THE WRITERS’ CONFERENCE;
UPS AND DOWNS
What about writers’ conferences? Are they valuable for people who want to write?
I felt very privileged to be included in the 69th annual Philadelphia Writers’
Conference. My participation included a three day workshop on writing newspaper
columns. Although I also write fiction and history the newspaper column for me
has always been a staple like devoting time each morning to yoga, meditation
or writing a journal (which I’ve been doing since the late 1970s.)
Overall, writers’ conferences can be a little daunting. Writers, generally,
work in private and the process requires a lot of solitude and self discipline.
The profession is not for those who cannot sit still or hate being alone for very
long periods of time. You work everyday, you put in your hours and then you
close up shop and do other things like get on with the “mundane” things of life.
Of course, if you are a writer or want to be a writer you have to be a reader.
You have to keep reading. Read. Read. Read. The two things go together like
grilled cheese and tomato soup.
All this solitude—alone in your room banging at the computer—takes its toll.
When you emerge for a breath of fresh air, you feel freed and sometimes a sense
of exuberance takes over. You relish your first human contact on the street whether
that contact is a neighbor or friend. Going to a writers’ conference where you
suddenly meet scores of other writers, most of whom may also be emerging from
cocoons of solitude, can be a little daunting. When you write everyday what
often creeps in is a sense of isolation that can sometimes give you the impression
that you are the only writer on the planet. I call this the Robinson Crusoe effect,
and it’s real.
While the obvious benefits of a writers’ conference (networking, for instance)
far outweigh the downside, there is a slight downside to it all. From my perspective
that downside might include a thematic emphasis at many writer’s conferences on
writing a best seller and getting your memoir or how to do book on The New York
Times bestseller list. Statically speaking, writing a best seller only happens to a very
small number of people. While writers’ conferences such as PWC offer amazing
practical advice and wisdom, they also can tap into the Great Myth that even you
can write a best seller if you follow certain guidelines, the most important guideline
being getting a literary agent and then following that agent’s advice to the letter.
One of the most galvanizing events at PWC was the featured panel of literary
agents, all of them women and the majority of them in their late twenties.
The panel capped several hours of individual writer-agent sessions which took
place earlier in the day. These were 5 minute talk exchanges in which the writer
was supposed to make his or her pitch to the agent in question. You signed up
in advance to have your 5 minutes with this or that agent and then, like speed
dating, when your time came you went to the table where the agent was and you
started talking. It’s much like a job interview in which you promoted your
resume—“I am the best candidate,” etc.—and then did your best to convince
the agent that you had the manuscript of the century.
While the opportunity of meeting with
literary agents was a New York
great thing, (thank you, PWC) the process struck me as a little depressing,
much like watching a job line of the desperately unemployed competing for
a small number of job openings. After all, the vast majority of writers at the
conference had never published a book so they’re goal was to accomplish
this at some point.
During the Agent Q and A it was never specifically mentioned that writing
a best seller is really a fluke and the result of chance. Few writers set out to
write a best seller since there is no way that anyone can gage what the public
will want or even find desirable at any point in time. The public is a terrifically
fickle mistress, whimsical, unpredictable and untrustworthy. Jack Kerouac
wrote because he was an artist and because he had something to say not
because he wanted to get on a best seller list. Dostoevsky wrote because
he had a message to impart not because he wanted to be the 19th century
Russian equivalent to sexy women’s fiction romance writers like Jackie Collins.
This is not to say that most writers wouldn’t like a best seller but when your
whole goal as a writer is to write a best seller, something is lost. The agents
were asked over and over again: What do you want? How will you pay
attention to my manuscript? How can I get your attention? I will write
anything you tell me to write. O powerful goddess!
As I heard these questions I imagined Tolstoy in the room taking
notes—“She wants some inclusion of popular culture,” “She doesn’t
want any mention of the paranormal,” “She wants a commercially viable topic.”
Put Mark Twain into this room and have him ask: “Ms. Agent, how can
I even be more of a Mark Twain?” Imagine a question by an unpublished
Thomas Merton: “Do you think a book about my conversion from atheism
to Catholicism would ever be a best seller?” (Answer: “Not on my watch, Tom.”)
At times I felt that some of the writers in the room were willing to bypass
what they intuitively felt called to write if one of the agents had a better idea, a
more commercially viable idea.
At the Q and A somebody asked the agents why there didn’t seem to be
any male literary agents. “Men don’t read,” one of the agents said. Then it
was surmised that men don’t like the comparatively low salaries that agents
receive, but is this true? How can these women survive in
and pay Manhattan
rent if agent salaries are so low? Do they have Hedge Fund husbands? And if
men don’t read is it because the educational culture in this country—the reading
assignments in middle school and high schools, for instance-—have literally
stopped assigning books to students that are about men. As a fellow newspaper
columnist told me at the conference: “I have three kids. They are all in middle
school and all the books they are assigned all have women central characters.
There are no male central characters at all.”
If I could do one thing to make PWC better it would be to try and put a halt
to creeping PC ideology from infecting workshop material. At one workshop
a woman presenter/ author came down hard on Hemingway, inferring that
because he was a sexist and a big game hunter he was no longer relevant.
The not so subliminal suggestion was that Hemingway should be booted
from the literary canon.” Some people in the workshop agreed—“Yes, he’s
an awful sexist pig!”—while others insisted that moral judgments like this
belong in a Left Progressive burn out at UC Berkeley, not at a literary conference.