“I’m going to a writers conference this weekend to learn how to write,” I said to my 94-year-old mother, letting her know that I would be away for a few days.
“Oh, Doug, you know how to write” was her response, which I found unexpectedly reassuring. She’s the only person I know who has read each of my books more than once.
The writers conference I attended isn’t the only one of its kind, but it’s a popular one, and it attracted nearly 200 writers, editors, literary agents, and even a few teachers of writing. The number, we learned, was down from two years ago, most likely due to last year’s cancelled conference, which had been scheduled to take place during a global pandemic.
It was my first writers conference, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I know how to write, as my mother reminded me, and I have been turning out books, blog posts, newspaper columns, and even sermons at a pretty good clip for the last 40 years. Mostly I went to spend time with my crew, though if the people I spent time with last weekend are a crew, I’m not sure what they have in common, except the need to type a lot and then endlessly revise what they’ve typed.
Some of what I heard at the conference I expected to hear. I expected to hear, for example, encouraging words about promoting myself and growing my “platform,” particularly through social media. At one session, a marketing professional told us to “be everywhere” and “never shut up.” I know some Presbyterian pastors who have taken that advice to heart, but most writers, in contrast, are solitary folks who would rather type than talk (or spend time on Facebook).
Other information I heard at the conference came as a surprise. A scholar in the science of memory told a room full of memoirists that all memories are basically unreliable. “Memories are constructed” is what he actually said. They’re adapted over time, and they change to suit our purposes, making them less than trustworthy. To people who rely on their memories for stories and anecdotes, this was disturbing and unsettling news. If you can’t trust your memories, what do you write about?
No worries, he said. “Just ask yourself why you’re so devoted to that story you swear happened to you a long time ago. That’s where the real writing begins.”
I must say, I found that less than encouraging.
But the presentation that got under my skin was the one about the ethics of memoir writing, which usually comes down to: “What can I say about other people without getting myself into trouble?
In a book about writing, the memoirist Anne Lamott famously wrote, “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” That’s one point of view.
At the other end of the spectrum, the keynote speaker for the conference, someone who has written 11 books of memoir, told us that we should probably get signed legal documents from every single person we mention in a memoir. The legal team at her publisher regularly scours her books for potential problems, and she always gets the people in her life, mainly family members, to “sign off” on what she’s written.
I have a memoir coming out this year, and so I found myself listening carefully to this advice. I had just signed off on the page proofs for my book the day before leaving for the conference, and I found myself wondering how many people will be pleased to find themselves mentioned in what I’ve written.
On the other hand, I’m comforted to know that everyone I mention remembers the events of my life exactly as I remember them. I should be okay.
Photo: One of my ancestors.