Writer, Get Thee to a Conference

This past week, I was lucky enough to attend the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Los Angeles. This writerly shindig included three full days of seminars, and a floor full of exhibitors. Oh, and there were lots of goodies: books, novelties, magazines, t-shirts, stickers, and posters.

Conferences can be a bit overwhelming, especially for first-timers, but they’re valuable experience. For one thing, they give writers a chance to see the staggering number of magazines, journals, and publishers out there. Face it, it’s nice to meet the people who’ve been rejecting our work for all these years. Come on, you know it’s true.

Plus, if you’re like me, being around other writers will make you realize you should be writing more, not out of a sense of competition, though that’s fine if it’s what gets you writing, but because it’s a reminder that you’re part of a profession so many people take seriously.

Here’s just one example of something I found inspiring. The AWP panels this year were outstanding, and one of the most thought-provoking was titled “What the Heck Does ‘Innovative Fiction’ Actually Mean?” The question about innovation is a timely one. In fact, it’s been timely ever since people first began telling stories. Unsatisfied with the way Storyteller One told the tale of his narrow escape from The Nasty Beast with Enormous Teeth, Storyteller Two set out to find a new way to approach the thing. Maybe he worked in some cutting edge technique, like stream of consciousness, time dilation, or making The Nasty Beast with Enormous Teeth a point-of-view character.

During this AWP session, a group of authors with publishing credits in cutting edge journals and magazines discussed innovation, shared favorite authors, and answered questions from the crowd. Probably the most compelling idea I took away, however, and the one I’m going to remember when I hunker down to do my own writing in the coming months, is that we always have the freedom to decide how we want to tell our story. This has never been more true than today, when there are so many journals and magazines willing to take chances on writers who take chances.

Getting back to the title of the panel, experienced writers sometimes get a bit defensive when they hear people talking about innovation, but “innovative” doesn’t always mean “better.” It can also refer to a new or different way of doing the same thing we’ve always been doing, in this case, telling stories. Just because I appreciate the way a newer guy like George Saunders tells a story doesn’t mean I can’t still get a thrill from reading someone like Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, or even Jane Austen. Believe it or not, those kids were once innovative, too.

So what do we writers do? We study and we hone our craft, and we learn the rules. We read like little maniacal sponges to figure out what’s worked for other authors. Then we try to find our own voices. If we take risks in our writing, there’s always a chance we’ll fail, of course. On the other hand, if we decide to avoid taking a risk, we might still fail. That’s the decision we have to make. Ultimately, we can’t control the way someone responds to our writing. We can, however, control what we give them.

If you’re a writer, and you’re looking for some inspiration, you might consider attending a conference. It doesn’t have to be a biggie like AWP, either. Chances are good that, unless you live in the Arctic Circle, there’s a writing conference somewhere near you, and it might even be free. 

If all else fails, and you have to fork over some cash, look at it as in investment in your art. It’ll inspire you to write and, even better, give you the chance to compare notes with like-minded folks.