View of a Writers' Conference
27 April 2019. Christian was in the classroom seat next to mine. We were talking about writing—he writes fiction and poetry, he’d said. Fiction (said I), now fiction is harder to write, because you can put in anything, and that makes it hard to decide what to leave out.
Christian looked surprised. No, he said, nonfiction’s harder: "You have to be careful not to lie!"
This was the sort of banter taking place at Conversations and Connections, which has been put on in suburban Washington, D.C. for the past twelve years by Barrelhouse, a local litmag-slash-literary organization. It's one of the thousands of writer’s conferences put on around the world each year by universities, periodicals, writer’s groups and centers, trade associations, and more. Some conferences, like the AWP’s (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), which claims to be North America's largest, are gigantic, multi-day affairs. Others, like Barrelhouse's, are small and go by in a day. Some emphasize craft, others business. Some meet in big cities, others in the middle of nowhere. Some will set you back thousands of dollars; others are free.
I’d been a freelance writer, dabbling in creative, for four years. I’d never been to one of these conferences before, and I wanted to see what one was like. For me this one was local. It was also relatively cheap: $75 for the day, including a subscription to a litmag and a copy of one of the featured authors’ books. Participants included two indie publishers, three literary organizations (counting the host), and a dozen litmags—the best-known of them, to me at least, the print-only Gettysburg Review.
In the lobby, two hundred writers, including a handful I knew from writer’s groups, were milling around, gabbing, talking shop, drinking coffee, looking at phones or tablets or laptops or even books. They were young and elderly and in between. Almost no one had dressed up. If you’d wandered in off the street and missed the little WELCOME WRITERS signs, you’d be hard pressed to guess what was going on here by looking.
The day included three sessions of panels or workshops, plus a reading and an after party. During lunch there was also literary speed dating: one ten-minute date with an editor (you could buy more tickets at $5 each and get back in line).
At the door to the dating room: poets to the right, prose writers to the left, I think it was.
“Fiction or nonfiction?” the handler asked me.
“Uh…” She looked like she didn’t know what to do with me. She steered me to Sam, one of Barrelhouse’s Assistant Editors. The work I’d brought wasn’t a fit for the magazine, so I spent the first seven minutes of our date asking Sam to explain how litmags work. He seemed nervous too, and his gaze kept drifting away to something behind me, something way over there, the clock or the queue maybe. But he had eagle eyes: even before I flipped it around and handed it to him he spotted the “12,000 words” at the top of the first page I’d brought.
“It’s a good first sentence; I kept reading,” he said. I felt less ill. “[And now] you want to know what to do with this big beast.” He wrote out the name of a publication that deals in longform.
When I peeked into the dating room two hours later Sam was still in his chair, looking somewhat wearier.
In the morning I’d gone to the publishing-oriented panel about literary patience, where I’d met Christian, and then, to see what was there, to one on “Horror, Crime, Sci-Fi, and Noir.” The mood in that (genre) room had been light, and all four of the panelists, including Gabino Iglesias, one of the four featured authors, were funny; no one was taking himself too seriously.
After lunch I flipped through the featured writers’ books, for sale at a table, making the sort of literary snap judgments you make about fifty or hundred words snatched from the middle of a book. Right after I put his book down I noticed Iglesias, standing ten feet away, by himself, looking serious now, waiting for the reading to begin.
At the reading the other fiction writer went on first. Then the essayist—and a small, personal essay of the sort she read tends to disappear in a big auditorium. Then Iglesias came on, standing not at the lectern but to one side of it. He started swinging his free arm and reading, in a Poetry Slam Voice, from a passage in which one of his characters is ranting. He performed it smoothly, not tripping up on his high-flying sentences, which were in two languages. But at half a dozen points during this intense performance he broke into giggles, and each time he did I saw the funny guy who was cracking jokes back in the horror-crime-Sci-Fi room. Finally, the angst-poet, who’d been sitting there like a stone throughout this hard act to follow, came on—a droll, self-deprecating nice guy. His book was his fifth: he was the publishing veteran of this bunch.
Why go to a conference? You can meet people. You can pitch, or practice at it—but you can do that any time without hand-delivering the manuscript. The panelists passed on useful tips and tricks—but you can get those from articles and books and videos. Perhaps, at least for a novice like me, the best reason to go is not just that you get to see how many other writers are out there. It’s that you get to see how writers better and more experienced than you are do the hustling part. Putting one word after another is just one part of the job of writing, and not always the hardest part. Most of the other parts—analyzing markets, pitching, finding agents, speaking at conferences—look more like hustling. It’s show business, after all, like it or not.
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I'm a freelance writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.