This was my second year attending the Muse & the Marketplace, a 3-day writers’ conference hosted by GrubStreet. Last year’s conference exceeded all my expectations. From it I met fellow writer folks whose friendship and feedback have since totally changed my writing life and practice for the better. At the end of the conference last year, I knew that I’d be back in 2019.
This year was different for a couple reasons: 1) I knew some folks attending and 2) I participated in Manuscript Mart, meeting one-on-one with a literary agent for the first time. But overall like last year, the biggest highlight was getting to spend three days with writers from across the country, hearing about their stories, struggles, triumphs, and advice.
Day 1: Friday
Luis Alberto Urrea delivered an awesome keynote, which expanded the idea of “write what you know” into writing what “you’re told not to talk about.” With anecdotes from his life growing up in Tijuana, he talked about writing about the “smallest moments,” writers being the “raw nerve of the universe,” and how stories can “elevate the worst day in someone’s life – even your own.” It was a thought-provoking kick-off to the weekend.
From there I spent most of the day focused on the business (i.e. “marketplace”) side of writing, attending two sessions about residencies and fellowships – all stuff I admittedly knew little about. Also, I met with a literary agent. He was very kind and provided thoughtful feedback on what’s working and not, how I can improve my opening pages and pitch. The querying process can feel dehumanizing, so it was humbling to have a down-to-earth conversation with an agent, a reminder that even though they may appear as gatekeepers, they are people with preferences and interests like anyone else, plus a love of literature.
In a query letter “clinic,” my query was selected randomly from a pile of anonymous submissions, and so I was lucky to get a second round of feedback here as well. Let me tell you though: even though it’s anonymous, it is nerve-wrecking to hear your pitch being read aloud in front of a crowd of fifty-or-so people! And then to have it live-critiqued by agents? Phew! I was relieved (i.e. joyful) that their critique was overall positive.
At cocktail hour, I indulged in some celebratory French fries, chatted with awesome writer folks, and then attended a fun improv-style writer event in the evening. Though tempted, I was too socially exhausted to party afterwards, knowing I still had two more days of conferencing to go.
Day 2: Saturday
With agent meetings and clinics out of the way, Day 2 focused almost exclusively on the craft of writing. To start, Stacey D’Erasmo delivered the mid-muse keynote about “writing in a time of upheaval.” My main takeaway was about the freeing power of anonymous writing, or publishing without your name (and ego) attached. Also, how monumental events in the world and in a person’s life can radically change their art. I wrote down: “Follow a sacrifice you didn’t choose with an artistic change that you do choose.”
I mean it when I say that I got something out of every session I attended. I didn’t feel this way about last year’s conference, but I got lucky with picking some really great ones this time. My favorite session of the whole conference was by Katie Bayerl, which was about writing literary page-turners. In other words, balancing big ideas and prose with plot and stakes. I found it immensely helpful, and it forced me to get vulnerable with fellow writers, writing down and sharing what inspired my current project and what I see my protagonist’s deepest desires and misbeliefs to be. I also attended a session on writing “effective settings” and another on “irresistible characters.”
Saturday was a beautiful spring day, so I spent my lunch break in Boston Common, enjoying in the sun and watching squirrels. Over the second break of the day, I went to the Starbucks in the hotel, and my fingernail started spontaneously bleeding (a lot) while I was waiting for my coffee. Wow, fun. I am very proud that I was able to carry out a meaningful conversation with some fellow attendees, pitch my book, and take reading recommendations all the while privately nursing my finger. I’m also very happy that the registration desk had Band-Aids.
After a long day, I rallied for the conference party at Democracy Brewing. I’m glad I did, because what a cool spot! The nice thing about a writer’s conference party is that because everyone there is a writer, many are introverted and/or socially awkward like me and therefore easy to talk to! Hurray for writers!
Day 3: Sunday
At breakfast I circled back with a friend I had met at breakfast on Friday – funny how a densely-packed weekend can feel like a lifetime! We caught up on the conference and our favorite sessions. Our table talked ghost stories, Neil Gaiman, and Twitter, and I was living for it. Afterwards, I picked up a couple books from the authors’ bazaar and then attended two very different and yet equally insightful sessions – one on “unlikeable female characters” and the other on writing op-eds. The closing keynote featured authors talking about how they balance work and writing. It wasn’t as discouraging as I thought it was going to be. The main takeaway was about the importance of writing time and community. Lastly, we wrote encouraging postcards to our future selves and made writing wishes over cake and candles. I can’t tell you my wish because then it might not come true. :)