Why do we attend conferences?

Apart from being able to present our work and ideas, meeting up with friends and colleagues old and new, learning from others, or updating professional credentials, one reason rises above everything else. We attend conferences and conventions to remind ourselves of why we do what we do.

That was certainly the case for me last week at AWP 2012 in Chicago. Now that I’ve been home a couple of days and have plunged back into the everyday world of family, teaching, errands, and email (always the email), I know what I gained from being around 10,000 other writers, teachers, publishers, and editors, and it wasn’t what I expected.

I had thought the highlight of the conference would be hearing two of my favorite authors speak and read. On Thursday night, Margaret Atwood walked slowly but surely across the stage of Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre to her podium, carrying a large bag and reminding me oddly of Charlie Chaplin, and, when she was finished, walked off again, unaccompanied, stopping only to acknowledge and take a bow with the sign language interpreter (read Patrick Ross’s detailed description of the talk and venue). On Friday, at the session “National Book Critics Circle Celebrates Award-Winning Authors,” I heard Jane Smiley read from A Thousand Acres, a book, like Atwood’s The Edible Woman, that showed me the power, potential, and beauty inherent in literature and story-telling.

However, these thrilling moments—and these authors—are just the tip of the iceberg, the peaks that jut and shine most clearly. What lies beneath is even richer and more exciting, a mass of people with all kinds of backgrounds and viewpoints and goals, finding ways to live a writing and reading life in whatever way they can and sharing their love of the written word with each other.

I am convinced that the most pressing danger we face as writers is not the changing publishing industry but the continual temptation to allow others to define our success. We have all been there. As soon as we find the courage to say “I am a writer,” we are asked, “What have you published?” Once we are published, we worry about sales and reviews. We wonder if blogging is worth the effort if we don’t have hundreds or thousands of followers. We spend ninety percent of our time building an elusive platform, leaving ten percent for the writing which that platform is meant to support, and no time remaining for creative daydreaming or leisure reading.

Having a successful writing life is something very different, not necessarily easier or harder, but simpler. Writers write, practice, improve, and get their writing in the hands of readers. That’s it, and it is the same for every single writer. Sometimes—rarely—this kind of life leads to Pulitzers or Booker Prizes, events to be celebrated.

More often, though, the writing life leads simply to indescribable joy, a joy that is sometimes hard-won but that always comes back to the power of words to sustain us, to direct us, and to give life meaning.

If you are unsure about your writing because you allow others to define your success, take a step back and remind yourself that a successful writing life is one we create for ourselves.

The Writing Life Manifesto

  1. Write a little today.
  2. Revise a little today.
  3. Read a little today.
  4. Do something today to get your words in the hands and hearts of readers.
  5. Find a way today to let other writers know that you are reading their words.

Be part of the iceberg.