Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Writer's Conference Synergy

Last Saturday I attended a writer’s conference in American Fork organized by the American Fork Arts Council. Maybe I should say “participated in”, rather than “attended”, since I was busy in every session. I was apprehensive at first, when I was asked to give one ten minute speech, sit on four panels, and give another 40-minute presentation all on one day. Did having one novel released through a small market publisher really qualify me as an “expert” on the topics I’d been given?

The first two people I met at the conference didn’t make me feel much more confident. The first was a professor of English at Utah Valley University, and the second was Dene Low, author of Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone (Houghton Mifflin) with an M.A. in Creative Writing and a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition. Other hyper-talented and educated people with multiple publication credits and plenty of conference experience surrounded me. I wondered if maybe they thought they had invited that other Mike, Mike Knudson, who spells his last name differently and has a successful line of children’s books. In fact, maybe that Mike would walk in at any moment and ask what I was doing in his chair.

When my time came to speak, the lady conducting introduced me and showed the audience my book. Whew, they did know who I was and what I’d written and they still invited me. I stood up and spoke briefly about my 20-year journey to bring The Rogue Shop to light, with a focus on that “writing monkey” that I never could get off my back. I ended with the exclamation “Embrace the Monkey!” which drew laughter and applause. Now I felt at home. These were good people.

At lunch, I sat next to a nationally published novelist and an accomplished poet and was able to carry on a competent conversation with them. Midway through my ham-and-swiss, one of the ladies from the book sales desk came over to inform me that the stack of books I had brought were sold out, and did I have any more? Sadly, I didn’t. I had also sold through a big stack at “Write Here in Ephraim” three weeks before, but I still hadn’t learned my lesson: When participating at a conference, there is always a chance you will become suddenly and temporarily famous within a 20-yard radius of your person. Always bring more books than you think you should. My speech in the opening session had branded me the “The Monkey Guy”, and had created a demand for my book that I couldn’t meet on the spot.

In the first afternoon session, I faced a group of a dozen or so writers with Jennifer Fielding, Acquisitions Editor at Cedar Fort. Our panel was entitled “What to Expect during the Publishing Process”. The writers had great questions and despite very little preparation and absolutely no comparing of notes beforehand, I think Jennifer and I did a fine tag-team job of answering them.

The final breakout was the one that scared me most. I had been asked to speak on my blog series “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Novelists” for 40 minutes. Intelligent people piled into the room and filled the chairs. More came in, bringing chairs from the other room. They all wanted to be Highly Effective Novelists, and they were looking to the “Monkey Guy” to tell them how. Signed copies of The Rogue Shop sat on several laps. The least I could do is be somewhat effective at delivering the message. I had prepared my notes well and did my best. Within a few minutes I realized there was no reason to feel uncomfortable. Writers are the least judgmental of people, and conferences are one place where we see each other not just as literary entities but as human beings. All the flaws and quirks of personality are on display, and although we may be at various places of success with our writing, we’re all on the same road. That’s the joy of a small, live writer’s conference.

At the end of the day, I felt much better about accepting future invitations to such events and participating as much as I can. It’s not that my delivery or presentation has become any better, or that I’ve become more of an “expert” than I was before. It’s just my newfound knowledge that writers, as a group, can be trusted with the fragility of a rookie presenter’s confidence. Those that see me as a little further down the road want to be where I am, and those already well ahead of me are happy to see me coming along behind them. Writers have no secrets about writing – we liberally share the best of what we’ve learned, because sharing is what literary expression is all about. Despite the business reality that we all compete with each other for a limited market share, writers don’t see it as a zero-sum game; We’re all determined to create our own niche, our own market, and it doesn’t have to come at anyone else’s expense. This spirit of synergy, devoid of competition, is what draws us all along toward our dreams. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but we don’t have to do it alone.


Rachael Renee Anderson said...

Sounds like a fun and successful experience for you, Michael! And I love how you concluded it all. So true, and thanks for sharing. I'm sure AF will be wanting you back next year. :)