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The Three Most Important Takeaways from My First Writing Conference

Monday, September 26, 2022

By Laura Milligan

“You’ve been waitlisted.” I read the email a few times before sending it to my husband, my mom, and a few close friends.

I had applied to Aspen Summer Words, a writing conference in Aspen, Colorado. The requirements for the application were fairly straightforward—I just needed the first ten pages of my manuscript. With almost 40,000 words, a complete draft of my middle-grade novel was finished. But I tweaked, revised, and agonized about the opening pages for months. Was it good enough to submit?

I began preparing myself for rejection. I’m an amateur. Can I even call myself a writer? My book isn’t marketable. My story is realism in a middle-grade market saturated with fantasy; there’s no time portals, no talking dog, no wizards or witches!

Why did I set myself up for rejection? What does that choice say about who I am and how I view myself? Spinning in self-doubt, I awaited my fate. Aspen Summer Words is a juried workshop. Each submission is read and considered by a panel of illustrious judges. When I learned that I had made the waitlist I was pleasantly surprised. Did that mean my writing was sort-of good enough?

Eventually, I received news that I had been accepted, which turned out to be the jolt of validation and recognition I sorely needed. What follows are three of the most important lessons I learned attending my first writing conference. (The first one is to stay on the waitlist!)

Get Over Yourself

Adam Grant writes that “the highest form of self-confidence is believing in your own ability to learn.” Yes, I wrestle with imposter syndrome. Yes, self-doubt haunts me. But, I believe in my ability to revise—both in my writing and in my life. The centrality and significance of this intrinsic belief is the reason I ended up as one of ten participants in the middle-grade workshop at Aspen Words this summer.

Perhaps my manuscript wasn’t the best in show, but my desire to attend the conference had nothing to do with pride and everything to do with my desire to grow. Just days after deciding to remain on the waitlist, the acceptance email appeared in my inbox.

Balance Is Impossible. Strive for it Anyway

It was difficult to consider leaving my family for a jaunt to Aspen. My children had never experienced the west before, and Aspen in the summer is dreamy—a natural playground for both children and adults. Bringing my family with me was a gift. And yet, it is also important to negotiate the balancing act that the trip required, the balancing act that most mothers face every single day.

Tina Fey writes on motherhood: “You just keep going and going and somehow you do the impossible.” The conference lasted five full days, and here’s how I attempted a version of the impossible each day:

  1. Wake early.

  2. Spend time with my husband. (Most days, we ventured out for morning hikes together.)

  3. Eat breakfast with our kids while I prepared for the morning workshops.

  4. Join my incredible middle-grade group for our morning session and then eat lunch with the fellow writers.

  5. Check in with my family.

  6. Head to the afternoon craft panels led by luminary teachers and authors—heroes of mine—Erica Perl, Rebecca Stead, Joanna Rakoff, Natalie Serber, Lan Samantha Chang, and many more!

  7. Eat dinner, sometimes with the middle-grade group, sometimes with my family.

  8. Crash into bed.

Not perfect, but not bad!

If You Don’t Go, You Don’t Know

Someone I loved once told me that and I’ve never forgotten it.

Not only is Aspen Words the first writing conference I’ve attended, it is also the first conference I’ve ever applied to. Before Aspen I honed my craft by sending pages to friends, enrolling in classes at Boston’s Grub Street, and reading loads and loads of middle-grade novels.

After Aspen, I realize the value in having people you don’t know read and critique your work. Ten people whom I didn’t know before closely read my story. Not only did they offer constructive feedback, but they became new writing friends. Sharing your story with people outside of your circle matters. Community matters. Writing conferences matter.

And if you don’t go, you don’t know!


Laura Milligan is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She is currently working on her first novel. Find her on her website lauramilliganwrites.com and @laurahmilligan.