Friday, June 11, 2010

Writers' Conference - Friend or Foe?

My first writers’ conference caused (among other things) the sense that I had no business as a writer, that I would never finish my book, that I shouldn’t bother. So I was understandably squeamish about attending a second. But after the North Wildwood Beach Writers’ Conference this week, I’m a convert. Now I believe, even if you’ve had nightmare experiences like me, you should try again.


You meet a bunch of writers and talk about writing for a few days straight. You could meet a writer you admire, an agent or editor who can help you. You learn about the publishing business. You get inspired. If you're extraordinarily blessed, you may have a critique experience like the one I had.

For the Wildwood conference you could submit the first page of your book for a critique if you wanted. I had just recently written the first page of my book and was reluctant to submit something so fresh. But I listened to the little voice that told me to do it and tried to forget I had. I didn’t know until the critique session started that the reviewer was a contributing editor of Harper’s who has edited writers like, for example, David Foster Wallace. (If you don’t know who DFW is—find out. He’s a revelation.)

So this editor stood in front of the room and began reading people’s first pages. She said she would read six. I didn’t know if mine would be one of them. I fervently wished both that she would read mine and that she wouldn’t. I fidgeted and sweated through the first, second, third and fourth entries, which were not mine. Then she read the first sentence of my first page. I tried to not outwardly cringe or actually crawl under my chair. It was anonymous, so nobody, including her, knew it was mine and I didn’t want to give it away in case it was awful.

After reading, she said a number of things that she admired. The person who edited David Foster Wallace liked things about my first page. A lot. You better believe I wrote down every nice word she said. I may pin it to the inside of my bra and wear it around for a few months—that’s how much it meant to me.

Then came the hard part—the things that didn’t work. It’s hard to hear criticism of my writing, even if it’s constructive. Here’s a summary of what happens inside me—shame at being less than perfect, at being exposed as less than perfect, followed by defensiveness, then panic. The defensiveness I can keep in check. The perfectionism I can overcome. The panic is hardest. The smallest suggestion can make me feel like I’ll never finish the book.

Luckily by now I’ve been critiqued enough that I know what to expect. All these feelings are familiar if not welcome. So I thought, okay, yes, this happens when I get feedback. I went home, talked to Carl, watched the Phillies, reminded myself of the positive things she’d said, went to bed.

The next day at lunch I ended up at the table with the editor. I didn’t know if I should bring up the critique and wasn’t going to force it, but when another writer asked about my project, I confessed that mine was one of the pieces she had read the night before.

I told her how much her thoughts had helped me, which seemed to gratify her. Then I hesitated, seeing an opening. Somehow I managed to squeak out a question about the critique. What followed was David Foster Wallace’s editor telling me what she thought of my work, my ideas, how I could improve what I had, what was already great.

I am still stunned. Both that I had that opportunity and that I had the courage to take advantage of it. Best of all is after that conversation I felt more confident about what I’ve already written, and have a good idea of how to fix what doesn’t work.

So here’s the thing—go to writer’s conferences. Even if you get scarred and discouraged, though I hope you won’t, you learn from that. And maybe the editor of (insert literary hero’s name here) will end up giving you meaningful feedback. You never know.


jason | said...

Wow! I can feel the intensity and excitement of your experience at the writer's conference you attended.

Just from reading this one post, I can already tell you appear to be a great writer in the making.

I would like to hear more about the feedback you got from the editor.

I found your blog through Annabel's blog. I too am looking for a blogging buddy! Let me know if you are interested.

jason | said...

Hi Julie,

I just wanted to let you know that I subscribed to your RSS feed so I can stay updated on when you post something new.

As your new blogging buddy, I wanted to see if there is anything else I can do to help support your blog and help you reach your goals.

Just let me know...

Sara said...

Hi Julie! I found your blog when you posted an intro on the introduction forum on Nathan Bransford's blog. I'm from Philly too, but currently live in Boston.

Thank you for describing the writer's conference. I've never been to one and after learning about their existence recently (I'm new to this industry and know nothing), have been wondering what they're like and if they're worth attending. It seems from your entry, they sure ARE!

I was cringing with/for you as I read this! I, too, would've felt such panic and terror if the editor read MY first page! That is AWESOME that you got to sit with her and follow-up with some questions/dialogue. Wow! What a tremendous opportunity!

I wanted to ask: how did you find this conference? I've looked for ones in Boston and haven't found any (just a quick google search). I did see one in Philly, which I am thinking about coming down for next year. Was just wondering how many you attend per year and what your thoughts are on which are the best.
Thanks! :)

Julie Owsik Ackerman said...

Hey Sara,
I found this conference because a writer I knew was presenting at it. Synchronicity, I think. There are a few conferences in Philly each year--the Philadelphia Writer's Conference just passed I think. Philadelphia Stories also hosts one. I would look around on the internet a little and ask other writers if they've been to good ones. Some are more focused on critique--you submit work and review other people's work--and some are more business focused, so just think about what you want before you sign up for one. I hope that helps a little! Nice to meet you!