How a writers' conference changed my life

Five years ago, most of my friends were trying to figure out whether to go to grad school or join the Peace Corps. Maybe do Teach for America? Their options seemed endless—like they could literally just run off into the sunset, find something to do, and probably wind up pretty happy in the end. As for me…I knew there were only a few things that were going to cut it—working in publishing, building a career around books, maybe writing things that other people would actually want to read. The problem was, I had no idea how to get there.

Then I went to a writers’ conference.

Writers in Paradise is held in St. Petersburg, Florida, for a week every year in January, and I only decided to go because my life was a mess. My grandpa and my cat had just passed away (less than 30 hours apart), my parents were on the verge of splitting up, and I was desperate to escape snowy Minnesota during the heart of winter. I packed my bags and headed south, to attend a conference run by a team of writers I had vaguely heard of before but had never read. People like Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Ann Hood, and Jane Hamilton. You know, no big deal.

When I arrived in St. Petersburg, I was 22 years old, had two college fiction workshops under my belt, and had never even been to a book signing. A week of workshops, lectures, and discussions later, I walked away with all the tools I needed to start my publishing career.

I started small, continuing to plug away on the novel-in-progress I had workshopped at WIP (which now lives a comfortable life in the bottom drawer of my desk). The following spring, I typed up the story of how my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I met and sent it off to a contest at the New York Times—and was shocked when it placed as a runner-up and was published in the “Modern Love” column. That summer, I took a break from my full-time gig as a farmhand to attend the Denver Publishing Institute, where I learned about the publishing industry from the editorial, marketing, and sales perspectives. An unpaid internship, many nights of staying up late reading and writing, and a few key instances of incredibly good luck later, and I’m finally starting to feel like I have my foot in the door as I work for an incredible publishing company and my debut YA novel comes out next spring.

The point is, none of this would have happened without WIP and the amazing people I met there who a) showed me what it meant to be a “writer” and work in this very strange industry of ours and b) encouraged me to make it happen for myself. There are a lot of people out there happy to criticize writers’ conferences and question whether or not they actually benefit the people who pay to attend them, and it’s true that not all conferences are created equal. But if you’re a college kid, or someone who has written secretly for years, or a writer just looking to connect with other weirdos like you and get a big old injection of inspiration, then a writers’ conference might be just the thing to get you started on your path to success.

 Me with my incredible classmates and the incomparable Jane Hamilton

Me with my incredible classmates and the incomparable Jane Hamilton