The Gift and Challenge of Writers’ Conferences

In a couple weeks I’ll be teaching at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. If you write and you live in the Northwest, I highly recommend it. If you write and you live elsewhere, I recommend you find a conference near you and attend it. Though be warned: the very thing that makes writers’ conferences so inspiring, grounding, and rewarding is also what makes them so very terrifying to most of the writers I meet there – namely, other people.

First, it’s great to learn or remember that there are other people like you, other writers who must find time between work and children and husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends to write; other writers who would rather write than market what they’ve written; other writers who feel blocked sometimes; other writers who feel strangely alone when they try to talk to non-writers about the characters who talk to them when they’re alone at their desk.

And you’ll meet writers who are maybe more established than you, who have seen their books climb to the tippy-top of bestseller lists, or have won prestigious awards, and you will discover you have more in common with these writers than you imagined. They too worry that no one will be interested in what they’ve written; they too find themselves in the middle of a story with no idea how to reach its end; they too freak out when a manuscript comes back from their editor slashed with red ink.

And you’ll meet editors and agents, those otherwise faceless gatekeepers, and you will learn that they are more like you than you imagined. If you listen closely, you will notice that the publishing world, the world of acceptance and rejection, of advances and sales, is a world run on preference and intuition and hunches. You will learn that an agent or editor can’t predict the future (though they might claim they can), and that their choices are guided by taste and desire the same as your book was written through the pursuit of your taste and desire.

All of which will be tremendously helpful in putting this writing business into its proper human perspective, if you can resist the temptation to compare yourself to any of those people. In my experience, the temptation to do so is immense. The writing world is filled with comparison. We compare ourselves when we give awards, when we glance at our Amazon ranking, when we learn what another writer received as an advance. We compare ourselves when we edit other writers in our imaginations, thinking what we would have done and wondering why they did what they did.

This comparison is always as frightful as it is useless. Everything wonderful you have ever written or created or thought or loved or hoped for has flowed from a place within you, where the only comparison that occurs is the understanding of the difference between that which is in service to your story and that which is not. Writing’s dreamlike pleasure is freedom from that other comparison, within which lurks the quiet thought that when your score is tallied, you’ll come up short. This is the assassin of fears: What if I’m not good enough? To even ask the question is to kill your desire to create anything.

Fortunately, the question is unanswerable, so it need never have been asked. In fact, you can stop asking it anytime you want, and you’ll find its death grip on your imagination is instantly loosed. I know it is less dramatic to have always been good enough, to see victory and loss as just scenes in a drama of our invention, but it remains the only understanding from which you can create. And in truth, it is not so hard to look around a writers’ conference at all the other people worrying and rejoicing, arguing and agreeing, and see writers whose stories are varied, but whose love of storytelling shines equally bright.


Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

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The Question

As you read this, I will be ensconced somewhere at the SeaTac Hilton, conferencing. I have written this in the past, but I will do so again now: if you are working to become a professional writer, at some point it would be a good idea to get yourself to a writer’s conference. If you live anywhere remotely near Seattle, The Pacific Northwest Writers Conference is certainly one of the better around, but writer’s conferences are held in all corners of the country.

I am not going to lie to you. Writers come to conferences to, among other things, hone the tools of their craft, but they have come for something else—The Question. There is always a low current of fear running through a writer’s conference. It is the fear that quietly haunts not just writers but anyone attempting anything: Am I enough? Can I live the life I want to live, or must I accept a lesser version, bowing to the hardboiled wisdom that life is about a certain amount of disappointment and being a grownup means accepting that truth with minimum complaint?

You see it’s never about being a writer, I don’t think. In fact nothing is ever about anything, by which I mean, the central question is never, Am I strong enough, pretty enough, smart enough? The question is always, Does it matter? Does it actually matter how strong, pretty, or smart I am at this moment? I would ask you to consider that it does not matter how strong or smart or pretty your are. I would ask you to consider that that question of enough, enough of anything, is a subtle but ever-shrinking prison. It assumes your a fixed commodity, bound by the roulette wheel of birth, looking to discover not what it is you want to do, but what tools fate handed you and with which you will now stoically make the best.

You are not bound by anything. You are hurled forward by desire. These tools, these talents, are nothing more than desire made flesh, not the other way around. Seek what you love absolutely and I guarantee the tools will be there.

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A Thousand People

It’s July in Seattle, which means it’s getting close to conference time. Every year the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association holds a conference. Agents and editors from New York, Los Angeles and a few points in between descend on our city and the pitching begins. Oh, the look on those poor writers’ faces as they sit in the prescribed waiting area for their turn in front of an agent. If we could bottle the anxiety we could probably run our cars on it.

I always want to hug all the writers and assure them that no matter what happens they will live to see their loved ones again. But I feel for the agents as well. They know what’s going through the writers’ heads. Imagine having one nervous wreck after another sit before you with their self-esteem throbbing on their sleeve. The good ones are prospective salesmen and therapists all at once. The bad ones . . . well, I will just say that compassion is meaningless unless it is tested.

At times like this, I try to remember the wise words of Byron Katie: “You can have anything you want if you’re willing to ask a thousand people.” That is, somewhere out there is someone of a like mind. Writer’s conferences are fantastic opportunities. You get to kibitz with other writers, learn from workshops, and meet flesh and blood agents and editors. But there are lot of agents and editors out there, and all their tastes vary widely, and those you meet at conferences are but a small percentage. Have perspective. Your pitch is not do-or-die; it is one opportunity. There are always more coming.

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