Four years ago, Dan Smith, editor of the Valley Business Front and a good friend for a long time, started the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. For the past three years it's been hosted by Hollins University. For an evening and a day, 150-some writers spend hours with each other, jumping from workshop to class to panel, drinking a lot of coffee (more than any other conference Hollins hosts, Dan and I both have been told) and talking about the beauty and power of words. Poets, editors, fiction writers, playwrights, agents, lawyers, cookbook authors, historians, geneaologists, librarians, reporters, memoirists... it runs the gamut. And that's part of the beauty of it.
Part of the beauty is also that the writers range in experience from the never-been-published grad students to Keith Ferrell, who's edited Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, among others (he was editor of Omni magazine for a long time). The conference opened this year in the Richard Wetherill Visual Arts Center, for Friday night, and the next day's events were held in Dana Science Building, a gloriously dated 1960s structure I dearly love and hope Hollins never decides is anachronistic and tears down for something higher tech. (Think tall ceilings, industrial-ish concrete arches and spiral stairs, floor-to-ceiling windows and little nooks and crannies where they've put comfy sofas and tables and armchairs.)
Kurt Rheinheimer, BRC's editor, has taught and talked in previous conferences, as have I. This year, the conference sold out, but Dan says he'll not grow it – 150 is "just right," to borrow words from Goldilocks. "Manageable" is one word Dan used – basically, it's a lively, energetic concentration of like-minded folks, not too many and not too few, and it works really well. More participants than that and some might feel a little lost.
This year Dan also asked me to keynote, which left me feeling honored and nervous. I titled the keynote months and months ago when he asked me for a handle – "Living the Dream, with Mud on My Shoes" – and intended to talk about my major life changes and their mixed blessings. The mud part is what made (and makes) me the most nervous.
I knew that beyond that, I probably wouldn't know what the dream part was until pretty close to time. The conference followed my second creative nonfiction M.F.A. residency (a train trip to Buffalo, N.Y. that I'll chronicle here soon), and when I sat down to write the keynote I found it was as much about writing as it was about living. Maybe they're one and the same. I'm not sure.
But I promised I'd put the keynote up on my blog for those who missed it, so here's the download in pdf format. If you have trouble opening it and are desperate to read it, e mail me at email@example.com.