WRITING LIFE: Get Thee to a Writer’s Conference: How Attending Both Did and Did Not Change My Life by Lori D’Angelo

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In 2009, I earned my MFA in creative writing from West Virginia University and had a baby — both in the same year and in that order, but a few months apart.

Like many new MFA grads, I had a lot of questions. Was I going to get my MFA thesis published? (No.) Was I going to find a job? (Yes. Sort of. In my case, it was a series of cobbled together mostly unstable but often interesting academic jobs. At least for a while.) Eventually, jobwise at least, things became more stable.

In 2011, I was teaching online at multiple schools and had a two-year-old son. I wanted to figure out how to take my writing to the next level. I applied for a residency at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts. I applied for a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. I applied to attend the Community of Writers Conference in California.

I got into all of them. And I went to all of them.

But, in the time between applying to these opportunities and receiving them, my life changed. I got pregnant. I had a miscarriage. I told the lady at the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts in rural Rabun County, Georgia, that I would have dietary restrictions when I went. Then I told her that I wouldn’t. I did my residency at Hambidge in May 2012. Shortly after, I went to the legendary workshop. While I was at the Community of Writers Conference, I told no one that I had recently suffered a miscarriage, though I thought about doing so several times.

I had applied to get into the conference with a short story, but I workshopped a section of a novel. My workshop leader said that, in the novel I was writing, I needed to stop switching points of view. My writing mentor, who read my short story and met with me for an individual conference, said it was almost there.

I had flown across the country from Virginia to California to attend the Community of Writers Workshop. I remember that I took a picture of the welcome banner and posted it on Facebook. It got a lot of likes.

Going in, I naively believed that I was going to find my agent that summer and get my novel published shortly after. Though I did, later, get several full requests for the novel that year, I never got it published, and, eventually, I stopped trying.

For a while, I wondered why I had gone there at all and what if anything I had gotten out of going.

I was a scholarship recipient, and I worked the whole time I was there, not just assisting with setup at events at the workshop, but also engaging in my own for-pay work of teaching online. At the time I attended, I was teaching somewhere between two and four online college writing classes. When fellow workshoppers went on excursions to places like Lake Tahoe, I went back to my room and graded.

But, I attended every reading and craft talk that I could. I saw Amy Tan (and her little dog, too!) and the actress who played the main character in The Blair Witch Project. She was a workshop alum, and she had recently written a memoir.

I remember hearing a talk by a writer who said she didn’t find her agent there or get her book published right away. Instead, it took her years. It would also take me years.

Despite being less social than some of my fellow attendees, the other workshoppers made a point to include me. They invited me to lunch, and I sat and ate and talked with them and thought, “Well, this is just amazing — to be in the company of people who love to write as much as I do.” Some of us connected on social media, and, while there, I made one good friend, my roommate, Nancy, who I still keep in touch with and share writing news and thoughts on both politics and our personal lives with to this day.

The whole time I was in the valley — because of the altitude — I had headaches and even nosebleeds. And, even though I didn’t have much time to go out on half-day outings that some of my fellow attendees took advantage of, one afternoon I did go up to the top of the mountain and looked down. There, I at least saw a view of Lake Tahoe and grounded myself in all of the valley’s beauty.

I also didn’t really try to network with Mark Childress or Gregory Spatz or any of the other more well-published, well-connected writers who were teaching and reading at the conference. And I didn’t try to engage them in riveting small talk conversations at our outdoor dinners. I was too shy and too terrified and that would have required more social energy and expertise than I had.

Even so, I felt that something magical was happening in that valley. I was reading and learning in the same setting that had once taught and nurtured writers like Richard Ford and Aimee Bender. I was listening to Sands Hall play music and read from her memoir about her time exploring Scientology. In a way, it felt like I was on sacred ground. And, like the writer I was then and the better writer I am now, I watched and listened and soaked it all in. Though I didn’t know what to do with all the raw material I was gathering, I mentally stored it like a hoarder. It would be useful to me someday, I thought.

A comment that one of the teachers said stuck with me. I think, but I actually don’t remember, it was the poet Al Young who told us to read everything, the trash, the high literary, everything. I took it to heart.

The story that my mentor said was almost there? I tucked away in a drawer for years. But I didn’t give up. In 2023, I picked it back up and finally knew what to do to make it work.

That story, now called “Aftermath,” was published by BULL in 2024.

And, thanks to the advice that I got about reading everything, I was able to write something uniquely my own. My debut genre-bending short story collection, The Monsters

Are Here, is forthcoming from the literary press ELJ Editions later this year.

I didn’t tell the writers and teachers what had happened to me and all the ways I was hurting, but nonetheless, the music, the writing, the community healed me.

I’m reminded of the words in the song by Americana artist Drew Holcomb that also reminds me of the music that was played by the multi-talented writers at The Community of Writers, many of whom were not only wordsmiths but also talented musicians: “You gotta find your people, then you’ll find yourself.”

At The Community of Writers, I did.

Meet the Contributor

lori dangeloLori D’Angelo is a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a fellow at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and an alumna of the Community of Writers. She holds an MA from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and an MFA from West Virginia University. Her work has appeared in various literary journals including BULL, Drunken Boat, Gargoyle, Moon City Review, Reed Magazine, Salvation South and Rejection Letters. Her first book, a collection of short stories, The Monsters Are Here, is forthcoming from ELJ Editions. Find her on Twitter @sclly21 or Instagram at lori.dangelo1.

Share a Comment