3 Steps to Making Friends & Enemies at Writers Conferences

I don’t really attend writers conferences anymore, because it’s much more comfortable to stay home in my cozy attic office editing the books of the coolest writers on the entire planet—but I have attended a few.

And I want to tell you a story today about something that happened once at a writers conference:

  1. Step #1: Saying what you shouldn’t

    This was a number of years ago, before I became an independent editor. We were in a workshop led by the very popular creative writing teacher at the local community college. This teacher was at the board doodling graphs and calling out for contributions and scribbling them down as fast as she could, and it was all quite exciting and loud and creative. Everyone was thrilled, and the energy ran high.

    Then things calmed down while we all thought about what we’d created together.

    And after a few minutes a small, shy woman directly in front of me raised her hand.

    “I have a question,” she said tentatively. “I’ve written a novel that was published and even favorably received, and I’m working on my second now. But it’s not coming along so well. In fact, I’m kind of paralyzed. What if I only had that one good book in me? What if I’ve lost it?”

    There was some murmuring, and the teacher said brightly and with great confidence, “Oh, don’t let it get you down. I’m sure you’re fine!”

    A woman in the back cried loudly, “I’m not just saying this because you’re my friend, but you haven’t lost it. You’re a great writer!”

    The other attendees chimed in with their encouragement and positive opinions and exhortations to ignore her anxieties. . .And the woman tried very hard to smile and accept their diagnosis. But I was close enough to see the fear growing in her eyes.

    So I turned to her.

    “You know,” I said, “maybe you have. Maybe you have lost it. It’s probably wherever mine is.”

    The silence that fell was instantaneous and deadly.

  2. Step #2: Facing what you haven’t

    “I don’t like what you’re saying,” called the woman in the back aggressively after a minute. “How can you tell her she’s lost it? You don’t even know her. She’s my friend!”

    “Victoria, don’t you mean maybe she’s lost her confidence?” said the teacher helpfully. “Not that she’s lost her talent?”

    “No, I mean her talent,” I said. “I mean maybe it’s gone. Maybe she can’t rely on it anymore.”

    I looked around, and the entire hostile room looked back at me.

    “Isn’t that our big fear?” I said. “The terrible shadow under which we work all day long every day, year in and year out? That we’re relying on a talent that could go away—that one day we’ll wake up and we’ll have lost it?”

    The woman was looking at me as though I were her lifeline.

  3. Step #3: Doing what you can’t

    I turned back to her.

    “So we keep on working without it. Whether we’ve lost it or not. We just keep writing. . .because we’re writers.”

Yeah, that was kind of the end of that particular class. The teacher wouldn’t smile at me as I walked out.

However, that woman came up to me in the parking lot later and flagged me down.

“I want to thank you,” she said, “for what you said in there. I feel so much better now. Nobody else seemed to get it. I’ve been really frightened.”

“I know,” I said, and we held hands for just a second. “This work can be really frightening.”

11 thoughts on “3 Steps to Making Friends & Enemies at Writers Conferences

  1. Kaz Augustin says:

    Ah yes, save me from Anglo Western do-gooders. You’re never allowed to admit to any negativity in a public forum. Even at a social gathering, if someone asks you how things are going and how did something turn out, you’re not supposed to say, “Oh, xxx was a mistake.”

    I can’t remember the number of times people have reeled back in horror. “Surely you don’t mean that!” “You *can’t* say you made a mistake!” “How can you ever admit to something like that?!”

    I admit it because — and follow along here, if you can — I made a mistake. It happens. People are not infallible. I’m not infallible. But nope, no negativity, no serious discussion of issues. Needless to say, I don’t have many friends. 😛

    1. Victoria says:

      Well, the woman with the problem and I were Anglo Western. I don’t remember about the others.

  2. I love this — so true. Every writer has that nagging fear, no matter what they’ve accomplished, that they really do suck and have lost whatever writing ability they once had. It’s just a feeling, and shouldn’t get in the way of the work. Sure, you may write pages and pages of crap when feeling this way, but you can at least write SOMETHING, and there will be something in it you can use when you rewrite.
    Which is the real point, as I see it — treating writing as a discipline means accepting lots of rewriting and editing, and those are skills you can apply to any piece of writing. You may “feel like” you have no talent, but who cares? You will never “feel like” revising an MS (probably), but you do it anyway, because that’s the only way to make it better.

    1. Victoria says:

      “Treating writing as a discipline.”


      We don’t write in order to flatter ourselves or pay service to our feelings.

      We write because we want to be writers.

  3. Isn’t this why Einstein said creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration? Creativity is wonderful, but sweating through the dry spells is what separates the writers from the one hit wonders. Or so the little fairy elves promise me.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, it certainly is, Mark.

      Sweating through the dry spells is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.

      You know those ‘weeder classes’ in college—where they put everyone through a hard class in the first year to weed out the debutantes and the ones who aren’t really serious about the subject matter?

      The entire life of a writer is a weeder class.

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