You walk in and immediately feel you are home. There are tables of books, people holding books, and posters with high-gloss photos of books. There is a tangible buzz. The women: often in brightly-hued sweaters and scarves, always in whimsical eyeglasses. The men: often schlumpy in their button-downs and wrinkled pants. These are your people! All of you, blinking in the natural light, ready to commiserate and conspire, discuss and debate, all about your great loves: writing, reading, the writing life.
And you do. Over the next couple of days, in hotel corridors and the hotel bar, in conference rooms and restrooms, you talk about books. The septuagenarian who’s been working for thirty years on his seven-book supernatural saga. The young MFA graduate and her multicultural coming-of-age story. A man writing memoir after memoir about his hard-luck life, in an endless-seeming loop of therapeutic effort. You listen to their ideas—this myriad of swirling ideas—some good, some not-so-good, all delivered with the same feverish hope, the same tumbling word-after-word sincerity that makes you a believer in each one, if only for a few moments.
You’ve forgotten that many of the attendees at these events are genuine novices. First conference, first time sharing the work of their hearts with the world. Sometimes, you want to comfort them, to put a warm quilt around their shoulders, to pat their backs and rub their arms in anticipation of what they’ve started. That’s the mother in you. In reality, they have to suffer the barbs and arrows, same as the initiated. But they’re in for the good stuff too, the flattering critique, the understood message. They’ll be fine, you tell yourself.
You shuffle from session to session, ingesting the proclamations of speakers as you would the invitations of a circus barker. Over here, a ten-step system for writing a synopsis! Step right up for everything you need to know about book marketing! Create intriguing characters! Hook readers with your first five words! You listen attentively, sometimes making notes, sometimes not. Conflicting messages start to line up in a sort of mental balance sheet:
Always think about your intended reader, and yet… write to please yourself.
Network! Build your author presence, your platform, and meanwhile…get your ass in the chair and write EVERY DAY.
Get an agent! Self-publish!
Here is what I did, but…everyone is different.
There is a writer of dark thrillers who polished off three books in five months. “But find your own pace,” she tells the room. There is someone who’s been working on the same fantasy book for twelve years. “Present your best product,” he says.
In a workshop, you marvel at the vivid scene your fellow attendee has written, off the cuff. You feel a warm rush of comradery, of pride, and a pang of bitter jealousy. When the next reader’s offering is bland and unremarkable, your ego repairs itself a little.
But you love it, you love it all. This inclusive world of countless genres and expanding publication possibilities, of writers with habits as diverse as, well, the habits of any large group of people, and you realize that this kumbaya writing world surely has room for you and your habits. Happily, you finish the day by buying a couple of books and when no one is looking, you caress the covers and take a whiff of the clean pages.
In the evening, you wander in to the cocktail mixer and head straight to the bar. Immediately, you are in conversation with an ambitious writer, one who has approached you because of your status as published author. He has the slicked hair and insistent eye contact of a salesman. You hear about his book series, his website, his marketing skills, all before you have your Chardonnay in hand. The tables in the room are labeled with genres and you’re relieved when his desire to network with like-minded writers trumps the groundwork he’s already laid with you. You happily let him go. His type needs no help from the likes of you; he’s got it all figured out. You find the table with your reading and writing preference printed on a card skewered by a silver stake. The literary fiction folks are quietly talking in pairs when you arrive. We are not life-of-the-party types, in general, but excel in one-on-ones. Eventually, introductions are made and before long, you’re comparing favorite reads and having exactly the type of conversation you hope for at these events: books we love, goals for our writing, disillusion with what is currently considered good.
This is what it’s all about, the communion, the empathy, the shared dream. Sharing tiny cups of pretzels and nuts, you talk about the writing—how hard it is, how wonderful—and the impediments to the work. Day jobs, raising kids, the twin demons of doubt and rejection. You laugh heartily at the joke about the writer with voices in his head visiting a psychiatrist. You bemoan the widespread use of “literally” and yet, laugh again when the young, shiny-eyed student lifts his black sweater to show a “Writers Do It Literally” tee shirt underneath.
The next day, more of the same. Writers gulp coffee and pastries like so many college students, not quite as fresh-faced as the day before. More information shared, more socializing over a heavy meal. Some have an air of dejection after the paid-in-advance meetings with agents and editors, some a giddy but guarded demeanor. And like any coming-together of people, for any purpose, the conference has an end. You say goodbyes to familiar faces as you head to the lobby. Your bags are packed, heavier for the new books at the bottom. You step into the fresh air and look forward to your quiet desk, the resuming of your solitary labor. The buzz starts to dilute and soften, to fall around you like the petals of a flower. In the morning, you will kick your way through the colorful remnants and get back to work.
MARY VENSEL WHITE is an author and contributing editor of LitChat read her full bio here.