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 impersonal letters.
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 Else.
But 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and yes there’s lots of money at stake, but in the end everyone is just a person, agent or editor, published or unpublished.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 blooms.
Bill Kenower is Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine and a full-time freelance writer. He lives in Seattle.