This week, Ginny Rorby of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference was kind enough to give us the 411 on what the MCWC has to offer writers.
JD: Tell us about how your conference came to be.
GR: Marlis Boardhead taught a creative writing class at the College of the Redwoods, and thought it would be inspirational to invite a published author or two up to speak to and work with the class for an afternoon. That was 21 years ago. By 1996, it had become a full weekend conference, and I volunteered to help by arranging housing for the presenters. The Mendocino coast is as beautiful as any in the world, and many of the people who live here are very generous with their guest facilities. Back then, as now actually, it was impossible to pay the presenters what they were worth, but coming here and staying in a fabulous guest house with an ocean view for a weekend helped compensate them. So much so that within two years, the word was out and we had wonderful writers asking to come. A few paid their own way.
The next year, Marlis moved to Oklahoma, where she and her husband got full-time jobs teaching. Suzanne Byerley, who was my first friend when I moved here in 1991, took over teaching her creative writing classes. Marlis made an attempt to run the conference that year from Oklahoma, but it was by then big enough to be impossible to do from that far away—especially with just me and a design person from the college. It looked as if the end had come.
The College of the Redwoods, from the beginning, had sponsored the conference, but that year, 1997, it lost too much money for them to continue to support. The word was out that it would be cancelled. Suzanne and I had a long talk and agreed to give running it a try. Dr. Leslie Lawson, an inn owner from Elk, was the vice president (Dean) of the Fort Bragg campus at that time. She gave us the nod—and her inn.
I hold an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Florida International University. That year (1998) and the next, I invited virtually the entire faculty of FIU to present at the conference. Suzanne got all her creative writing students to either come as full paying participants, or volunteers. When the time came, Leslie turned her inn over to us, hosting a dinner of real Shepard’s Pie, and sing-along for the presenters, rooms for all with an ocean view, and a full breakfast the following morning. Finding presenters after that was never a problem.
In 2005, Suzanne and I exited as we had entered—hand and hand. She wanted to move East to be closer to her grandchildren, and I’d just sold my second novel and wanted more time to focus on my own writing. Suzanne chose one of her creative writing students, Charlotte Gullick, to take over the conference. Charlotte worked with us that last year, joined at the hip so to speak with Suzanne. I have to say here, that we have a 12 or so member committee, who have been a part of this conference since 1998. Suz and I were the directors, but it would have been a failed endeavor without those committee members. And they are all still with the conference. I’m one of them now.
Last year, Charlotte got a full time teaching job in Austin, TX, and left us. Two of our committee members stepped forward and have taken over the conference. Maureen Eppstein, a fabulous poet, and Katherine Brown, a terrific writer and teacher, are our new directors, and of course, the committee members still prop up the directors—physically and emotionally.
JD: How have you grown as a writer since becoming involved with the conference?
GR: When I joined this conference in 1996, my first novel, Dolphin Sky had just been published. I thought I was on my way. My second novel, which I’d already put 8 years of research and writing into, was nearly finished, yada, yada. Over the years, as the rejections piled up, I grew annually more cynical of the whole endeavor. Every year, I’d see so many of the same people with the same dream come back to the conference year after year. I’d go into the conference exhausted and feeling like a fake writer, and come away three days later, more exhausted, but totally renewed. We get these warm swirling little, pockets of air here on the coast. They feel like warm springs bubbling up in a cold lake. They even have a toasted smell. It’s always a surprise when you walk through one. That’s how’d I feel at the end of each conference—bathed in inspiration. Then another year would pass. I finally put novel #2 in the closet.
One of the first presenters at the conference—in 1989—was Bonnie Hearn Hill, now a well-known mystery writer. Over the years, Bonnie and I became friends. One of her talents was helping writers create query letters that demanded attention. By this time—2004—I’d lost my first agent, and my editor of Dolphin Sky, though generous with her praise and advice on my new novel, wasn’t interested in publishing it. After 3 years on my closet floor, I dusted off novel #2, and asked Bonnie to help me with a query letter. She did, and when it was done to her satisfaction, she told me to send it to her agent, along with a copy of Dolphin Sky. Laura Dail took me as client and had Hurt Go Happy sold in seven weeks. It has since won the Schneider Family Book Award and been nominated in five states for reading awards. So what has the conference done for me? Just changed my life, that’s all.
JD: You are situated in one of the most beautiful areas of the country! What else makes your conference unique?
GR: I’d been to a dozen conferences during the early years of my own growth as a writer—partly because in the FIU masters program, it was required. With few exceptions, they were all the same. There were wonderful, talented writers at every one of them, but they weren’t teachers. They were talking heads on a panel—informative but not inspirational. Our number one priority is now, and always has been, to have presenters who are generous, inspirational teachers, as well as recognized writers. I think that’s why our participants return at an unheard of rate of over 50%.
Charlotte Gullick said, "This conference is all about craft and community. We leave ego at the door." I can’t say it any better than that.
From the time Suzanne and I took over as directors we felt the importance of reaching out to young writers. Each year since, we have awarded between six and nine full scholarships to local high school students who show promise as writers. This year, we are expanding that program to encompass the full county. That might sound like ‘big deal’ but our county is split by a mountain chain, albeit, they aren’t all that tall, but they are a physical impediment to outreach within the county.
We also have at least one event that is free and open to the public. Last year, for our twentieth anniversary, we had gang interventionist, Luis Rodriguez. His program galvanized our community. MCWC is now working with Big Brothers, Big Sister, Safe Passage, the Fort Bragg police department and our Youth Project kids to encourage at-risk kids to engage with artists, writers, woodworkers, ceramicists, weavers, and quilters, of whom there are hundreds in this community. As a community, pursuit of the arts is who we are.
JD: What do you have planned for this July's conference?
GR: Our classes have always been available to all levels of writing expertise, and will continue to be so, but this year we wanted to offer a class designed specifically for the more advanced writer. Lynne Barrett, one of my professors at FIU, is returning to teach a master’s class on revision. For me the grunt work of writing is getting the story you think you want to tell written. The true artistry comes in rewriting. I hate to write; I love to rewrite. That’s why, for our first experiment with a master’s class, we chose Lynne to teach revision. She is the best I’ve ever met.
As good as we were, we were a ‘white bread’ conference, not because we wanted to be. We were a committee, honestly, run by old women. I’m one of them. That’s not a bad thing. We all knew how to mother, and were good at it. That’s why participants always came away feeling cared for and encouraged, but we selected our presenters from the writers we knew and read—the familiar. Charlotte changed all that. She wanted to see more ethnic diversity in our presenters, and she and her husband were young enough to know who some of the up and comers were.
Charlotte has moved on, but the committee is determined to continue with her vision for the conference. This year we have among our presenters, Malin Alegria, Nancy Lord, Alison Luterman, Kat Meads, Valerie Miner, Mahbod Seraji and Ellen Sussman. Agents: April Eberhardt and Sally van Haitsma. Editors/publishers Stefanie Freele, Steve Mettee and Brianna Smith. Our topics include environmental consciousness (Nancy Lord) and cross-cultural understanding (Malin Alegria and Mahbod Seraji.).
The conference is set up so there are three consecutive mornings of manuscript critiquing workshops in either fiction, nonfiction, memoir or poetry as well as the revision master class. The afternoons are devoted to lectures and panels, presenter readings and evening keynote addresses. We feed people breakfast and an excellent lunch, plus a reception featuring Mendocino County wines, and a closing dinner. New this year are post-conference nature excursions to share our natural treasures.
JD: What are some of your favorite books, and what is your writing practice like?
GR: Oddly, I’m a big fan of non-fiction, perhaps because I have to read so much of it when researching for my own stories. I love Malcolm Gladwell and Temple Grandin. Gladwell's What the Dog Saw I read for self-edification, Grandin, as part of my research. I’m finally secure enough with my own voice as a writer to risk reading other YA writers. I’ve become a huge fan of Gary Schmidt and Gennifer Choldenko.
Ah ha. My writing practice? Well, phrased. It still is practice. My third and fourth novels are coming out this year and I just sent off a fifth to my agent. You’d think that would be practice enough. Not so. I remember whining in my first creative writing class that I didn’t know what to write about. Twenty-eight years later and I still want to whine, now what? With that said, I write every day—well every day that I’m not playing bridge. I just sit here and stare at the page some days, but I’m at my desk. If I get really jammed up, I go take a bath. Someone once said the 3 Bs of creativity are Bed, Bath and Bus. It’s true. I can sink into a warm tub with a problem on my mind and out floats the solution. I hit lots of walls, so I stay very clean.
Thanks to Ginny for sharing her time and insights! For more on the conference go to the site: http://www.mcwc.org and for more on the craft of writing check out my site, http://bangthekeys.com or my new book, Bang the Keys.
Until next time, I leave you with this question:
What kind of experiences have YOU had with writers conferences?