Attend A Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference And Find Your WBF!

The Godfather of Creative Nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, with fan girl, Carleena Angwin, at the 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Conference in Pittsburgh

Are you thinking about attending a creative nonfiction writers’ conference this year? Do it! Going was the best decision for me, mostly because of the connections I made with other writers.

As the one-year anniversary of the conference approaches, I’ve been thinking about these connections, the things I learned, and advice I would give a first time attendee. So, let’s get started…

Meeting People

Most writers are introverts and would rather untangle typewriter tape than introduce themselves to a stranger. Not to worry, here are some safe questions you can ask other conference attendees to get started:

  • Is this your first writers’ conference?
  • How did you find out about it?
  • Where are you from?
  • What are you writing about?

Find a WBF!

A good writing buddy is hard to find, but necessary for the motivation to sit down and write. If you find someone at the conference who understands your genre and is equally motivated to write, YOU have found gold. Hold on to that person and don’t let them go. A writing buddy can help keep you accountable and a writer needs accountability like a recovering alcoholic needs AA. It’s that serious.   

I didn’t find a writing buddy at the conference (I didn’t realize I needed one until after), but I admired a budding Writer Buddy Friendship, or WBF.  Julie and Jill met at the conference, took notes when the other spoke at dinner, and a few months later, Julie took a road trip from FL to ND to visit Jill, her new WBF. They blogged about it here and here.

Writing A Pitch

The online registration asked if we would volunteer to read our pitch in front of a breakout group at the conference. The breakout group would give us feedback, then we would put our names in a hat for a chance to read our revised pitch to a panel of agents and editors. The panelists would give rapid-fire feedback in front of one-hundred plus conference attendees. At the time of registration, I didn’t have a pitch, nor did I know what one was. But, I didn’t want to miss out on something so exciting, so I checked “Yes”.

When I sat down to start writing it, these were the questions I had:

  • Should I write a pitch in first person or third?
  • How long should it be?
  • Is there a format?

Several google searches of “how to write a pitch for creative nonfiction” came up with nothing helpful. Then, I found this video on youtube “12 Finalists Pitch to Big Hollywood”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7WDuPEnl6U

The panelists in the video were tough and some pitchers looked distraught with the feedback, but these were the strategies I learned:

  • A pitch is short, one to three minutes.
  • Get the listener’s attention within the first couple sentences.
  • Don’t wait until the middle or end to get to your point.
  • Start with a scene that establishes conflict, tension.
  • Why are you the one to do this project?
  • What experience do you have that gives you credibility to write it?
  • Has this story been done before? Is there a similar one out there?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Does the main character change from the beginning of the story to the end?

Using these strategies, I wrote a pitch, rewrote it, then revised it twenty times before the conference. Thinking about my book this way helped me visualize the story from beginning to end. 

The moment finally came when I sat in front of my breakout group to read my pitch outloud to a sea of strangers. They listened with intention then offered encouragement and suggestions. After my turn, a few others shared their pitches with the group and it was helpful to hear the feedback people gave them.

The Pitch Slam in front of the panelists was the following day and a woman from our breakout group was chosen to read. A few months later, her pitch became the basis of an article in the Washington Post. It was great to see a nurtured idea become a published article. 

A Writer’s Platform – Who Cares?

A year ago, Facebook was the extent of my social media world, and the only “platform” I was familiar with were the ones I wouldn’t wear for fear of falling.

The thought of creating and learning multiple social media accounts was overwhelming and seemed like a huge distraction to writing. A panel of speakers tried to convince us otherwise.

In the airport on my way back home, I read the article “Platforms are Overrated” by Stephanie Bane.

The name sounded familiar, so I flipped through a stack of business cards I had collected and there she was, the same Stephanie Bane I sat next to in my breakout group and talked to several times. I respected her and her opinions, so if Stephanie thought platforms were overrated, so would I! 

A few months after the conference, however, I had a slow Sunday afternoon and figured I would see what this platform business was all about. I tried creating one. As you can see, my platform hasn’t seen much activity lately; I mostly post pictures of my dog. But the accounts have been created and linked to my website, ready for the day I become famous and everyone wants to follow me.  My platform might be outdated by then, it turns out. My ten year old niece says all the cool kids are on SnapChat and Musically now.

Bring a laptop.

I didn’t bring a laptop, but wish I had because it would have helped me revise my pitch and take better conference notes. Most people had a MacBook Air, which I realized was THE writers’ laptop. My Toshiba at home was old, heavy, and crashed all the time. I retired the Toshiba after the conference and I’m currently writing this post on a MacBook Air. I feel really cool. And it’s all about feeling cool.

Bring cash to buy books.

Many authors have their books for sale near registration. Buying someone’s book is a good way to support the author, start a conversation with them, and ask them to sign it. If you’re bold, you can ask them to take a picture with you, then use it in a blog post the next year, when you have a platform.

Traveling on a budget?

Stay at an Airbnb instead of the conference hotel. Take an airport shuttle bus downtown instead of the taxi. Call an Uber instead of a limo. Take an online writing class and get half off conference registration.

A few other reasons to go…

Go meet your tribe, these other people get you. Have you noticed non-writers don’t get you? They might even think you’re a little crazy? Go for the connections you’ll have after you leave.

Go to get honest feedback you wouldn’t get from your momma or best friend. (Sorry momma, I appreciate your feedback, I really do.)

Remember, people attend these conferences because they want to meet YOU, so take out your list of safe questions and Go to talk to them. 

Pre-Conference CNF Consumption 

Books

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, by Lee Gutkind 

Naked, Drunk and Writing, by Adair Lara 

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott 

The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick 

Podcasts

Longform Podcast with Cheryl Strayed 

Beyond Your Blog Podcast with Hattie Fletcher 

Video

The Daily Show interview with Lee Gutkind 

My Tribe! Creative Nonfiction Writers' Conference after hours dinner in Pittsburgh, PA, May 2015. Photo credit: Beverly Jeanne Armento
My Tribe! Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh, PA, May 2015. Photo credit: Beverly Jeanne Armento

 

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5 thoughts on “Attend A Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference And Find Your WBF!

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  1. Very interesting, some points I hadn’t really considered. I hadn’t even thought of creative non-fiction as a genre, but now I think about it, I suppose I actually write within that category, at least for some of my work.

    A conference would be great – I often feel that I am in a bit of an isolated niche.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your reply, alexpolistigers. I wasn’t familiar with “creative nonfiction” either, until I did a search for memoir magazines a couple years ago and came across the Creative Nonfiction website. The godfather of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, defines it as “memoir to literary journalism and everything in between”. He writes about it here: https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/what-creative-nonfiction

      Liked by 1 person

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