The Local Lens: The Philadelphia Writers’ Conference
What about writers’ conferences? Are they valuable for people who want to write?
I felt very privileged to be included in the 69th annual Philadelphia Writers’ Conference (PWC). My participation included a three-day workshop on writing newspaper columns. Although I also write fiction and history, the newspaper column, for me, has always been a staple — like devoting time each morning to yoga, meditation or writing a journal (which I’ve been doing since the late 1970s).
Overall, writers’ conferences can be a little daunting. Writers, generally, work in private and the process requires a lot of solitude and self-discipline. The profession is not for those who cannot sit still or hate being alone for very long periods of time. You work every day, you put in your hours and then you close up shop and do other things like get on with the “mundane” things in life.
Of course, if you are a writer or want to be a writer, you have to be a reader. You have to keep reading. Read. Read. Read. The two things go together like grilled cheese and tomato soup.
All this solitude — alone in your room banging at the computer — takes its toll. When you emerge for a breath of fresh air, you feel freed, and sometimes a sense of exuberance takes over. You relish your first human contact on the street, whether that contact is a neighbor or friend. Going to a writers’ conference, you suddenly meet scores of other writers, most of whom may also be emerging from cocoons of solitude. When you write every day, what often creeps in is a sense of isolation that can sometimes give you the impression that you are the only writer on the planet. I call this the Robinson Crusoe effect, and it’s real.
While the obvious benefits of a writers’ conference — networking, for instance — far outweigh the downside, there is in fact a slight downside to it all. From my perspective, that downside might include a thematic emphasis at many writers’ conferences on writing a bestseller and getting your memoir or how-to book on The New York Times bestseller list. Statically speaking, writing a bestseller only happens to a very small number of people. While writers’ conferences such as the PWC offer amazing practical advice and wisdom, they also can tap into the Great Myth that even you can write a bestseller if you follow certain guidelines, the most important guideline being getting a literary agent and then following that agent’s advice to the letter.
One of the most galvanizing events at the PWC was the featured panel of literary agents, all of them women and the majority of them in their late twenties.
The panel capped several hours of individual writer-agent sessions which took place earlier in the day. These were five-minute exchanges in which the writer was supposed to make his or her pitch to the agent in question. You signed up in advance to have your five minutes with this or that agent and then, like speed dating, when your time came, you went to the table where the agent was and you started talking. It’s much like a job interview in which you promoted your resume — “I am the best candidate,” etc. — and then did your best to convince the agent that you had the manuscript of the century.
While the opportunity of meeting with New York literary agents was a great thing, the process struck me as a little depressing, much like watching a job line of the desperately unemployed competing for a small number of job openings. After all, the vast majority of writers at the conference had never published a book, so their goal was to accomplish this at some point.
During the Agent Q&A, it was never specifically mentioned that writing a bestseller is really a fluke and the result of chance. Few writers set out to write a bestseller since there is no way that anyone can gauge what the public will want or even find desirable at any point in time. The public is a terrifically fickle mistress; whimsical, unpredictable and untrustworthy. Jack Kerouac wrote because he was an artist and because he had something to say, not because he wanted to get on a bestseller list. Dostoevsky wrote because he had a message to impart, not because he wanted to be the 19th-century Russian equivalent to women’s fiction romance writers like Jackie Collins.
This is not to say that most writers wouldn’t like a bestseller, but when your whole goal as a writer is to write one, something is lost. The agents were asked over and over again: “What do you want? How will you pay attention to my manuscript? How can I get your attention? I will write anything you tell me to write, O powerful goddess!”
As I heard these questions I imagined Tolstoy in the room taking notes — “She wants some inclusion of popular culture,” “She doesn’t want any mention of the paranormal,” “She wants a commercially viable topic.”
Put Mark Twain into this room and have him ask: “Ms. Agent, how can I be even more of a Mark Twain?”
Imagine a question from an unpublished Thomas Merton: “Do you think a book about my conversion from atheism to Catholicism would ever be a best seller?”
At times, I felt that some of the writers in the room were willing to bypass what they intuitively felt called to write if one of the agents had a better idea, a more commercially viable idea.
At the Q&A somebody asked the agents why there didn’t seem to be any male literary agents. “Men don’t read,” one of the agents said. Then it was surmised that men don’t like the comparatively low salaries that agents receive, but is this true? How can these women survive in Manhattan and pay rent if agent salaries are so low? Do they have Hedge Fund husbands? And if men don’t read is it because the teaching of English in our schools has shifted to not feature books with male protagonists as prominently? A fellow newspaper columnist told me at the conference: “I have three kids. They are all in middle school and all the books they are assigned all have women central characters. There are no male central characters at all.”
If I could do one thing to make the PWC better, it would be to try to not let political correctness dictate the workshop material too much.