by Janis Patterson
Let’s face it – writing is a lonely business. Whether you’re a full-time writer or just part-time, whether you have a large family or a job or whatever, whether you’re like Jane Austen and can pen immortal prose sitting in a room full of chattering people, writing still basically comes down to you and the characters in your head.
Creating world and populations out of little but imagination and caffeine is hard and lonely work. What’s worse is that even if you have loving and supporting friends and family (and I know many don’t) unless they are writers themselves they don’t understand what a writer must go through to create.
That’s why I am so grateful for writers’ conferences. There we can gather with others like us, others who understand the hard work writing takes, the agony of finding out you made a mistake in chapter two that necessitates pretty much a total rewrite of the nearly-finished book, the frustration of having characters who suddenly decide to go their own way without your direction. (And woe betide, in my house at least, those who are so unwary as to say “But you made them up – they have to do what you say.” Yeah, sure.)
My husband, who since his retirement has been dragooned into being my Business Manager, and I just got back from the Novelists, Inc. conference in Florida. Besides being set on one of the loveliest beaches you can imagine in a beautiful resort where they treat us like kings, it is one of the smaller conferences (a 400 attendee cap, as opposed to some others where the people number in the thousands) and restricted to professional writers who have not only published a number of books but have also reached a certain floor of income. Although there is always a varied program of interest to professionals, in my opinion it is this interaction between writers that makes this conference special, especially for those who live in a writerly-things vacuum.
The first thing you notice about a writers’ conference is the noise level. Often attendees will skip the workshops that are of little interest to them in order to sit in the lobby or in the courtyard or on the beach and talk to other writers. With them they can share things they experience with the knowledge that there is a level of understanding there that even the most supportive and sympathetic non-writer can give. At mealtimes, especially those held indoors because of untrustworthy or even inclement weather, the noise level is unbelievable, enough to make the biggest bird house in the world sound like a cone of silence.
I said the NINC conference was capped at 400; it has been for many years. In January of 2020 the conference was almost sold out, but with the plague hysteria by the time the last week of September rolled around only 46 or 48 (tallies vary) of us actually showed up. We rattled around the huge resort like dried peas in a can, most of us quoting the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V far too often. This year it was better; there were 230-odd attendees. Both years there were only two workshop tracks, as opposed to the four that have always been standard, but this year all were in-person, as opposed to the half-in-person, half-virtual of 2020. (I intensely dislike virtual!) Some vendors did do some non-workshop virtual appearances, mainly on an individual by-appointment-only basis, and that was good.
So what is so important, so fulfilling about four days spent in the comforting embrace of your tribe? It’s not just the information in the workshops (valuable as that may be) or even the mini-vacation so many writers stretch the conference into. (The resort is very generous about giving us ‘shoulder days’ on either side of the conference at the deeply discounted conference rate.) The world is full of beautiful vacation spots, and in this day of the internet, websites and special interest email loops almost all the information from the workshops can eventually be found from the writer’s own computer. So…?
I believe it is the validation that we get from being with other writers. We writers are not different-from-normal creatures who live so much in our head. We also get to see and interact with friends made on the internet or separated by an inconvenient number of miles. It is human contact with those of our own kind. It is where you can talk openly about the benefits of strychnine versus arsenic as a killing method, or the sex life of a human-reptile shapeshifter, or if a woman raping a man is an acceptable opening to a passionate romance without worrying that the people at the next table will call the police… or the men in the little white coats. It is where you can discuss the business of writing and learn specifics of various businesses without fear of being sued or arrested. It is sharing experiences with those who have had the same experience.
It is, for too short a time, enjoying our tribe.