WHY GO TO WRITING CONFERENCES? Writer On The Road, March 2013
Are you like me? Do you often think of writers' conferences as JACOB JAVITZ CENTER-SIZED WAREHOUSES PACKED WITH WRITERS JOCKEYING FOR POSITION, saying things like "WHO published you? Realllly. Huh. HOW many books did you sell? HOW many print runs? You don't KNOW? Ha ha. Hmmmm..." while their gazes drift over your shoulder to see if somebody else more important has walked into the room? Maybe you envision writers' conferences as seething seas of one-upsmanship; tons and tons and tons and tons of books you MUST read; panels and readings you MUST go to (or remain ETERNALLY MENTALLY UNENRICHED); parties you MUST attend (or at least get invited to) or else be stuck at the Uncool Kids' Lunch Table forever...and ever....and ever.
Luckily, the reality of writers' conferences is nothing like this, as I've learned from Grub Street's EXTREMELY writer-friendly Muse & Marketplace to the Tucson Festival of Books (they're on Instragram!) to the AWP. Here, from this year's AWP in Boston, are my Top 12+ Reasons to Go:
12. TRAVEL. Yeah, we all know flying isn't like it used to be, when you had cutlery and real scrambled eggs in compartmentalized plastic trays and stewardesses (now flight attendants) giving you little pewter wings. But it's still fun because now you get to take off your shoes and reveal to everyone what socks you forgot you were wearing:
and if you're like me, you also get to pull your shirt up over your nose because you HATE the smell of exhaust that saturates the cabin's air before takeoff, which makes your fellow passengers not want to talk to you because you look like a weirdo:
which is awesome because who wants to talk to people on planes anyway?
The place you leave to come to the writers' conference might have consistent sunshine and temperatures of 60 degrees every day, whereas the place you travel to for your writers' conference might be experiencing a record-breakingly snowy winter and present you with exciting blizzard views like this!
and when you are not participating in the writers' conference downstairs, you'll get to marvel at the snow and snow and snow that comes down and sideways and up and down like somebody's standing on the roof of the hotel dumping it out of a payloader for 48 hours. Which, if you're a weather geek like me, is awesome!
And then, on the 3rd conference morning, the weather might change so you see this:
which is such a pretty sight that you spend a couple of hours photographing it and posting it on social media to wish good morning to everybody following you, including several of the writers swirling around downstairs in the conference center, including the writers you're supposed to be on a panel with in five minutes. F*ck.
9. EXCUSE FOR A HAIRCUT
Let's face it: the imaginary people you usually hang out with aren't so particular about what you look like. And even if they start telling you, "Hey, you're pretty disgusting, you really should hose down a little," they're your imaginary people, so you can write different words in their dialogue bubbles. Not so the real people at the writers' conference, who may look at your Woolly Mammoth writer self somewhat askance. So you get a haircut
for the first time in what your stylist says is way, way, way too long.
8. GET DRESSED (IN SOMETHING OTHER THAN YOGA PANTS)
Did you know you can buy clothes for writers' conferences and write it off on your taxes? Actually, no. Not really. Still, if you've been wearing the same jeans/ sweatpants/ pajamas for days on end while playing with the imaginary people, now you have a reason to get the heck out of them and put on something else. Even if, because you've been locked away writing so long, your taste is sartorially suspect.
7. SEE OTHER WRITERS, MEET THEIR BOOKS
In reality, most other writers are NOT the people who're going to put you down while looking over your shoulder for somebody more important to talk to. In reality, we're all in this together. In reality, many of these writers are your friends. And you get to see them again after a long time and hold their new book babies:
which is exactly what a new book is, right? a beloved baby that often takes an F of a lot longer to gestate than a human baby, and of which we're all so proud, and happy to see, and can't wait to read, so much so that it makes us, okay me, incapable of smiling in any other way but this deranged Muppet Face.
6. LEARN SH*T!
One anxiety-producing thing about big writers' conferences is that you can't get to every panel you want to. In fact, the Events Guide for AWP 2013 is literally thicker than the telephone book for my current adopted hometown of Wichita, KS. No matter how much I want to learn and NEED to learn from other writers, I would need to clone myself at least 27 times to be able to get to all the panels.
But I can make a lot of them. I make as many as I can without feeling overwhelmed and shorted out. And I'm on a couple, including a Novel Structure panel put together by Grub Street Novel Incubator Instructor Michelle Hoover, and thank goodness I get to talk first, because my fellow panelists are so freakin smart about novel structure--talking about assembling story from mosaic, finding a novel's signature, each novel teaching you how to write it--if I'd had to follow them, I'd have been intimidated mute.
5. SEE COOL BOOTHS
It's true the amount of cool writer/ publisher/ magazine booths at AWP reminded me of the warehouse in Indiana Jones "Raiders of the Lost Ark" that the ark is hidden in. However, I managed to admire at least 1000 of them, including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Penguin and Kenyon Review and Grub Street Writers, which was my favorite not just because it belonged to beloved Grub but because--look at it!
They seriously made it so comfortable that I wanted to move right in. Which I kinda did. For a while. Until they were like, "Okay, Jenna, well, it's been nice to see you...." And I stayed sitting on the couch, beaming. And they said, "Well, okay, it's great that you dropped by...." And I sat there quite happily. Finally they pointed me away from the couch and toward--
4. WRITER FORTUNE COOKIES
Yes, you can get COOKIES at conferences. FREE COOKIES! With fortunes in them. Here were mine.
My favorite fortune is the second from the top. It's true that I had to open at least 22 cookies to get that particular fortune. And it's true that actually, I didn't get that fortune at all in the 22 cookies I opened and I was making such a mess and destroying so many cookies that another writer in the Grub booth said, "Here, Jenna, you can have my writing-is-fucking-hard fortune, I'll trade you." But anyway. I came home with that fortune, and ain't it the truth, folks; ain't it the truth?
3. GET BUTTONS
Remember when you were a kid and you had buttons from all the cool bands pinned on your acid-washed denim jacket, like Michael Jackson and Duran Duran and Cyndi Lauper and Depeche Mode and Erasure? (WORK WITH ME, PEOPLE.) It's the same at writers' conferences. You can collect cool buttons from the booths.
At least, you can until they realize you're taking ALL the buttons from the fishbowl because you want one of each kind and they say, "Okay, well, it was REALLY REALLY REALLY nice to see you, Jenna," and they remove your hand gently from the fishbowl and hide the fishbowl and lead you away toward another booth, leaving a trail of fortune-cookie fragments behind you.
2. ROOM SERVICE
Okay, you don't always get to stay in hotels with room service. One writers' conference, in fact, I stayed for the first night in a hotel that had felons in the room next to mine, so my writerly meditations were interrupted by the police pulling up and arresting everyone in that room. But that made for a good story, which is also food for writers, no? And I learned a lesson and swore, as God is my witness, never to stay for a writers' conference at a hotel that didn't have room service again.
Although I have to admit maybe I went a little overboard at AWP 2013, because I ordered so much room service they started calling me by name every time I picked up the phone and they sent me extra cookies and on the last day, when I said I was leaving, the room service lady said "AY!" and threw her arms around me and hugged me.
1. GIVE BAGGAGE HANDLERS A WORKOUT
There are so many great books to buy at writers' conferences that you may come home with your suitcase a LITTLE heavier than when you left. But that's good for the baggage handlers, right? We don't want them to get unfit and sloppy. We are always thinking of their health and well-being.
And, as if all this writerly fellowship and camaraderie and books and knowledge and cookies and buttons weren't enough, you can get mugs.
Like these mugs we drink out of every morning. Like these mugs that provide us with that most necessary component of the writing process, CAFFEINE. Like these mugs that remind us, as we sit in our writing room, with our scary clothes and hair and imaginary people, of the real people we love, far away; of writers all over the country who will gather next year at conferences, thank God. So we can see each other and learn from each other and hold each other's book babies and do it all again.
Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us, The Stormchasers, and The Lost Family as well as the novella "The Lucky One" in anthology Grand Central. Jenna is also one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers. Jenna has taught for GrubStreet since 1997 ; she currently runs the master novel workshop and seminars focusing on craft and marketing.See other articles by Jenna Blum