Don Rogers: Why a writers event is worth a reader’s time

Don Rogers

You can tell the best papers by proximity to the nearest pub, and the coolest towns by whether they host an annual writers conference.

This is true in my world, anyway, and I believe the wisdom holds.

If so, The Union just got a lot better with 1849 Brewing Co. opening in the back where the press used to run. And Grass Valley/Nevada City is getting cooler by the year with the fourth annual Sierra Writers Conference tomorrow at Sierra College.

It’ll be awhile yet before this one approaches Squaw Valley’s world-class summer conference, of course. Still, they share some of the same fine instructors. Here’s another great chance to soak in some of their knowledge. Out of the snow, if you live by the lake, always a selling point this time of the year. Leave the ski hills to the tourists to take as ants to sugar this Saturday.

I might be on a limb saying this about an, ahem, writers conference, but I think readers who don’t write would get a lot out of the sessions, too. Especially readers toying with the notion of trying their hand.

That’s how it went for me, anyway. I read so much that eventually I got curious about writing. I mean beyond what we had to do in school. How about when the choice is unforced: Watch the game or grind out words? Sleep that extra hour or feet on the floor, answering the siren’s call?

I learned that writing made me a better reader, and reading made me a better writer. Attending a conference like this made me appreciate both that much more. As I think about it, though, participation might actually have taught me even more about how to read than to write. That was a surprise.

I might be a little weird thinking so, though. The workshops scheduled tomorrow tend toward craft — writing techniques, developing an audience, public speaking tips for authors. And always, always, there’s something on how to stalk those precious agents, often arising during Q&A. They don’t put it quite that way, of course.

Still, a glimpse at what writers really do can be illuminating, even motivating. A couple of workshops that might work well for readers who haven’t ventured into writing (yet) are Gene Berson’s poetry workshop in the morning and Catharine Bramkamp’s afternoon lesson on turning “personal stories into compelling fiction.”

Who knows, dropping in at a conference like this just might trigger something, and that something could well turn out to be a great book.

The Sierra Writers Conference a couple of years ago was the first such conference I attended, still new to fiction writing. It did trigger me.

I won’t forget Rachel Howard’s lesson that year on “aboutness,” the deeper why underpinning a story, a revelation for me. Or Sands Hall’s last year on point of view, all the cool things you can do with it, along with the differences in point of view between character, narrator and author.

People spend a ton of money in MFA programs for what they teach at the Sierra Writers Conference. I know because Howard and Hall, among others, teach in expensive university programs.

They also write. I’m reading Hall’s memoir “Flunk. Start.” right now. Howard has a novel coming out in a matter of weeks, I think. I’m also reading Berson’s poetry book “Raveling Travels,” and just started keynote speaker Josh Weil’s “The New Valley,” his first. I’ve read his others.

I discovered Jordan Fisher Smith’s “Nature Noir” at the conference a couple of years ago, to go with “Engineering Eden,” which will come out in paperback in February.

And I recently finished Dimitri Keriotis’ short story collection “The Quiet Time,” which I thought was right there with Adam Johnson’s “Fortune Smiles,” which I read at the same time. Keriotis will lead a critique session tomorrow; no, I’m not sucking up. This time.

And let’s see, I’ve read enough of Mary Volmer’s “Reliance, Illinois” to pick up a copy to send my mother for Christmas. Volmer will lead a workshop tomorrow, too. Apologies to everyone I left out here, for there are many.

I suppose you can begin to see where reading comes into this. Writing conferences at the very least expose you to great books. Knowing some of the authors just adds to the reading. I mean, these are people I can call and meet with, maybe discuss their work and learn something of their lives.

Ideally, we do this over a beer at the brewpub behind the paper, or in Grass Valley, or Nevada City, or Truckee. Where you can’t help but have a great conversation, especially with an author.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at or 530-477-4299.

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