Grow Your Own Creative Writing Conference…

…and Watch Your Local Community of Writers Flower

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It’s a beautiful Saturday in April, and our Center for Academic Success at Butte College is filled to capacity; over 150 students, faculty, staff, and members of the community sit around tables drawing pictures of a dramatic, emotional moment in their lives. Now they begin to add words to their drawing to capture it more vividly. They are led through this exercise by Zu Vincent, the MC and an award-winning novelist. She’s captured their imaginations in this opening warm-up, getting their creativity flowing before the break-out sessions they’ll be attending all day, sessions on topics ranging from the basics of story-writing to found poetry to keeping a writing journal. Attendees have already heard our college Vice President quoting Shakespeare and exhorting them to use words powerfully. They’ve had their coffee and bagels, put on their name tags, and looked through the day’s schedule of workshops and events. This is the first meaningful practice in a day filled with creative options, a day we, the steering committee for the WordSpring creative writing conference, have worked hard to make fun, exciting, and rewarding for everyone present.

I’m standing in the back watching it all, pleased and satisfied with the kick off of our 5th annual WordSpring conference.

We started planning our first conference in the fall of 2010. The recession was at its worst, and we’d had to cut back on literature and creative writing classes. Our budget was trimmed to the bone; meanwhile we were deep into discussing acceleration as a way of ensuring student success. That’s a worthwhile conversation, but I’ve had so many conversations about composition theory and practice, and very few about passion, including inspiring a love of writing in our students, not to mention the passion for writing that so often brings faculty to the path of teaching.

I got a master’s in English because I love writing fiction, and I think that’s fairly typical. So many of us community college composition instructors come from a similar background, but very few adjuncts get the opportunity to teach what they love or to talk about the source of our passion, much less find ways to feed it.  Often, we seek each other out in hallway conversations: “What have you written lately?” “Did you hear that Sarah published  a chapbook?” “Hey, guess what! I might have an agent!”

It turned out that my colleague Amy Antongiovanni, a wonderful poet, treasured writing retreats and conferences as much as I did. She had been bringing gifted writers to our campus by way of a one-woman literary events committee for several years. We wanted more, and we began to talk about what that would look like. I promised the English Department that if they let us put on a creative writing conference, it wouldn’t cost them any money – it would be self-sufficient. So we called for interested planners in a department meeting and discovered that quite a few of us, both full- and part-time, wanted to explore how to go about making a conference happen. Although our committee membership waxed and waned over that first year, we ended up with people who were dedicated, organized, and talented. We divided up tasks and planned a conference.

wordspring-1Early on, we came up with a mission statement: we wanted to create a stronger community of writers in our area. That’s been our guiding principle from the beginning. But it had to happen on a shoestring. Since we had no money and no budget, we took advantage of free printing from our college Printshop, free publicity from our Public Relations, free facilities (we have a very nice atrium in our Center for Academic Success), and, for our first year, mostly unpaid speakers. The English Department offered us some money that wasn’t already earmarked in the budget. We made a website for online registration. We got a small grant from Associated Students for 15 student scholarships, advertised the hell out of it in our classes, papered the towns of Chico, Paradise, and Oroville with posters, and crossed our fingers.

We learned that ten people can put on a conference. Just know that six of them are putting in an extra ten hours a week in the month of April, creating folders, putting up posters, messing with the website, getting flowers and vases donated, sweet-talking PR out of some swag, and getting to know the folks at the Foundation and in the business office very well. Did I mention how much we came to hate PayPal?

Two weeks before the first conference, we had four people registered. We looked at each other and said, “Well, we gave it a shot.” I called college catering and asked them to tell me the last day they’d let me adjust the numbers for lunch. The dining services director was very understanding.

A week before the conference, our numbers jumped to 30 people. We looked at each other and said, “Okay, so we have ten people in each workshop. That’s not so bad.”

Two days before the conference, our numbers shot up to 70. On the day of the conference, ten more registered in person. We offered workshops in nature writing, memoir, song-writing, developing plot in fiction, and six more, including a panel on publishing. We had kept registration costs low: $30 for students, $60 for community members. And our conference paid for itself.

Our numbers since then have risen steadily every year, with many returnees. We can now pay our presenters $150 per workshop plus travel expenses, with a few better-known writers funded last year through equity grants. We offer a reception and a reading the night before, and bring in high school students and their instructors to mingle with everyone else.wordspring-3

Some of the things we’ve done right:

  • Schedule a “student salon.” Empowering students is a wise choice, one that AWP recognizes, and we do, too. The Student Salon is a hands-on writing experience developed and facilitated each year by our Literary Arts Club (LAC) students. The brainchild of then adjunct and club advisor, Kiara Koenig, it’s been a hit five years in a row. Last year we were approached with workshop proposals from literary arts clubs at Chico State and Yuba College, too, and we paid them just as we did our other presenters. We’ve also benefited from the interviews Butte and Yuba LAC members conduct with our presenters in the weeks leading up to the conference. While the students get real-world experience interacting with professionals and writing about it, publishing these interviews on various websites, including buttewordspring.org and lehab.org, gives us a publicity angle we’d never have a chance to create otherwise.
  • Use LAC students as “minions.” In exchange for a registration fee waiver and a t-shirt, club members staff our registration table, help move furniture, guide newbies to campus to the right parking area, and run all kinds of errands.
  • Dare to invest in sales swag. We have mugs and t-shirts with our logo, and we provide a bookstore on site with favorite books on craft, as well as books by our presenters. Last year we even had a signing event.
  • Make it pretty. Last year a colleague with no time to volunteer but an interest in our success bought enough flowers to cover every table. Another colleague donated more flowers and vases. I got Dining Services to give us a discount on tablecloths, and a friend with a poster printer to make us large-scale schedules to cover the walls. We put bowls of candy on every table in the afternoon and gave away the flower arrangements at the end of the day.
  • Hold contests. In honor of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday last year – coincidentally on the day of WordSpring – we held a sonnet contest with advance entries. We’ve had six-word story contests and haiku contests where registrants covered a wall with Post-its and presenters chose winners. It’s fun to give away prizes at the end of the day, and it honors the writing of our participants.
  • Offer scholarships. Each year we work with Associated Students and our campus Equity Committee to get the largest number of student scholarships possible. Last year we got 37, enough to fill the demand. High school teachers and professors from other colleges have also sponsor scholarships for their interested students.
  • Engage the community. We’ve worked with writers’ groups, including bringing in retirees studying fiction and memoir in community education courses. This year we’ll be working with North State Authors and Publishers.
  • Reward writing faculty. Each year we offer our own faculty, especially our adjuncts,  the opportunity to lead workshops and get paid for doing so.
  • Insist that every workshop offer a take-away. We learned this one the hard way. Make sure that each session includes at least a few minutes of writing practice, not just a lecture or presentation, so that attendees have the opportunity to put the ideas they’re learning into practice. And so that they leave with the beginnings of poems, stories, or scenes they can keep working on after the conference is over.

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  • Connect with partner institutions. Every year we’ve brought two faculty members from Chico State as presenters. In turn, they brought their students, and our students were exposed to their future classmates and teachers. We have also brought presenters from other community colleges in the North State. It’s a win-win, and this openness to collaboration continues to spread. Last spring we had presenters and participants from eight colleges and universities.
  • Work the angles. We’ve applied for grants – and been turned down. We’ve asked for a big publicity push from our Public Relations – and got a token gesture. But we’ve kept asking. Last year our Dean found stipends for every part-time faculty member working on the committee, and we made enough money to provide stipends to the rest of the committee. To me, this is an important step. We may lose our autonomy if we’re institutionalized, but doing this hard work for free is too much to ask of my colleagues, most of whom are already overworked and underpaid. I’d like to thank Gina Gibbs for her idea of using GoFundMe to make money. We’ve gotten over $1000 in donations via Facebook in two years.
  • Do your homework. We started by looking at similar conferences offered at other community colleges. I’ve attended panels at AWP and met other conference coordinators, and discovered that our approach and our growth is typical – except that we have cheaper registration, more registrants, and less compensation. My counterparts were shocked to learn that I’ve never received a penny as coordinator for WordSpring.
  • Keep it fun. If it feels like work, the committee members are going to melt away. Our committee is a place for bonding, with the occasional meeting at the brewpub or my house, with pizza delivered and in-jokes and creative license to try out new ideas. No one is made to feel guilty if they miss a meeting or two, and we sometimes fly by the seat of our pants. Remind me to tell you about the time one of the workshop presenters didn’t show up, or the year we had to rename the conference. And I’m sure our website designer, adjunct instructor Finn Kraemer, will tell you that trying to set up registration fields was decidedly not fun.
  • Keep the mission statement foremost. So the poetry slam was probably taking on too much. And we suffered from mission creep in our second year when we took on the selection, publicity, set-up and clean-up of an entire year’s worth of literary events. (It was a great year though.) And it turned out we didn’t actually have the energy to put out a yearly chapbook of all our presenters’ work or hold an ongoing student poster design contest. All of these endeavors demonstrate the flowing of our collective creative juices, and I don’t mind learning the hard way. We still daydream about the gala event we’ll throw to raise money, but so far none of us has had the energy to do a conference and organize that too.
  • Host a reception. Have a glass of wine and a plate of appetizers with your committee members, your presenters, and a few select friends the night before the event. For the last two years we’ve followed this with a reading by our headliner, standing room only. It builds anticipation for WordSpring, and it feels like a triumph as we lead up to the next day.
  • Bring back winners. We’ve gradually developed a policy of “every other year” for presenters who were well-received and want to return. As I write this, during the second week of the semester, I already have a list of nine prospective presenters who have reached out to me asking to present again or for the first time. Of course, everyone’s favorite part of the conference planning is creating the schedule of presenters, but this has to be a fair and open process. Letting a few “insiders” select their friends and favorites would destroy the unity and trust within the committee. That’s a bad road to go down.
  • Keep it fresh. We committed early on to offering workshops in different genres throughout the day, and we are always looking to expand into new territory. Interested in leading a food writing, nature writing, travel writing, or play writing workshop? Email me!
  • Leave them wanting more. This spring we offered a record five workshops at each of four time slots, and attendees complained, like they always do, that we should be a two-day event, that we should repeat workshops so that they can take everything. I want them to feel that way as they walk out of the building at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon. What we don’t want is a day of attrition, where late in the afternoon only half the people who showed up at 8:00 a.m. are still there, and those ones are yawning and dragging their feet.
  • Have a closing ceremony. At first we didn’t know how to end. We had a “final word” from every presenter – but that went on too long. We had a few choice presenters read poems – and that was okay. But every year we’ve gotten closer to the mark. Last spring, Puck (in full costume) came out and gave the closing speech from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Killed it.

wordspring-2A creative writing conference is a lot of work; this is an unavoidable fact, and new committee members soon realize that there is no one else there to take on the myriad tasks. (I still remember our first year when I kept waiting for someone to step up and handle publicity. It never happened. It’s still me.) But it’s been such a worthwhile effort. In the past six years, I’ve seen important bonding and support among my part-time colleagues; I’ve seen three committee members get full-time teaching jobs – and I’d like to think WordSpring on their resumes didn’t hurt. Our administration now regularly includes WordSpring in their Institute Day presentations, where they brag about the college’s accomplishments. I’ve even heard them say it’s “the second largest event that brings community members to campus,” after our Foundation gala. I can’t deny it’s pleasant to be braced by my dean and VP and showered with amazed praise as they look at what we’ve done, and it’s even more pleasant to hand them over a list of committee members who are then publicly recognized, as they should be. Thanks to WordSpring, we’ve established stronger ties with the local university, two nearby community colleges, and several local high schools, spreading the message that we creative writers, students and teachers, need to stick together!

Because I’m a behind the scenes kind of person, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing three different students in the first week of school talk about the WordSpring conference they attended last April without any of them knowing I was involved. The biggest thrill was the way they talked about it. WordSpring was a given, a done deal, something that happens every year, and will happen again. They were telling other students about it and describing how fun it was with pride that they’d been there. Inside I was exulting secretly: I helped make that.

I’ve listed here several ways in which WordSpring is a success, but more than any other accomplishment, I truly feel our mission has been achieved. Our community of writers in this area is stronger. We have created a place for people to meet, write together, talk about their projects and their hopes, grow their craft, and celebrate all kinds of creative writing. At the end of the day, our wells have been replenished. That’s worth all the effort.

If you are interested in starting a creative writing conference, visit our website (buttewordspring.org) or drop me an email (emmonsmo@butte.edu). I’ll give you all the details, and invite you to WordSpring.

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emmons_headshot_for_english_websiteMolly Emmons is the Coordinator and co-founder of WordSpring and an instructor of English at Butte College. She’s also a writer and founding member of the 11-year-old group Northern California Novelists. After creative writing, she loves teaching Shakespeare best. She can be contacted at: emmonsmo@butte.edu. For more information on this year’s WordSpring conference, visit: buttewordspring.org.

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