Getting’ It Done: A Writers Conference at Home

Writers Conferences—tempting ones—are all over the place: the SleuthFest in Florida; the Kauai Writers Conference in Hawaii; the Writers Police Academy in Wisconsin; the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Alaska. Some are subject specific; others offer a range of genres and guest faculty.

Beyond USA borders, print ads for the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in Mexico list Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, and Barbara Kingsolver as past speakers. The elite Rohm Literary Agency in New York offers conferences abroad in Cape Town, Dublin and Paris for the respective prices of $1,550, $1,995, and $2,245, travel not included. Rohm has advertised the participation of Tom Robbins’ and Margaret Atwood’s literary agents, along with other nationally known authors.

So why wouldn’t I, despite the perk of a conference in her own backyard, hop over the back fence to an exotic setting or a genre-specific conference? Here’s why: The Chuckanut Writers Conference is characterized by 1) low cost: under $250; 2) stellar assortment of authors and agents, twenty of them, including standouts like Garth Stein, bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain and Claudia Castro Luna, Washington State Poet Laureate, 2018-2020; and 3) intriguing panels like “Seven Steps to a Strong Political Essay, “Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads: Using Imagery in Writing,” and “Novel Development: From Appalling to Polished.”

A disclosure about “Novel Development:” I was the moderator though I suggested neither the title nor the emphasis—plotting, planning, researching and developing novels. I put myself forward as a moderator because my work as a librarian brought me in touch with a writer I admire, Nancy Pearl, “America’s librarian,” and because I wanted to see how the tactics of fantasy, dystopian, and literary fiction writers would inform my process as a creative non-fiction writer. Sure, I could attend the panel, but reading and over-researching authors, especially the work of unfamiliar authors is as good as taking a university class.

The assigned panelists included Terry Brooks, an amiable individual who has written 23 New York Times bestsellers. I launched a discussion on outlining vs. not planning with two of the strategies he suggested in Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life (2004): 1) daydream; 2) Write an outline. The rest of the panel were pantsers—authors who create content, flying by the seat of their pants, though Laurie Frankel (The Atlas of Love, Goodbye for Now, This is How it Always Is) does both.

In contrast, the characters of George and Lizzie (whose names are the title of Nancy Pearl’s debut novel) took up residence in her head. “I had a basic idea of George and Lizzie and I knew the direction of the story.” Her manner of working goes like this: she gets up early in the morning, takes off on a seven-to-ten-mile walk, listening to books or podcasts. “I find that while I’m walking and not consciously thinking about much of anything, all sorts of ideas come to me; it’s basically how I figured out what would happen in George and Lizzie.” Nancy delights in the adventure of publishing her first novel at age 72, but she considers herself a reader first and a writer second.

Of reading, Laurie Frankel says, “If you write two hours in the morning, then you have to read two hours in the evening. Read books in your genre that make you want to say, ‘Omigosh, I wish I’d written that book.’ Read books that have solved the problem that you want to solve in your work. Read like a writer. Ask what worked and how; what didn’t work and why not. “

Omar el Akaad handed out a list of books relevant to the new genre of Cli-Fi—Climate change Fiction. Omar, an investigative reporter born in Cairo whose family moved to Toronto when he was sixteen, wrote three novels before his novel, American War was published in 2017. “Those first books were terrible,” he said. “I didn’t even try to publish them.” His work with Toronto’s national paper The Globe and Mail took him to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay and Missouri. He was struck by the “symmetry of injustice”—tear gas and armed soldiers both in Afghanistan and Fergusson. He saw civilians living in combat zones and in refugee camps. American War, the second American Civil War, takes place in the closing decades of the 21st century and shows the consequences of climate change. He observes, “I like to say that a lot of what happened in the book happened; it just happened to people far away.” When I told him I was halfway through the book, he said, “Don’t worry, it gets much more depressing.”

Tara Conklin’s novel, The Last Romantics, is also dystopian. Chapter one, titled “Year 2079,” opens with Fiona, a 102-year-old poet talking to an audience of a thousand people. The chapter ends Fiona saying “…this is a story about the failures of love…” The love and its failures revolve around Fiona and her three siblings after the sudden death of their father, the family’s financial ruin, and the mother’s debilitating depression. Tara believes that “stories navigate us through difficult times and help us understand the past and point the way to the future.”

Her comment and four other fine fiction authors gave me new ways of working with plotting (I don’t), planning (I’m a pantser), researching (enhancing my librarian background) and developing my work (chapter by chapter). Craft elements of fiction can transfer to creative nonfiction; yet there was so much more to be learned from the conference…

I do not reference the astonishing address by Sonora Jha after which the audience rose as one body to cheer her passion, humility, and insight; I do not explain how Laurie Frankel’s workshop, “Work+Magic: Strategies for Gettin’ It Done” recharged and reframed my work habits; I’ve not mentioned the poem that lifted out of me, catalyzed by poet Jane Wong‘s session on Elegies; I’ve not acknowledged conference chair Kaitlynn Teer‘s smooth piloting of a conference with many shifting parts. I’ve been to other excellent writers conferences, but Bellingham, the city of “subdued excitement” is lucky to have a writers conference sponsored and presented by Whatcom Community College and Village Books.

P.S. To hear from another writer who chose to attend this conference, read my friend Laura Rink’s takeaways here.

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