The University Record, June 17, 2002

Northern Michigan backwoods offer writers atmosphere

By Michelle Begnoche
University Record Intern

What better place to get over writer’s block than just down the street from the boyhood summer home of one of the world’s most renowned writers, Ernest Hemingway. Writers of all levels went to Camp Daggett in rustic Northern Michigan May 30–June 3 looking for inspiration and guidance at the 2002 Bear River Writers’ Conference.

Conference cofounder and English Prof. Richard Tillinghast says, “I want people to come to the conference and provide and pick up inspiration for their writing so they can carry it into a summer of writing for themselves.”

Tillinghast, who has been involved in a number of writing workshops throughout the country, saw Northern Michigan as a great place to establish a workshop with James McCullough, a professor at North Central Community College. Tillinghast and McCullough met three years ago at a poetry reading Tillinghast gave in a Petoskey bookstore. “We talked about the notion that Michigan was ripe for a major writing conference. As it turns out it was something we were both interested in and we carried it on from there,” Tillinghast explains.

“It is so beautiful in Northern Michigan in the summer. It seemed the natural place for a writers’ conference where a lot of emphasis would be on the environment,” he says.

From the beginning the environmental aspect played a large role in shaping the conference.

“I think having it in a beautiful natural setting is important. People take inspiration from a natural setting,” stresses Tillinghast. “It just wouldn’t be the same somewhere like the U-M campus with people always being inside.”

Participants are encouraged to experience nature firsthand. This year’s conference included a presentation on bird preservation, complete with live raptors, and a canoe trip providing information on issues regarding watersheds and cleaning up streams.

But, improving writing is still the number one goal. Though open to all writers Tillinghast says, “These are mainly people who are out in life and who are hoping to get to the level of publishing or are moving to where they want to write a book.”

Tillinghast recruits nationally acclaimed authors to help participants develop the skills and techniques to get published. This year’s faculty members were Elizabeth Cox, Jerry Dennis, Laura Kasischke, Thomas Lynch, Reginald McKnight, Keith Taylor, Tillinghast, Barry Wallenstein, Kathy-Jo Wargin and Gloria Whelan.

Each of the ten workshops focused on a specific aspect of writing with an overall emphasis on the genres of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. New this year were two workshops devoted to writing for children. With 75 participants distributed between 10 faculty members, the aspiring writers received plenty of personal attention.

“They [faculty] are able to sit down with a mid-level writer and say, ‘This is what you do and how you do it.’ It is a relationship between somebody who is trying to figure out how to do it and someone who has already figured it out,” says Tillinghast.

At the end of the conference participants performed their work for the group. They also trekked to Stafford’s Perry Hotel in Petoskey to enjoy the poetry performance of Wallenstein. Wallenstein was accompanied by jazz piano and guitar, and community members.

“During the conference everyone was schlepping around in jeans and sweatshirts. It was fun to see people dressed up as we sat there drinking champagne,” laughs Tillinghast.

All in all Tillinghast considers this year’s conference a success. “It was great! We have done it two years in a row now and we have good support. There are plenty of people who like the idea of having a major writers conference in the state of Michigan and we have plans to do it again next year.”

U-M Faculty members involved in the conference were Lynch, visiting professor of English, McKnight, professor of English, and Taylor, lecturer.

For more information on the Bear River Writers’ Conference go to