What do you get a beloved old writers' conference in its 60th year?
How about a theme that's on the edge of punning catastrophe? For the past three days at the Holiday Inn, Independence Mall - the traditional venue of the Philadelphia Writers Conference, founded in 1949 - it was "Diamonds Are a Quill's Best Friend."
No one marched around in a signboard claiming authorship - this is, after all, a conference about improving your writing.
But it captured the playful bonhomie that sets the PWC, with its 192 registered attendees this year, apart from many such events, where egoistic M.F.A. candidates sometimes alternate between stalking literary agents and wondering why everyone else doesn't recognize their direct lineage from Proust or Rilke.
"I first came to the conference in 1995, when I was fresh out of college," explained Dorothy Hoerr, a freelance writer and lecturer in English at Albright College who now also volunteers as PWC's registrar.
"I was living in Pottsville at the time," she recalled, "where there was no writers' community whatsoever that I knew of, and I needed to connect with other writers. . . . A brochure arrived about this conference. And I thought, 'This is exactly what I need.' "
Hoerr found it "so helpful" and "met so many great people" that she came back six years later, after getting married and having a child, "to relaunch my writing career."
Since then she has earned an M.A. from Rosemont College and has been a repeat conferee, a teacher of the "Research for Writing" workshop, and a member of the PWC's board for five years.
Hoerr's loyalty reflects one of PWC's distinctions: an ability to draw back old friends again and again. Every year, about one of three conferees is a returnee.
In that first year of 1949, Walter Breish, Florence Kerrigan, Suzanne Gill and Helen Van Dusen founded the PWC as the one-day "Philadelphia Regional Writers Conference" (admission: $5). It took place at the old Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, which generously provided free rooms. About 100 writers came. The PWC changed to its present name in 1982.
Gloria and William Delamar, both still on PWC's board of directors, attended their first conference in 1977. Each has served several terms as president.
"We knew Walter and Florence when we first joined the conference," says "Glo," chatting in the west-wing corridor of the hotel that has been PWC's home for decades. "It used to be more little old ladies with blue hair and tennis shoes. That has changed. Even the older people who come - they're very serious about their writing."
The PWC now attracts younger folks, too - what Hoerr describes as "the person who wants to just brood and write all day" - as well as writers of color, such as board member Alice Wootson.
"We're more of a down-home kind of writers conference," Glo says. "The advice that our workshop leaders give is down-to-earth and usable."
The PWC has also seen some participants do quite well, such as mystery writer D.L. Wilson. "He wrote Unholy Grail," says Bill Delamar, "which has now been translated into seven languages." Wilson's editor participated in the PWC.
This year the conference, which offers workshops broader than the typical troika of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, featured sessions on such topics as "Romance Novel," "Flash Fiction," and "Breaking Writer's Block." Among well-known local writers who taught at the PWC were Gregory Frost and Bill Kent.
On Saturday evening, Inquirer columnist and nonfiction author Mark Bowden delivered the PWC's keynote address, entertaining the banquet crowd with tales of his rise from suburban reporter.
Bowden also offered blunt advice, urging everyone always to look for the "dramatic center" of a story and to "always be working on the most ambitious thing that you've ever done."
On Sunday afternoon, one could see the energy of the workshops in the "Memoir" session taught by Oana Nechita, a Doylestown writer who assists others with crafting autobiographies.
As Nechita set out criteria of defamation on a blackboard ("false, published, stated as fact . . . "), the class took on a call-and-response rhythm. Conferees answered Nechita's questions and hurled back their own.
"If I say that George Bush is gay," Nechita asked at one point, "is that a fact or my opinion?"
"Your opinion!" a decided majority thundered back.
Not everything in politics or defamation is unclear.
"I thought it was wonderful," remarked Nechita, a first-time PWC'er, afterward. "I got a lot more participation than I thought I would."
Most important, those submitted pieces impressed her.
"A lot of them," Nechita said, "with a bit of editing, are very much publishable."
And that's what it's all about.