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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