What I Learned at the Writer’s Digest Conference #WCD19
AKA: Writers are Weird, and are also my Tribe
I met dozens of writers at my first writer’s conference. There were hundreds of us descending upon midtown Manhattan (which means no one in NYC noticed). Tucked into the bowels of windowless conference rooms were so many people dedicated to story telling that it made my heart sing. I learned so much from the industry pros leading workshops on everything from craft to comps, plot to platforms. And while it may be a sweeping generalization, I also discovered that writers are mostly weirdos. I believe that the amount of weirdness can be attributed directly to the genre with which a writer affiliates. Allow me to explain.
The Writer’s Digest staff had lovely colorful flare for us/we writers to stick on our nametags. They were fairly specific, but also more generalized than what the industry folks will tell you. A reader might say “I love mysteries!” but that doesn’t account for what the industry pros will sub-section into paranormal detectives versus cozy mysteries versus thrillers with dead bodies, etc. It was basically like WDC was acknowledging that we are weird by degrees, and that socially we would enjoy each other more if we could find each other by color-coded tags. Here’s my pecking order of who is the weirdest among the weird, where I fit in, and why I love my tribe. Writer Weirdness Scale (WWS), 1 being mostly normal; 10 being freakishly weird.
The nonfiction writers are mostly normal (WWS range 1-3). These are people with real jobs that make them experts in some field. They wore plain suits and dress slacks with blazers, and had organized notes and talked about their research in the field and their work on their master thesis. I felt they were impressive and sometimes downright intimidating. Every now and then you’d find someone who is an expert in a weird subject and I’d think “wow, that’s wicked cool, I’d also love to read a book about the pot music industry.” But mostly I thought “Wow, that sounds smart. And a little above my brain power. You’re amazing.”
The memoirists (WWS range 1-4) are also mostly normal, and sometimes a little tragic. I do believe every life has at least one story to tell, and oftentimes people will write their memoir as their story. I heard stories about escaping oppressive political regimes, human smuggling to make it from one country to another, abusive parents, foster care, medical crises, betrayal, loss, grief. Rooting their stories in real life to share a bigger theme with others takes courage. The memoirists are brave to do so. And I’ve always believed that writing is the cheapest form of therapy, so there’s that too. Using words to organize thoughts and emotions and take a memory and craft it into an inspirational “how to” piece is pretty amazing.
The fiction folks break out into a lot of subsets. Your literary fiction (WWS range 3-6) people are top of the food chain here. They have MFA degrees and can make words come together to sing a song as they are read aloud. They also tend to leave their books open-ended, which pisses off a whole lot of other readers. The historical fiction writers (WWS range 4-7) are also generally pretty smart and well-grounded. They know their time period and have done buckets of research to create characters who reflect a different era, but can still pull through a theme that resonates today. Some of the crime writers and medical thriller writers (WWS range 4-7) are also former or current law enforcement or doctors and other folks in the medical field. I find this impressive to have a first responder kind of personality that can also be creative. The writers of thrillers and horrors (WWS range 5-8), however? Dark and twisty. You might not feel comfortable in a deserted alley with these folks. Their eyes look at your differently. Like you might be lunch.
Where do I fit in you might wonder? I resisted it at first, which is funny, because I didn’t realize that I wasn’t embracing my inner weird. I looked for flare for my name tag and found none that fit. “I’m ‘upmarket’ fiction,” I thought snobbily (but not so snobbily that I would consider myself actual literary fiction. Those are the smart MFA folks. I’m dorky smart, but not super smart). There were no ‘upmarket fiction’ flare badges. “I’m ‘speculative fiction!’” I thought. There were no badges for that either. I scratched my head. What am I?
Maybe I resisted it for so long because I’ve spent the last six years blogging on a website I named “Yes It Really Happened”, because I truly believed life was nutty enough without needing to make anything up. I love the absurdity of the every day. I find power in speaking authenticity and truth. But my novel? A book about the end of the world, where only the women survive? As much as I kept explaining that science fiction from yesterday is today’s science fact, as much as I was researching to find out all of the parts of the story that could actually happen, and believed completely that this story was entirely possible, the fact of the matter is that speculative fiction lives within the fantasy realm. I was writing a sci-fi/fantasy (WWS range 7-10).
So as I looked around at the dozen writers I’d been sharing cocktails with at the closing event, and saw that while I’d found a few nonfiction and historical fiction writers, the majority of my new friends were all fantasy and sci fi. And when they’d all told me about their novels, I couldn’t wait to read them. My tribe was the “SFF” folks, except we all seemed to believe that the worlds we were creating were entirely feasible and possible. An alternate earth where myths come true along the famed Tiger Run. A door to a matriarchal positioned Fairyland that opens in New Jersey (of course it happened in New Jersey). The story of an afterlife in Hell, where the devil is depressed and distracted, so a woman has space to try and create a escape from fire and brimstone. My fantasy tribe explores real things in different realms, and I loved all of it.
“Do you all write any poetry?” my new writer friend asked our crew. His fantasy/sci fi flare under his name tag on proud display. Some shaking of heads. “I do,” I admitted. And added: “But only when I’m under the influence.” My tribe laughed. “Well,” he said. “I know we’re all a little weird. All writers are. But the poets? Man, they are REALLY weird.” We all laughed and agreed. The poets (WWS range 8-10) are one step weirder beyond my own fantasy/sci-fi/speculative self-imposed place on the hierarchy. Maybe just one, small, slippery step, but I’m good with that. I wonder what the poets might think. They didn’t have any flare this year. They requested it for the next conference. August, 2020. When Writer’s Digest celebrates 100 years. And I celebrate right along with them. I’m a writer, after all (WWS 7.5).