On October 26th, I had yet another opportunity to participate in a writer’s conference here in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Organized by Barrelhouse, Conversations & Connections was without a doubt my favorite of the three conferences I’ve attended in as many years. It was a fun, informative day, and lived up to the banner on their website proclaiming “practical advice and no jerks.” I’d definitely recommend the conference for first timers or new writers, as well as submitting to their journal if you’re looking for a home for your writing that doesn’t seem too uptight.
Conversations & Connections took place at Chatham University, a campus whose beauty was on full display on this drizzly autumn day. The tall trees and their changing leaves shielded us from the nearby city, creating a relaxing and picturesque environment that would have lulled me to sleep had I not had sessions to attend. Spending a day meandering the halls and staring out the palladium windows made me ache for the opportunity to give college another try, if only momentarily.
The conference had a variety of sessions to choose from, and we had plenty of time to work and share our writing. It was refreshing to be at a conference that wasn’t super preachy or focused solely on technical junk. Each instructor gave us tools to work with and lots of encouragement about the art of simply writing.
Highlights for me included the sessions about snagging readers with your first line or paragraph, as well as the one facilitated by three local women who discussed the ins and outs of writing for social justice. I was also humbled and inspired by speakers Monica Prince, Heather McNaugher, and Lilly Dancyger, whose readings made me laugh, cry, and feel every emotion in between.
The best part of the day for me, hands down, was the “speed dating” with editors portion. Each attendee was given one ten-minute meeting with an editor included in the price of their admission fee — but you could also purchase as many more sessions as you wanted for only $5. Yes – Five. Dollars.
I met with two editors – one to discuss my borderline novella-length piece of genre-fiction, and a second to go over a personal essay that I’ve been trying to find a home for for the better part of a year. Both editors were kind, patient, complimentary, and insightful. The first guy I sat down with floored me by asking if I had an MFA, and didn’t bat an eyelash when I told him I was a college drop out. He shrugged off the notion that genre fiction was taboo or not desirable and told me it was clear that I knew what I was doing and that he wanted to know what happened at the end of my story. After giving me some helpful pointers to spiff up the piece, he handed me his card and wished me luck. The second editor was just as encouraging and down-to-earth, offering me plenty of positive feedback and tips that will hopefully get my travel essay in print.
After spending a mere twenty minutes with these editors, I walked away feeling like I was on top of the world, much like I did back in March when my very first pitch to an agent ended with an invitation to send her three chapters of my novel. In less than a half an hour, I had two more forms of validation that I was, in fact, on the right track and that I wasn’t wasting my time. Fellow writers know just how difficult it is to get that validation, especially if you’re yet unpublished. The value of this feeling only increases when you’re new to the scene or understandably intimidated by other writers who have had their work published by huge publications and have one or more degrees under their belt.
But even though many of the speakers and facilitators had impressive resumes and plenty of bragging rights, this was the first conference that I didn’t feel overly intimidated. It felt easygoing, down-to-earth, and incredibly accessible. There was not a single point at any part of the day where I felt like I was out of my league. It was good to feel like a peer, and not just a clueless student.
The value of the conference only added to its appeal and accessibility. Admission was a reasonable $75, and I’d taken advantage of the early bird sale and snagged a ticket for only $65. That price included the aforementioned speed dating session, your choice of books by one of the keynote speakers, as well as a subscription to one of several literary publications. The fact that additional speed dating sessions were only $5 continues to blow my mind, and when I attend next year, I’m definitely going to cram in as many sessions as I can.
Short of being out of town on some exotic vacation when this conference rolls around in 2020, I can’t think of any reason why I wouldn’t go back. The conference was, from top to bottom, well worth the time and money. The sessions were valuable and helpful, and I got an overwhelming sense of encouragement from every single speaker, editor, and facilitator that day. They laughed, poked fun at themselves, admitted their faults and struggles, and weren’t afraid to show their human side. As a writer who works two “real” jobs and has yet to be paid for her work, I cannot express how incredibly refreshing it is to hear real writers talk about their own 9-5 jobs, their sometimes lack of discipline, and any other forms of confusion or plight that have plagued them along the way.
The human element these writers added to the experience was truly invaluable. Not only did I walk away with new tools to improve my writing, but also plenty of rediscovered confidence to propel me into the next phase of my writing journey.