Once Upon a Conference
by Bill Kenower
Once upon a time, long before Author, I was a
wine steward—or a sommelier, if you’re feeling snooty. It was
during this period that I came to fully understand the difference
between what I think of as real hands-on, experiential knowledge,
and that other shallower, text book version. It’s all very well and
good to get your issue of Wine Spectator every month and read
up on what why California chardonnay isn’t as hot as it used to be,
but quite another to have to recommend a good zinfandel to six
Japanese businessmen on a hectic Saturday night.
How does this apply to writing? Well, I often find
myself thinking about my days as a wine steward in July, because—as
is the case for many of our readers—July is conference month here in
Seattle. Author, if you were unaware, is a part of The
Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association, which every July hosts the
Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference.
I attended my first PNWC many years ago, and it was,
I realize now, the beginning of my becoming a professional writer.
Before that conference I had never met a published author, or an
editor, or an agent. The publishing world, for me at least, existed
in some strange, faceless netherworld of names and titles and
Unfortunately, I was, and am, a face-to-face guy.
Strange in a way for a writer, but there you go. Publishing is not
really a face-to-face business. Most of us will never meet any of
the writers we read and admire, and unless you live in New York
City, most of the publishing professionals live and work Somewhere
for one long weekend you can spend valuable time with writers and
publishing professionals alike. What this did for me was to begin,
at least, to humanize the publishing process. Yes, it’s a business,
and yes there’s lots of money at stake, but in the end everyone is
just a person, agent or editor, published or unpublished.
Which brings me back to the wine. One big difference
between the wine geeks (that’s what we called ourselves) and the
amateurs (our nicest of many endearments) is that we the
professionals understood that wine was “just juice.” There’s a lot
of mystique around wine. It’s like poetry in a way. Not particularly
useful day-to-day, but an appreciation of it always connotes
sophistication. In fact, its very impracticality is what
seems to make it all the more sophisticated. Once you’ve worked
with it, however, once you’ve shelved twelve cases of the stuff
before your Friday shift, once you’ve opened thirty or forty bottles
in one night, once you’ve tasted six merlots in one sitting, the
mystique is pretty much gone.
As it should be. It’s just juice, and writers and
agents and editors are just people trying write and sell books.
That’s all. And once you’ve met a few of them, once you’ve heard
them talk about the business of writing, the hands-on business of
it, not the dream of writing, or the magic of writing,
but what it actually is to write and publish, the whole thing
comes down to earth where it belongs.
Writing and publishing is no more or less magical and
mysterious than anything else in the world. The only thing that
really separates writing from everything else is that it’s what we
love to do. If we make writing something magical and mysterious, I
fear it will remain within the clouds of our imaginations only. It’s
safe there, true. There writing won’t be sullied by crass commerce,
or bullied by the opinions of others. But it won’t live either. The
world in all its colors and characters exists as it is for a reason.
It is the garden—rough sometimes, but always fertile—where
everything planted can grow. It’s fine to have the idea of a flower,
but maybe it’s time to see what one actually looks like when it
Kenower is Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine and a full-time
freelance writer. He lives in Seattle.