So I went to #SSCFest2019

part of (my) writing process.

This past weekend, I attended my second writers’ conference: StoryStudio Chicago‘s Writers’ Festival 2019. It was very different than the first writers’ conference I attended, last year—smaller, more intimate, more immediate, an overall better fit, I think, for someone like me. I’ve already given something close to a step-by-step catalog of what happened at SSCFest19, or at least at the sessions I attended, so I’m going to use this to do something a bit different: explore the commonalities and the overarching themes.

SSCFest is, at heart, an intimate beast: it lived, this year, all on the top floor of one of Columbia College Chicago’s exquisite old Chicago School buildings, all early fireproofing and floor to ceiling windows, with a bright turquoise fire escape meandering past. It’s small enough to be manageable, big enough to fit in more than one can possibly attend, a great way to spend one’s weekend. I had to leave earlier Sunday (those standard-issue college and university chairs have given me no end of pain ever since I was an undergrad myself), but I got in a lot of sessions and, somewhat surprisingly for me, a fair piece of networking, too.

An overwhelming theme for me (and for another attendee with whom I talked) was personal: as a musician’s daughter, I have never lived in a world of exalted art. The minute a discussion veers into rhapsodies of the elegance and transcendence and importance of Art, the capital-A very important Culture kind of Art, I tend to nope right out of there. Art is important, and transcendent, and challenging. Art is, and has always been, a business, and no amount of transcendence or importance or Culture will put food on the table or a roof over one’s head. (Bach himself was once arrested for the unmitigated gall of trying to leave for a better gig.) I think it’s one of the reasons I have little or no patience for those who get angry at the Art Institute for dressing up their lions, or who denigrate popular culture: no matter how exalted, a musician or an artist or a writer still has to put food on the table, and a roof over their head.

This also meant, of course, that I enjoyed discussions of marketability and commerce in the field. (If you’ve been here before, you may have seen me rant about genre—and, after listening to these panels, well, genre is a marketing thing, that’s what even it is. And I’m a speculative writer, leaning, most likely, towards upmarket.) Similarly, I appreciated hearing discussions of the agent-writer relationship, from both the agent and the writer side of the table. Commerce—the business side of, well, the business—was, indeed, one of the currents running through my #SSCFest2019.

This has a lot to do with me: I have a tendency to choose things that tilt towards business. I don’t simply pull information on summaries and interiorities from a talk about interiority, intertexuality, and reflection; I also pull those pertinent bits about marketing. I grab them from a novel round table and from a keynote and from a session on social media and one about getting published. I listen, always, for the business side, because I’ve lived the business side of the arts world for a long time, and it’s a lot more real, to me, than the Important Art side. #SSCFest2019 gave me a lot of material to pull from, not only from the excellent presenters and round table leaders but from attendees’ questions, which I truly appreciated.

Since I am, indeed, fascinated by the business end of writing, I attended Ines Bellina’s session on social media for writers (pick your favorite, she said, and I’m pretty sure I hate Facebook and still don’t have an Instagram, so for now that’ll be Twitter by default), and then Amina Gautier’s “Path to Publication.” I realize, when I look through my notes, that my fascination with the business side of writing extends to what I write down. Similarly, Rebecca Makkai’s round table discussion of novels reminded me that, contrary to what I may have been thinking, that ghost makes my work speculative. (So, in other words, what I thought was a fairly straight-laced, possibly upmarket bit of historical fiction is rather more speculative. Thanks, cultural ghost stories!)

#SSCFest2019 is intimate, in the best way: one sees the same people, and has a chance to really explore what’s going on. (It’s small enough that even I can manage to talk to people!) It’s small enough—and also large enough—for repeated advice to really echo, too. Read widely is, I suppose, some of the most obvious advice in the world, but it was a good reminder—and I think I heard it in every session I attended. Marketing, and the business side of the writing business, threaded their way through every session I attended, and I was reminded of writing’s similarities to the music world—and also its differences.

#SSCFest2019 was, in a word, excellent: small enough to allow for networking even for me, large enough to bring in some incredible speakers. I came away with plenty to think about (as well as with the realization that I probably understand the Business Side better than I give myself credit for). I really appreciated the open discussions of privileged and prioritized voices, and of the importance of multiple stories. I’m still trying to think of comp titles; they’ll never quite make sense to me (Mad Men meets Alice’s Restaurant with an edge of The Feminine Mystique?), but at least I came away with some solid pointers there, too. I’ve even managed, for the first time in my life, to (sort of) outline a work in progress! And, in case you’re wondering: Block Club Chicago‘s Gator Watch 2019 tote bag is a great conversation starter—and it supports local media!

the sessions I actually attended

  1. Welcome with Rebecca Makkai
  2. “Tell, Don’t Show: Interiority, Intertexuality, and Reflection” with Kate Harding
  3. Novel round table with Rebecca Makkai
  4. “Query Letter Clinic” with Renée Zuckerbrot
  5. Keynote: “The Relevance of Art” with Garth Greenwell
  6. “Social Media for Your Writing Life” with Ines Bellina
  7. “Path to Publication” with Dr. Amina Gautier

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