Wild heart, wondering mind

Wyoming is helping make me a better writer

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Since the New Year, I’d been simultaneously looking forward to and freaking out about June.

The beginning of June brought the Wyoming Writers Conference in Dubois, and the month closed with the Jackson Hole Writers Conference. I was enrolled in both — the first two writers conferences of my life.

I felt ecstatic to gain new writing skills and connections, and terrified at the prospect of calling myself a writer among a sea of writers better than I.

During these two Wyoming writing conferences, I discovered: 1) Being at the beginning of my journey as a writer — a comparative beginner — was actually a huge asset that allowed me to grow exponentially, and wasn’t embarrassing at all, and 2) I’m blown away, and very proud, that these two high quality conferences took place right here in Wyoming.

In order to take my writing to the next level, I didn’t even have to leave the state.

I realize that doesn’t even sound like a big deal, but as Wyoming is home to fewer people than any other state, it likely follows not as many writers live here. So for our sparsely populated state to generate two gatherings as impactful and effective as both the Wyoming Writers Conference and Jackson Hole Writers Conference, well, I’m just so darn impressed, I thought I’d write a whole column about it.

Right away, both conferences made me feel welcome, although I admit I stuck out a bit in Dubois. While quite a few of us younguns attended the Jackson Conference, being under 50 made me a real rarity at the Wyoming Writers Conference. In both places, I came in well below the average age of the other writers, but also, more distressingly, their experience level. I felt out of my league; most fellow writers I met had already published at least one book, if not many. I hadn’t even written my first book, let alone published one.

But I quickly discovered I could reframe my inexperience as an asset: Since I didn’t have any past work or prestige to defend, I could focus completely on learning new skills and absorbing fresh perspective as a writer and a person. Once I let go of the fear of being inadequate or the need to impress anyone, these writing conferences turned to solid gold for me.

At the Wyoming Writers Conference, I met David Romtvedt, former Wyoming poet laureate and all-around fascinating human being. He turned and churned my outlook on writing to such a great degree as to unveil an entire funky new universe of writing possibilities — in just an hour’s time.

During one of his poetry workshops, he prompted each of us to create our own language based purely on sounds we liked, and to write two lines of a poem in this new language. Mine went: “Sessen splass wimsterre/acai alai aterre.” (You have to read it aloud for full effect!). David then instructed us to translate our singularly foreign poem into English, eliciting a collective gasp and bout of laughter from the class — we had not been expecting to have to do that! My incomprehensible, but sonically pleasing (to me), two lines became: “Sleep splashed winter/she was lying there.”

I fought the urge to feel like a fool when everyone but me well understood accented and unaccented syllables and Iambic Tetrameter (and I thought I was an aspiring poet?!). But then I realized: I might not have known these things before, but I was learning them now! Maybe I was becoming a poet, after all, with the guidance and inspiration of Wyoming poets like David Romtvedt and my fellow students in his workshop.

A Wyoming author I greatly admire spoke to commence the Jackson Hole Writers Conference — Nina Swamidoss McConigley. The University of Wyoming assistant professor wrote Cowboys and East Indians, which won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award and a High Plains Book Award (I was lucky enough to have her sign my copy when she read from her book at Northwest College a couple of years ago).

Nina began, “I used to think if you wanted to be a writer, you just had to craft a good story. … The more I write, the more I think there has to be a why.”

She encouraged me to realize I might not yet know — might still be discovering — why I am writing.

I also made many wonderful new Wyoming (and beyond!) friends at both these conferences. Milo Asay, an assistant professor of English and ESL at Northwest College, is one of those friends. A couple of weeks after I met him in Jackson, I ran into him at Uncommon Grounds coffee shop in Powell.

“I thought it was excellent Wyoming would provide such a high quality writing conference,” Milo remarked of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference. “They had Michael Arendt — who got an Oscar for best original screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine — speaking and teaching, and Nina [Swamidoss McConigley] was amazing. … I do feel the conference inspired and empowered me as a writer, and to feel free in all my creation, because I also paint.”

Wyoming is proving itself a place where one can grow and collaborate as an artist, and that’s exciting to me. What I learned, and who I met, at these two Wyoming writing conferences this summer will be invaluable in writing, editing and publishing my novel.

So remember, folks — I promise not to forget — after I’ve sold those first million copies of my first book … WYOMING helped make it happen!

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