I’ve just returned from three days in Portland (Oregon, not Maine) where I attended the Willamette Writers 43rd Annual Conference, a well-organized major event that drew nearly a thousand people from all over the country and featured publishers, editors, film producers and literary agents from major cities on both coasts and points in-between.
I have twice attended a local writers conference, minutes from my home; it offered workshops in several disciplines and a chance to talk shop and share resources with other writers who mainly hailed from places within a fifty-mile radius. The Willamette Writers Conference was altogether another breed of animal, not only in size, scope and the mind-boggling number of workshops offered, but also in the buzz of anticipation and high expectations, the possibility of making big dreams come true: many people at the conference were “pitching” their books, novels and screenplays to people who could turn their fantasies of fame and fortune into reality.
Writers, for the most part, are a truly interesting lot—I had a chance for both brief and extended conversations with a few of them; had there been world enough and time, there were so many more individuals I would have liked to get to know. It was stimulating and often inspiring to be immersed in an atmosphere of ideas, imagination, and aspirations. But that highly refined atmosphere was balanced by a more grounded search for knowledge that was apparent in nearly everyone there. Whether the search was for increased skill and craft in the art of writing, or the professional know-how required for the business of writing, I was not alone in being a seeker on the path; there were many pilgrims alongside me.
As a novice in this world—someone who had never before pitched a book—I went through my fair share of anxiety and awkwardness before my (two) scheduled pitch meetings. Even given the opportunity to listen to others practice their pitch and to try out my own, there is no equivalent to the real thing—those few minutes across the table from a publisher or agent who you genuinely hope will be interested in your book. And this was another place on the path where I was not alone; many people there were new at the game, and all of us were simply doing our best to just get through it as well as we could.
In case you’re wondering, both my pitch meetings were positive experiences, and one of them has the possibility of becoming more than a meeting. With interest in my book expressed by one publisher, I have come home with additional work to do. As Martha would say, this is a good thing.
When it was all said and done and I was homeward bound, I realized that the main impression I had been left with was one of kindness. I don’t mean that I observed or experienced overt acts of kindness. It was more a sense that the seasoned professionals at the conference had an awareness of what it was like to be a fledgling, and they extended themselves to everyone—whether new to the game or an old hand—with honesty, humor and, always, attention to the work being presented, the question being asked. The kindness was like a subtle fragrance that lingers in the mind—I have no idea what it was called or who wore it, but the trace of that “something in the air” made a lasting and lovely impression.
Walking in my neighborhood at twilight, reflecting on all this, I thought of an anecdote told of Oscar Wilde: I remember Oscar once saying of a famous actress who, after a life of tragic experience, had married a fool: “She thought that, because he was stupid, he would be kindly when, of course, kindliness requires imagination and intellect.” (From The Portable Oscar Wilde, Edited by Richard Aldington)