I had the good fortune to attend Writing the Rockies at the end of July, in beautiful (if somewhat remote) Gunnison, Colorado. Western State College of Colorado boasts a low-residency MFA in creative writing that allows students to pursue their degree largely online, with a two-week summer session culminating in a weekend writing conference. The conference, open to non-student participants, provides the opportunity to attend lectures from faculty, participate in panel discussions led by instructors, authors, and editors, and to submit a piece of writing for critique. They also allow time for one-on-one sessions with writing professionals, to pitch ideas or get individual advice.
The major difference between an academic writing conference and a community-based conference is, not surprisingly, the academic element. Having gone to both types, I find that the academic conference lends itself to a more professional experience. The community writers’ group gathering is still a great place to network and enjoy the company of fellow writers, but academics (both students and faculty) work in a setting where real criticism is expected. They’re more inclined to tell writers what they need to hear, where a community-based conference leans toward telling writers what they’d like to hear. The academic world also offers interaction with lots of professional-level people (degree holders, published authors, editors, etc.), and most of the instruction comes from professional teachers. Instructional seminars at non-academic conferences may or may not be led by someone with good teaching skills. (I’m not dissing the community-style writing conference, but if you could only afford one of them, I think you get more mileage for your admission fee at the academic one. If you can afford both, go to both!)
I’m going to tackle some of the topic-specific things I picked up at the conference – stay tuned!