WA history: counting to 25

\"\"The first WriteAngles conference was held on December 5, 1987, making this year’s our twenty fifth since two conferences were held in 1988. From the outset, and ever since, the organizing spirits were a handful of volunteer writers who joined together to produce an event that would inspire and inform. Soon after the initial event many of the organizers would join the nascent National Writers Union and the conference would be sponsored by the union’s local chapter until 2007.

At the start the emphasis was on fair payment for writers. At the second conference, held at Hampshire College, the program included a panel boldly titled “Making a Living as a Poet.” Conference fees were low: $30, plus lunch in the college’s cafeteria. The most popular panel turned out to be the literary agents, destined to become a must-have component of all future conferences.

We enjoyed a distinguished lineup of panelists at our third conference, held at the Zone Art Center in Springfield. Among them were agent Helen Rees, editor Richard Todd, journalist Peter Nelson, and novelists Elinor Lipman and Marilynne Robinson. We were on our way to becoming known as a little conference with big content. Over the next three years (nos. 4, 5, 6) panelists would include Pat Schneider, Barry Werth, Anne Halley, Richard Hall, and Anne Bernays. In 1990 we began a 16-year partnership with UMass’s Adventures in Lifelong Learning, which provided an on-campus venue with registration and dining services. That conference went down in memory as the year of the “horrible Price Chopper doughnuts.” We resolved to have better food.

In 1992 (no. 7) we adopted the name WriteAngles. The next year our distinguished keynoter failed to show up and the invaluable Madeleine Blais, with about an hour’s notice, gave a marvelous talk which included describing an interview with Tennessee Williams. In 2006 (no. 21) we had another wonderful keynote address from a generous stand-in when Suzanne Strempek Shea subbed for a speaker forced to cancel.

It was at conference no. 10 (1995) that we started to become aware of the wonders and perils of electronic communication. Keynoter John Seabrook, of the New Yorker, spoke of the dangers of electronic publishing in terms of contracts which required writers to surrender rights “of every kind whether known or hereafter devised throughout the world in perpetuity.”

At no. 11 (1996), with an all-time high attendance, keynoter Jonathan Harr cracked up the audience as he told of his eight-year struggle to write his best-selling book A Civil Action. He revealed that he had confessed in his journal that he felt the “sort of hopelessness that a man adrift on the North Atlantic might feel.”

In 2000 (no. 15) we held the conference at Mount Holyoke College’s Willits-Hallowell Center for the first time and were delighted to hear a keynote address from Grace Paley. In 2003 and 2004 we sampled conference services at UMass and Smith but decided in 2005 to return to Willits-Hallowell. That year, at our twentieth conference, a packed room listened intently to keynoter Augusten Burroughs who declared writing had literally saved his life. The following year we ended our alliance with UMass Lifelong Learning and went it alone, handling all registration and clerical tasks ourselves. Our solo status helped increase our small surplus which since 2008 we’ve distributed as grants to local groups and programs that promote reading and writing.

Looking back, it is inspiring to realize that the successes of the past twenty-four conferences have been due largely to the generosity of writers who have freely shared their labor, their organizing abilities, and their wisdom.