When the middle of April rolls around, as it insists on doing every year, two things nag at me. You’ve likely already guessed that the first one has to do with the Internal Revenue Service. But the second is an annual remembrance of a much more pleasurable experience.
Shortly after my first book came out in 1998 a fellow unknown to me telephoned, identified himself as Gilbert Benton, and asked me to be one of four presenters at his annual writing conference at Alvin College. Gilbert was an English professor at that fine institution for several centuries – maybe not that long – before retiring several years ago. And for over three decades he hosted a dandy conference for folks who were interested in polishing their creative writing skills.
I went, and I enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I was one of the quartet of speakers for the next dozen or so years. Gilbert, a baseball fan and softball coach, always called me his clean-up hitter, since I was perennial last act on the program. In my most egotistical moments I like to think that was because he saved the best for last, but in reality Gilbert probably figured if anybody got so fed up that they walked out during my spiel it would be okay, since the proceedings were drawing to a close anyway.
The trip to Alvin for that get-together every spring became a fixed point on my annual calendar, and I always looked forward to that day. I took a meandering route, past lazy cattle in big pastures and over the tall bridge at Chocolate Bayou, then I’d wander up another couple of roads past rice fields. That drive and that workshop were downright therapeutic for me, and being a public school teacher I always needed a good dose of therapy by the ides of April.
But Gilbert got in touch a few years ago to tell me the workshop had finally left the building. And I can tell you that I miss that annual get-together. I started missing it when I read his email.
The participants there weren’t the sort that often pops up at bigger conferences: Stephen King wannabes who demand to be given a short cut to getting published, rich, and famous overnight. Or they want my agent’s phone number. I’ve long made it a rule to never give that number out, since I like my agent and intend to keep him (agents like to initiate the courtship; not the other way around). And I know absolutely nothing about how to get rich or famous, overnight or long term.
The people who came to Gilbert’s event just wanted some instruction on how to be better wordsmiths. They wanted encouragement, and a few hints on how to best tell their story, be it something they might send off for a publisher to consider, or a family history that they’ll only print for their descendants.
I’m sure Gilbert’s workshop was never a money maker. I’m just as sure it was never his intention, or the college’s, for it to be one. The price of registration was ten bucks, I think, and students of the college got in free. Every year some of the kids in my high school creative writing classes went, and they got in free as well. Senior citizens might have gotten in free. I’m not sure; I wasn’t one when I started going over there. The other presenters and I always got paid, and our lunch was provided – pizza or subs, chips and sodas – not to mention doughnuts and coffee when we arrived.
So I’m betting the college never made a dime off that conference; probably it operated in the red. But I figure that didn’t matter any to Gilbert, or to the college either. What they provided was a forum for people who wanted to locate, hone, and put to use their creative voice by associating with other people with the same agenda and with some published authors.
They wanted the workshop to be a useful outreach to the community. Because that’s part of what they figured a community college should be about.
Anyway, I should have been in Alvin a few weeks ago. And I’m sorry I wasn’t. I’m sure the regular attendees of that fine little meeting don’t miss more of my rattling on about writing.
But I miss them. And I wish them well with their wordsmithing.
But I still wouldn’t give them my agent’s number.