by Gil Mansergh
Before you sign up for a writer’s conference, there are a few “trade secrets” that conference organizers don’t want you to know. I directed the prestigious California Writers Club Writers Conference at Asilomar for five years, and have been on the faculty of conferences in San Francisco, LA, Fresno, Marin, Stanford University and Santa Rosa, but I never signed a non-disclosure agreement—so here is the nitty gritty.
First off, a writer’s conference can change your life. I went to my first conference as a “Program Consultant” for nonprofit agencies, and left that same weekend as a “Writer.” This resulted in over three decades working as a syndicated newspaper columnist, a writer for hire (over 70 books and counting), a novelist, and the host/producer of the NPR radio show, Word By Word: Conversations With Writers.
But (and this is a very important but), I am the exception. 95% of conference attendees never become professional writers. They may, after dozens of rejections, self-publish their own book(s) or have some pieces appear in literary journals, but earning mega-bucks from having a best-seller remains as elusive as having Publishers Clearinghouse arrive at your door with a big check.
Writers conferences are, first and foremost, business ventures based on selling wannabe writers a dream. I was (and still am) part of this marketing scheme. I made sure that every conference I directed included the all-important, money-maker, Agents and Editors—numerous opportunities (including manuscript critiques, Q&A panels, and pitch sessions) for attendees to interact with professionals who (ostensibly) hold the keys to success. I also included “name brand” keynoters (Pulitzer Prize winners, NY Times Bestsellers, Disney Writer/Directors, etc.) for advertising and publicity purposes and offered practical, hands-on workshops in diverse genres (presented by teachers I had personally seen in action). As an added bonus, we had entertainment: comedians, singers, dancers, musicians, and a California Park Ranger portraying Jack London. And free wine—great Sonoma County wines were served from vineyards eager to have their product appreciated by “influential” writers. The trick is to have the pouring staff keep full bottles behind the table, and place only empty bottles on display.
Despite all this careful planning, it turned out the most important part of the weekend was something I did not control. Since the conference grounds at Asilomar State Park in Pacific Grove include meals with the cost of the rooms, everyone (attendees and faculty alike) ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together around large circular tables. Voila! Instant opportunities to interact with other writers.
I shared this phenomenon in a piece for Writers Digest Magazine I called “The Nudist and Lana Turner’s Shoes.” Named after information two other conference attendees shared about themselves, I wrote the following:
“The secret for getting the most out of a writer’s conference is simple. You don’t have to study and annotate the conference schedule or take notes at the workshops and think up insightful questions for the panelists. All you have to do is go to meals and ask the people on either side of you ‘What do you write?’ You’ll quickly learn that writers are interesting people with fascinating stories to tell. What’s more, they will freely share their successes and failures with fellow writers.”
I went on to describe some of the writers I talked with: the kayaking wine expert who reviews computer hardware for MacWorld, the travel writer recently returned from Western Australia, the woman in the lunch line who commented how it reminded her of waiting for a crust of bread in a Ugandan prison camp, the nurse who crusades against female circumcision, the mystery novelist who tries out her new characters in short stories, and, of course, the naturist fireman writing about his photo safari to Africa, and the woman searching for someone to write about her make-up artist husband’s collection of movie stars’ shoes and clothing.
What I wrote all those years ago still holds today: “When you go to a writer’s conference, you can learn at least as much from your fellow writers as you will from the formal program.”
Gilbert Mansergh is the psychological educator internationally acclaimed for utilizing Hollywood movie clips as teaching tools. Author of over sixty non-fiction books, two syndicated film columns, and movie blog, Gil is also the producer/host of the Word By Word: Conversations With Writers radio show on Sonoma County’s NPR station, KRCB-FM. Gil’s first novel, The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill is fictionalized from true stories told by his mother about her childhood in Gloucester, Massachusetts after WW1, and has received glowing reviews from critics and readers.
Amazon Buy link: The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill