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Tale of Two Conferences

heather [1]Please welcome guest H.M. (Heather) Bouwman [2], author of A Crack in the Sea (forthcoming in 2016) and The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap [3] (2008). Heather lives with her two kids in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she teaches at the University of St. Thomas and writes novels for middle-grade child readers. She is a martial artist, a homeschooling mom, a reader-aloud of books, and a baker of cakes. In her free time, she does not clean house or care for her lawn. Her neighbors love her: she makes them look good.

I’ve been intrigued for a long time with writers’ success stories, which generally include many years spent working in obscurity in a (usually metaphorical) dark garret, and dozens of rejections weathered before the writer is finally discovered and rises to fame and/or fortune. I’ve long found these stories troubling, and I wanted to parse out why.

Connect with Heather on Facebook [4] and on Twitter [5].

Tale of Two Conferences

Like many writers, I am an introvert. But I’m also a nut for learning new things through lectures, workshops, and presentations. You can see, perhaps, how conferences might present special benefits and challenges.

I have twice attended the premiere national conference in my genre, an enormous five-day event in which people spill from thousand-seat keynotes into dozens of smaller workshops and lectures and, from there, trickle out into the lobby and hotel bars, after which they ooze into large group dinners and costume parties (yes) that last late into the night.

Most of my writer-colleagues love this conference; I have friends who trek to it every year, who plan vacations so as not to miss attending, who think of this conference as their yearly chance to meet up with hundreds of old friends—and to make new friends, to network and forge new alliances in the publishing world, to meet with editors and agents, to hear from amazing voices in the field, and to learn new marketing techniques.

I cannot even tell you how much I hate this conference. The last time I attended? 2011.

Fast-forward to September of 2014, when I received one of two WU scholarships to attend the UnConference [6] in November. In a year when I was on sabbatical (thus, with lots of free time AND very little income), this news was especially exciting.

For about six hours.

Then it occurred to me that this also meant I’d have to, you know: attend. (And what exactly WAS an “UnConference,” anyway?) This get-together didn’t specialize in my genre—and I didn’t know anyone who’d be attending. And because my lurker status on the WU blog was of almost professional quality,* no one knew me, either. I’d have to meet a bunch of new people and possibly even talk to them.

I went, though. And what I attended was something special: an UnConference. This event explicitly nixed pitching manuscripts at editors, authors, or agents: it was a conference devoted to craft and support. It was limited to 100 people; and though I didn’t meet 100 people in a week, I did recognize them in the hotel lobby and get to friendly-face-nodding-stage with pretty much everyone.

It is true that the UnConference was populated by people who wrote in wildly different genres than I, who stood at different places in their writing careers, and who held differing positions on the traditional-publish/self-publish divide. But all the attendees were fans of the WU blog—which seemed to translate into some philosophical attachment to the values of that blog as well: inclusiveness, kindness, generosity of spirit. This UnConference wasn’t about presenting papers or giving talks or networking or attending costume parties**—it was explicitly about learning new things and supporting each other.

I can’t tell you how much I loved the UnConference.

At a writing retreat with three other writers (we go to a cabin in northern MN in January—which is in itself a commitment—and write silently during the day, gathering in the evening for company and dinner), I thought more about why the UnConference format worked so well for me. How was attending the Salem conference (and how was writing in a cabin in northern MN) better than, say, staying home with my little introvert self and writing in the comfort of my green rocker with my cat on my lap?

Well, it isn’t, not all the time. That home-based writing time, cat on lap, is necessary—for my mental health and for the finishing of my novels. But what I’ve discovered is that community with other writers is also a necessary part of my process. A certain type of community: Solitude in solidarity.

That’s the ultimate value of an UnConference or a writing retreat for me—to be in the company of people who get what I do, and whose work I likewise value. It’s not to be a star or “make publishing connections,” (though making friends is wonderful—hi, Heather J! Melanie! Valerie! everyone from the UnConference group meals!).

I write alone, for the most part. I like writing alone. The writing life is by its very nature a life of solitude and of the mind.

But somehow, working in solitude together—curled up in northern Minnesota in a quiet cabin with three other writers while the wind roars outside; or sitting in a hundred-person dining room in Salem, Massachusetts, my manuscript open on the table in front of me—I know that I am not, in fact, always working alone. During Donald Maass’s all-day workshop, I glanced up at one point, at the bent heads of nearly a hundred people typing at manuscripts or scribbling in notebooks, and I could feel an overwhelming purpose linking us all together. We were there for the same reason, we were all working alone-but-together, and we all valued what each other was doing.

* I’m working on this, people.

** I would add a note here about how I have nothing against costume parties. But it’s not true. I really really hate costume parties.

Are you drawn (or not drawn) to writing conferences? What do they offer you? What makes you feel linked with other writers?