I remember the first time I was invited to speak at a writers’ conference. It was a small, local conference in Lafayette, LA where many of the attendees were writing memoirs and knew absolutely nothing about publishing. It was the perfect place for a newbie assistant with no public speaking experience and I’m pretty sure that’s why my boss sent me.
As I often do with new things, I jumped right in with a confidence that sometimes still amazes me. As if I knew exactly what I was doing or talking about. It was only because I was lucky that I think I survived. Lucky that during my first presentation about how to submit to publishers and editors (during that time publishers still accepted unsolicited submissions) I spent roughly 10 minutes of my one-hour presentation answering questions about envelopes–colors, sizes, clasps, no clasps. In other words, which type of envelope was appropriate for mailing a submission. Remember, I started in this business around the time Guttenberg did, before email, Internet or, for some, Microsoft Word.
This obsession with envelopes worked out well for me since it seems like I had only prepared enough for a 30-minute presentation. Eeeek. It was about 25-minutes into my talk that I learned that my true gift was answering questions and not reading a prepared speech. So I did what I’ve done for most of my life, I winged it. I answered questions, I talked about the ins-and-outs of publishing and, hopefully, I made everyone feel like they knew a little bit more about how to get published. At the very least, they knew more about envelopes.
What I really remember most about my trip to Lafayette isn’t the presentation I botched or the discussion of envelopes. It was the warm and welcoming feeling that I got from the people there and what I learned from them. Many of the attendees and presenters were older than me. Okay, let’s face it, I was a baby. All of them were probably older than me. And yet, they welcomed me and my knowledge, as well as inexperience, with open arms.
My biggest memories were a tour of the Tabasco factory and Avery Island, organized by the head of the conference, a McIlhenny descendent. I remember two women, friends and writers who only saw each other at conferences, and skipped the tour to hang out together late into the night and talk. I remember getting a ride from Lafayette to New Orleans from another presenter who talked about his love for Louisiana and his family and his writing. We listened to the Dead Man Walking soundtrack which I immediately went home to buy, and I marveled at a countryside so different from the one I had come from.
Long ago I lost the business cards and names of the people I met that weekend and I have a feeling they lost mine, but I never lost the sense of belonging I got at that conference. The ability to talk with others about a mutual love of writing, publishing, books, and dreams of finding (or writing) the next big thing. I’ll never forget learning that the best thing to do at a conference is curl up in a hotel room with a bottle of wine and a friend (new or old) who shares the same passions as you and I’ll never forget the discovery of seeing a new place through the eyes of those who know it well and love to share.
So for the many of you who have asked what to expect from a conference, this is what I tell you. Expect to connect with like minds, meet up with new and old friends, to discover new places and new experiences, and to come out of it with a renewed belief in yourself and your dreams.