What I Experienced At the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference – And Something About Cows

I just returned from the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, and I confess I attended for two distinct purposes: #1: to get feedback on my writing, meet other writers, and learn about the world of publishing, and #2: to run something of a reconnaissance mission: How does this conference compare to the Women At Woodstock Writers Retreat? Will it blow me away, making me see what my retreat is lacking? Will it give me fabulous ideas for my future events?

The Energy Level of the Conference

First thing: The alignment with my energy levels. The conference was wonderful in many ways, but I confess I returned to my room every night drained from all the “conference-y” energy and pressure. The schedule felt jagged and long; we started at 8 in the morning with a buffet breakfast (I did like that we could take our meals to picnic benches outside in the fresh air; lovely!), then we went into workshops and presentations all day, broken in the middle by lunch – again, a nice opportunity to sit outside in the fresh air – and finally we drove to a different venue each evening for appetizers and wine and readings from noted authors. Or, on our last night, a farewell dinner. Then we went our separate ways to wherever we were staying. I got back to my hotel room after 9 every night.

As is usual for me when I attend conferences (which, by the way, is pretty much never), I was exhausted after each day. And by the time I pulled out of the parking lot at 6 am on Sunday to begin my long drive home, I was wrung out. I appreciated what I had learned during the past three days, and yes, it was exciting to see so many published authors (though with little chance to actually meet or talk), but the big sessions in the afternoons took place in a large meeting room with 100+ people in the audience and a panel of exalted presenters on the stage. Those, frankly, I felt I could have watched on video. Being there in person didn’t do much for me. 

Then There Was the Master Class

The best part – the very best part – was the Master Class that I took every morning. I had been lucky enough to be admitted to this small juried-in group of only 12 writers, and we spent every morning together with our instructor, the writer Elizabeth McKenzie, whose entertaining and thought-provoking novel The Portable Veblen I had just read. What a thrill to meet this accomplished author and editor; how awesome to chat with her about writing and getting published; how delicious to ask her, “So, who was the main character’s mother based on?” and to see her break into an evil grin.

What was even better, though, was the group bonding that took place. We sat at desks arranged in a circle. We each had read everyone’s manuscript submissions ahead of time and had marked them up with notes, and we’d prepared one-page critiques. As a group, we reviewed and discussed each person’s manuscript one by one. Who gets that chance, at a typical conference, for a group’s focused attention on one’s own work? Or the chance to get to know and get into the heads of fellow writers? This part of the conference was priceless.

The Food

Then there was the food. I don’t want to be snarky, but I guess the older I get and the harder I work at trying to stay healthy and fit, I’ve gotta say that the food wasn’t bad, but it didn’t make me feel good. We did get hot meals for breakfast and lunch instead of the typical conference sandwich-in-a-box, which was nice, but the vegetables included in the lunches were disappointing; they seemed to have been prepared with the attitude of, “Well, we should include some veggies, so let’s boil some string beans or something and there they are.” There were lovely homemade desserts and always candy around in bowls and canisters to help us keep our energy up. Nice, but not what I wanted to feed on.

So after three days, how did I feel? Stale. Unhealthy. And a little bit discouraged, after meeting with an agent who represents work very different from mine. I knew this going in and didn’t expect her to want to sign me, so that was fine, but really, what was I doing meeting with her anyway, you know? Wouldn’t it have been better to talk with other writers or editors who might be able to suggest an agent who does represent my kind of writing?  

So I’m not saying it wasn’t a good experience. It was. I got to hear the work of lots of other writers. I had my own writing critiqued by a roomful of excellent writers who’d really put some thought into evaluating my work. I was able to read a short piece of my own at one of the open mics and experience the thrill of getting a strong and positive response from the 100+ people in the room. I learned a lot about literary agents and I had an illuminating meeting with a successful screenwriter.

The Last Night

At the final dinner, the reception area was so crowded that I couldn’t get to the bar for a glass of wine. As I stood there lost among the mass of people, I felt myself entering into schoolyard panic mode: there were 9 or 10 tables of twelve and a couple tables of 4 in the big room; a long table for maybe 20 in an adjacent area near the bar. Where to sit? Who will sit with me? If I struggle to get to the bar now for a glass of wine, will the few people I know have already gotten a table together, leaving no room for me? Gah.

Luckily, our masterclass group kind of coalesced and we ended up hogging a table for ourselves and sitting together. I was glad. I’m all for meeting new people, but on the last night of a long conference, I really wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to relax with a few folks who already knew me, at least kind of. Two of our members solved the access-to-wine problem by going to the bar and bringing back several bottles for the table. A friendly, relaxed, collegial gathering.

And Then There Was the Matter of Cows

It’s been a week since I came home. Group emails from the Master Class continue to circulate, driven in part by a bizarre “cow” theme that’s come into all of our lives. It started with references to cows in two of our writers’ manuscripts and a debate in class over whether “cow tipping” is a myth; those of us who’d lived in the midwest assured the rest that it was not; those of us who had no midwest experience remained skeptical. Who was kidding whom? Then cows started cropping up in our various lives ever since we left Mendocino; omens? One classmate emailed this after his trip to an ice cream shop on the way out of town:  “Look at what was on the tip jar at Cowlicks ice cream shop in Fort Bragg!”

cow tipping jar

Someone else wrote, “I’ve been looking at Gary Larson’s collected works (‘The Far Side’). He likes cows. I’m looking at a frame right now that pictures a guru cow talking to her neophyte cow and saying, ‘And as you travel life’s highway, don’t forget to stop and eat the roses.'”

Another classmate responded “Moo. (That’s cow for ditto.)” 

At my first ballet class the next week, my teacher, who loves to tell bad jokes (“Why won’t cannibals eat clowns? Because they think they taste funny.”) told a cow joke. The class took it and ran; “That’s udderly hilarious.” “Don’t complain about her jokes; she’ll keep telling them until the cows come home!” “You’re really milking this, aren’t you?” 

My Big Takeaway

I found the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference to be a good experience; it was. And after dinner on the last night, I had a great conversation with one of my fellow writers; she might come down to visit sometime.

But what I found overall is that for a writers’ retreat, I do indeed prefer a more collegial atmosphere; a more personal setting; more quiet and fresh air and healthy, locally sourced food. I seek the feeling that I get when I’m at the Women At Woodstock Writers’ Retreat and I’m writing at “my” table in the third-floor Great Room at 3 in the afternoon along with a handful of other women who’ve also chosen to write at this time. At that moment, there is silent camaraderie; we work in solitude, but we are not alone. Below us to the west, south, and east, the greens and golds and reds of autumn in the Hudson Valley stretch as far as the eye can see. We write; we are guaranteed uninterrupted time and space until we choose to leave this space; we know that later we will have the chance to share our work. As we craft our stories into the late afternoon, the day begins to fade, delicious smells start coming from the kitchen downstairs, and soon we will gather by the fireplace in Cedar Heart Lodge for wine and cheese and readings and conversation. Then we will move to the intimate dining room for a healthy, hearty dinner. All is at peace.


Reconnaissance Report

As for the reconnaissance mission, my instincts have been affirmed; what I truly seek in a writers’ retreat experience is exactly what the Women At Woodstock Writers Retreat is. Really, it’s a writers’ colony. For four days, we live and work together, we receive guidance and feedback from our resident writing coaches, we listen and share. It’s not loud. It’s informative and thought-provoking and inspirational. It’s also calming and nurturing and rejuvenating. It’s a break from pressure, a deep breath. In the evenings, when we gather by the fire to read our work out loud, I feel greatness in the room.

Yes, it is right for me.

I’m so looking forward to gathering with my fellow writers at Lifebridge Sanctuary this October; to writing, listening, and sharing with everyone there, and continuing to support one another afterward. If you’re a writer, I hope you’ll be there.

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