I admit that I signed up for the Writers’ Festival at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York without really understanding what it would entail and how much I would actually get out of it. I’ve been to a fair number of conferences at this point but most of them have been more of the lecture and presentation variety rather than Chautauqua’s focus on daily small group workshops and multiple readings and panels by both the “experts” and anyone else who wants to give things like “Open Mic” a try (I wasn’t quite up for that yet but I really enjoyed listening to others read from their work).You also get an individual conference with your small group leader, which was immensely helpful for me in focusing what I’m trying to accomplish.
One of the best things that happens at Chautauqua is that you experience total immersion in everything literary. From 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. you are busy doing something that has to do with writing or reading or you’re eating a meal or having a drink with other writers. Because the Festival fee includes everything, you don’t have to think about mundane things like jobs, volunteer work, cooking, cleaning, laundry, children, other family members, and pets. All you have to worry about is getting to different rooms on time so you don’t miss anything! And the Festival organizers clearly “get” us. They’ve built in time for just sitting on the spacious hotel porch overlooking the lake and thinking, time to write quietly wherever you’re most comfortable, and time to take a walk or get some other type of exercise. The whole atmosphere evokes the literary retreats of old and most of the four days feels like you are in this blissful writing bubble.
My group was nonfiction, historical and memoir, and there were 12 of us from all over the United States and all ages and walks of life, along with our fearless leader, Patsy Sims. Despite the fact that five members had MFA’s from Goucher College in Maryland and some of us were just starting to dip our toes in the water of serious writing, we instantly bonded, both as a group, and with Patsy. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t feel comfortable offering constructive criticism or suggestions, or asking questions, about each other’s works-in-progress though. In fact it was quite the opposite. As a result, I came away from the four days with all sorts of practical ways to increase my writing skills, a seemingly endless reading list (thanks Tandy!) and a better sense of where I’m heading with the book I’d like to write and how I can get there.
When I first walked through the front doors of the Athenaeum Hotel, I was apprehensive and intimidated, not sure that me, or my writing, would measure up to the other participants. When I left, I felt like I was finally part of a real writing community and that I had made some connections that I hope will last for a long time, with people that love words and their endless possibilities as much as I do. I look at the picture that Bob took on our last day of us all standing together in our little conference room and I smile, thinking to myself,”This is my tribe.”