Throughout your life, you experience life-changing events — your graduation, the first day of your dream job, your wedding, the birth of your child, traveling abroad, grandchildren, and more. Your career might offer you life-changing opportunities as well. As a writer, I was lucky enough to have such opportunities — every single year.
In the summer of 2009, at the start of my writing career, I took a beginning novel writing course through the University of Wisconsin Division of Continuing Studies Write-by-the-Lake Writing Workshop & Retreat. It transformed me.
Our instructor, Christine DeSmet, encouraged us to have fun with our writing. After all, she pointed out, if we enjoy our story our readers will, too. Christine helped me to realize that Leo Townsend is the real hero of Carpe Diem, Illinois. My classmates were equally amazing; three of them are now my closest friends.
I went back to Write-by-the-Lake every year (except the year my daughters graduated). I told anyone who listened that Write-by-the-Lake was heaven on Earth. I wasn’t exaggerating.
During the week of the retreat, we’d meet in the mornings for instruction and critiques. In the afternoon, we’d head to the Memorial Union Terrace for brats, pitchers of Spotted Cow, and hours of writing with Lake Mendota as our backdrop. We’d discuss pantsing versus plotting and adding fatal flaws to too-perfect characters.
We’d brainstorm story ideas and share favorite books on writing. Reluctantly, we’d go home, but we’d be inspired and eager to write.
In the spring of 2010, I went to my first UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies Writers’ Institute. That year Laurie Scheer took over from Christine DeSmet as director. Christine, together with some colleagues, had started the Institute twenty years before.
In 2010, the event was held at the Pyle Center in Madison with about a hundred writers in attendance. Within a few years, four hundred people registered for the conference, causing Laurie and her talented administrator, Laura Kahl, to move it to the Concourse Hotel. In 2013, Laurie asked if I’d be interested in moderating a panel discussion with small press publishers. I agreed, even though the thought of speaking in front of four hundred people kept me up at night.
One of the panelists was Kristin Mitchell of Little Creek Press. Kristin and I hit it off, so I hired her to publish my books. The next year, we celebrated by releasing Carpe Diem, Illinois at the Writers’ Institute.
At subsequent Institutes, Laurie invited me to teach workshops, participate on panels, and run the author book fair. She also enlisted me to help writers practice their agent pitches, something I discovered I have a talent and a passion for. Over the years, I’ve helped hundreds of writers make valuable connections with agents. Both Christine and Laurie helped me to create workshops and an online class. It’s because of them that I discovered I love to teach writers almost as much as I love to write.
The best part about the Writers’ Institute was the attendees, many of whom would come back every year. The Institute became a writing family reunion. We shared our struggles about finding the time to write or landing an agent. We celebrated when a manuscript was finished, an agent showed interest, or a book was published. We inspired each other.
And now that’s all coming to an end.
The University of Wisconsin is eliminating the Division of Continuing Studies writing program. Online classes and critique services will continue through the summer of 2021, but all in-person events will cease to exist.
Last week, Laurie Scheer and Laura Kahl sent this email:
“Our Writers’ Institute and retreats are discontinued. We are sad about the end of programs that began 30 years ago and reached thousands of writers who are now published and have accomplished many other great things in writing.”
I’m sad, too. I will miss working with Christine DeSmet, Laurie Scheer, and Laura Kahl and being offered the life-changing opportunities they gave me and countless other writers. I’m also angry. I know this has been a difficult year for the University of Wisconsin. I can’t begin to imagine all the challenges UW has had to face. But I’m angry that a world-class, publicly-funded institution can’t scrap together enough money to offer programs to the broader community, many of whom are UW alumni (like myself) and Wisconsin taxpayers.
There is a bright spot — several writing instructors, myself included, are discussing ways to fill the void. There will be writing workshops and retreats because we writers are tenacious after all. But it won’t be the same.
Many, many thanks to Christine DeSmet, Laurie Scheer, and Laura Kahl for everything they’ve done for the writing community and for me. I’ll always be grateful.
Where you can find me:
Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference (online) – Saturday, November 7, 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. I just learned that I’ll be teaching my workshop “The Formula for Setting that Agents, Editors, and Readers Love.” I’m looking forward to connecting with writers from around the country!