The New Leaves Writers’ Conference: An Outsider’s Perspective

By Hailey Scherer

There are few things more enchanting than watching an author read his or her work aloud. They give voice to their narrator—something which Stillhouse Editor-in-Chief, Marcos L. Martínez defines as style, syntax, cadence, and tone, "but more like pheromones; something you know only when you feel it." The author fleshes out their work, their narrator's voice, with their own, making it sink into your bones. To hear the phrases fit the voices, to see the facial expressions, the unconscious body movements, is to experience their work on another level.

Mark Polanzak, reading from his debut hybrid memoir, POP! (Stillhouse Press, 2016).

Mark Polanzak, reading from his debut hybrid memoir, POP! (Stillhouse Press, 2016).

As a visiting intern at Stillhouse Press and a high school senior with little experience in the professional writing world, I felt excited but largely unsure of what to expect from a "writers' conference." Would the discussions be stiff and formal? Would I feel excluded or in the way? Would I get to meet an actual author, those superhuman beings behind all my favorite books? As the conference began, however, I was immediately swept up in the words of the very real, very human writers and their readings.

I watched authors affiliated with Northern Virginia's small publishing community read from their recently published and award-winning works. I sat in rooms filled to the walls with George Mason students, Stillhouse Press and Gazing Grain editors, and others like me—lovers of the literary world who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The energy was palpable. It shifting in flavor from reading to reading, but was always charged with a positive, fascinating intensity.  

By reading from their work or answering questions, each writer had the opportunity to instill in the audience some message, about themselves, their work, the world, or all three. Gazing Grain's Nora Brooks infused emotion and personality into the practical affair of cooking, using it to explore things that make us uncomfortable, while Heidi Czerwiec discussed the socioeconomic, political, and environmental issues of western North Dakota in her work Sweet/Crude. Czerwiec's poems read like a report, but with lovelier words, poetic phrasing, literary organization, and curious anecdote, which serves to simultaneously further her points and to make her work all the more interesting and beautiful.

Gazing Grain authors Heidi Czerwiec and Nora Brooks (left to right).

Gazing Grain authors Heidi Czerwiec and Nora Brooks (left to right).

Mark Polanzak’s enthusiasm was particularly apparent, and rightly so, as part of the conference was dedicated to celebrating his first book POP!, a hilarious work about a decidedly un-hilarious subject, the death of his father. Polanzak described his book, quite fittingly, as “factually unreliable but emotionally true,” a work that really speaks to “the absurdity and integrity of memory," and his reading brought the audience to life. Listeners let out genuine, full-voiced laughs, sighing at the more poignant lines. Hearing him read from his book while the sun set on George Mason’s blooming cherry trees and the wind-rippled pond remains one of my favorite memories from the conference.

The collaborative, enthusiastic, supportive atmosphere of the New Leaves Writers’ Conference reminded me that writing is not as individual a career as one might think. Or if writing is an independent affair, the sharing of that writing—the part that makes it all worth it—is decidedly not. Authors may give a solo performance, may use their writing to untangle unprocessed trauma, like witnessing a devastating global event or experiencing the death of a parent, but it’s the collaboration between writer and editor, the interaction between author and reader, that gives writing its texture. This is where it all comes together, where you get to feel and see and hear a writer's work. It's in the exchange that the words take on meaning.


Hailey Scherer is an intern at Stillhouse Press and a senior at Flint Hill High School. As an aspiring author/poet, she aims to learn as much as possible about writing and publishing during her internship this spring. She will be attending Dartmouth College in the fall.