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.