When people are asked about writers, most of them think of solitary figures sitting in front of a keyboard typing out stories. Writers are people who conjure up worlds in their heads, and then transfer those worlds to paper and electronic readers. They are also people who attend writers’ conferences for varying reasons, and it is for the reasons that they attend and how they behave while they are there that make conferences so interesting.
I knew almost immediately that there was something different in the atmosphere of the writers’ conference I attended. During the first few days everyone who introduced themselves wanted to know in which genre I wrote–fiction, nonfiction or poetry—and whether I was having my manuscript criticized. I quickly learned that the writers who were having their manuscripts criticized by members of the staff had more status than people who were there simply for the experience of listening to the lectures and attending the workshops. The atmosphere was intense and became even more so with each passing day. Some of the writers who had come to the conference in the hope of making a connection that would get an agent or an editor interested in their work became anxious, and then either desperate or deeply disappointed. It wasn’t easy.
I witnessed things at the conference that I could never put in a novel because no one would believe it. A woman who wanted a staff writer’s undivided attention interrupted a conversation by announcing that she had been raped. I have never heard a better conversation stopper. When strangers who were lost knocked on the door of the main building, the writer who answered told them they had the wrong address, that this place was a home for the insane. Of course, they fled.
My novel hadn’t been accepted for publication yet, so I looked upon the published writers on the staff as having achieved something almost magical. But as the conference progressed, I recognized that they had pressures as well. They were expected to read unpublished work, and if the response to their new work wasn’t enthusiastic, their embarrassment was public. I didn’t envy them.
This year there will be over two hundred writers’ conferences in the United States in every genre from romance (a huge one in Atlanta that sounds like great fun) to science fiction to crime. Each one will draw writers who want to learn more about their craft, writers who are looking for agents, writers who are looking for their big breakthrough. For whatever reason they are attending, the conference will be an adventure, one more dramatic than they might expect.