Conference Insider: San Francisco Writing for Change

How could your words help better the world? That's the question this one-day event asks attendees.

San Francisco
San Francisco. Photo by Andrey Bayda/ Shutterstock

In 2006, author Cami Walker was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and an African medicine woman suggested she give away 29 gifts in 29 days as a remedy for despair. Walker chronicled her experience in memoir form and gathered personal essays from others who had improved their lives through similar generosity. She pitched the manuscript to an agent and publisher at the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference and found herself with a book deal the same day.

“When somebody’s really good, the publisher and agent do the deal right there,” says conference marketing director and author Barbara Santos. Walker’s deal resulted in the publication of 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life, featured on the Today show and on Oprah.com.

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For over a decade, the Writing for Change Conference has shown attendees how their writing, regardless of genre, can help to improve the world. “Any book can be the catalyst for change,” Santos says. “Both traditional publishing and newer ways – from eBooks to blogs – can let a well-crafted piece of writing reach an unprecedented audience around the globe.”

The theme of the 2019 conference is “Writing to Make a Difference.” The day-long event includes talks and readings by publishers, editors, agents, and best-selling authors. “Writers can attend at any level,” Santos says. “If you just have an idea, that’s fine. If you have a manuscript, you’ll get valuable feedback and meet people who can help you get it published.”

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What you’ll learn

The conference caps at 100 participants, which creates an intimate and personalized experience. Attendees start the day over coffee and pastries and then listen to a variety of workshops and panels, plus a keynote address, all designed to help writers in any genre and at any level. Presenters weigh in on a variety of subjects from business to spirituality, politics to technology, social issues, the environment, culture, and law.

Attendees can participate in a “Speed Dating with the Pros” roundtable hosted by presenters who answer questions and listen to book pitches. They may also take part in a one-on-one editor consultation – an opportunity Santos describes as both free and valuable. “It helps editors as well, because they meet writers at the conference whom they’re eager to help,” she explains.

Featured presenters

Last year, author and political activist Daniel Ellsberg gave the keynote, titled “Dismantling the Doomsday Machine!”

“People were just dumbfounded,” Santos says. “Dr. Ellsberg is someone many of us have wanted to meet our whole life, and he was a wonderful person.”

Other past presenters at the Writing for Change Conference include feminist essayist and playwright Susan Griffin, New World Library Publisher and President Marc Allen, author and women’s activist Jean Shinoda Bolen, and author and psychologist Philip Zimbardo.

In 2018, authors Joan Gelfand and Brigid O’Farrell gave participants specific information about how to change the world through writing. Other presenters spoke about how to find publishing opportunities that effect change, and how to create an audience through intelligent and insightful marketing. Best-selling author and book coach Nina Amir, scheduled to appear again in 2019, offered a creative visualization for writers hoping to write and publish a book that will change the world.

Advice for first-time attendees

Santos notes that this day-long conference is too valuable to waste by being overly introverted. “If you have something you need to say, this is a safe space to run it past people who will give you encouragement,” she says.

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Participants have plenty of time and space in which to network with each other and with presenters. An hour-long lunch offers opportunities to connect in an informal setting. “People can feel lost at larger conferences,” Santos says “At this one, everyone’s in the same room all day, listening to the same things, so they can easily discuss what they’ve learned.”

Attendees have, in fact, been so inspired by the event that they head out for Chinese food with presenters after the conference. “You can’t learn to write in a day, but you can make so many contacts that you’ll be blown away,” Santo concludes. “This conference is alive with ideas and people – the right people, people who can help your career.”