Literary debates at writers conferences get pretty heated; almost as heated, in fact, as debates about the worth of writers conferences themselves.
Are the workshops a springboard into the world of polished prose and publishing? Or just motivational weekends with little lasting value?As with literature itself, opinions about conferences are usually driven by individual taste and personal experience.
"My impression is that the conferences allow novices to be around other writers," says Neal Kramer, vice president of the Association for Mormon Letters. "That's important. The emotional upsurge you get from successful writers can give you a push and helps you return to your own work with vigor. People also make friends with people who become sympathetic readers. The down-side is that conferences often promise more than they can deliver. They give people the impression they'll be making more progress during the week than they actually do."
Elaine Christensen, a Salt Lake poet, has attended almost a dozen writer rendezvous through the years. She's seen the cream and the dregs.
"I've been to some that were worthwhile, but I've also attended others that weren't," she says. "Sometimes you feel the instructors are there just to promote themselves and collect a check. They're not interested in helping. The sessions are academic and general. But the times when I've been able to make a connection, to get some personal advice and a feeling that my work may be of some worth, those are times when I've benefited."
In short, success depends on the corps of instructors. A conference that was a winner this year could be a bore the next because of the revolving faces.
Fortunately for Utahns, this summer's slate of workshops and seminars features poets, playwrights and fiction writers with credentials as fine teachers and mentors.
Here's a look at the local writing get-togethers over the next month or two:
WRITERS AT WORK: Park City, July 7-15.
Known affectionately as W@W, this Park City extravaganza is the "Lonesome Dove" of writing round-ups. It's a cut above.
The conference is July 7-15 this year, with a "command center" at the Yarrow Hotel in Park City. Mornings are for workshops, afternoons for discussions. The evenings will feature readings and socials. Tuition is $395, though afternoon sessions can be had for $40 each. For detailed information call 292-9285 or write to W@W, P.O. Box 1146, Centerville, UT 84014-5146.
Now into its second decade, W@W has a history of booking up-and-coming stars as instructors before they break through into fame. Rita Dove comes to mind, as do Rick Bass and Ron Carlson.
This year the faculty is a mix of literary lights and lesser-knowns. Headlining the show is Ann Beattie, a fiction writer who helped revolutionize the way America thinks about voice and stories. She'll be joined by Carlson and Valerie Miner in fiction, Teresa Jordan in essay, Edgar-winner Alane Ferguson and Marcia Marshall in juvenile fiction, with Wendy Hammond working with playwrights. The popular screenwriting workshop will also be back.
In poetry, Albert Goldbarth - a rising influence in American verse - will handle the duties. Gold-barth spoke with the Deseret News about his own work and what he hopes to accomplish in his Park City sessions.
"The range of writers and writing at the conference seems to be very impressive. And I hope we can get a sense of community in the poetry workshops," he says. "I hope we can start off with a bang - with some true history of each other's work."
Born and raised in Chicago, Goldbarth actually studied at the University of Utah in the early '70s. His career appointments and awards have been impressive. His work appeals to a large cross-section because of its inventiveness and humanity.
"I often toy with ideas of sentimentality, but then boot them to a level of feeling that's more adult," he explains. "A lot of poets I care about wade into the muck of the human heart without leaving their brains behind on dry land. Richard Hugo, James Wright were sophisticated poets who were not afraid to feel hurt, tenderness and pity."
Other notables to watch for in Park City include David Lee, Jeff Metcalf, Edmond Stevens, Carol Houck Smith, Sheman Alexie and Linda Asher.
SOUTHERN UTAH UNIVERSITY CREATIVE WRITING CONFERENCE: Cedar City; July 15-19.
This high-intensity, low-overhead writers conference is much like the university that spawns it: small but pressure-packed. This year the sessions will be held at the school's Mountain Learning Center some 11 miles up Cedar Canyon. The natural setting should massage the inspiration.
"This is our 14th year," says Susan Durfey of the SUU Division of Continuing Education. "We offer credit for the conference. We've already filled many of the slots."
The conference fee is $185 for the four days. Call Durfey at 865-8275 for details.
This year several outstanding teacher/writers have been recruited. Katharine Coles of Westminster College will handle fiction, Ken Brewer of USU will do essay. Popular Arizona writer Richard Shelton will teach creative nonfiction, with William Kloefkorn of Nebraska doing poetry.
David Lee, nationally prominent narrative poet and head of the English department at SUU, will handle a special session on teaching techniques.
NATURE WRITERS UTAH CENTENNIAL SYMPOSIUM; Wasatch Academy; Monday, June 24, 7 p.m.
After three weeks of hiking, rafting and exploring the wilderness, Wasatch Academy students will return to the Mount Pleasant campus for a symposium on ways that writers have processed and published similar experiences.
The symposium is open to the public at no cost.
Four popular Utah writers - poets Nancy Takacs and David Lee along with prose specialists John Perry Barlow and Edward Lue-ders - will share some of their own work, discuss their relationship with the land and people, then field questions.
For information, call Wasatch Academy Summer Programs at 462-2411, ext. 16.
WEST JORDAN WRITERS WORKSHOP; West Jordan City Hall; June 25-July 16.
Janell Smith, a high school creative writing instructor, will be the featured teacher for this series of two-hour sessions. Slated for a sequence of Tuesdays from 10 a.m. until noon and 7-9 p.m. at West Jordan City Hall, 8000 S. Redwood Road, the workshops will help writers prepare for upcoming Utah Centennial writing competitions.
Cost is $5 a session. Participants must be 16 or older. There will be guest speakers.
For more information call Kerri LeMonds at 255-7985.