The Return of Midwest Writers Workshop – Part 2

I got home from MWW on Saturday evening, and I still feel like I’m riding the high from the experience. I was very pleased with the new incarnation of my home conference, and I am definitely returning next year–and likely every year after that, as I did from 2012 to 2017.

How did my 7th MWW compare to the first six? I’ll start with the most important elements: the overall quality and the all-important “feel” of the conference are just the same–the same atmosphere, the same friendliness and approachability of the faculty and staff, the same type of sessions on craft, diversity, and platform. To me, this is what matters most, and I was so happy to see that nothing had changed in this regard. This is what made me fall in love with MWW in the first place, and it’s what will keep me going back.

The most obvious difference from previous MWWs was the size–it was noticeably smaller than previous years. There were probably about 200 or so attendees (though they never announced numbers); when I first attended MWW in 2012, there were about 330 attendees, and by 2017 it had grown to considerably more than 350 (probably approaching 400), which is why it had to move from the Alumni Center to the Student Center for 2016 and ’17. I heard several people say they liked the smaller size, that they felt it had gotten too big and a little impersonal and less intimate when it moved to the Student Center.

I don’t completely agree–MWW always felt intimate and personal for me–but I share the overall sentiment. I’ve been to writers conferences of various sizes over the last decade, and I think my sweet spot is about 300 attendees. This size seems to offer the most opportunities paired with the intimate and personal feel that makes it easy to make meaningful connections.

One downside of the lower attendance was a noticeable decline in the racial diversity of the attendees (as opposed to the faculty, which was appropriately diverse). I always felt MWW to be a welcoming place with attendees and faculties of all backgrounds; I still felt this to be true with the faculty, but the attendees were overwhelmingly white (more than Indiana or the Midwest as a whole). Hopefully as the conference continues to rebuild and grow, it will attract more writers of other racial backgrounds. Continuing to book diverse faculty is the first step, and that’s in place.

The other big difference from previous MWWs was the absence of literary agents, and sessions on the business of traditional publishing (pitching, querying, etc.). The most significant change the Board made in reorganizing the workshop was to split out a separate Agent Fest in May, and to focus on craft at the summer conference. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this, since the opportunity to pitch to agents had always been a big draw, but I was pleasantly surprised. As Joe Roper pointed out over drinks one night, not having agents present had reduced the pressure and anxiety that you often saw when someone was preparing for a pitch session, and that made the whole atmosphere more relaxed. I hadn’t considered that, and he was absolutely right. I think I actually prefer not having agents at the summer conference. That probably contributed to the reduced attendance, but I still think it’s an improvement.

As I’ve said in previous posts, other conferences I’ve been to (Writer’s Digest Conference, UW-Madison Writers’ Institute) do a better job of presenting the full range of publication options available to writers (traditional, independent, or hybrid) in a balanced way, while MWW still focuses pretty strongly on the traditional route (even in the absence of agents and specific sessions on publication). This feels a little behind the times, honestly. I gave this feedback in my evaluation, so hopefully they heed that advice.

Overall, I’d give the 2019 return of MWW an A-. It was a wonderful experience, with a few opportunities to improve, and I will definitely recommend MWW in my interactions with the writing community.