When I made the decision to pursue writing more seriously, I determined to call myself a writer. To make it feel more true and to psych myself about it, I began sharing my triumphs with the people around me, very few of whom were writers. This included announcing my awards during the Relief Society “good news minute.” I suppose these announcements (or the publications in The Friend, which continue to gain me more respect than any award for poetry ever could) were why a woman in my ward called me and asked if her son, who had written not just a novel but a trilogy, could talk to me about what he should do now.
When I wondered to myself whether I, who have yet to publish any book-length work, would have anything at all to share with him, I realized that I actually did know quite a lot about the journey he was setting out on–and I had gained this knowledge mostly through attending writers conferences.
I’ve really only attended two different writers conferences–AML’s (2 or 3 times), and BYU’s Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (4 times)–so I can’t really speak in general about the conference culture, particularly for mainstream writers. But when I think about what I’ve gained from the conferences I’ve attended, I realize that my participation in them has been the greatest factor, other than discovering AML, in my decision to take myself more seriously as a writer and in the development of my aspirations.
The first and biggest gain I get from these gatherings is the sense of community I experience there. When I get done with a conference, especially the intense, five-day WIFYR experience, I feel a great bond with the other writers I’ve met there. I think of myself as one of them, as a writer. I leave having been buoyed up. There’s even a let-down during those first few weeks after the conference, a sense almost of homesickness for the conference high. I want to stay in contact with my new friends. We form critique groups and motivation groups (two different things, both necessary). This community is priceless to me because in my real life I’m surrounded by non-writers and quite a few non-readers who couldn’t care less whether I ever get a publishing contract or not.
Second, I gain information about what to do with my writing once it’s ready to go out into the world. The world of publishing is mysterious and the whole process, from initial query to paying taxes on earnings, is a new universe to the uninitiated. It’s easy for a writer, like my friend’s son, to think that he has jumped the hurdle when he finishes the book, and now all he has to do is sit back and watch the publishers fight over his manuscript. Not only did my time at WIFYR teach me the truth about the process, but it eased my impatience and insecurity, because I was surrounded by writers–some of them already published and many of them highly talented–who were just as discouraged, sometimes, with the frustrating system. The fact that it’s taking me a while to find an agent is less painful when I know I’m in good company.
Third, and most obvious, the conferences have helped my writing improve. I mention this third, though, because it really is one of the smaller of the benefits of writers conferences. Because every serious writer should already have a critique group, and that group will help her more than a conference ever will. (I happen to have the world’s best critique group.) Of course, I’ve been able to be taught by some great writers and teachers, especially at the longer conference. But the greatest benefit of their teaching has been in other areas than improving my work. They have taught me process, critiquing, publishing procedure, how to stay positive. Most importantly, they have provided models for me by describing their own processes and roads to publication. I’ve been able to learn from Rick Walton, Janette Rallison, and Louise Plummer at BYU WIFYR, and from Michael Collings at an AML conference, where he sat down with me one-on-one and helped me through the revision process with one of my poems.
Finally, conferences often give students access to industry professionals. Sometimes you can get direct contact with editors and agents and your manuscript; other times you can learn from them in presentations or over a meal. As is the case with WIFYR, attending a conference where an editor or agent is presenting often gets you an “in” with an agency or publisher that is not otherwise accepting submissions. These are valuable contacts.
I wouldn’t be where I am (although I’m still not sure where that is–wherever it is, it is a much more confident place than where I was ten years ago) if it weren’t for the conferences I’ve attended.
What about you? Have you been to any, local or otherwise? Would you recommend them? How did they help?
Note on local conferences:
The AML no longer sponsors a writers conference, mostly due to a lack of resources (volunteer time being the most important) and also a belief that maybe we were redundant with all the other great conferences around here. What do you think–do you miss AML’s writers conferences?
As for WIFYR, it will not be sponsored by BYU this year but promises to be as good as ever. I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re interested in writing for children or teenagers–and, in fact, I’ve seen people who write only for adults also benefit from it. For more information about it, check out this website. I happen to know that there are still spots open in the picture book workshop this year, and maybe other workshops as well.
I’m very excited about Segullah‘s first writers conference, which will happen in June. I’ll be presenting there in the poetry workshop.
I should also mention the LDStoryMaker’s conference, which is coming up in April. I don’t know anything about it, but I believe several of you loyal readers have attended and could tell us more about it.