Last Writers’ Conference marks the end of an era

They say that all good things must come to an end. After over two decades, the time has come to say goodbye to the College’s annual Writers’ Conference.

For the past 23 years, the Writers’ Conference has brought a great mix of personalities to the College, ranging from the most famous authors of our time to those who, although lesser known, may be just as talented, to publishers and editors. Unfortunately, however, this year was the final year for the Conference, due to economic reasons and the retirement of the program’s director, Jean Hollander.

“The Creative Writing program and the English Department had nothing to do with the decision to end the Writers’ Conference,” Jean E. Graham, chair of the English department, said.

“The Writers’ Conference, a very expensive endeavor, lost its funding from the state, which was a grant from the N.J. State Council on the Arts, during the recent economic downturn, and its director is retiring.”

The Conference itself was founded by Ellen Friedman, who is now director of the women’s and gender studies program at the College.

Friedman said she decided to start the Conference at a time when there weren’t a lot of writers doing public readings. She said such an experience would be extremely beneficial for students.

Friedman contacted some authors, who in turn contacted other authors, and the Writers’ Conference was born. The first Writers’ Conference featured author Joyce Carol Oates, known for her short stories and novels.

Since the first conference, Friedman feels that the Conference has been beneficial in many ways.

“Different students gain different things from the Conference. It’s a thrill for them to have contact with live writers, including Pulitzer Prize winners, in their own living room,” Friedman said. “But also bringing in the younger, lesser known writers gives students someone to share experiences with and goals to reach for.”

Jean Hollander directed the Conference for the past 22 years. According to Graham, Hollander’s dedication to the Conference has left a mark on this campus that will last long after her retirement.

Some of the most prominent authors to visit the College under Hollander’s direction have been Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut and Salman Rushdie. This year’s featured speakers were poet Sharon Olds and novelist John Irving.

James Van Strander, freshman English and philosophy major, even though he could only partipate in one Conference, is grateful for the experience.

“I really enjoyed the writers that I saw, especially Sharon Olds. I was blown away by some of the readings the authors did,” he said.

Although the Writers’ Conference will no longer exist, Graham is sure that there will be new opportunities to bring authors to the College, particularly through the Visiting Writers Series.

“The Visiting Writers Series, part of the new Creative Writing minor and run by students, although independent, shares some of the goals of the Writers’ Conference.

“It accomplished quite a bit this year on a miniscule budget having brought in two guest artists,” Graham said. “We hope to expand the series so that there will be more opportunities for people on our campus and the vicinity to benefit.”

Friedman said she is also optimistic about future conferences.

“I feel sad it’s all over, but also know that there are good plans in the works for the future. The Conference had a long run and now it’s time for a change,” she said.