I daresay most Vancouverites would be surprised if you told them that one of North America's premiere writing conferences takes place every year in their backyard.
Moreover, their eyes would likely goggle if you told them it took place in, well, Surrey.
The Vancouver suburb is sometimes seen (unfairly) as a punchline to the rest of the Lower Mainland, rather than a place that draws world-class authors and publishing experts together with a dedicated, motivated, enthusiastic and relentlessly positive group of aspiring writers.
There's no punchline; the Surrey International Writers' Conference is an upper echelon event, on anyone's scale.
This year, I had the privilege of attending the conference for the second time as a presenter. I'm obviously still riding the high; I just woke up from another nap as my body seeks to recover from the exhilaration...and the work.
They work you hard at the SiWC. Over the course of two and a half days, I moderated a panel (on *Tension in Fiction* and featuring Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame, Tess Gerritsen, Hallie Ephron, J.H. Moncrieff and Catherine McKenzie), appeared on another panel (*Character Building* with Tess, Eileen Cook, Genevieve Gagne-Hawes and moderator Elizabeth Boyle), taught a 75-minute class on turning art into a career, and sat for five hours' worth of "Blue Pencil" sessions: ten-minute, one-on-one critiques with aspiring writers that have quickly become my favourite activity of the conference.
Oh -- there are also meet-the-presenter meals and morning keynote addresses, evening banquets and, of course, the nightly social activities. It's a whirlwind.
But oh, what fun!
For me, the secret to the conference's success is twofold. For one, it's not a sprawling affair. It's intimate. Presenters and attendees dine together, debrief in the bar together, and even sing karaoke together, making for an opportunity to form real bonds and even friendships.
There is no hierarchy, only a group of people who love to write.
Second, it's such a supportive space. Attendees are encouraged to provide "good news" stories about their own writing milestones, which are read aloud and applauded at meal times.
Presenters--even the household name authors, agents and editors--are generally always available for a bit of advice or a word of encouragement. We share each others' successes.
Moreover, the conference organizers, led by the indomitable Kathy Chung, clearly work very hard to create a space of diversity and inclusion.
They don't just pay lip service to the notion; the conference keynotes span a wide range of voices, with more care given to amplifying the marginalized and unheard than at any other conference or festival I've attended.
To me, this is one of the bedrock strengths of the conference and it makes SiWC a world leader.
The organizers of the conference are also very clearly invested in making sure their attendees get their money's worth, and as a presenter, this can be a bit daunting.
Certainly, it inspired me to make sure I brought my A-game.
The organizers curate a roster of presenters based on attendee evaluations and feedback, so it almost meant more to me to be invited back a second time than to be invited in the first place, a couple of years back.
I'd never moderated a panel before, at any conference or event, and I won't lie, I was a little intimidated by my all-star list of panelists.
But the cure for intimidation is preparation; I guess I put about twenty hours pre-conference into prepping for that panel, mostly by reading a book or two by each panelist.
In any case, I needn't have been intimidated. Everyone on the panel brought their A-game, too, and what transpired was a hilarious and insightful conversation that, if the copious amount of note-taking in the crowd was any indication, definitely produced one or two teachable moments, to boot.
I spent a couple weeks before the conference rehearsing my workshop, talking to myself as I walked Lucy up and down the road to the lake outside the eco lodge.
I'm sure I looked like a fool to passing drivers, but once again I think the preparation paid off. I had a great response to my discussion both during the talk and afterward, and unless I'm mistaken, only one person fell asleep (and even then, he woke up periodically to nod vigorously at whatever I was saying, so I'm counting that as a win).
Toward the end of the conference, an attendee asked what I, as a presenter, get out of SiWC.
It was a good question. Certainly, between the prep and the con itself, I'm losing a fair bit of writing time. And I sold a fair number of books, but that's not really the goal of this thing.
Mostly, it's the inspiration.
I mentioned that the blue pencil sessions were among my favourite parts of the weekend.
These involve an attendee sitting down across from a presenter with a few pages of their manuscript--an act of bravery if ever there was one--and the two of us going over the work, though I left my blue pencil at home.
I enjoy these sessions so much because the attendees are to a person enthusiastic and personable, eager to hone their craft, committed to improvement and, frankly, pretty darn talented to begin with.
As a working writer, it's an invaluable exercise to sit down and study another writer's work, to train oneself to articulate what's working and what isn't, and to collaborate on solutions, while maintaining a sense of positivity and support and ensuring the writer walks away happy, excited, and still in love with the craft.
So, selfishly, I get a lot out of it.
But it's also inspirational, in more than one way.
First of all, it's wonderful to be surrounded by people who write because they love it, and to be provided these brief glimpses into the projects that people are passionate about.
It can be easy as a working writer to lose sight of that enthusiasm on a day-to-day level. But it's impossible not to feel enthusiasm oneself when surrounded by a burgeoning tide of happy, diligent writers, all seeking to improve their craft.
It's certainly impossible not to feel grateful.
The other thing is, well, I've been questioning my own self-worth a fair bit lately. It's easy to wonder if the work you're doing matters--if *you* matter--when you're just pounding on a keyboard alone in the woods.
When I look back at SiWC 2018, I can see how I mattered. I can see how my stories, advice, encouragement or even just my simply *being there* played a role in someone's enjoyment of the conference.
In someone's decision to keep writing, keep pounding at the door to getting published.
I can see how I made people smile and feel good about themselves and their work and their path, and that matters to me.
It's something I'll try to hold onto as I go back to my keyboard and write my own stories again.