National Undergraduate Literature Conference
Last week, I found myself watching the engine temperature of my truck quickly rise near the border of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. If my radiator didn’t blow, I was getting on a plane headed for Salt Lake City, Utah. Ten hours and roughly 40 ounces of Sierra Mist later, I was staring out a tinted shuttle window at the western night sky thinking, where are all the mountains?
I was selected as a presenter at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. The annual conference chooses students from around the country to share either critical or creative works and listen to contemporary authors speak about writing. Weber sits in the foothills of the Wasach Mountains, overlooked by snowy peaks dotted with evergreen. When the sun came up, they towered above the town.
After befriending a vegan fiction writer from Denver and an easy-going Californian who studies British literature, we navigated Weber’s student union to watch presenters with topics ranging from poetry to fiction to critical essays. I listened, enamored by sentences and captured by words. One man connected stocking shelves at a bookstore to believing in God, another described a lost love in less than 100 words, and then there was the satire formed out of an out-of-hand garage sale. Each story tremendously inspired me.
I had written a creative non-fiction essay, a genre that already lacks street cred with the general public, and to top it off I was placed in a fiction group. Though I was sweating like a defensive linebacker, I managed to pull off this new experience a little shaky, but with overall smooth sailing. I received invaluable comments that I, and every writer, needs: encouragement. There was never a lack of support between presenters and the audience.
Several authors spoke to us about the work that goes into writing. I believe Ron Carlson, whose work appears in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, said it best, “The writer is the guy that stays in the room.” I often find myself wandering off into the land I call I-got-a-text-message-and-Say-Yes-to-the-Dress-is-on-and-it’s-been-five-minutes-since-I-checked-my-email. I needed a physical, solid thing to tell myself when I go there, and Ron Carlson gave me that.
Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This, also put a lighthearted, sarcastic spin on his experiences. During graduate school, he said that because he needed money, he started writing for Chicken Soup for the Soul. His friends made fun of him and said he was ruining his career, so Johnston wrote under a different name, receiving $6,000 checks for Don Keys.
Lisa Lenard-Cook, who wrote the book Dissonance, spoke to us about the importance of persistence and the labor of revision.
The NULC was an incredibly valuable experience for many different reasons. I heard from young authors and learned from their stylistic choices. I was inspired to continue writing, write more and get better. I also developed a stronger trust in my own independence and ability to accomplish what I set out to do. I am so grateful for the funds Mount Union’s English Department provided me with, which allowed me to travel to the conference. I have returned to Mount Union with a fresh view of the writing world.