Wednesday, June 18, 2014

MFA Student Reflects on the River Teeth Conference

By Cindie Ulreich, MFA Student

On Friday, May 30th, I made my way to Ashland, Ohio, to once again attend the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference. RTNC brings in a nice mix of speakers—from seasoned writers, to current and past faculty members of the MFA program, to professionals in the field. Combine that with the varied levels of those of us in attendance and the results can be serendipitous. At one lunch, I found myself sitting at a table of graduate students. We eagerly compared notes on our thesis writing adventures. We shared our woes and our triumphs as we discussed grappling with subject matter, length of chapters, naming concerns and other topics—some that would be addressed over the course of the weekend. The next day, I found myself near someone that wrote an essay I loved and I got to ask her about it. This is part of the fun in attending a smaller conference like RTNC.

The conference began Friday night with a dinner and keynote address by Philip Gerard. You can learn more about him and all of the other speakers on the River Teeth website ( Saturday was broken down into five talks, three meals and a reading at the end of the night by Brenda Miller. I was anticipating Miller’s talk because she authored one of my favorite craft books Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. She read several essays to end our first full conference day.

Sunday brought us three more talks, three more meals, a closing session, and book signing. It was another full day which left my head spinning, yet it was just the right amount of information. The subject matter of the talks varied, and the speakers had much to tell us. I found myself taking quite a few notes throughout and even came up with ten spoken moments that gave me pause:

1.     When keynote speaker Philip Gerard said, “Words are already trying to find my fingers.”
2.     Jill Christman told us “know where you’re standing to tell the story. It becomes your pivot point.”
3.     Ana Maria Spagna’s craft exercise utilizing reflection and action.
4.     Sarah Wells, when asked about what to include in cover letters accompanying journal submissions, said “less is more.”
5.     The moment when Dan Lehman explained the way we lose a bit of control, when we begin naming names in nonfiction narrative.
6.     When Kate Hopper told us using irony, metaphor and juxtaposition helps the reader make sense of things without telling them implicitly.
7.     During the Literary Citizenship & Networking talk, we were given many useful social media tips—something writers need to think about as they begin marketing themselves.
8.     Brenda Miller said “the thinking mind is not the same as the creative mind,” then had us get out paper for a craft exercise.
9.     Moments later, when she told us 100% of her current work is coming from writing prompts and exercises.
10. Philip Gerard, when asked during the closing session how he chooses work, said he “won’t do anything unless it’s interesting.”

    Additionally, I jotted down quite a few book titles throughout the talks. Here are a few I’m going to add to my already full bookshelf:
The Patron Saint of Dreams and Cape Fear Rising by Philip Gerard
Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood by Kate Hopper
The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World by Brenda Miller & Holly J. Hughes
Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness and Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey by Ana Maria Spagna

As I made the four-hour drive home on Sunday night, I was buzzing with feelings of possibility. Those two days spent with like-minded folks brought joy into my heart. I was reassured, after talking to other thesis students, that our experiences and feelings were normal as we prepared to defend what we’d worked on for so long. Additionally, I was already thinking ahead to my next project, thanks to a writing prompt one of the speakers provided. I could feel the beginnings of an essay forming, words bouncing around my head.

That’s what happens when I attend the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference. This little gathering at the end of May has become the thing I do to energize myself after a long school year. You might even call it my reward after another busy academic year has come to an end. May is always a time of revitalization for me. This conference comes at the right time and I was counting on it to excite me. Once again, it did just that.

Cindie Ulreich is a student in Ashland’s MFA program and plans to defend her master’s thesis this summer. She hails from Oxford, Ohio, home of Miami University, where she has worked, played and studied for over 20 years. Cindie lives on a farm with her husband Ed, a small herd of beef cattle and a menagerie of dogs, cats, and a chicken named Mrs. Clucky.