Wednesday, June 18, 2008


The first conference I attended was the Whidbey Island Writers’ Conference. The first year, I didn’t meet with an agent or editor because neither of the works I had in progress felt far enough along for me to discuss with anyone. Also, I was just getting the lay of the land and was learning what these conferences were all about.

My first conference experience was everything I wanted it to be.

First, I got to spend an entire pre-conference day in a memoir writing workshop with Maureen Murdock. I felt so in step with her when I read The Heroine’s Journey because of her friendship with Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell turned my life in a new direction when I met him. Maureen proved to be a sensitive and insightful workshop leader, and the eleven other women (only women signed up for this) just added to the overall experience.

The keynote speaker that year was Sara Paretsky. I was so excited at the thought of meeting her. V.I. Warshawski is my all time favorite sassy female dick.

The official conference began on Friday, and that evening, a local pub and bookstore hosted a couple of great ice breaker events. Conference attendees gathered at the pub over pitchers of beer and an open mic where writers could read poetry or flash fiction or selected excerpts. The bookstore set up tables for board games. One of the games was a cross between creating crossword puzzles and scrabble. The game was played in teams, and agents, editors, and writers of all descriptions grouped together to extend their word play agility. I opted for the bookstore games. Between rounds, conversation flowed in a relaxed atmosphere, free of expectation. Acquaintances were formed that lasted through the weekend.

As I attended subsequent conferences, I noted that, for many of the writers in attendance, the expectation was high. They wanted to be discovered or found. However, there was a not-so-invisible line between those in the professional, established positions and the wannabes. Those who had the coveted power to discover and snatch the quivering wannabe from the dregs appeared to have other things on their minds. They tended to group together with other agents or editors, the established writers formed their own huddle, flashing smiles as they autographed books, only to return to eye-rolling amongst the other real writers. Once I sat down at a table where Robert Ferrigno sat alone. I knew that he and I had come from the same town in California and wanted to ask him several things, like how living in Belmont Shore had contributed to the writing of Horse Latitudes or how long he’d lived in Washington and what had brought him up here. He literally rolled his eyes at me, and answered in monosyllables until a romance writer came over and rescued him from me. “You look bored,” she said. He growled and nodded. Okay…time for me to move on back to the corner with the other nobodies. I learned my place right and proper.

That’s not to say they’re all like Ferrigno. That experience stands out in my mind because he was just so openly affronted by my disregard for his position at the conference relative to mine. I’ve had some great conversations with writers as well. Nancy Kress is a wonderful writer to have at any conference. She’s a great teacher and workshop leader, and she likes talking to writers of all descriptions. I felt as though she honestly enjoyed visiting with us. Sara Paretsky, Steve Martini were also a pleasure to spend time with. My all time favorite writer event was with Leslie Marmon Silko at The Room of Her Own writers retreat for women. That week-long retreat stands alone among events for writers as the greatest thing a writer can do for herself.

After I finished my YA novel, I made two appointments at the Whidbey Island Conference. I wanted to meet with an agent of YA material. And I wanted to meet with an editor of a major publishing house to discuss the premise of my memoir. The agent said that the story line of my book sounded intriguing and asked for a partial. She returned it within the same week I sent it with a standard rejection note. The editor sat with her arms folded across her chest, obviously wishing this morning would end. The expression on her face said, “What.” Not a question. Since I knew from the moment I walked in the room that she felt the entire process of meeting with unpublished writers was a waste of her time, I found myself at a loss for words. Without unfolding her arms, she said to me, “Adoption memoirs have been done before and are boring.” I thanked her for her time and waited for her to thank me for my thirty dollars, which she didn’t.

Overall, the game night stands out as the most productive event I’ve encountered at a three-day conference. The biggest obstacle conferences have to overcome is the tension formed by the fledgling writer’s desire for a break, versus the established folks aloof and guarded posturing.

We can all read Miss Snark. I don’t need to have someone stand at a podium and tell us about all the annoying things we do to cross over. I may be alone in saying this, but I am not the kind of person who excels in acting like a simpering puppy in need of a pat on the head. I don’t like to kiss ass. Sure, I want to be published, but I want it to be because my book is something someone wants to represent and not because I pant and shake like a Chihuahua any time someone with New York connections crosses my path. Maybe I’m still extremely naïve. I do know that getting published is sort of like getting struck by lightening. As a writer who workshops my work, I’ve read a lot of work by unpublished writers, and there’s just a whole fucking lot of unbelievably good stuff out there. There’s also a lot of drivel. I understand the challenge agents and publishers face in finding the right manuscripts. I know that there is a lot of great work out there that will never see a bookstore shelf. Where conference are concerned, though, ice breakers like the game and pub night and small groups where people sit around a table and talk about some aspect of writing with a single professional are the two most valuable activities a conference can offer.

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