Afterword: Indiana University reaches for the stars in 2016 edition of Writers’ Conference


David Crabb wrote the memoir “Bad Kid.” In between provoking fits of laughter, the performer and Moth host shared serious advice about good storytelling. Photos by Chaz Mottinger

The act of writing about writers who have gathering to write is like tip-toeing through the looking-glass world of a mirrored funhouse: Reflections are everywhere, but it’s hard to know where to tread.

The Indiana University Writers’ Conference wrapped up earlier this month after five days of classes, workshops, panel discussions and public readings.

Director Bob Bledsoe first welcomed writers from Bloomington, around the state and across the country with this advice: Pace yourself, it’s a busy week.

Bob Bledsoe

Bob Bledsoe, right, is director of the Indiana University Writers’ Conference.

Bledsoe has shaped the writing conference since 2006. This year, his associate directors were Bix Gabriel and Cherae Clark, both fiction writers in the MFA Creative Writing Program within IU’s Department of English. Together they assembled a diverse and talented team of instructors.

Though science-fiction writer Wesley Chu and novelist Salvatore Scibona were new faces here, most instructors had ties to IU or had passed through Bloomington before.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi, a veteran of the 2015 conference, returned to offer the poetry workshop this year.

David Crabb, who hosted The Moth’s StorySLAM here in November, shared his storytelling expertise during nonfiction classes.

Walton Muyumba, who also taught nonfiction, poet Amelia Martens and fiction writer Dana Johnson are all accomplished authors who once attended graduate school at Indiana University.


It’s easy to imagine writers as magical, mystical beings who only disguise themselves as humans. After all, they conjure worlds out of words and build castles from stardust.

Walton Muyumba

Walton Muyumba is an associate professor of English at IU.

Maybe. Or maybe they live next door and secretly wear dirty socks when they forget to do the laundry.

Authors are regular people, but they are people who have read more, written more, thought more deeply and done the hard work — the years of work — that has allowed them to share their best words so widely.

The featured authors at the conference had come to offer roadmaps to the other writers in the room still trying to find their way.

Muyumba, now an associate professor of English at IU Bloomington, opened his last nonfiction class session by remarking that he attended similar writing seminars over the years, at first as a student.

“This brings back a lot of memories for me,” he said.

Between sessions, he privately described himself as “an accidental professor.” He said that as a young man, academia was hardly an obvious path.

Wesley Chu

Author Wesley Chu brought science fiction into the conversation.

Before joining the IU faculty two years ago, Muyumba orbited in and out of Bloomington, first as a child, then as an undergraduate and later when earning his Ph.D.

His class sessions examined essays in which writers such as Joan Didion and Zadie Smith shifted between a lens of personal experience and an examination of broad social issues.

Muyumba challenged the class to write about big issues in new ways: “What is the writing at all if you’re not taking risks?”

New moon

The writing conference began under a new moon and with new ideas: This year, nonfiction received more attention, and science-fiction workshop sessions were added.

Dana Johnson

Novelist Dana Johnson draws upon observational skills honed as a journalist.

“For me, the interesting thing has been introducing genre fiction along with high-art literary tradition and having real conversations about it,” Bledsoe said.

Chu, the author of “The Lives of Tao” and “Time Salvager,” proved in his public reading that science fiction is just another way of telling a good story.

At the core, these are human stories, even if they work in an alien, a wormhole, a spaceship, a distant planet or a new device that reinvents physics.

In other readings, instructors shared published pieces or works in progress. And in classes and panels each of them dispensed observations, advice and other wisdom. Here are just a few morsels:

  • Novelist and short story writer Scibona contradicted the commonplace advice to write what you know. Instead, he said, “I believe in writing what the imagination knows.”
  • Martens mused on the emotional power of well-crafted words: “I don’t know who is writing poetry that’s not psychologically intense. I want you to be in the room where I am thinking.”
  • Muyumba encouraged writers to consider their effect on the reader, especially with the end of a story, essay or novel: “What you want your readers to leave with is something stunning, something that shakes the ground.”
  • Calvocoressi

    Gabrielle Calvocoressi returned in 2016 to lead the poetry workshop.

    Crabb emphasized the power of description: “You see the film in your mind that the storyteller or the writer put there, so details are very important.”

  • Calvocoressi said her process as a poet has evolved. “The raw and the cooked were really separate for me,” she said. Now, she is less focused on revision, or fixing, than in exploring the possibilities of a poem through many variations.
  • Johnson, a former journalist, said she writes and gathers wherever she is. “I write on the plane. I write on the train. I hear some dialogue and I stop and type it into my phone. So I’m getting stuff from all over the place all the time.”
  • Chu admitted to extreme multitasking while producing his first science-fiction book. Still, he said the writing process must be treated with respect: “If you want writing to be your job, you need to treat it like it’s your job. Whatever you can do, you guard that time like it’s gold.”


The IU Writers’ Conference was made possible through support from the Indiana University Office of the President, IU Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President and the IU Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs.

The annual conference, which celebrated its 75th season last year, draws aspiring writers, IU staff members and retirees. But the contingent of undergraduates, graduate students and new graduates from the English department remains an important part of the mix.

Jared Robinson and Carly Yingst

Recent IU grads Jared Robinson, left, and Carly Yingst will be entering top Ph.D. English programs in the fall.

Two recent IU graduates who attended in 2016 are on their way to top Ph.D. programs in English.

Jared Robinson, a May honors graduate with high distinction, attended Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis and earned his B.A. as an English literature major with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in psychology. At IU he studied closely with both Bledsoe and Muyumba. He said there was not a time at IU that he wasn’t learning directly from his mentor, Bledsoe. In the fall, Robinson will begin a Ph.D. program in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Carly Yingst, a 2015 honors graduate with high distinction, earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature after attending Jeffersonville High School in southern Indiana. Since graduation, Yingst has been working as an editorial assistant at IU Press. This fall, Yingst will enter a Ph.D. program at Harvard, where she intends to study 20th-century American literature and criticism. Because of her academic focus, she found Muyumba’s conference course on nonfiction essays and criticism particularly interesting and helpful.

Robinson and Yingst could be considered rising stars. And in just a few years, they could be the ones at the front of the classroom reflecting back on all the roads that brought them there.

Regular life


Amelia Martens graduated from IU’s MFA program in 2007.

Whether writers at the conference were the ones listening or the ones leading, there was one thing that defined and united them all: They write.

And when the gathering ended, they all headed off to inhabit the rest of the lives.

Perhaps the most simple and sweeping takeaway from the week came from Martens, who earned her MFA in IU’s creative writing program in 2007.

Her book “The Spoons in the Grass Are There to Dig a Moat” is a celebration of the prose poem. She loves the form because it is a “thing that doesn’t look l like a thing” and it is flexible. Writing prose poems fits the rhythm of her days.

Martens said all writers must find a way to fit their work into the lives they have: “You need to figure out how to write in your regular life.”

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