Crystal Alberts adds to the legacy of the UND Writers Conference


David L. Dodds

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Crystal Alberts adds to the legacy of the UND Writers Conference

You’ll most likely find Crystal Alberts standing or sitting along the back wall of the Memorial Union Ballroom during any given session of the University of North Dakota’s annual Writers Conference.

Don’t mistake that for disinterest or apathy ? no, quite the contrary.

As director of this year’s conference, set for March 25-27, and a director or co-director of four of the past five events, Alberts, an assistant professor of English, lives and breathes the Writers Conference year round. But during the week of the event, she likes to bask in the background and let the featured authors and their work take center stage.

“Because it’s not about me as an individual director; it’s about the conference and the amazing opportunities that it has been creating for 46 years and counting,” said Alberts, a native of Clearbrook, Minn., not far from Grand Forks.

This year, the 46th installment of the event will be an all-women’s affair ? the first since 1973. The theme of the conference is “The Other Half,” focusing on women who live in (or have lived in), write about and work with rural or urban areas.

“Although I’m excited about the whole conference, I’m particularly excited about Roxane Gay being here,” Alberts said. “Her written work is thought provoking, but extremely accessible. Also, on the suggestion of a group of students, I’ve recently started tweeting for the conference on a regular basis (@UNDWritersConf) and have been following Roxane (@rgay). She seems like a genuine, down-to-earth person and her sense of humor is in line with my own, so I’m very much looking forward to meeting her.”

Here is a list of this year’s authors lineup for the 46th UND Writers Conference at the Memorial Union.

Although the Writers Conference is quite well known by the public and among authors, Alberts admits she didn’t know anything about it when she arrived at UND as a senior lecturer in 2007 ? despite having grown up in the area.

While photocopying handouts for a class, she noticed the framed posters hanging around the English Department of past Writers Conferences, and several names got her attention: William H. Gass, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, N. Scott Momaday, Joseph Brodsky and Tim O’Brien, among many others.

“My area of specialization is post-1945 American literature and culture, so I was floored to discover that many of the people that I read, study and teach had been here at UND,” Alberts said. “I almost immediately went over to (UND) Special Collections to find out whether or not there was an archive of the conference, only to discover that, through the foresight of past conference directors, presentations and panel discussions were recorded, basically, since the beginning.”

Alberts, a digital humanist, started collaborating with UND’s Chester Fritz Library in building the UND Writers Conference Digital Collection. With the help of National Endowment for the Arts grants and internal funding, she and library staff members have preserved about half of the estimated 600 hours of past conference footage, of which around 117 hours are freely available online for scholarly, educational and historical use.

Eventually in the spring of 2009, Alberts took on the role of primary co-director of the 41st UND Writers Conference (2010), with Kathleen Coudle-King serving as co-director and English Department colleague Heidi Czerwiec, who had led previous conferences, providing advice along the way.

Alberts is the latest in a line of UND scholars ? dating back to event founder John Little ? who have taken on the arduous but rewarding task of shepherding the Writers Conference each year since 1970. It has evolved into one of the region’s signature literary events.

“For me, directing the UND Writers Conference is an opportunity to link my research to my teaching, all while making literary history, being part of an incredible tradition and giving back to the community,” Alberts said. “I take great joy and satisfaction from seeing the crowds gather at readings, hearing old and new friends exchange stories about the conference, watching students get exciting about meeting an author they studied in class, and enabling students and community members to work with these authors to improve their own art.”

For Alberts, organizing a Writers Conference begins about 20 months prior to the actual event when her first grant application is due. It’s at that point that she settles on a theme.

She constantly surveys the literary landscape and reads works by emerging and exciting authors as she envisions future conference lineups. She also listens to others who might have writer suggestions. Late springs through the summer months, she starts contacting writers and agents, and negotiating contracts. The fall is spent writing grant applications, averaging one a month from September-January, and finalizing the lineups as money is secured.

January through March is spent on scheduling, travel logistics and marketing.

“Then, it’s the week of the conference,” she says. “The month after the conference is spent writing final grant reports and ‘Thank Yous.’ And by May, I start the process all over again. It’s a year-round-thing two-to-three-conferences-ahead type job."

Several factors are considered when making decisions which writers to invite: (1) They need to fit the theme of the conference. (2) They must be available during the conference. (3) A speaker’s fee must fit within the conference budget. (4) And they have to be comfortable with the conference format ? which is completely free and open to the public. (5) No ghostwriters are invited. (6) Finally, the authors must be willing to make personal appearances.

In recent years, the Writers Conference has received an outpouring of support from many alumni, community members and people on campus, including gifts to the John Little Memorial Endowment and a “Match Challenge,” which has generated about $20,000. New funding sources also have been established, such as the Kemen/Randall Family Writers Conference Endowment, the Jackie McElroy-Edwards and Tom Edwards Writers Conference Endowment, and an annual gift from the Estate of Alice Lillian Carlson.

“This is great because endowments are what the UND Writers Conference needs to ensure that the organization is financially sustainable for years to come,” Alberts said. “We know that there is still work to be done, and we continue to do it.”

Alberts also appreciates UND Arts & Sciences Dean Debbie Storrs and long-time Writers Conference supporters, such as the UND Foundation, for their commitment to ensuring the tradition of the conference continues.

In addition, since arriving at UND, Alberts has been personally involved with nearly 40 grant proposals to internal and external granting agencies, requesting more than $1.9 million to support her research or related interests. Those requests have garnered nearly $490,000 over the years. Much of that has gone to her work and research related to the Writers Conference and the building of the Writers Conference Digital Collection.

Through all the hard work and challenges that come with organizing the Writers Conference each year, Alberts passion and enthusiasm is summed up in her one-word response when asked whether she plans to continue her involvement with the event in future years.


David Dodds University & Public Affairs writer

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