Willamette Writers Conference 2013: A View from the South (of Oregon)

An apple and Joseph Campbell often kept me company between sessions.

An apple and Joseph Campbell often kept me company between sessions.

While I am in a reflective frame of mind, I’ll note what I considered the high points of this year’s Willamette Writers Conference. It is one of the best attended and most significant gatherings of aspiring and established writers on the West Coast, a must for anyone who is either searching for their break or searching for improvement.
It’s too easy to say that WWC is just another gathering of frustrated writers desperate for an agent or a contract. True, there were plenty of people (including me) who would consider the coup of coming home with an agent or a book deal a major triumph. However, speaker after speaker reminded us that writing is a business, and that a successful business requires professionalism. Professionals are people who practice their profession every work day, take what they do seriously, keep their promises to people, and work hard not to burn any bridges. That list of skills will serve you well anywhere in the work world. As a former newspaper reporter, close to 15 years of working for editors taught me those habits frequently have more to do with writing success than any measure of talent.
Since I am a non-fiction writer, I suffer the disadvantage of lacking skills like writing clever dialogue or coining bon mots in prose on demand. I stick to facts, Ma’am, and I am happy to do it. However, the skills of the fiction writer can guide me just as well as the need to fact-check information or determine whether I am meeting an editor’s assignment expectations. When I go to WWC, I attend at least one seminar that I consider completely outside of my current direction as a writer. This year, it was a workshop led by Susan DeFreitas, an editor with Indigo Editing & Publications in Beaverton, on writing speculative fiction. I adore science fiction, particularly the work of Robert Heinlein, and my first youthful output as a writer was science fiction short stories written in high school. But, I haven’t penned fiction in years. However, her workshop reminded me that good writing often begins with a set of questions, the self-interview a writer should perform to focus your topic. What are some of the current trends in society that alarm me? What are trends or developments that interest me? How will human nature, culture, and society be challenged by these trends, and how will that challenge create conflict? Those are questions she suggested science fiction writers ask themselves. Yet, I would do well to ask those questions and others before writing a blog post or a piece on assignment. I write about history and contemporary American politics. Conflict and the interesting stories that arise out of tension are completely germane to my genre.

I enjoyed meeting four prospective agents. The bottom line: Most said I had a clever, well-written project after reviewing my

What I jokingly called "The Ouija Board": Authors gather around the schedule for consults with agents and editors.

What I jokingly called “The Ouija Board”: Authors gather around the schedule for consults with agents and editors.

treatment. All of them said, “I don’t handle your kind of book.” So, I didn’t come home with an agent. However, three of them either suggested publishing houses by name that do publish titles like mine; one wanted me to send him the treatment so he could pass it around to editors he supervises in the hopes they might take interest. That is called “opportunity” in my book. It’s always another chance for rejection, but I have learned that writing takes a tough hide and the commitment to decide that I will be the last man standing.

Finally, I was pleased to meet the Willamette Writer’s coordinator for Southern Oregon. The cultural epicenter of the state is the Portland area, yet there are plenty of talented people elsewhere in Oregon. For the first time in my life, I am heartily tired of writing in isolation. If monthly meetings in my neck of the woods are substantive rather than bitch sessions, I will start attending them.

All in all, Willamette Writers Conference offered what I expected: A chance to refresh my mojo and shop my work in a place filled with interesting writers with interesting ideas. That was worth four days away from home, but it was time spent close to what sparks my mind.

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