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A new chapter for ASU’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference

Piper Center announces the return of literary conference in October; event will offer more than 70 workshops, panels and readings

U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo standing in an ornately decorated hallway.
August 08, 2023

After several seasons away, the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference is making an in-person return to the historic quarter of Arizona State University’s Tempe campus this October.

Billed as Arizona's “literary event of the year,” this beloved writer’s conference — hosted by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing — provides participants with unrivaled access to influential voices and change-makers in contemporary literature.

“We went big this year and sent out invitations to all of the major writers we wanted, and not one person turned us down,” said Sheila Black, assistant director of the Piper Center. “The depth of talent at this year’s conference is amazing and will cover multiple genres.”

This year’s lineup of more than 60 presenters includes keynote speaker Joy Harjo (pictured above), who served three terms as the 23rd U.S. poet laureate; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natalie Diaz, Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at ASU and director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands; and Carroll Cartwright, who co-wrote the 2022 film “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.”

The Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference will take place Oct. 12–14 and features over 70 craft talks, workshops, panels and readings. View the conference schedule on the Piper Center website; register before Aug. 31 for the early-bird rate. There are discounted rates for students, veterans, seniors and people with disabilities.

The conference spans a variety of genres and forms — fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, memoir, screenwriting, young adult, even picture books — with sessions on editing, publishing, the business of writing and the writing life. It will touch upon such topics as travel writing, climate change, graphic novels, translation, disability studies, hybrid forms, social justice and more.

In addition to regular sessions, the conference offers group readings, a keynote speaker and opportunities to engage with writing industry professionals.

ASU News spoke with Black about what participants might gain from joining this year’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference.

Woman in brown hair smiling

Sheila Black

Question: Why do writers love writing conferences?

Answer: The old cliche image is that writers work alone, but writing is so deeply about connecting — with readers, with listeners, with whoever needs to hear a story (and that turns out to be most of us). One of my favorite definitions of a poem is Osip Mandelstam’s. He said, “A poem is a message in a bottle – destination anyone in the world.” And writers always feel that way — they are writing to everyone, but also to that one specific person who needs to hear what they have to say, and how do writers figure out who that person is or what that story is except by being in community with other writers. 

I've been to lots of writing conferences in my time, and I’ve always learned something really vital about the art of writing, the practice of writing by being at conferences. It isn't only the presentations and workshops and readings but also the chance meetings and conversations you have along the way. I personally tend to believe that writers have always worked that way – by connecting with others who feel as passionately about the art and practice of writing as they do, and writers, despite the often-curmudgeonly reputation of the profession, love to share. 

I’ve never been in a group of writers without learning about new books I should read, writing practices I should try or tips for getting published. Writers are also — not surprising when one remembers that every writer must spend a certain amount of time alone in front of the blank page or blank screen — very fond of any excuse for a good party. A good writing conference tends to offer both: lots of good content and lots of good parties. What is not to love in that?

Q: What do you feel is particularly valuable about attending a writers conference?

A: I think to some degree we all learn through imitation and example. While one can gain a great deal of craft information about writing simply from reading books or researching online, writing is also an art that depends deeply on lived experience. The books we care about are built, however indirectly, upon the writer's life — where they grew up, what they saw, tasted, heard. 

Q: What should attendees be looking for this year?

A: We have wonderful classes and workshops taught by our stellar conference faculty and amazing Conference Teaching Fellows, who are selected each year through a competitive process and receive free conference registration in exchange for teaching the class they propose. I love this model because it allows us to offer classes from writers at a wide range of different stages in their careers – from U.S. poet laureates to writers who are just starting out.

I think this is something attendees should be looking for – the opportunity to delve into different genres and different types of writing experiences. Many of the classes offered are generative workshops, meaning you write on-site and share your work with the workshop group. In other words, attendees should expect to be exposed to lots of novel creative ideas and practices, which we hope will help them, enrich their practice and leave the conference with new food for thought — and hopefully new writing friends as well.

Q: What is Desert Nights, Rising Stars' particular niche?

A: I'm happy that in comparison with, say, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference — which brings together 8,000-12,000 writers each year — Desert Nights, Rising Stars is a fairly intimate conference where you have the opportunity to get to know the writers who are teaching, reading and presenting. 

I think our particular niche is that unlike many writing conferences, we offer both panels and workshops as well as a number of readings. Most writing conferences focus on workshops or writing education or on panels where writers present on a particular topic. However, our hybrid approach is about building a strong sense of community within our conference. 

For instance, one unique thing we offer is morning roundtable sessions called “The Writer's Life,” where writers on faculty come together to discuss informally with participants different aspects of forging and nurturing a writing career — from how to grow your sense of yourself as an artist to the practicalities of getting published and paid. These roundtables are designed to be interactive conversations where participants can ask questions and learn, well, the secrets we all wish we'd known when we were starting out. I think it's going to be a lot of fun.

Q: This is the first time the conference has taken place in person since the pandemic. What will it look like going forward?

A: I'm so excited to be coming back in person. Honestly, I feel like a kid in a candy store. What I'm proud of in our schedule this year is we are bringing together an astonishingly diverse group of writers who reflect many different literary perspectives. The writers who will be there are all excellent writers, but they are also all very different writers. I think the conversations that will come out of this will be rich, rewarding, surprising — and, I hope, nourishing — for everyone who attends. 

We are trying out some new things, and I hope the future will contain more of the same. What we envision is creating a community that is both challenging — in that it broadens perspectives and introduces new ideas and practices — but also deeply humane and supportive. 

I think Piper Center Director Alberto Rios (who is also Arizona’s first-ever poet laureate) said it best. He said the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference offers a “chance to participate in common acts of the imagination, helping us all to envision what lies before us in the world and, thereby, affect it.” I love that phrase “common acts of the imagination” so much — and I think that’s what we hope to look like moving forward: a place where "common acts of imagination” are nurtured and celebrated. We want to create a space where every writer (and would-be writer) feels they belong.

More events:

The Piper Center also offers programming beyond the conference. All of the center's events are open to the public; participants do not need to be ASU students.

Visit the center's website to learn more about upcoming Piper Writers Studio workshops and the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series, which features readings and conversations between writers.

Top photo: Joy Harjo, who served three terms as the 23rd U.S. poet laureate, is the keynote speaker for the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference. The conference, hosted by ASU's Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, will take place on the Tempe campus (with off-site events at local cafes, bars and bookstores) Oct. 12–14. Photo courtesy Shawn Miller