The panel I was on was called "There's Always a First Time," and it featured four writers who recently had their first book published (five, including moderator Jenny, who also published a book). Here's us:
|I didn't plan to be in the middle and look like I was important. Everyone just sort of moved around me.|
We were supposed to be the inspirational end of the day. Leading up to the conference, though, as the five of us were sort of plotting out what kinds of things we might say, we realized we all might end up giving the message that it's all luck. That's not the point of a conference. When you've got hundreds of people looking for ways to make their writing dreams come true, you want to lead people to believe they really can do things that will make it happen.
I commented last year, after my first writing conference, that I was actually a little skeptical of the message of hope. Most of the people at any writing conference are unlikely to ever get a book published in something other than self-publishing. Those who do get published are unlikely to meet with any kind of commercial success. But the message at writing conferences is all about the million ways you can theoretically improve your odds. It rather reminds me of Christian conferences or revivals I attended when I was younger. The important thing is just to have an atmosphere of possibility and let people enjoy the emotional high of sharing that experience with others who want the same thing. Nobody presents at a Christian conference on the theme of "Why you will probably be the same person in ten years that you are now."
One of the people on the panel really was an inspirational story. Paula Whitacre (back right in the photo) pitched her book at this same conference two years ago, and her biography of Julia Wilbur was a result of her pitch at that conference.
Jenny is the one on the top left. The other two women are Caroline Kitchener, author of the non-fiction book Postgrad, and Melissa Scholes Young, author of the novel Flood. These two made me feel fairly out of place. They are both very successful and very young. Caroline wrote her book about young women facing the world after college when she was barely past that stage in life herself. But her obvious talent, which got her an internship at the Atlantic, also gave her an in to breaking through.
Melissa was--to me--even more impressive. Her novel, Flood, has been praised by some impressive company. It got some real backing and sold fairly well. One thing that caught my eye about her book was that the top blurb-providing name on the back of her book was Luis Urrea. Luis is a top-notch author, but I also have a personal connection to him. He was the instructor of a poetry workshop I took in my last seminar at University of Illinois at Chicago. He seemed to respond to my work. Moreover, he seemed to respond to me. He sent me an email once when I called a girl out in the class for writing poetry that was too esoteric to make any sense to anyone. She got upset, but he told me that I was spot-on. I really liked him. He did a lot of work with Latino kids at a time when I was still working with Latinos as a volunteer. We had a couple of good conversations. I thought we saw writing and the world in similar ways.
But when I wrote to him in grad school asking him pointedly how I could go about trying to break through, he never answered my email. He also never answered my email when I wrote him last year about the book getting published. I assume the first time he didn't write me back, it was because he couldn't come up with a polite way to say he didn't think I had the goods. The second time, I assume it was because he didn't remember me.
I made a joke about this at the conference, noting how you could measure Melissa's success relative to mine by how Luis responded to us. But it also kind of hurt a little bit. Sometimes, life gives you little pointed reminders of how you've failed. I was definitely on the stage with people who outclassed me.
I'd been dreading going for that very reason. I was worried this conference would feel like a final nail in the coffin of my lack of success as a writer. But at the end, realizing I may have definitively failed as a writer didn't really feel that bad. For one thing, a lot of it really is luck. Working on a literary journal has done nothing so much as confirm that belief. But even the parts of it you can control involve strategies I'd probably prefer not to put in place.
Author and Writer
The conference was full of talk about the business aspect of writing--separating the artistic role of "writer" from the professional role of "author." And all the things being pushed on us sounded terrible. I'd heard them before. One strategy that is considered a sine qua non for authors now is to have an active social media presence, particularly on Twitter. To me, it sounded a lot like we were being told to force our way into groups that could help promoting our books. A lot of that comes from helping other authors promote theirs. It sounded like kissing ass in order to have a social media network to help promote you.
I've known how important Twitter is considered for authors for a while now. Some agents I tried pitching my novel to basically said they wouldn't even talk to you unless your Twitter game was on point. But I never even had a Twitter account until a few weeks ago. I got one just to send one person a message, because her Twitter was the only contact I had for her. While I was there, I started following a few people to see what Twitter is really like. Twitter seems as awful to me as I always imagined it was. I know part of the Jonathan Franzen hate parade has to do with his opposition to Twitter, and I'm likely to end up also being considered both wrong and snobby, but my short introduction to the content on Twitter so far has confirmed what I suspected about it. I followed a few authors I admire, and I am suspicious that a fair amount of the re-tweeting and sharing of news of other authors is partly out of self-interest. That's doesn't mean they aren't promoting authors they really like (in the hope--at least partly--that those authors promote them back). But I don't believe all these writers are on Twitter because it's particularly a good place to soak up a vibe to improve your writing.
My dislike of Twitter isn't you won't find any good content through it. You can link to something smart with zero characters. But it is very hard to have an intelligent conversation about the linked topic through short messages. It leads to a rhetoric that is entirely built around quippiness and wit rather than sustained argument. It rather reminds me of courtly rhetorical styles that were encouraged in the Renaissance. The goal was to quickly dispatch your interlocutor with the quick jape. It's fine to develop wit. Being clever in brief statements is a useful skill, and people often do remember short statements more than long ones. Unfortunately, this leads--both in courts of the past and on Twitter now--to a culture that really thinks that a good clap-back really has "destroyed" the opposition's argument.
I can also see it becoming a huge time waster. The more people you follow, the more the long list of undifferentiated junk to go through gets. I'm sure I could learn to filter to get more of just what I want, but that seems like a lot of work to invest in learning something I'd rather just not use. I also just know myself. I can't be trusted around social media. That's why I only have one social media account, and I don't keep it on my phone. I can only look at it when I'm home. And I limit myself to one scroll through the feed a day. Otherwise, I start wasting way too much time on it.
Twitter isn't the only part of being an author that seems awful to me. These conferences are full of terrible-sounding self-promotion techniques. (Carry around post cards with information about your book on them!) And the thing is that none of them really help sell that many books. If you sell 5,000 books nowadays, you've really killed it. Most of the authors on the panel sold far fewer. But even 5,000 books is not enough to make any real money. You'd still have to have a day job. You wouldn't be any closer to writing for a living.
It would be nice, of course, to have more readers. I write because the things I write about matter to me, and I want others to read them so I can have shared the things that matter to me. Of course I'd rather have more readers. But I feel like in the process of getting those extra readers, I'd lose some ability to write the way I want to write.
So my takeaway from this conference is that I'm fine with never becoming an "author" in any professional sense. The road there involves things I'm just not willing to do. I don't know if that means I won't write. I can't imagine not writing at all. That's something I just can't help doing. But I do feel differently about it now.
One of the most depressing feelings in life is the sense of being redundant. Sitting at conferences with thousands of other people all trying to crowd into the limited available spots the flaccid publishing industry can provide makes me feel extremely redundant. So I'm resolved not to spend any time trying to crowd into the trough for the paltry scraps available. I'll write. I'll send to publishers. If they don't accept me, fine. I'll even ask for reviews (and be turned down or ignored if that's what happens) if I need to. But I'm not going to do something that feels disingenuous in order to improve my odds. If someone reaches out to me to talk to me about something I've written, I'd like to feel they did that because they really felt moved by it, not because they view me as a vector to promote themselves.
None of this is to say that the people at these conferences are all phonies. Jenny, for example, takes time out of what she does to volunteer because she cares about writing. There is a difference between community service to the writing community and using the writing community in a cynical way to serve your own interests. If the road to becoming a name brand author goes through being more cynical, I'm fine never making that journey.