Into words: The Indiana University Writers’ Conference marks 75 years of inspiration


Instructor, artist, writer and creativity guru Lynda Barry participated along with IU Writers’ Conference students when Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s poetry class visited the graveyard.

Last Saturday more than 70 writers converged on the Bloomington campus to immerse themselves in a shared craft at the 75th Indiana University Writers’ Conference, which wrapped up yesterday.

People came from across town and as far as California to learn from a faculty that included John-Paul Zaccarini, an aerialist and circus Ph.D. who had just arrived from Sweden.


Alissa Nutting wrote “Tampa.”

This year director Bob Bledsoe and associate director Trevor Mackesey assembled a diverse team of gifted writers who are skilled instructors: Lynda Barry, Dan Chaon, Lou Berney, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Alissa Nutting and IU’s own Adrian Matejka.

Over the past few days, I attended selected sessions both as an observer and participant. For this I feel fortunate — and inspired.

We arrived as individuals, many of us strangers, who often spend our writing lives engaged in solitary journeys, word by word.

On the first class of the first day, Nutting shattered the ice between all of us. She’s a firm believer in the power of shame and embarrassment in shaping characters and narratives. She asked for our most embarrassing, shameful confessions, then wrote them on the white board. Session by session she examined what she called “the different cameras of shame.”


Calvocoressi, a poet, encouraged students to mine the depths of immediate experience. She began with an exclamation: “I had the best morning!” For inspiration, she set out a table full of her finds from the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market: strawberries, sweet cherries, a flowering branch and a bunch of chickweed.

“Am I allowed to say, Bob, that tomorrow we meet in the graveyard?”


Gabrielle Calvocoressi read new work at Bloomington Playwrights Project May 31.

And we did.

We wandered through Dunn Cemetery in the misty rain and let our own experiences there guide our writing later.

Those were powerful moments. Here were just a few other revelations:

  • “Writing is a practice, like anything. If you are not doing it, you are getting rusty.”
    — Dan Chaon
  • “Sometimes we forget what our eye falls on first.” As writers, we need to pay attention to that. — Gabrielle Calvocoressi
  • Whether you are a circus performer or a writer, you need to “seduce” your audience. — John-Paul Zaccarini
  • To write good things that sell well, “that’s a hard needle to thread.” Especially in crime books, thrillers and mysteries, readers must need to turn the page. — Lou Berney
  • Whether someone writes, draws or paints, there is value in the act of making, not just the product. “It is not just what the painting is giving to the world, it’s what it gave you while you were making it.” — Lynda Barry

Reading and writing

By day the faculty shared their acquired wisdom in workshops, classes and panels, and by night, shared their work through inspired readings.

John-Paul Zaccarini

John-Paul Zaccarini draws upon circus and psychoanalysis in his approach to creativity.

Saturday, Matejka electrified excerpts from his book “The Big Smoke,” a finalist for both a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in poetry. He also read a poem about Miles Davis that he had written in 1995 as a student attending the conference, back before his books or awards, and perhaps before he was certain he was a poet at all. His early words were an affirmation.

Nutting followed with a side-splitting reading from a forthcoming novel, which recounted the misadventures of Hazel and her father’s naughty doll.

By Monday night, when 39 conference participants did brief readings of their own work, the assembled writers were beginning to feel like a group. “This is my first poem, my first reading,” one man confessed. You never would have known.

Two old friends read in tandem like a seasoned comedy team in a humorous bit about doing public readings, “Open Mic Night at the Writers’ Conference.”

We were college students, staff members, lapsed writers, moonlighters, career-changers and retirees, but we all aspire to write better. We gave readings about family, friends, lovers, leaf blowers, cats — and a priest who had an unfortunate meeting with a baseball bat.

Yes, we did.

(Well, I did not. Consider this my public reading).


Bledsoe, now in his 10th year as director of the IU Writers’ Conference, said the most special thing about 2015 was that it didnt feel all that different.

“The 75th anniversary allowed us the spotlight,” Mackesey said.

“That’s it, exactly,” Bledsoe agreed. “The anniversary has revealed what we’ve been doing all along.”

I can’t wait to see what’s in store next year.

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