Almost two weeks ago, I attended my first writers’ conference. I’ve been a member of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave for two years and after missing the 2010 conference in Birmingham and living with twelve months of regret, I couldn’t have been more excited to make it to Hunstville for 2011. It was such an incredible experience to turn in any direction and be greeted with a smile or handshake and the question, “What do you write?” I held my shoulders back and chin high and never felt one twinge of embarrassment when I answered: “Middle-Grade/YA Fantasy. My completed manuscript is about a girl who discovers she’s the long-awaited heir of a genie.” It’s not a statement I make at my children’s school or in a room full of coworkers without feeling the sting of at least half a dozen eye rolls, so it was liberating to say the least.
The AWC conference had much to offer. I attended workshops by Chris Roerden, award-winning author of Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, Insider Information from a Career Editor and its original version Don’t Murder Your Mystery, 24 Fiction-Writing Techniques to Save Your Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A., who taught me more about the impression a submission needs to make on the First Reader of a literary agency or publishing house and gave useful tips on “when to tell and how to show”; Jim Minick, poet and author of the memoir The Blueberry Years, about one of the mid-Atlantic’s first pick-your-own, certified-organic blueberry farms, who offered instruction on “Playing With Time: How Prose Writers Manipulate Time” (helpful for all those flashbacks in HEIR TO THE LAMP when I fill-in the reader about a bit of back-story); and Rabbi Rami Shapiro, award-winning author, poet, essayist, educator and Director of The Writers’ Loft at Middle Tennessee State University, who’s workshop “What Would Jesus Tweet: The Power of Writing Short” and presentation on his latest project “Thou Hast Mail” were hysterical and my very favorites.
I also met many delightful fellow attendees. Two new friends, Joan Hazel and Patricia Weaver, won awards for short stories they submitted for the conference contests. There were newspaper columnists, poets, and orators sprinkled in among the various fantasy, mystery, memoir, and literary writers, all at different stages in their writing careers. It wasn’t until the end of the day on Saturday that I finally met up with the other children’s/YA writers, though. They were a great group and I’m so glad to have met them. I’ll be sure to seek out those peers earlier next time.
The highlight of my experience was the open-mic event Saturday night, when I read a few pages from my new project. I’m calling the piece JUST LIKE MY FATHER SAID, but I’m pretty positive I won’t be keeping the title. It’s a fictionalized story about my mother and her siblings, who lost their father the summer of 1968 when they were very young. After their father’s death, their mother got a job for the first time and hired a housekeeper to look after them and their home while she struggled to adjust to life as a young widow. I’ve known my whole life about the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s death and how that event impacted my grandmother, mother, aunt and uncle. What I only learned recently, however, was that they were shepherded through this exceptionally painful time in their lives by their housekeeper, a black woman named Queen Esther Crumb. After getting over the initial shock of having never been told of Queen Esther, my mind was crowded with thoughts of her and I practically hummed with urgency to write the story that brought her into my family history. I read a few pages of my first draft to a room of fellow writers and got a warm response. Sue Walker, Poet Laureate of Alabama, even stopped by my seat afterwards to tell me how much she enjoyed what I’d read. It’s quite different from The Genie Chronicles, but it will have an element of fantasy and I have high hopes for it. I also had the pleasure of hearing others read some of their work. My personal favorite was a piece called Spilled Milk by Stephen R. Edmondson.
If I had the budget to do so, I’d attend a writers’ conference somewhere every weekend. My first experience was the most fun, useful, constructive, motivating and encouraging I’ve had as a writer so far, and I’m already looking forward to the next.