By Griffin Kittleson
The Willamette Writers Conference is something we talk about internally as the biggest event of the year. It’s not hard to see why, of course. Planning started many months in advance and continued all the way up to the event itself. Some of us have been helping to bring you incredible conferences for over a decade! And some of us started less than a month before the big day. I fall firmly into the category of the latter, with this being my First Time at the Willamette Writers Conference.
Working with Willamette Writers is something I am very passionate about. Since early middle school writing has been something I’ve hoped to pursue as my career. When I feel unsafe, uncertain, or uncomfortable sharing my thoughts aloud, I find putting them into the world on paper lets me express myself freer than my voice can manage. In the years since I’ve found I felt most comfortable creating and sharing alongside other people who wanted to create and share as well.
For those who feel similarly, Willamette Writers can be an expansive source of lessons you can learn from fellow members. This scale and the difference in experience was intimidating for me going into the convention for the first time. When I first sat down in front of my webcam, I felt the familiar anxious thrum of my nerves turning into livewires. Steeling myself, I pressed on to join in on-
The First Panel
My first panel was a Q&A for attendees looking to “make the most out of our first time at the Willamette Writers Conference” and seeking to ask questions of the organizers. Initial queries were soon exhausted and the discussion broadened to publishing, networking, and more. During this time, I asked if the panelists had any advice on how to manage impostor syndrome when wanting to speak to a fellow writer who had more experience or talent than I felt I possessed. While some of the panelists gave advice or offered solutions, I felt it was the comment of our board president Gail that made the biggest impact on me.
The quote boiled down to “Two successful professionals that are connected to the conference management called in earlier saying they were struggling with feeling the same way. It’s important to recognize that no matter how successful they may be, your fellow writers are as human as you are.”
This was where I learned the first lesson I would carry with me out past the conference. I had separated my concepts of normal person and writer subconsciously and placed the latter upon a pedestal. Gail’s words were a reminder of the core humanity that brought Willamette Writers about in the first place. We are a collection of professionals and writers, and simultaneously a group of people who want to learn and grow from one another. In hindsight the notion that there is proof that one should be at a writers conference more credible than their words and desire to improve as a writer is now a little comical to me.
First Steps into A New Community
Saturday then crested the horizon as the most jam packed day of the Conference. I attended three events that day, each progressively becoming more involved. In the final session we had four full writing exercises to practice with. From this last experience I can say not much builds creative energy like seeing twenty or thirty other people thinking and working on the same prompts as you.
I attended the “Disability in Publishing” workshop on Saturday. The first few minutes were taken up by the attendees saying who we were, where we were viewing from, and what had brought us to the panel. When I had finished introducing myself I was surprised to receive a message from another attendee from my city! They introduced themself to me and asked if I was part of any writing groups in the area. When I told them I was not, they invited me to consider joining the group they are a part of. One I knew for a fact a family friend was also a part of.
I hope to join “The Wordo’s” when I actually have something for them to give feedback on. Regardless of whether I do or do not, the generosity of this writer to invite me into their community was something that I felt rather exemplified the objective and aspiration of Willamette Writers into a single moment. When I think back on my first conference, this is the memory I aim to keep on my mental mantle.
My first time at the Willamette Writers Conference was nearing its end by this point with but a scant half day of workshops remaining. The first workshop I attended that day though was unequivocally my favorite of the entire weekend. In the span of an hour the presenter was able to convince me of the importance of warm up writing, made me develop a whole new appreciation for rubber chickens and the process of character writing, and radically adjusted my perceptions of writing via comparisons to other artforms.
My Favorite Workshop, or “The Power of Writing Fearlessly”
In “Unlock your Voice, the Power of Writing Fearlessly” J.C. Geiger primarily focused on using other artforms as the basis to make points about writing. It began with a valuable lesson that I believe applies to all creatives. J.C instructed us to write down something we would not normally share on a zoom call with strangers, and then either ”tear it or share it.” The speaker followed this lesson up with the reminder that everything we create follows the same principle, and that in writing things we may decide to tear instead of share, we train ourselves to be honest and vulnerable in our creations.
This revelation was followed by a veritable avalanche of artistic perspective. One comment I have thought about since then was that writing is as much a performance as singing or acting. Geiger continued on from there that in terms of embarrassing warmups before getting “on stage,” writers draw the longest stick. “We don’t look any different writing our magnum opus as we do journaling or vomiting words onto a page.” In conjunction with “tear it or share it” I’d never heard a more convincing argument for writing warm ups in my life. Since then I have begun writing short “I am from” poems or one minute alphabets before each writing session. These have been surprisingly fruitful and help me to better focus on my work.
The End of my First Conference
The conference is over now, and yet its echoes remain in the minds of it’s attendees… and also on Vimeo. I ended up “attending” a half dozen more of the recorded online events that were up in the days following the conference. First I listened to keynotes with authors sharing their stories and perspectives. Following this I watched a panel with three newly published authors sharing their initial publishing experiences. I even found a panel exploring ways to be a more productive writer. By the end of it all my brain had become bloated with new knowledge. The initial Q&A about making the most of conference attendance said that such a state was the optimal result, so I suppose I would quantify my time at the Wilwrite22 Conference as quite the success from my perspective.
The only thing that I found limited me was my choice to attend the conference online, as it prevented me from attending a number of panels that I thought sounded really fascinating and interacting as much with my fellow attendees. The only way I can see to rectify this fact is to attend in person. To that end, I look forward to attending next year with sneakers on the ground. So should you see a perpetually nervous young man with a bushy beard, a tablet, and an inability to sit still please come say hello! I can’t wait to meet you next year should we not beforehand. Looking forward to seeing you enjoy your first time at the Willamette Writers Conference!
Why Wait for next year? Get Started Write Now!
The conference may be over, but your first time with Willamette Writers need not be our biggest event.
Willamette Writers has several weekly zoom meetings to connect to writers across Oregon and beyond. From coffee mornings to productivity meetings, and all of it with fellow writers! You can find information on upcoming meetings at our events calendar!
Do you live in Oregon and are you looking for something more local? If so our chapters across the state would be excited to have you! You can find each chapter’s page on our website right here.
Interested in the Speakers I went to see?
Ismita Hussain: Ismita Hussain hosted a panel about Disability in Publishing. The discussion was centered on how disability is portrayed in literature, as well as some of the better and worse examples in modern literature. Ismita is both an agent for Great Dog Literary and a founding member of Disability in Publishing.
Soma Games: Soma games is a Portland Based Game Studio. They hosted a panel on Writing for Games that showcased the different mindset of a game writer. Check them out at their website here.
Kristin Bair Okeeffe: Kristin hosted a workshop in which we practiced “Ironing the Sentence.” She showed us her passion for the crafting of sentences that carries through to her novels. And she also insists you can start a sentence with and. You can find more information about her and her stories at her website.
J.C. Geiger: J.C Geiger hosted “Unlock Your Voice, the Power of Writing Fearlessly.” Something he’s put into practice with his own books. You can find more about him and his work at jcgeiger.com.
Vinnie Kinsella: Vinnie Kinsella is the owner of Paper Chain Book Publishing Services, a Portland based publishing company. If you’re interested in finding more about him, you can also find him on his WordPress.