A HEART-SHATTERING GRAPHIC MEMOIRIST Bechdel.
Even if you don’t call yourself a writer, you might have a chapter or two of a sci-fi thriller, a sketch for a TV pilot tucked away on your laptop, or a slate of ideas uttered into your phone’s Voice Memos folder, languishing “until you have more time.” Perhaps you’re working on your dream project privately — painfully, slowly — and you don’t think you have it together enough to show the world. But hey, now’s the time, and right here within the comfy confines of Rhode Island, there’s inspiration for the taking: the Ocean State Summer Writing Conference at URI, from June 19–21.
The conference is a mix of small group conversations, classes, and workshops focused on specific genres and topics from the wide-ranging (beginning, intermediate, and advanced fiction) to the specialized (science fiction, YA lit, memoir), plus larger panel discussions, keynote addresses, and straight-up hangout time with fellow bookish folks. Attendees select sessions according to their interests and may share their own writing if they choose. Many bring a work in progress — at any stage — for which they’re seeking feedback. Thomas Barkman, a conference coordinator, says the focus of the event is to give writers “the proper time, space, and tools to write,” when it can be a stretch to find them in the midst of a wild, busy life.
This is the eighth year of the conference and its size and visibility are increasing thanks in part to the participation in recent years of Pulitzer Prize-winning authors (Jennifer Egan, Ayad Akhtar), National Book Award winners (Robert Stone), and even a Presidential inaugural poet (Richard Blanco). In addition to covering traditional concentrations — fiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, playwriting, poetry — the 2014 conference will place a new emphasis on the graphic novel, with a keynote address on Saturday, June 21 by the author Alison Bechdel, whose heart-shattering graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? are legends of the genre. Providence comic artists Paul Lyons, Walker Mettling, and Mickey Zacchilli will lead a conversation on alternative comics. There’s also a significant TV and screenwriting component, and sidebars on artists’ books, poetry micro-books, switching between genres, and avoiding the pitfalls of writing in the first person.
Barkman says that the majority of participants are from Rhode Island, and that there’s a “good spread” in terms of their career paths, from published professionals fine-tuning current work, to people employed in other fields who write on the side, to college or grad students still in the throes of academic life. He describes the atmosphere as “welcoming and intimate, but buzzing with activity,” a view shared by Rhode Island-based author Maria Mutch, whose meditative memoir about parenting her disabled son, Know the Night, was published by Simon & Schuster this spring. Mutch says that the campus itself will be quiet, with students having vacated for the summer, but the conference is “very lively,” with a “really nice energy.”