My name is Ryan Van Cleave . . . and I attend writing conferences. [Hi, Ryan!]
I’m even writing this article while en route to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference – the largest literary conference in North America – in Los Angeles. I admit it: Whether it’s as a presenter, an attendee, an organizer, a moderator or a behind-the-scenes player, I love writing conferences. I generally manage to attend six per year.
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I sometimes get asked why I still attend conferences – I teach, I’ve written 20-plus books and I’m now spearheading a BFA program. How do I find the time? What’s still in it for me? Aren’t conferences just for newbies?
My answer? Everyone should regularly attend writing conferences. Doctors, lawyers and teachers are required to officially continue their education throughout their careers, and a writing career is no less demanding than those professions. But if that doesn’t persuade you, here are a few more self-serving reasons why writing conferences should be part of your life.
Conference directors get it. Their attendees are writers, and what writers crave is nuts-and-bolts, actionable advice that they can use to improve their own writing. So craft talks aplenty are offered by accomplished authors, mentors and editors.
No, the authors don’t dish much-coveted writing secrets. There’s no instant best-seller outcome guarantee for attending. But they’ll give heartfelt, hard-won knowledge on how they put a professional-level sentence together, one after another, day in and day out.
Whether you’re a never-been-published rookie or you’ve been around the literary block a few times, it’s always worth hearing how a pro makes the magic happen. If you’re not in a graduate school creative writing program, this is likely the best thing you can do in terms of kicking your writing into a higher gear.
Who doesn’t want to hear Neil Gaiman read from The Graveyard Book (even if you’ve heard him six times before)? That quirky British voice is mesmerizing.
Writing conferences provide access to author readings. For those of us who live outside of major urban areas (me!) where readings are as frequent as crabgrass on my Florida lawn, this is a huge perk. I can attend a Billy Collins event in Florida in April for $30, but my admission to the entire AWP Conference and Bookfair was only $140. That’s a Costco-level bargain in my book.
Here’s an insider tip: Some of the best readers aren’t the Big Name folks. The next conference you attend, go to two readings by unknown (to you) authors. See if they can win you over. My guess? At least one will.
The book fair at the AWP Conference has over 800 literary presses, journals and organizations from around the world. I’ll roam the aisles more than a few times during the three-day event, speaking with people behind the tables to learn more about what writing, editing and publishing opportunities exist therein. After a conference like this, I’ll have the 411 on literally dozens of viable new presses and magazines that might be a fit for my own work or that of my students. I’ll also have a more informed, realistic sense of the contemporary literary landscape.
At the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) regional conference in Miami this past January, I found myself sitting next to a major literary agent I’ve longed to work with for years. I managed to avoid the bonehead move of blabbing endlessly about me and my work—instead, I kept the focus on her. “What’s your favorite part of coming to writing conferences like this?” and “What’s the most exciting project you’re working on right now?” and “What advice would you give to an incoming college freshman who’s a creative writing major?”
You simply never know who you might find there. A collaborator. A mentor. A talented feedback partner. A friend. A new literary agent. A person who might say nice things to someone else who can play a big part in your future. (Confession: I’ve found no fewer than five clients for my writing coach services this way. Or rather, they found me during idle chitchat between panels and workshops.)
In my mind, this is a crucial reason why everyone should attend writer conferences: Community matters. If you’re not in a creative writing program, you probably don’t get to engage much with other writers beyond a book club or local writing critique session. Those help, but it’s not the same. Network widely. Find out what people are reading. Share in-the-trenches stories. Revel in the camaraderie. Go out for smoothies with someone new. Swap business cards with people. Talk writing. Talk books. Talk Neil Gaiman.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places belonging just after physiological needs (food, water, sex) and safety (security of health and property). Make the effort to embrace the widespread, book-loving, creative community of writers . . . of which you are a part. It’ll keep you going on those days when the words aren’t flowing.
Perhaps more importantly, attending a writer’s event is an affirmation that you take your writing seriously. It marks your transition from a hobbyist to a professional writer. It’s a turning point in your story. Or for you old pros, it’s a recommitment to your own personal and professional development.
So the next time you hit up a writing conference, keep your eyes open. I might just be the guy sitting next to you who’s wearing a “I’m plotting to kill you in my novel” T-shirt. If so, say “Howdy!” And if it’s not me, say “Howdy!” anyway and tell them I sent you.
Ryan G. Van Cleave is a Florida-based writing teacher and author of 20 books, including most recently Memoir Writing for Dummies and The Weekend Book Proposal.
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