relationship-building foundation that I did at the two book festival/conferences. But I’m not giving up on the writer’s conferences. Maybe the ones I’ve attended were too big. Maybe I should try attending a smaller one? What do you think?

    • Helen Cooke says

      You should check out the Poetry & Prose Winter Getaway in South Jersey (www.wintergetaway.com). I attended a few years back and immediately realized I’d need to attend every year! Warm and welcoming and elevates your game – what more can you ask?!

  7. Dimple Shah says

    Hi Kat

    I came across this as I was looking online for people who had attended Sewanee and had something to say about their experience. Your article above has helped set my mind a little at ease. I’ve been accepted to attend this year and any tips you might have would be most welcome. You can email me if you’d rather take the conversation off book as it were. Thanks !


  1. […] fiction director at Compose | A Journal of Simply Good Writing, recently wrote an article called Why You Should Go to a Writers’ Conference … Now. This is a topic I know you’ll appreciate, so here’s a […]

Speak Your Mind