One of the great perks of my job are the relatively frequent opportunities to be in the company of writers. It’s always flattering and thrilling to have an audience. This fall, I’m excited to be a speaker at the SCBWI conference in North Dakota and it looks like I’ll have another class at Minneapolis’ Loft Literary Center this spring.
As you may have noticed, I’m trying to avoid the word “teach.” My wife is a teacher by training and vocation, so I am always hesitant to take the title for myself. I’ve seen true teaching, and it’s not really what I can do. When I do a conference or take on a class, my goal is to facilitate conversation and discussion—generally by sheer force of enthusiasm or ferocity of hand gestures (those who’ve worked with me in person know what I’m talking about). What I try to do is pry open the doors of the often solitary work of bookmaking and get everyone to share a bit before they retreat to rooms of their own. This works really well at the Loft, where it’s just me and roomful of writers and their work. I can pick ideas and trains of thought from conversations I’ve had with other authors and colleagues and toss them out among the manuscripts. Then, we can all poke and prod them until we’re satisfied we know all there is to know. At SCBWIs, I find it’s a little trickier. There’s just something about being at a lectern or on a podium that makes it feel like the audience is expecting a one-way flow of wisdom. I understand that members have paid good money to hear good advice, and I do my best to come up with useful, unique prepared remarks (though I don’t have any insight about magic query letter words—sorry). To be honest, though, I always long to get to the questions—not because I want to give answers (I often can’t) but because I want to hear what people are thinking, what they’re concerned about. It’s the discussion where things invariably get interesting.
So that’s how I like to approach speaking gigs. I’d love to hear comments about what you like and don’t like in a conference presenter.