Sonya Larson believes diversity at writing conferences is crucial. As the director of The Muse & the Marketplace, a three-day event hosted by Boston’s famed Grub Street creative writing center, she’s committed to highlighting a diverse lineup of presenters, agents, and editors.
“This reflects the world we live in, and it’s so important for the art we’re making,” she explains. “The feedback and perspectives that a varied community of writers can give one another on their work is essential and will continue to produce fantastic books.”
Every April, 800 participants gather at the Park Plaza Hotel near Boston Common to attend over 130 interactive sessions focusing on both the craft and business of writing. With best-selling author attendees that have included Celeste Ng, Morgan Jerkins, Jabari Asim, and Li Yun Alvarado, the conference offers a wealth of opportunity for networking, discussion, and revelation.
In 2018, Larson arranged for author Peter Ho Davies to give a keynote on cultural appropriation, and they spent a great deal of time shaping the presentation to make sure it would be useful for everyone in attendance. She observed how conversations inspired by that keynote influenced discussions in the 2019 conference, especially in workshops that looked at gestures and objects in creative writing and how their meanings differ across cultures.
“There’s an added layer of conscientiousness and humility that’s expanded beyond a myopic, white-centered way of viewing craft,” she explains.
What you’ll learn
“Expect to feel challenged,” Larson says. “We pitch most of our sessions at a rigorous teaching level.” The most advanced sessions look at experimental structure in fiction and nonfiction as well as how to demystify a publishing deal.
But the conference also offers a track called “Essentials Of,” which offers basic instruction in point of view, style, flash fiction and nonfiction, structure, humor…and how to use Twitter. “Those are some of our most highly rated sessions,” Larson says. “They’re really good for anyone just getting started as a writer, or for those who need more experience. And a refresher’s always good.”
Attendees can take courses in the craft of fiction and nonfiction and in writing for children and young adults. They can learn about publishing, promotion, and how to structure one’s life as a working writer. In 2019, Vanessa Hua talked about how to fund your writing passion, while Shirley Jones-Luke spoke about public speaking for authors. Neel Patel taught a session titled “Breaking the Rules: Writing without an MFA,” and Garrard Conley spoke on “Writing and Activism: A Crash Course.”
Larson particularly appreciated the closing keynote this year. Titled “Writing While Working,” it featured authors Mira Jacob, Rebecca Makkai, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Rani Neutill, and Daniel José Older. “They talked about their particular paths, and the choices they’ve made throughout their life about how to balance work and writing,” Larson explains. “This is a conversation that writers need to be having more and more. I know so many writers who work multiple jobs and have families and little kids and aging parents, and it’s really hard for them to make space for the writing each day.
Interested attendees can check The Muse & the Marketplace website (museandthemarketplace.com) for an updated list of presenters in 2020. In 2019, Anuradha Kristina Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and company commander, taught a session titled “Writing about Trauma without Losing It.” Author Milo Todd – who specializes in queer, trans, and poverty issues – led a session titled “Queery-ing: How to Snag an Agent as a Queer Author.”
Jenna Blum and Sara DiVello taught a workshop titled “Social Media Hacks: Using Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to Authentically Engage (and Not Annoy) Readers,” while poet and author David Mura led a session titled “Writing on Race: Your Own Identity and the Identity of Others.”
After each day’s sessions, conference participants can network with presenters, agents, and editors at Shop Talk Happy Hour. They can register for the Manuscript Mart – a 20-minute one-on-one session with an agent or editor – to receive specific feedback on a 20-page manuscript sample submitted well ahead of time along with a query letter.
Writers are also invited to participate in Literary Idol – a session in which an actor performs the first pages of fiction manuscripts submitted anonymously for a panel of agents and editors, who judge the work in front of attendees. And they can attend a lively evening “spitballing” session in which authors use free-association brainstorming techniques borrowed from screenwriters to open up new possibilities for manuscripts that may feel stuck.
Advice for first-time attendees
Registration for Grub Street members begins in November and opens to non-members in December. Scholarships for $250 are available; see the website for details. Conference attendees should bring business cards and – if they’ve registered for a manuscript critique or a session that requires work in advance – the required number of printed pages….but no full manuscripts.
“A conference can be intimidating. We do a lot to make sure our first-time attendees feel welcome,” Larson says. “We arrange for you to have a buddy who will email you in advance and get to know you and meet up with you at the conference, so you don’t feel all alone and unmoored.” Those interested in the Muse Buddy program can simply select “yes” during the registration process.
There are plenty of informal networking opportunities, from lunches to cocktail hours, as well as a dedicated meet-up for writers, agents, and editors of color.
“Please come,” Larson says. “We’re democratic and unpretentious, and we welcome anyone who wants to write. It doesn’t matter what your genre is, or where you come from, or what your perspective is. We welcome one and all.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). melissahart.com.
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