“The Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, Inc. is a non-profit organization
whose purpose is to bring writers together for
instruction, counsel, fellowship, and the exchange of ideas.”
These words from the PWC bylaws are what inspired its founding in 1949. The initial planners, Florence Kerigan, Suzanne Gill, Helen VanDusen, and Walter Breish, quickly added to their founder’s list Avis Branch, William DeGrouchy, Elizabeth Y. Gilcreest, Mildred Lissfelt, Olga Pardee MacFarland, Edith Osteyes, Patricia Price, and Aimee Jackson Short. The organization was called the Philadelphia Regional Writers’ Conference at its inception.
Although they had no money, no publicity background, and no place to meet, they were spurred by the belief that writers gain from fellowship with other writers, that writers benefit from constructive professional help, and that there had to be a way to bring this together in Philadelphia.
On advice from the Chamber of Commerce, the first conference was held in free rooms at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, which was then supporting cultural groups. The two-day conference offered four workshops, a banquet, and an evening speaker–all for $5–possible because the workshop leaders donated their services for that first meeting. One hundred people attended, primarily hearing about it through area writers’ clubs, which proved to be a powerful network.
Today, a three-day conference, traditionally held in early June, offers from 14 workshops, usually four seminars, several “manuscript rap” sessions, a Friday Roundtable Forum Buffet with speaker, and the Saturday Annual Awards Banquet with speaker. The 150 to 200 conferees may submit manuscripts in advance for criticism by the workshop leaders, and are eligible to submit entries in about a dozen contest categories. Cash prizes and certificates are given to first and second place winners, plus full tuition for the following year’s conference to first place winners.
In addition to workshop sessions and seminars, a separate Conferee Lounge provides tables at which conferees can revise manuscripts, meet fellow-writers, or have out-of-class sessions with workshop leaders. There, they may also find free magazine samples or writers’ guidelines from various publications, as well as free coffee and tea. Many writers have formed lasting friendships with the kindred spirits they’ve met in this atmosphere.
Tales about conferees include those of the priest who won the “confessions” contest; the beginning writer who revised her first short story and sold it to a leading magazine; the high school teacher who went from article ideas to publishing several non-fiction books, yet still attended the conference; the college-student who was inspired to start a poetry magazine; the successful article-writer who had a deep desire to write short stories and won second place in her first contest; the man who hesitatingly read aloud at a “rap” and was overcome with the positive reception his story received; the woman who parlayed an interview with an interesting man into a book about him; and the couple who attended their first conference and walked away with a handful of prizes each, and the determination to spend more time at their writing, successfully.
Many conferees attend annually, citing the “lift” they get from the three days of concentration on writing skills, marketing advice, and inspiration to continue writing; they return to meet new workshop leaders and to renew acquaintances with returning leaders.
The community of professional writers has responded most generously in sharing their time and talents with the conference; there is a strong desire to give back to others some of what they received in their own development.
Conference fees are still low in today’s market, as the Conference maintains a non-profit status. All conferees receive the PWC newsletter, Pen Points, which contains information about activities for writers, and other writing-related news. This also goes to other interested individuals, to area writers’ clubs, area colleges, humanities organizations, etc.
Three memorial scholarships and several college-affiliated scholarships offer free attendance, and bonafide writers’ groups of seven or more members are entitled to send one member at a reduced-tuition scholarship.
In many years during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the mayor proclaimed the Conference Week as “Writers’ Week” in Philadelphia, with an official proclamation stamped with the seal of the city given to the organization. The name of the organization was changed in 1972 to the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, in recognition that the term “regional”, originally meant to convey that conferees from the region were welcome, was no longer applicable as conferees were coming from places far from the Philadelphia area.
What began as a regional get-to-gether for writers has since grown into an organization that in its 32nd year, 1980, officially incorporated as a non-profit entity. In 1998, the 50th Annual Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Celebration brought a visit from the mayor of Philadelphia to acknowledge the contributions of the organization to the city.
From 1960 to 2005, one or two mid-year luncheons with speaker were offered. These Forums each presented a morning panel or speaker, a luncheon, and an afternoon speaker, all offered at a nominal cost. Generally, the Forums were operated at a financial loss–a gift to the community of writers–reflecting the fact that the conference is a non-profit entity; the sole source of PWC income being from tuitions and some minor invested funds. In 2006, the Board of Directors discontinued the Forum project in order to put more emphasis on Community Outreach to Youth, with board members volunteering their time at libraries and schools to present writing workshops to young people.
To maintain a central communications center, the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference maintains P. O. Box 7171, Elkins Park, PA 19027-0171, assuring interested writers access to the organization through the annual change of officers. In 1999, the conference established a Web Site (www.pwcwriters.org) and an e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org). In 2012, we added a Facebook page.
The Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, Inc. is operated by a Board of Directors comprising up to thirty-five members, plus past-presidents. They represent a broad range of writing categories, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as editing, public relations, etc. All the work of the Conference, from planning workshops and programs to licking stamps, is done as a volunteer service, as no Director receives monetary remuneration. Just as some former conferees have come back to serve the conference as workshop leaders, many of the board members, too, are former conferees.
The annual June conference attracts conferees from most of the United States as well as a few from Canada, although the core of attendance is still from the Tri-State area. Demographics show that roughly one-third of conferees at any given PWConference attended at least one previously (and frequently more), showing a positive return-rate.
The conference board continually re-assesses operational matters and is open to change and experimentation, yet remains true to the intentions of the founding members. The focus and spirit are the same–emphasis on help from professional workshop leaders–and inspiration that spurs writers to attain their goals.
(Some of this information was originally recorded by Florence Kerigan,
the last surviving founder, who died in 1982 at the age of 87;
it was edited and brought up-to-date by Gloria T. Delamar.)