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The Politicized World of Writers’ Conferences

Writers’ conferences can be a mixed bag of how-to workshops, self-help lectures, networking, and -- in today’s world -- politics. The political creeps in when you least expect it, but it is generally there from the very beginning.

Keynote opening speeches, for instance, may lay claim to a particular ideological bent without mentioning political parties or names. Vague references to “America’s current troubled political waters,” or “what we as a country are suffering through in 2018,” tap into the assumption that everybody in the room hates President Trump. (You not only hear this at writers’ conferences, but almost everywhere in Philadelphia, from art and ballet openings, to the debut of a new play, to auctions, and even at the opening of a new Wawa.)

My participation in last year’s annual Philadelphia Writers Conference included a three-day workshop on writing newspaper columns. While I avoided politics in my talk, the anti-Trump assumptive thing often came up sandwiched within questions from participants. It was as if the class needed an assertive, collective anti-Trump moment, an acknowledgment that all of us hated the 45th president of the United States.

The benefits of attending a writers’ conference include networking with other writers and getting feedback from literary agents. At PWC, all the talk from the literary agents centered on how to write a bestseller and then getting your memoir sold, or how to get a book on The New York Times bestseller list. Statistically speaking, writing a bestseller only happens to a very small number of people. Practical advice on getting your book published is one thing, but tapping into the Great Myth that even you can write a bestseller if you follow certain guidelines is just leading people down a garden path to nowhere. Of course, the literary agents did say that the most important thing you had to do to write a bestseller was to get a literary agent. After that, the guidelines they recommended might as well have been these simple steps from Writer’s Digest:

  1. Write a good book.
  2. Provide a unique and eye-catching book cover.
  3. Generate good word of mouth
  4. Promote, promote, promote
  5. Sponsor a giveaway

As one of the most popular events at PWC, the literary agent panel was comprised of all women, the majority of them in their late twenties. The panel capped several hours of individual writer-agent sessions which took place earlier in the day. These were five-minute meetings in which the writer was supposed to make his or her pitch to the agent in question. You signed up in advance to have your five minutes with this or that agent, and then, like speed dating, when your time came you went to the table where the agent sat and you started talking.