In 1998 Sharon Oard Warner was an assistant professor at the Creative Program at UNM, newly appointed as the program’s Director. When the English Department Chair asked her what her ideal project would be, she knew immediately: start a writers’ conference in Taos. As Sharon tells the story, she had never even been to Taos. But she knew the D. H. Lawrence Ranch was there. She knew that generations of artists and writers had been drawn by the beauty and energy of the place. As a writer herself, Warner was intrigued by Taos. She wanted to go there, and she guessed that other writers would want to go as well.
In July of 1999 the first Taos Summer Writers Conference was held at the Sagebrush Inn Conference Center, where it has been held all twelve years since. There were nine faculty members, including Pam Houston, Antonya Nelson, Robert Boswell and Jonis Agee—all of whom have returned, and were among the 2011 instructors. Sixty five participants attended. Summer Wood, now a published novelist and returning instructor, was the first DH Lawrence fellow.
The conference has grown with each passing year: in 2011. Many big names have been associated with the conference: faculty have included such well-known writers as Joy Harjo, Elizabeth Strout and Dana Levin. Keynote speakers have included Richard Rodriguez, Wally Lamb, John Nichols and Natalie Goldberg. In 2005 former NEA Director Dana Goia came to speak; in 2006 N. Scott Mommaday paid a visit.
Not surprisingly, the Conference has received significant national media attention: USA Today named us one of the top ten writers’ conferences in the country. We’ve been featured in publications from the Albuquerque Journal to Pasa Tiempo to Ready Made magazine, and were a featured destination in Poets and Writers’ “United States of Writing.”
But despite the conference’s growth, what keeps participants returning is the low-key and welcoming environment that remains, both for newcomers and those who come back: as Pam Houston once put it, Taos feels less like a conference and more like a family reunion.
A published novelist and the head of the University of New Mexico's creative writing program, Sharon Oard Warner herself is no stranger to these writerly gatherings. She has attended, as a contributing writer and as faculty, places like Bread Loaf in Vermont and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. As founder and director of the Taos Summer Writers' Conference, Warner drew on her experiences with other such programs in developing her own. Despite her affiliations with UNM, the conference is its own entity financially. Spiritually, it transcends the walls of the university. It remains important to its founder that the essence of this gathering reaches out to "serve the writing community in New Mexico to the greatest possible degree." But as a cornerstone in this effort lies a distinct conference philosophy that attracts writers from not only all over the U.S., but Canada, Taiwan and West Africa. It begins with place.
"I want this conference to be inclusive, not exclusive," Warner explains, and there are a number of steps she, her staff, and ardent supporters of the project have taken to make this possible. Certain events, such as evening readings by instructors and a publishing panel, are open to the general public. For those who wish to attend workshops, there are opportunities for financial aid. The conference offers five merit-based scholarships, and the D.H. Lawrence Fellowship, awarded each year to an emerging writer with one book in print, is another means of assisting participants financially.
Excerpted in part from June 2001 AbqArts