When the world is literally on fire, who can think about writing?
The present writer was reminded of Chicago author Rebecca Makkai’s 2018 Electric Literature essay on the topic (“The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?”) as smoke from hundreds of Canadian wildfires enveloped Chicago in a post-apocalyptic haze this June. But whether the latest news is an environmental disaster, a migrant crisis, or an infuriating decision from the nation’s highest court, there are innumerable daily horrors that keep writers doom-scrolling on Twitter instead of, well, writing.
Enter the writers’ conference. For any writer looking for inspiration and a chance to recenter their creative life and their craft—or just get back to that essay/poem/novel they’ve been working on for years—writers’ conferences can provide invaluable support and a chance to learn from some of the best in the business.
The upcoming Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference has enabled writers across Chicagoland and beyond learn about the craft and business of writing from award-winning authors for nearly 20 years. The conference returns Friday, July 21 and Saturday, July 22, in an online format, enabling writers to join from anywhere in the world. Online registration is available in advance and throughout the conference weekend, and participants may attend anywhere from a single class to all 10 workshops. The conference is hosted by Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies MA in Writing and MFA in Prose and Poetry programs, which counts Makkai and many other renowned authors among their faculty.
“We’re writing in a time when the world is in profound need of reimagination,” essayist Megan Stielstra (The Wrong Way to Save Your Life) said by email. “Our stories have a place in that; what we see, what we’ve survived, how we show up for one another even when it’s hard. Do you know that Toni Morrison line, ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work’? I’m here to help artists work, to find language for their ideas and experiences. Northwestern’s Summer Writers’ Conference is an incredible place to kickstart that process.”
Stielstra’s workshop at the conference, “Urgency and the Personal Essay,” will make use of literary and oral storytelling traditions to help participants engage in activities that get their stories out of their heads and onto the page, generating new work and digging deeper into the material writers are already exploring.
Another workshop, Juan Martinez’s “A Whole Mood: On Humor & Horror,” will help writers reengage with some of their earliest, most primal reading experiences, providing tricks of the trade to help them tune a piece so that it’s funnier, or scarier, or sadder. His debut horror novel Extended Stay was released earlier this year.
“One of my favorite reading experiences is when something gets at me at a visceral level—a good cry, a shudder, an involuntary snort of laughter,” Martinez said. “‘A Whole Mood’ is an attempt to reverse-engineer those reactions, to talk about the strategies that have helped me make fiction funny, or horrific, or sometimes both. Anyone coming into the session can expect to come out with some tools to make their work lean more into a desired emotional reaction.”
All the workshops at this month’s Summer Writers’ Conference are taught by Northwestern faculty, including Stielstra and Martinez as well as Paula Carter (No Relation), Gina Frangello (Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason), Miles Harvey (The King of Confidence), Rebecca Morgan Frank (Oh You Robot Saints!), Faisal Mohyuddin (The Displaced Children of Displaced Children), Natalie Moore (The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation), Donna Seaman (Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists) and Christine Sneed (Please Be Advised).
In a recent interview, Amy Danzer, who manages Northwestern’s MA in Writing and MFA in Prose and Poetry programs, said each of the conference sessions provides an opportunity for writers to generate new work. All levels and genres of writing are welcome.
“We really try to make these workshops accessible for people of all backgrounds,” said Danzer, who has been director of Northwestern’s Summer Writers’ Conference since 2017. “Whether you’re new to the workshop format, or you’re a writer yourself, there are opportunities to generate writing […] people can come in with nothing written, or maybe they’ve already been playing with an idea, but then these generative prompts help people continue to develop their work. It’s really for anyone.”
Even Natalie Moore’s workshop, “The Art of the Interview,” has relevance for attendees of all backgrounds, as writers across genres sometimes need to conduct interviews for their projects. A reporter for WBEZ covering segregation and inequality, Moore’s debut play The Billboard: A Play About Abortion premiered last year.
“If writers are tentative about conducting interviews or want to improve their skills, this class will be for them. Even fiction writers find themselves doing research and talking to people before they put words on a page,” said Moore.
Danzer recommended Christine Sneed’s workshop “The Short Story: A Writing and Publishing Tutorial” for writers interested in the nuts-and-bolts business aspects of the industry and how to get work published. For those seeking individualized attention and professional eyes on their work, she noted conference attendees can book a private manuscript consultation with one of the participating authors for an additional fee.
“It’s been wonderful to see so many writing conferences, literary festivals, and organizations respond to the various curveballs thrown at them these last few years—how they’ve adapted and pivoted in ingenious ways to continue to serve their communities,” Danzer said. “It’s taken a lot of creativity and determination to keep it all going, and it’s been exciting to see new organizations and events emerge that likewise help facilitate conversations around crucial topics and encourage people to tell their stories.”
Details for the 20th anniversary edition of the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference in 2024 have yet to be finalized. For now, the 2023 Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference takes place online, Friday, July 21 through Saturday, July 22, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Tuition ranges from $30 for one workshop to $150 for the entire 10-session conference. Private manuscript consultations are $125. For more information and to register, visit sps.northwestern.edu/summerwriters.