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All the things I didn’t say at the writing conference, part one

I participated on a panel discussion with two wonderful writers, Cindy LaFerle and Claire Charlton, at the Detroit Working Writers annual conference on Saturday, May 21. Our panel description: Creative Non-Fiction: How to Write Rock Solid Feature Stories and Essays. All three of us are freelance journalist-types who either write features, magazine-style essays, or both.

Um, I have no words.

Um, I have no caption.

We slanted our preparation with freelance writers and journalists in mind, but the make-up of the audience – and a very good audience, I might add: smart and inquisitive – included writers who may have been more interested in literary essays and memoir. In book form.


Fortunately, Cindy, a gifted speaker, was able to field questions such as the old, “how-much-do-you-rat-on-your-family-members-in-memoir-pieces” with a charmed authority.

Still, even though my writing experience may be different from what I sensed is the preferred path of our audience, I have thoughts, yes, thoughts, for you more literary types, from your non-literary writing friend.

Writing is a tough, competitive field. So if you want to make progress with essay or memoir writing there has to be some energy driving you forward because you are likely to experience silence, if not outright rejection, as you make your way in the crazy world of publishing.

I started my writing career with personal essays – the type published in commercial magazines and newspapers. I was working in the IT industry, either full or part-time depending on the time period, while participating in the sport of child-rearing with my husband.

Two things pushed me to write – job dissatisfaction –  the nagging sense I wasn’t in the right career – and being a parent. I was fully committed to becoming the Perfect Parent but could never implement the advice from the many, many, many, many parenting books I’d either found at Borders or checked out from the library.

There was a lot of tension, friction, energy, what-have-you in those two situations and the only way I knew to resolve them was to write. I hadn’t studied writing in college. I was practical and got a business degree, with a major in Personnel Administration, now known as Human Resource Management. I wasn’t planning to write the Great American Novel, either. Not sure I even had any talent. But this creative urge pushed me forward.

So I think that’s the first thing you really need to experience a bit of writing success. That something that gives you energy and pushes you forward. No need to know from whence it came. Said Pam, resorting to bad Shakespearean writing.

Then, you have to have a blind faith you are on the right track, that this is the path for you, and find ways to throw your writing out into the world. Participating in writing groups and submitting essays for publication are two energy forces I used to get mine out there.

Someone  asked – who do you submit to? It’s hard to define the process for submission because the writing biz changes what seems like daily, especially since magazines, newspapers, literary journals and on and on exist on the Internet as much if not more than they do in print. But here is one technique for doing so, and it’s behavioral-based: throw a bunch of sh!t against the wall and see what sticks. To get the kind of information you need to move forward, the Internet and the library are your friends. Google is your friend. Other writing friends are your friends. The ability to brainstorm is your friend.

I like to think the definition of creativity is making something out of nothing. So too is the progress you make in writing, including the avenues you’ll find for publication.

How did my essays get published here and there when I first started out? I think because I was so in-the-moment when I wrote my parenting and family-life essays. They were relatable and I was lucky enough that the few editors who accepted them for publication thought so, too. But this was before the Internet was EVERYWHERE. If I were starting out today I’d have to use a different approach.

See? There are no answers. Proceed as if you know what you are doing even if you have no idea what that is.

Yes, there will be a part two.

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May 23, 2016 - 8:40 pm

Hilary Harper - Hi Pam! So nice to find your blog. I teach memoir, so I can relate. I have an old blog on Blogger, and also a newer one called “Sixty Something” on WordPress. It’s at

May 23, 2016 - 8:46 pm

Bob Wonnacott - I wish to thank you for being on the panel at DWW’s Annual Conference. It was truly enjoyable and I got a lot out of your session. Taking the time to do a follow up post like this one shows you really do care about helping writers, especially emerging writers as myself. I’m am looking forward to Part #2!

May 23, 2016 - 8:57 pm

Managed WordPress Migration User - Thanks, Bob. I’m so glad you enjoyed our session!

May 23, 2016 - 10:46 pm

Cindy La Ferle - Great post, and spot-on thoughts about essay publishing, Pam! I would add that perseverance is also key. It was then, and it still is. Thanks for sharing and for your kind words for me 🙂

May 24, 2016 - 5:57 pm

Debbie - Hi Pam,
I liked your panel discussion and thought the conference in general was great; it’s been years since I’ve been to one, and among other things, it’s really just interesting to see the variety of writers out there, “where” they are, etc. My 20 year old self would probably be impressed that I have as much in “print” or “publication” (or paid, or whatever) as I have, but my 40 year old self gets frustrated because markets change, life changes, and I think on some level, what drives a sense of satisfaction as a writer (person, etc.) changes. I imagine I sound either very wise, or completely confused. But going to conference like DWW’s at least lets me know this: I’m not alone.

May 24, 2016 - 8:40 pm

Managed WordPress Migration User - Right! What satisfies you does change over time. So true. And no, you are hardly alone, Deb. Glad you enjoyed the conference – you should check out the workshops!

June 5, 2016 - 12:45 pm

Five Ways Engineering is Like Writing - Pam Houghton - […] my last blog post, I promised a part 2 to “All the Things I Didn’t Say at the Writing Conference, Part 1.” Instead, I dusted off a little piece I wrote in a long ago and far away time.  Inspired […]

August 10, 2018 - 8:12 pm

Jumping in - Pam Houghton - […] reminded of this because the one thing I always want to be perfect is my writing – and it never is, never will be. If I get an assignment from an editor, boom, I can produce, […]

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