notes from a writing conference

notes from a writing conference post image

I fly into Ohio on the redeye. I get to sit in the window seat, since I have no kids with me, and watch Lake Erie come into view, all misty in the dawn.

It’s 6:15 a.m. when I land, and I have a morning to fill. I take the Red Line into downtown Cleveland, and drag my carry-on to the hipster coffee shop that I’ve researched at home. I drink one of the best almond milk cappuccinos I’ve ever had and write in my journal because this is what the weekend is all about.


I make my way back to the airport where I’m shuttled to the small town of Ashland, an hour away, headed to the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference. The writer Ana Maria Spagna, a conference presenter, is in the van with me. She’s chatty and generous, asking questions about my homeschooling life, which always seems a little small when I’m outside my homeschooling world.

Everything is green, green, green, so different from the droughty late May golden hills of California. Square farmhouses with siding. No stucco.

I see my first Amish wagon, led by a horse on the side of the road.

I have a few hours to kill, so I walk to Main Street, looking for a salad, maybe a sandwich. The streets are almost empty. Elevator music is piped in on outdoor speakers. The only restaurant that seems open is a dusty Chinese place.

I walk back to the Subway I’d passed on the way into town, desperate, and text my husband not to tell Mr. T.

We’re staying in the campus dorms. One of my suitemates turns out to be an outgoing psychotherapist. The second is an undergrad who says few words to the rest of us. My roommate is a beautiful 28-year-old, newly engaged. She’s there to see Cheryl Strayed. Her own mother died when she was 19, and she wants to write her mother’s story.

Lulu is 19. I feel myself gathering this beautiful young woman under my wing.

That night we listen to Jerald Walker read from his work. I sit in the front row, terrified that the redeye of the night before will cause my eyes to close, which would give entirely the wrong impression since every essay Walker reads is wonderful. I’m not sure if I prefer “How to Make a Slave,” which appeared in Best American Essays 2014 and features Walker hiding in the closet of his young sons, worrying over their hearts, or his ode to Michael Jackson.

On Saturday I’m back in the front row of the lecture hall with my suitemates, listening to lectures and scratching excited notes. (And you can listen too! To all of the lectures and readings! Here!) Steve Harvey and Ana Maria Spagna speak on the essay in ten parts, my favorite parts being “the white space” and “the bridge.” Jill Christman and Sarah Wells talk about Jo Ann Beard’s masterful essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I love and have graffiti-ed with more marginalia than any other essay.

These are my people!

I have a consultation with Steve Harvey about an essay I’ve submitted for feedback. It isn’t the essay I wanted to submit, the one about owning one of Kim Gordon’s dresses–I couldn’t get that essay to come together in time. Instead I’ve sent an older one about a trip our family took to Spain ten years ago.

Harvey’s feedback is spot on. What he says doesn’t apply just to the Spain essay, but to my writing in general.

“Cleverness can be both a gift and a limitation for the writer. It can take an essay over and hide the writer–and the reader–from serious but important truths.”

“Your writing is often breezy–which is good for exposition–but we long for you to slow down and savor important moments in a scene.”

I’m always afraid to dwell in scenes in my writing, nervous that I’ll bore readers if I linger somewhere too long. Instead, I fall back on that cleverness, like a kid in junior high. I knew this about myself and didn’t know it. It’s what I need to hear.

I tell him that I don’t know what to do next in my writing. Dig into the memoir on homeschooling that I’ve been circling around, or try to get more essays published, to make myself more legitimate?

“Only your heart can tell you,” he says.

Happy hour is at a wine bar on Main Street. I order a glass of Italian Nebbiolo, thinking that it doesn’t make sense for a Californian to order California wine when in Ohio. It turns out to be a truly awful glass of wine and I am a snob.

While I’m taking my first awful sips, I receive an emailed rejection for an essay I’ve submitted to a magazine. The very essay I’d consulted with Steve Harvey on earlier. It’s a form rejection. The timing makes me chuckle.

My roommate and I find new bar seats across from Jerald Walker, who seems genuinely interested in homeschooling when the conversation–and what are you writing? –comes to it. He tells a very funny story of his son who wants to be a chef, but who wouldn’t eat a bite of solid food until he was almost two. Until the day he walked into the kitchen where his parents were meeting with a food therapist, casually eating a cracker.

I order a glass of California Syrah. I don’t know if it’s better because it is truly better, or because the second glass of wine is bound to taste better than the first.

My roommate and I nab a ride back to the college campus with Walker and a few others, one of whom received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction through Ashland’s low-residency program. I ask lots of questions. I imagine myself coming back to Ashland for two weeks each year, working on my homeschooling memoir as my thesis project in between, and earning my MFA.

I wonder if the twenty years I’ve spent homeschooling my MFA have been enough.

We arrive to dinner a little late, a little tipsy, and laugh too loud about the brown stuff on our plates that might be sweet potatoes.

Then we hear Cheryl Strayed read. We’re like a giant group of preschoolers, being read to by an adored teacher. She shares an essay-in-progress, about driving cross country and losing her last $2,000 in a McDonald’s bathroom, and having Grace Paley walk into a coffee shop in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of her desperation, and buying her a piece of pie.


Then she reads her Dear Sugar column “Write Like a Motherfucker,” and I feel like I’ve been given my marching orders.

We walk out from the reading on a high, my roommate and I, all worked up and with nowhere to go. A few other similarly blissed out women invite us to their dorm room to share a bottle of wine in paper cups and to rave about Cheryl Strayed. One of them turns out to be a homeschooler.

I lay in bed for hours that night, restless. Lightning flashes through the trees outside the dorm window. I keep thinking about that MFA program. Thinking of how to go deeper with my writing.

Over omelets at breakfast, a few of us marvel at how every wall of the dining hall is covered with photos and memorabilia. The photograph of a past university president and his disapproving expression gets us in giggling fits. We make up lines for him: I heard you were drinking wine in the dorms last night. What do you mean you didn’t like the sweet potatoes?


More presentations. At Cheryl Strayed’s Q & A, she says, “Part of what’s sacred in life is that unknowing.” Later, during Steven Church’s presentation, I ask him about writing parenthood. Part of his response includes the phrase: “the state of not-knowing that defines so much of parenthood.”

Unknowing. Not-knowing. Ongoing themes in my life as a homeschooling mother. Maybe a theme for a memoir.

At the end of the conference, my roommate and I run across the Ashland campus in heavy rain to the speakers’ book signing. We get in line, soaked and dripping. I step out of line to take a photo of my roommate having her book signed by Cheryl Strayed; I know how much this benediction means to her. She already met Strayed earlier, told her about losing her mother at nineteen. Cheryl Strayed signs her book, “Do everything like a motherfucker.”

When I hug my roommate goodbye, I find myself calling her sweetie.

I always find book signings a little embarrassing. I don’t need an author’s signature in a book; their words are what matter to me. Still, I buy a new copy of Wild in the bookstore, and get back in line. I watch Cheryl Strayed sign the book of the man in front of me, and try to read upside-down. It says something about keeping on the trail.

I don’t want to gush at Cheryl Strayed; everyone must gush at Cheryl Strayed. When it’s my turn, I simply tell her that I loaned my much-highlighted hardback edition to a friend and never got it back. I smile. She writes in my book, “Always trust your wild heart.”

“Only your heart can tell you,” he said.

As I’m walking away, she says, “I like your necklace.” Because she is the sort of person who gives when she’s sitting at the head of a receiving line. I’m wearing an old necklace, a simple silver circle suspended on a chain. I always spin the circle when I wear it. Now I will spin and think of Cheryl Strayed and my wild heart.

The evening is quiet and a little disappointing. Most conference attendees have left. My two friendly suitemates have left. The dinner venue is changed to an Irish bar, and by the time I walk over, I’m one seat too far from the conference presenters who I’d like to eavesdrop on and chat with. I’ve hardly had a word with Kate Hopper, the writer whose reading I went to in Berkeley, who I’ve gotten to know online, who inspired me to go to the conference in the first place. The waitress loses my order, and my plate is just arriving as Kate and the other presenters are leaving. I go ahead and gush at Jill Christman as she says her goodbyes, telling her I search out everything she writes. I finally get a few minutes to catch up with Kate.

The dorm room is quiet that night.

I take the shuttle back to Cleveland the next morning. I’m staying in Ohio an extra night, to have time to think about the conference, to write. I go back to my hipster coffee shop and write for hours. I go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because this is what you do when you are in Cleveland. I take photos of guitars and text them to my guitar-loving husband and miss him.

The next morning I go back to my coffee shop. I buy a cappuccino. Then an oat bar. Then another cappuccino. I make my apologies to the young guys making the pour-overs and write for four-and-a-half hours straight. I write about that MFA program. I write about my memoir. I start a new essay. I spin the circle on my necklace and let my heart tell me what to do.

37 comments… add one
  • debra Jul 8, 2015 @ 13:40

    gah! – thank you so much for taking me with you! wrapping up a story of such an experience so well is such a gift for the stay-at-homers…

    • patricia Jul 8, 2015 @ 16:50

      I’m so happy you enjoyed it, Debra! I hope you find your own inspiring getaway sometime soon.

  • Jennifer Jul 8, 2015 @ 13:42

    Great post, Tricia! The advice given to you twice gave me goosebumps (and tears). I hope you take it– I can’t wait to see what you do next!

    • patricia Jul 8, 2015 @ 16:51

      So nice to see you here, Jennifer! The advice had the very same effect on me. I’m taking it!

  • Kristin Jul 8, 2015 @ 14:03

    It’s a hard place to be in, the not knowing one. Grappling for what to do is awkward for someone who apreciates structure and planning. You could ‘shoot an arrow’ and just pick something and “write like a mother-fucker” to use Cheryll’s expression. Or, you could do other stuff you haven’t had time to get to and let your possibilities rest. Trusting that it will all work out, works too, eventually. Once you’re onto some thing, it’ll be all consuming, engaging–so try to embrace this phase. It’ll pass.

    I enjoyed this post very much. It’s sounds like it was a good trip and I admire you for taking a chance and being there.

    • patricia Jul 8, 2015 @ 16:56

      Well, you know what I do with the unknowing, Kristin: I make a plan! Haha. I will have to show you my Passion Planner. Check it out: Seems like something you’d appreciate.

      I hear what you’re saying about eventually finding the project that will be all-consuming. Now’s the time to learn as much as I can. I always appreciate your support and friendship!

  • Kortney Jul 8, 2015 @ 14:56

    Ah! Your wild heart. I might hear it whispering that the homeschooling memoir is next…but that might be my heart!

  • Amy Jul 8, 2015 @ 18:37

    Beautiful. I can’t wait to see what you do next!

    • patricia Jul 8, 2015 @ 21:53

      When it comes to you, Amy, that feeling is always mutual.

  • Stacey Jul 8, 2015 @ 21:14

    As usual I love hearing these updates. It’s interesting I got the feeling that your trip was wonderful and awkward. That may just be my own shyness around people I don’t know, especially ones I look up to.

    • patricia Jul 8, 2015 @ 21:58

      Not so awkward, really. I’m an introvert at heart, and I was surprised at how comfortable I felt. Which happens when you find yourself with your tribe, you know? Wonderful, yes, entirely!

  • Sisters From Another Mister Jul 9, 2015 @ 5:26

    I love these words of your heart and yearning, the unknowing … I have read your words of family, and schooling and writing for years … but these new words of letting go, digging deep – these will keep me with you for every word yet to come.

    • patricia Jul 10, 2015 @ 8:41

      Thank you, Nicole! I’m always delighted to see that you’re still reading here. I’m happy that my words still make a connection. 🙂

  • Nancy Jul 9, 2015 @ 6:46

    Really lovely. And that “homeschooling/parenting as not knowing” theme — that speaks to me, loudly! My kids are 10 and 14 and this job as a homeschooling mom, it’s so much not knowing and following your heart. (And realizing that though lots of other jobs look more clear and knowing, it’s probably just the state of being an adult.)

    • patricia Jul 10, 2015 @ 8:46

      Homeschooling is all about the unknowing, isn’t it, Nancy? It’s all about trusting and having faith on an unclear path. I’m working on an essay about that now, since I’m still trying to tease out what it’s all meant. Follow your own wild heart as you shepherd those kids!

  • Kate Hopper Jul 9, 2015 @ 9:54

    Patricia, I love this so much. And it’s makes me love Steve Harvey even more than I already do. How is that possible? You keep listening to that beautiful heart of yours!

    • patricia Jul 10, 2015 @ 8:53

      Oh, thank you, Kate. You’ve been such an encouragement to me. (Steve Harvey also had some wonderful, encouraging things to say. I didn’t post those here because it would seem a little pompous! I felt like he really got my writing and what I was trying to do. So happy I got to work with him.)

      Hope your summer is slow and productive! xo.

  • tamara Jul 10, 2015 @ 9:34

    Beautiful post. Sounds like an experience that you will keep coming back to. I am sending a link to this post to my husband who writes when he can. I think he will find this inspiring. I find it inspiring because I homeschool and writing is the tough one! Thanks! Loved Wild even before the movie came out and haven’t seen the movie. The book is precious and how wonderful that her words will stay with you. Those writers, they certainly do know what to say. 🙂

    • patricia Jul 11, 2015 @ 8:41

      Thank you for the kind words, and for sharing, Tamara! Yes, seeing Cheryl Strayed was wonderful. She is such a generous writer and a generous person. I’ve been rereading Wild, to study how she does it. There’s a lot of craft there, but mostly it’s who she is. I loaded up on several months worth of inspiration from her, and from the conference in general. Yay!

      • tamara Jul 11, 2015 @ 14:07

        Ah, you make me want to read the book aaallll over again! I have passed this post onto my husband who is a writer because I think there are some really good nuggets in here. Thank you! 🙂

  • Carrie Jul 10, 2015 @ 11:43

    It sounds as if this was a long-overdue retreat, a place where you could be with your people and dig into the kind of things you’ve been needing time to reflect on, probably for years. I’m so glad you did this! It sounds like a rich, productive time. I’m so glad!

    • patricia Jul 11, 2015 @ 8:42

      Yes, it was long overdue, and so good! (I got up early and started a response to your email! Now I have to run, but I will finish it this weekend! How’s that for a writing goal?) xo.

  • Kirsten Jul 11, 2015 @ 9:18

    Oh Patricia, I don’t know what to say. I just love to read what you write. There’s nothing more to it.

  • Nina Jul 15, 2015 @ 19:22

    This was such a generous piece to share for all of us who could not make it.

    For what’s worth (re: working on your memoir vs publishing more essays), I feel I’ve had a lot of essays and short stories published in the past five years. My credentials are beefed up and that’s great and all. BUT, guess what I don’t have . . . ? I have no manuscript and no real idea of what I would want that manuscript to be — fiction? nonfiction? I’ve allowed myself to get a little lost in this quest for more and more credentials. So, be careful with that, I guess.

    • patricia Jul 15, 2015 @ 21:08

      Nina, I must sheepishly admit that I read your post What’s Next for Me as a Writer with great interest! I didn’t respond because I had so much to say that the thought of writing it overwhelmed me! But, yes, it was so interesting for me to read another writer’s thoughts at a crossroads. I have one essay that’s beating in my heart that I want to work on this summer, and then I think it’s time to dig into the memoir. Hoping to submit a few sample chapters for a River Teeth consult next May. I worry that I still have so much growing to do as a writer–but I suppose there’s nothing to help you grow like a big project. Best of luck answering your own question, and next time I promise to leave a comment when inspired by one of your posts!

  • Tina Monaco Jul 16, 2015 @ 14:26

    Felt like I was there with you.

    • patricia Jul 17, 2015 @ 14:49

      Aw. We should go on an actual road trip one of these days. And I’m not talking camping!

  • Jim Ross Jul 16, 2015 @ 15:27

    Brilliant. You capture the conference spirit just right.

    • patricia Jul 17, 2015 @ 14:48

      Thank you, Jim. And thanks for stopping by!

  • Rae Pagliarulo Jul 22, 2015 @ 6:29

    This was gorgeous. I was heartbroken to find out I wouldn’t be able to attend the River Teeth conference this year. I thought reading this blog would make me jealous, but in truth, I’m so happy you got to experience this. And so happy I’ll get to listen to all the audio recordings on the RT website! 🙂

    • patricia Jul 22, 2015 @ 10:26

      Rae, thank you! Your name looked familiar to me, so I googled you up and realized that you wrote two Full Grown People essays that I loved! (Go forth and read, Wonder Farm readers! Enjoy those RT archives! They’re so good. I listened to them all and decided that I had to go to the conference myself.

      Maybe I’ll get to meet you there one day. Thank you for taking the time to say hello!

  • CathyT Jul 29, 2015 @ 4:31

    You really wrote this post well – I felt I was with you the whole time. Passion…I feel it here. Keep writing!! Dig deep, you have it in you and tell it like it is!

    • patricia Jul 30, 2015 @ 9:46

      Thanks for the never-failing encouragement, Cathy! There’s nothing better to a writer than to hear that your work has connected with a reader. It means a lot when those readers take the time to say so!

  • Nicole Zimmerman Sep 10, 2015 @ 9:04

    What fun to read your present-tense play-by-play impressions and see photos of the River Teeth writing conference. I haven’t been to Cleveland since my grandfather passed away several years ago, but perhaps this event in Ashland will someday draw me back there from California too (and I’ll drink a cappuccino at the hipster cafe and visit the museum like you). Awaiting rejection or acceptance on a piece for River Teeth from the latest contest, fingers crossed, and found this link in the Twitter feed. I completed an MFA at University of San Francisco; one of the best things I’ve done, and I encourage you to go for it w/ the low res or wherever calls you!

    • patricia Sep 11, 2015 @ 9:45

      Thank you for taking the time to say hello, Nicole! I loved the River Teeth conference, and hope to go back next year. Have you checked out the conference archives on their website? It’s a treasure chest and the reason I wanted to go in the first place. The conference is small enough that you get to know the people who are River Teeth, and they’re good, down-to-earth folks. It’s a trek from California, but do consider it!

      Best of luck with the contest!

      P.S. Just read your latest blog post. I have a turquoise Olivetti that I adore. Also, one day when I wrote at a cafe in Berkeley, a woman near me typed away on an actual typewriter. I couldn’t decide if it was rude or hilarious.

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