Pen in Hand

Living a dream at the Pen in Hand Writers’ Conference.

I make my living as a writer. On any given day, I might put 1,500 words in a novel before most people have even had their first cup of coffee; followed by a full day of interviews and articles for The Freeman’s Journal/Hometown Oneonta newspapers in Cooperstown, New York; only to come home and put another 1,000 words in an article about record shopping or paper-crafting, maybe finish a short story solicited for an anthology.

In other words, I’m living a dream that started 18 years ago, at the Pen in Hand Writers’ Conference in Little Falls, New York.

The student writing conference began in 1996, the brainchild of Diane Wagar, an English teacher at Dolgeville Central School. “An arts advocate group from the village of Dolgeville, DART, asked me if there was something that our writers would like to see happen,” she said. “Some of my students had recently talked with me about sponsoring a writers’ retreat, so without hesitation I said, ‘Yes, we would like to have a central New York writers’ conference for students’.”

Little Falls is a Herkimer County canal city of just under 5,000 people, built along both sides of the Mohawk River in Central New York. It’s still in the growing pains of recession, equal parts economically depressed and vibrant with bohemian charm; the storefronts on East Main Street are bare, but Ole Sal’s Cafe along the riverfront offers pastries, coffee, and sandwiches among a maze of antique and vintage shops. Author Brock Clark set his novel The Ordinary White Boy in the city, and Walter D. Edmonds’ Drums Along the Mohawk features German families living in the area during the Revolutionary War.

But for two days in March, the sleepy city is the premier destination for more than 60 student writers from high schools across Central New York, all invited by juried selection to participate in the weekend conference. Wagar estimates that well over 1,100 students have attended over the years, many of them returning for a second, even a third, year.

Billed as a “24-Hour Writing Conference,” the Friday-Saturday event consists of four workshops, four readings, a craft talk, and an open mic for students. The workshops are divided between poetry and fiction, with two on Friday and two on Saturday. In 2017, the teachers were poets Matt Pasca and Jim Fahy, short fiction writer Andrew Devitt, and me.  The workshops vary in what they teach, but one component remains the same: they are all focused on writing exercises so that students come away with a notebook full of prompts and ideas to continue working on when they get home.

And behind the scenes, it’s Wagar’s students who are hard at work developing the application and registration process, contacting schools to invite students, and finding authors to host workshops. “Our student staff works for months in advance to prepare the materials and make the plans for the next year’s conference,” she said. “It’s the enthusiasm and talent of the student writers that makes this happen.”

I first attended Pen in Hand in 1999 as a sophomore from Cobleskill-Richmondville High School, another small, upstate farming town. I had always dreamed of being a writer, but as the SATs, college, and adult careers edged closer, the focus was always on practicality. What will make you enough money to justify college expenses; what will keep you stable and contented, a roof over your head and food on your table? Writing was a hobby, a quiet thing to be done after the day’s real work was done. It certainly wasn’t a college major, much less a professional undertaking. I might as well have announced I wanted to go to clown college and major in juggling for how well my guidance counselors took the news that I wanted to become a professional writer.

But when my teacher recommended Pen in Hand, I submitted my writing sample and waited. The day I got the news that I had been accepted was among the happiest of my high school career. The conference was held at the Best Western in Dolgeville, which felt unbelievably fancy to a girl whose summer vacations were spent either staying with family in Oklahoma City or camping at the Hidden Lake Girl Scout retreat. After all, my tent didn’t have an ice maker, and there was no vending machine at my grandmother’s.

I don’t remember who I workshopped with or what our writing assignments were, but what I do remember is this: for the first time, I was being taken seriously as a writer. I was given free rein and space to write, encouraged to read my work aloud, praised for the story I was able to craft from the exercise given. We stayed up as late as the chaperones would let us, chatting about our favorite books, making plans we never carried out to sneak across the street to McDonald’s for midnight French fries. Since my time there, Pen in Hand has added a late-night component, with snacks, an open mic, and space in the ballroom for students to gather.

But more than the exercises, encouragement, and bad coffee, I was able to work with people who had made it as writers, who had published books and poems and short stories professionally. It was the guiding blueprint that showed me that yes, writing is a career path. Books aren’t written by magic; they’re written by people who sit down and write them.  The majority of the students at Pen in Hand come from small schools that might not even offer creative writing classes, so to be able to work with professional writers was not merely a treat, but a necessity. At $90, with three meals and lodging and all materials included, the conference is inexpensive enough to be inclusive of students from all economic backgrounds, and has committed to being handicapped accessible and LGBTQ friendly.

I attended again in 2000, and being accepted twice gave me the confidence to apply to other writing conferences. I was one of 25 students from across New York State to attend the Silver Bay Youth Writing Conference for a week in July 2000; and that fall, as a senior, I was selected to attend a weekend writing workshop at St. Lawrence University. That year I also had my first piece published, a short article in Cosmo Girl.

I graduated high school in 2001 and went on to major in creative writing at Binghamton University, where I received the Andrew Bergman Scholarship for Creative Writing. I got my MFA from the University of Southern Maine and published over 60 stories, articles, and essays before I graduated in 2010.

And in February 2016, 13 years after my first Pen in Hand conference, my novel The Big Rewind debuted from William Morrow to critical acclaim, including a starred review from Kirkus and praise from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist.

A few months before The Big Rewind came out, I emailed Ms. Wagar to tell her the news. I wanted to thank her for creating the conference that set me on my career path, that showed me that being a writer was something to be proud of, an admirable art. “We take no credit for making you the writer you are today,” she wrote back. “However, we are excited to think that we may have been a link in the chain of experiences that encouraged you.”

Three weeks after my debut, I was back at Pen in Hand, this time as one of the authors and the only woman on the current slate of mentors. For me, the most important thing was to give back to the community that made me. I wanted to encourage the next generation, to show them that, yes, writing is a viable career and to give them the tools to pursue it as such.

And when they read, I didn’t edit and I didn’t censor. These kids had their whole lives for editors to say, “Strengthen this character” or “This setting isn’t really believable.” What they needed from me was what I had gotten from my Pen in Hand workshop leaders, the strength to keep writing, even when people try to discourage you and tell you that writing isn’t a real job. The world needs writers, and I wanted to be the person who nudged even just one student into trusting their talent and following their dreams. If these students could look at me the way I looked at my workshop leaders, they might see that, with a lot of hard work, it wasn’t inconceivable that they too could have a book on store shelves. Because I had once been where they were. I am living proof that this conference changes lives.

In addition to working with students, I also taught a workshop in the new “Teachers Who Write” program, where the chaperones—usually high school English teachers—are encouraged to take time and focus on their writing. It’s easy to get buried under student papers and lesson plans, but many of the teachers who bring students to Pen in Hand are writers themselves. I took it as my task to remind them why they write, and to encourage them to give themselves the time to work on their craft, just as they encourage students to work on theirs.

I returned to Pen in Hand this year, taking a few days ahead of the conference to hole up in the hotel and work on finishing my second novel. It was a mentally taxing trip, fueled by bad coffee and poor sleep and junk food (including, finally, a trip that once-coveted McDonald’s), and by the time the conference came around, I was completely spent. But as the students worked on their exercises, I paused for a moment to look around the table. Every single one of them was glowing with pride. I remembered that pride, absorbed their joy and internalized it, let it make me whole again. Because just as I was teaching them that writing is hard work, they were reminding me that writing is fun, it’s exciting, it’s a thrill like no other.

And I can’t wait until next year.

Photo credit (top) LearnEnglish Teen

Libby Cudmore's debut novel The Big Rewind, received a starred review from Kirkus, as well as praise from USA Today, Booklist, and Publisher's Weekly. A graduate of Binghamton University and the University of Southern Maine, Cudmore’s work has been published in Stoneslide Corrective, Barrelhouse, and PANK; and she is a frequent contributor to Vinyl Me Please and Albumism. Cudmore is an award-winning reporter for the Hometown Oneonta and The Freeman's Journal, and a mentor with the Pen in Hand Writers’ Conference in Little Falls, New York.