Escape to WUnderland

Why spend four days in Salem, Massachusetts, just when Halloween witches are being run out of town by November drear? The 2019 Writer’s UnConference, of course! This “Escape to WUnderland” was organized by Writer Unboxed, an online community that—I thought—existed primarily to pump out daily advice. (Read my first guest post, Power to the Pantsers)

The week’s theme was “WUnder,” which in hindsight was a perfect description. How else to explain the luxury of improving my writing skills, surrounded by authors from around the world who shared both challenges and laughter? Each day, workshops and seminars dug deep into a specific building block of story: character, plot, pacing, point of view, voice.

I never expected any of it to inspire a dramatic end-of-week Breakup.

Calm and Comfortable

What was noticeably (and intentionally) absent was any public focus on the business of selling books. There were no lectures on finding an agent, no Powerpoints graphing which keywords sell the most books on Amazon. Though I overheard plenty of informal lobby conversations about 21st century book marketing, workshops were led by another author, armed only with notes, sharing their wisdom about what might help each of us tell our stories even better.

This craft-only approach—and the homey comfort of the Hawthorne Hotel—eliminated much of the frenzy I’ve seen at other conferences. Our common goal was to write a better story, because that’s the only thing we really have within our control. Even for those (lucky?) authors who pump out several books each year, it was a great reminder: craft matters. (And also a reminder that, when done really well, that craft becomes invisible to our readers.)

Between sessions, lunch and dinner groups formed spontaneously. Even on day four—long after cliques would’ve formed at other, larger, gatherings—I felt like I could join any table that had an open seat. Though I didn’t meet every single one of the 120 participants, I did manage to share most meals with at least one new person—and made several new friends.

Writers in 3D

I read Writer Unboxed posts every day, so meeting the regular contributors felt, on the first day anyway, like wandering onto the set of Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood. People I knew only through their online persona—a vague hodgepodge of identity built on author bio, blog topic, and word choice—turned out to be shorter or taller (or sassier) than expected. Several had more gray hair than their headshots indicated (this is an “experienced” group, after all). All were genuinely enthusiastic, even on the last day, when fatigue would’ve long since overwhelmed superficial politeness.

The Breakup

One author who quickly morphed from cardboard to three dimensional was Keith Cronin, “the funniest guy on Writer Unboxed.” Each day, at least one participant would ask if he was actually my husband. So on Thursday evening, putting our mutual appreciation for sarcasm to work, the two of us staged a “breakup” in the hotel lobby. (An example, I realize only in hindsight, of an “unreliable narrator.”) Every human interaction outside the conference rooms seemed to tie back to something we’d learned inside; as you can see from the distracted spectator, in real life, too, we are drawn to “story.”

The biggest surprise was meeting so many writers who found out about the Writer Unboxed blog only by going to this four-day conference… the exact reverse of my own experience. But no matter where we began, we all left Salem with fresh ideas, new friendships, and a renewed commitment to tell our best stories.

Every writer’s conference has its own vibe. This “Escape to WUnderland” definitely achieved its promised objectives: just-enough-structure, approachable instructors, and plenty of group interaction. I’m already looking forward to the next one—in 2021, organizer Therese Walsh promises. With the amount of energy that she and her husband Sean (photographer of The Breakup) put into the organization, this could never become an annual event. After all, we each need time to absorb everything we learned—and read all those blog posts this year’s gathering has already inspired.

Have a thought about writer’s conferences, or story, or The Breakup? Share it in the comments below, or send me an email. I read and enjoy every one, thanks!

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