Could the inaugural SPARK Writing Festival help me with my imposter syndrome?

This is a question I asked myself as I was deciding whether or not I would sign up for SPARK, a five-day writing conference set to be held August 5 – 9 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

You see, sometimes I feel like a fake writer. Yes, I’ve written for magazines and newspapers all over the country and a number of online publications. Yes, I’ve had poems and short stories published in literary journals and essays published in books. But because I have yet to write a book that’s completely my own I feel like a fraud.

Actually, that last statement isn’t completely true. I have written a book. I wrote one two years ago. But I hate it. So my printed out manuscript is literally collecting dust in my home office.

But I’m confident that SPARK Writing Festival will, um, spark something within me that will either push me to finally revise my book or give me the space to start something completely new. And being around other writers always helps me to remember that imposter syndrome is a lie and that to be a writer all I have to do is write.

SPARK, which is sponsored by the UAB English Department, will include 10 hours of intensive workshop time with published writers, five lectures/ Q&A sessions with industry professionals, and time to network with local writers. Plus, attendees can get feedback after the conference on work produced during the workshops! Get more details here.

Attendees get to pick a specific genre to focus on during the conference: fiction, memoir/essay, poetry, or faith-based writing. I chose memoir/essay for my focus.

Meet the SPARK Writing Festival Faculty

SPARK Writing Festival Faculty (clockwise): John Saad, Kwoya Fagin Maples, Salaam Green, Charlotte Donlon

The lineup of instructors for SPARK is impressive.

John Saad, who will lead the poetry workshop, has an MA in Creative Writing from UAB and teaches there as an adjunct instructor of literature. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in a number of publications and he was the 2014 state poetry winner of the Hackney Literary Award. His book Longleaf was the winner of 2016 Hopper Prize for Young Poets and was published in 2017 through Green Writers Press.

See Jane Write Collective member (and my dear friend) Kwoya Fagin Maples will lead the fiction workshop. Kwoya, who teaches at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem Fellow. Her most recent poetry collection, Mend (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2018) was a finalist for AWP’s Donald Hall Prize for Poetry.

Related Reading: Member of the Month: Kwoya Fagin Maples

Charlotte Donlon, also a See Jane Write Collective member, will lead the workshop on faith-based writing. Charlotte earned an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University in 2018. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Catapult, The Millions, Mockingbird, and elsewhere.

Salaam Green will lead the memoir/essay workshop. Salaam is the 2016 Poet Laurette for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a CO.STARTERS and TEDx speaker Birmingham alum, and social entrepreneur. She’s the owner and founder of Literary Healing Arts and Red Couch Writers and her work has appeared in The Birmingham Times, Scalawag, Bust, Feminist Review, Black Youth Project, Elephant Journal, Southern Women’s Review,, Birmingham Arts Journal and more.

Related Reading: Member of the Month: Salaam Green

If you need help deciding if SPARK Writing Festival is for you, Halley Cotton can help. She’s the lead organizer of the conference and recently took the time to answer my questions about the event.

Q&A with SPARK Writing Festival organizer Halley Cotton

How did the idea for the Spark Writing Festival come about?

I teach writing and literature at UAB and the head of my department, Dr. Alison Chapman, approached me in December with the idea to put together a sort of community outreach continuing education program for the summer. UAB is a huge proponent of community involvement, and every department across campus has one program or another. The English department has grown a lot over the years, and we’re stepping out even more to make sure needs in the writing community are met. Since this is the first year for such an event, we’re sort of dipping our toes in the water to prove it can be done. We know we’re not going to fulfill every need this year, but we’ve got our eyes set on next year as well. The English department is transitioning into a new, big and beautiful building starting fall semester and we’re going to have the space and potential to achieve so much. 

We decided on the name SPARK because we didn’t want to be tied down to regional names. UAB is home to the Blazers and the fire image gives a nod to that but also to Birmingham’s steel industry history as a whole. On a larger scale, when people meet and hit it off: sparks fly; A spark is just the first step in something bigger and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. 

How were the genres and workshop leaders chosen? 

Four workshops was sort of the ideal number for us from the beginning (for this year). Naturally, Poetry, Fiction, and Non-fiction were in the running as sure winners. The forth was supposed to be a Writing for Children’s course but we decided since Southern Breeze already provides a lot of guidance locally, we’d see what else turned up. Around this time, I was approached about hosting a faith-based writing workshop. We felt this might generate local interest and we added it to the list.

For our workshop leaders, we wanted people who were not only good writers but who were also good teachers, especially those who have experience with teaching adults in various community settings. I asked around and compiled a list of area writers who might be good candidates for the position. The response has been incredible and it was difficult to narrow down the results. I have an incredibly long list (still in progress) of wonderful area writers/teachers who I would love to have involved in SPARK. It really gives us potential to grow and expand in the coming years.

Some writers may be wondering if this conference is right for them. Who would you say the Spark Writing Festival is best for?

SPARK is designed for those who maybe like to write but have never considered themselves writers. I think people of all skill levels will benefit from the event, but we wanted to make sure that these workshops were accessible to beginners wanting to explore the world of creative writing. Of course, it always helps to have a blend of writers from all experiences to create a workshop setting and learn from one another. Basically—if you like to write or are interested in writing—we’ve got a space for you.

For writers interested in multiple genres, any tips on how to pick a focus for the week?

Because all of our workshop leaders are incredible, it’s going to be a tough task to narrow down which workshop to take. I’m not sure I could do so myself. However, I would ask yourself in which genre of interest do you have least experience? Then choose that workshop. I truly believe cross-genre training helps develop a writer’s strength and dexterity. And don’t worry, participants will get the chance to taste a little cross-genre experience from each of our workshop leaders with daily mini-workshops.

What should writers do to make the most of this conference?

Be prepared to make friends. I know that’s probably anxiety inducing advice for my introverted friends, but I think the small and structured atmosphere of the workshop setting will help alleviate that. Everyone is going to feel a bit shy and nervous in a new workshop. This event focuses on building community. Writing as a whole can be a lonely and isolating endeavor. As writers, we are also plagued by “imposter syndrome,” that feeling that you’ll never be good enough and will eventually be exposed as a fraud. Community helps ease these troubles and can provide valuable feedback and ideas when you’ve hit writer’s block. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by people who support and believe in you.

My suggestion to participants would also be to keep an open mind. I wouldn’t approach the workshop setting with a predetermined project. This is a workshop designed for generating new work, and workshop leaders will have several exercises designed to introduce you to a range of writing styles within the genre. I think if you sign up with the mindset, “I’m going to work on this one project the whole time” then you’ll pigeon-hole your experience. Let the workshop leaders challenge you, and don’t be afraid to try something new!

What are you hoping writers will take away from this conference—in terms of both content produced and a possible mindset shift?

My greatest hope for participants is that they walk away with a solid start on multiple projects and with a newfound supportive community who will help and encourage them to develop these pieces to completion. I want participants to have formed friendships they maintain after the event is over. A writing community can help keep you motivated. Writing, as with any other discipline, is a skill. In order to truly grow as writers, we have to include others in the process. Everyone has to start somewhere. Start here. Start now. We’re here to spark something new and we’re all in it together.

Learn more and register for SPARK Writing Festival here. I hope to see you there.