I’ve spent the past couple weeks agonizing over word choice and grammatical structure in AWP panel proposals (due today! But if you forget, that’s ok – less competition for me and mine…). The question that’s been put to me, with this and other conferences, is why go at all? What’s the point? Conferences are expensive and time-consuming. Wouldn’t all that time and effort be better spent writing, reading, grading, and all the other myriad tasks that fill the semester, all of which become harder when you’re suddenly gone for four days, or five if it’s in a cool location.
I participated in (technically) five conferences this academic year, presenting both academic research and creative work. To be completely truthful, three of the conferences were on campus here at NMSU, and two of those were only open to NMSU students. But, other than the reduction in travel time, I still spent time and effort preparing for each one – time some might argue would have been better spent on other endeavors. So why bother?
Below are my reasons for applying to, working toward, and attending academic conferences, even as an MFA student.
5. Building Professional Development
This is perhaps the obvious, and probably least persuasive, of my reasons for going to conferences. Conferences are prime opportunities to network, find new publication and presentation opportunities, and add a line or two to the all-powerful Curriculum Vitae. So, sure, this is on the list. But to me, it’s not nearly the most important part.
4. Seeing the Sights
Lots of conferences are held in tempting locales, and one of the many great things about presenting at a conference is that, if you’re associated with a university, you can often get help paying the travel costs. This year, I got to see Chicago, which I last visited as a high school student, and Albuquerque, which I had never been to before. And, as in both locations a group of us from NMSU attended, I got to visit two amazing cities with my friends. While the conferences didn’t leave a lot of time for sight-seeing, I still got to visit “The Donut,” eat my first real Chicago deep-dish pizza, have my photo taken with a dinosaur, and pass up the opportunity to eat a yak burger. Why? Why didn’t I just order it? I’m still kicking myself over that one. Next time, Albuquerque. Next time.
3. Sharing My Work
Graduate students work hard. We have a lot to do, and much of it is done alone, hunched over computers in the graduate offices or the darkest corner of an apartment for unhealthily long hours. Conference presentations give the opportunity to be heard and recognized, and we get to hear feedback and (ideally) encouragement from other people who care about the same things we do. Whether that’s a specific genre, film-maker, book, or theoretical lens, conferences let you share your passions and interests with informed, like-minded people, and that’s always a rewarding experience.
2. Feeding My Academic Curiosity
I enjoy learning. I also enjoy being a student, and I enjoy being a teacher. Every conference I’ve attended, including the ones on my own campus, exposed me to new ideas. And not just new ideas: Awesome ideas. Mind-blowing ideas. Ideas that made me excited to keep researching, reading, and writing. I know everyone goes into graduate study in creative writing with different goals and focuses, but I still enjoy learning about literature, pedagogy, and culture, and that’s what I do at conferences. I even have to prioritize, pulling the conference practice of ducking in and out of panels for specific presentations, trying not to slam the door as I rush off to the next irresistible presentation topic. I get ideas for research, teaching, and creative work. I have notebooks full of the stuff. And the more I learn, the more excited I get, because of my number one reason:
1. Locating Myself as a Writer
One lesson that really hit home for me by attending conferences this year is that my writing does not exist in a vacuum. The stories I’m writing, the scraps of ideas scattered in journals and my computer’s hard drive, have a literary lineage. They have a cultural lineage. They operate, consciously or unconsciously, on theories that I or my characters hold about the world. They have political stances. They imply meaning and messages about gender, race, and class. And while I’ve learned to recognize these aspects in published writing, writing that I perhaps took more seriously, it’s been in preparing for and attending conference presentations that I’ve recognized that these characteristics exist in my writing too. I may not be able to talk about them coherently, or even identify them a good portion of the time, but they’re there. And because of that, I have a responsibility as a writer to be aware and in control of the messages I put out into the world. I don’t think my writing will ever be heavily theory driven in its conception, but what I have to remember is that a good story is never just a good story. It’s a whole lot more than that, and attending conferences has helped me to recognize, and respect, these aspects in my writing.
I recognize that conferences aren’t for everyone. But these are the reasons it’s worth it for me to take on the time, effort, and stress of preparing for and attending conferences. And these are the reasons that I’m going to go proofread that AWP panel proposal, just one more time, and look forward to starting another year of conferences.