Over the years, writers conferences - like people - acquire a personality. This is the eighth year for Writers at Work in Park City, and the conference has definitely found an identity.
"W @ W" (as it's affectionately known) is famous for booking up-and-coming writers who may not have star status, but do have uncanny gifts for crafting prose and poetry.This year's conference is no exception.
"We look for people who are not intimidating, but are well respected as writers," says board president Jennifer Kohler. "Overall, I don't think we've had a better faculty than the one we've put together this year."
The June event will feature short story writer Bob Shacochis, mystery writer Susan Kenney, poet Colleen McElroy and several others. (See accompanying story.)
But of all the people on board, perhaps the name that creates the biggest buzz is Charles Baxter, a short story writer from Michigan. Baxter's books always play to rave reviews. His latest collection, "A Relative Stranger," has been called, at various turns, "valuable," "disruptive" and "essential."
Baxter took time away from his word processor to talk about the world of writers and writers conferences in general.
The very business of teaching writing, for instance. Can anyone really be taught to write?
"I think you can teach editing," Baxter says. "You can teach the basic rules of thumb and send students out into the world with some technical equipment. In fact, I think that's the most anybody can do. It's all they do in art school or vocational school. It's all they can do at writers conferences. And I hope nobody promises to do much more than that. Writers need a certain amount of arrogance and stubbornness and belligerence to succeed. I don't think conferences can supply things like that.
"On the other hand, conferences are a very stimulating environment. I'm usually perked up by them because I get ideas from other writers and students."
Those ideas are usually exchanged in workshop sessions. The term "workshop story" has become a negative buzz-word in the publishing world, implying a certain minimalistic, spare, bloodless piece of fiction. Editors claim they can spot a story that's been "workshopped" a mile away. One thing Baxter tries to do is break down the "thou shalts" and "shalt nots" that lead to such pieces.
"There's a certain kind of workshop that I don't care for," he says. "It begins with the instructor taking the `I like or don't like' approach to manuscripts. What I like to do is begin by telling the writer what I noticed about the work, what I remember from it. Then I try to talk about what I feel is at stake in the story, what the story is really about. I tend to give descriptive comments, not critical comments. Some students like that. Others, of course, would rather have their work praised or attacked, and there are plenty of instructors who are happy to do that for them, too."
And what's the biggest obstacle the writers in workshops face?
"Aristotle once said the problem in writing is not the creation of character but finding the proper structure," Baxter says. "I think that's still true. What I see at conferences are a lot of writers trying to avoid conflict in their lives, so they avoid conflict in their fiction. They want to write about likable people, and that's where they go wrong. I believe the best stories begin when characters start to behave badly. I'll be trying to convince young writers of that when I'm in Utah."