Last weekend, I went to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. I was honored to be there as a presenter, and I taught workshops on Breaking the Rules and Detail & Image. I also had two blue-pencil sessions where folks scheduled appointments to talk briefly with me about short excerpts of their work. It was a nice opportunity to give people comprehensive line notes (which we almost never get to do in a workshop setting) while having time to interact one-on-one.
I really like teaching, and working with new writers is one of my joys. I like being able to bring something new, and hopefully helpful, to someone who’s looking to learn. I had a great time being able to do that for and with a bunch of enthusiastic new writers who were everywhere in their abilities from totally nascent to break-in ready.
It was a busy time, and I’m still recovering from one of those winter illnesses that kicks you in the sinuses (followed by a sinus infection that kicked me in the sinuses), so as fun as it was, I also had to spend a lot of time in my room sleeping. I didn’t manage to get to any of the other writers’ workshops, which was unfortunate; I’m sure there were many amazing things being bandied about while I was buried in my blankets.
For instance, some of the other presenters from the field of science fiction and fantasy included: Nalo Hopkinson, Cat Rambo, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Some of the romance royalty was there, like Diana Gabaldon. There were people representing most genres of fiction, from mysteries and thrillers, to literary novels, to memoir. If nothing else, I have a great reading list.
Also, the key note speakers were really, really excellent. When does that happen? Daniel Heath Justice in particular made me cry on the first day, talking about the need for people to stand up for themselves and their narrative space, even when the world can be hostile. We need transformative narratives, as he put it; we have to fight the disfiguring ones with our own language of compassion.
The most striking thing about the conference–the thing that made it stand out from anywhere else I’ve been–was how strong the spirit of open-heartedness and generosity was from everyone. Agents, editors, and experienced writers all seemed to come to the event with respect and care. From what I saw, the new writers were treated as equals and adults–not in the sense that everyone had equal experience, but that everyone was of equal worth, and had something to contribute to the world.
It’s easy for cynicism to infect an environment like this. It’s so hard to break into writing, and so hard to maintain a writing career. The endless, circling stress of that process can make people sharp and defensive. There are enough new writers who act creepily entitled or overbearing that some professionals are quick to put up their shields.
All of this can be reasonable behavior, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, the need for defenses are stronger for women or other sociological minorities; I can’t count the number of times that some resplendent, experienced author I know has been steamrolled by someone who thought “that woman” couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute. (That multiple Hugo Award-winner is probably a fake geek girl.) Industry professionals like agents and editors also need space to talk about the wearing parts of their business sometimes, and blowing off steam isn’t always, and doesn’t always have to be, elegant or graceful. People can make unreasonable demands on their time and energy–like the overeager folks who used to contact an editor friend of mine over OKCupid to ask for special favors.
But the barriers of defensiveness and cynicism sometimes go up when they do more damage than good. For some people, they lapse into cruelty and mocking, where professionals can try to salve their own insecurities by denigrating new writers who are striving with open-spiritedness and passion. They may perceive new people as burdensome–not even in the sense of competition, but just that their very nascence and optimism can feel weary to someone who’s been struggling for a long time. And some professionals are just assholes of one stripe or another, just as every group of people has its asshole members.
In an environment where a lot of people are defensive, angry, and cynical–for good reasons or bad–it can spread to everyone. It can become a kind of palpable “spoil-the-barrel” energy that puts everyone on guard.
The Surrey conference was the opposite. The administrators established an atmosphere of open-hearted generosity which reflected through everyone. The agents and editors were eager to find new clients, and also to help nurture new ones. The professional writers treated the new ones like colleagues, not supplicants or intruders who would have to prove themselves worthy before being given respect. The new writers were excited and respectful of the professionals’ time and experience.
I think one thing that really helped foster the positive environment was the expectation that presenters join the attendees for meals and announcements. It got everyone used to being around each other, and reinforced that we were all in it together as people at that conference, sharing the goals of telling stories and making art.
Anyone can have a worthy story to tell. Everyone seemed to have a strong sense of that, and to respect it.
I think the administrators also chose carefully–and wisely–presenters whose native inclination is to come to new people with warmth. My experience of the colleagues I already knew who were there–Cat Rambo, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Nalo Hopkinson–bears that out. They’re all excellent teachers who are thoughtful and kind, and excited by teaching and learning. I can only aspire to match their generosity.
I rarely think that networking qua networking is useful. I generally promote the idea of just going and doing things you like, and meeting and helping people as you go. This convention felt like an exception–a space (at least partially) made for networking, which was also a space for kindness.
Of course, I only saw part of the conference, and of course what I saw was influenced by the fact that I was attending as a presenter. There may well have been grumpiness and cynicism, and broken hearts and tears, that were out of my frame of reference. There probably were; nothing goes perfectly for everyone. But from where I was, the conference was exceptional in its warmth and generosity of spirit, and I’m lucky I got to participate.