Writers’ conference attracts everyday folks with hidden talent

I have wasted my life.

I stare at the words written in long hand on my yellow pad. Mind you, they are not my own.

I am sitting in a creative writing workshop at the recent FIU Writers’ Conference, an annual gathering that just celebrated its 27th year. The line on my paper is a writing prompt. Or, in my case, a non-prompt.

Taught by renowned authors – novelist and short story writer Debra Dean, novelist and short story writer Ann Hood, novelist Scott Spencer, editor and short story writer Lynne Barrett and culinary writer-turned-novelist Steven Raichlen, among others – the conference represents an ideal opportunity for everyday folks with writing aspirations to get up close and personal with masters of the craft.

Held in different locations annually, sometimes in Florida and sometimes not, the conference offers 27 writing workshops over three days plus additional sessions on topics such as finding an agent and getting published.

Getting started
In a meeting room in the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, someone raises his hand during the general introductions on the first morning to ask if he should stick to workshops aligned with the kind of writing he does – fiction – or try something different, like poetry.

Les Standiford

Les Standiford

Les Standiford, chairman of the FIU Creative Writing Program within FIU’s Department of English, suggests the man step out of his comfort zone. “Why not try poetry? How bad can it be?” he asks to laughs from the roughly 50 assembled attendees.

A prolific writer who has several highly acclaimed books of nonfiction and the successful John Deal crime thriller series among his oeuvre, Standiford makes his push for verse: “I walked to my first poetry writing class in graduate school as if I were heading to the chopping block,” he says. “As it turned out, the first thing I ever published was a poem.”

That’s good enough for me. I head over to the poetry workshop taught by the dynamic Denise Duhamel. She has numerous collections of poems to her credit and, like several of the other conference speakers, teaches at FIU.

Denise Duhamel

Denise Duhamel

Writing a poem
Duhamel addresses the seven of us gathered cozily around a long, rectangular table. Not the reserved, demure type that some might equate with writers of a genre so dependent on intense introspection, Duhamel positively bubbles over with enthusiasm. She makes us feel like old friends talking over coffee – except that we’re discussing poems with unexpected endings.

“Not only do these poems have these crazy imperatives at the end, they also end in the word ‘life,’ which I think is really interesting,” Duhamel says.

We read aloud and dissect them before she gives us our assignment: take the last line of one and make it the first line of our individual poems. Start now.

I have wasted my life.

I didn’t pay for this conference, I think to myself. I’m just an observer trying to write about what people do when they come to learn to write. Technically, I don’t have to do this exercise. Hmm. Well, how hard could it be, anyway? Hurry up, the clock is ticking.

Pens tap against notepads and concentration is writ small on foreheads. Twenty minutes to turn out something worth sharing. I see Haya Pomrenze, an occupational psychologist from Hollywood, Fla., who works “with very crazy people in a locked ward,” going strong.

Pamela Akins, from Connecticut, has spent a 30-year career writing for clients of her marketing firm and now wants to “slide into retirement” with a new kind of writing. I see beautiful lines of cursive flowing from her hand.

I have wasted my life.

Stop thinking about it, and just write. You’re a writer, after all! A second cup of coffee this morning might have helped. OK, OK, I’m forcing words onto my paper now, whatever I can think of. Who cares if it’s good or not. It’s 9:49 a.m.!

Duhamel calls us to stop, and smiles approvingly as she looks around.

“If you can take anything away from this conference, it’s that even just 20 minutes, the right 20 minutes, can be a lot,” she says, having observed the productive activity.

“The power of writing in groups. I feel like you can’t stop,” Duhamel continues. “If you’re at home, no one really knows if I get up and get a snack right now. But if you can grab a pal and just go to a coffee shop…so that you have someone to write with.”

Well, I think to myself, she has a point: I wouldn’t have written a word without the pressure of other people doing the same around me.

“Who wants to read their poem?”

Akins volunteers. “I’m not good at writing spontaneously,” she says. And then, as if to mock that statement, she reads a beautifully composed piece about a mother’s wishes for her daughter. Her imagery includes a diaper pail, pearl earrings and a wedding ring.

“Excellent, great, great,” Duhamel says as everyone nods approvingly.

How did she do that in 20 minutes? I thought she was here to learn, not show off well-developed skills.

Duhamel quickly latches onto the poem’s teaching potential by pointing out Akins’ use of “anaphora,” the repetition of a word or expression for poetic effect.

“That’s another really good way, when you’re stuck in a poem…to just repeat a phrase. It can propel you along.”

Pomrenze goes next. She literally references everything and the kitchen sink in writing about her kitchen: dirty dishes, Bed Bath & Beyond coupons, a Mixmaster, a stainless steel mandolin. She finishes on a powerhouse ending that makes us gasp in surprised unison.

Duhamel takes a moment to appreciate the words. “I love all those images,” she says and then launches into a little discussion of ars poetica, a literary device that Pomrenze apparently employed. Pomerenz adds that she has not written anything in more than a year.

OK, another one who can whip up something grand in the blink of an eye.

Gathering energy from others
Several more people read (but not me), and it’s official, to my mind anyway: I have the least amount of talent in the room.

Which makes me wonder: Can you really teach someone to write poetry?

“Yes, I think you can,” Duhamel says. “You have to have some sort of innate ability, but I think what a writing teacher can do is save people who have that innate ability a lot of time.” She adds that a teacher can point out mistakes earlier in the writing process, as well as help a writer hone technique and skills.

Later, between workshops, Kathrine Wright of Salt Lake City, Utah, who writes a blog about reading and writing, tells me she hopes to get a kick start from the experience.

“I’m trying to get back to poetry. That’s what I’m looking for the conference to do, is to sort of help me get back into the practice.”

Standiford, who founded the conference so many years ago, agrees that the intensity of meeting with a group of other writers can do wonders for folks who otherwise work solo.

“Writing is a lonely profession,” he says. “Everybody comes to a conference like this, and they just turn it up two or three notches. In three days you get, as many people have told me, enough energy to last an entire year.”

I have wasted my life.

Maybe I will give it another shot.

— Alexandra Pecharich