Notes From a Hired Pen

Freelance Investment: Conferences

In October, I flew across the country to attend the East Meets West Conference at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Including the conference fee, flight, hotel, cabs and meals, I spent around $2,000 on the four day trip.

In March, I’ll be spending about the same to go to the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat.

Conferences important investments in my career. Not only are they places to make contacts with editors, but they’re also places to learn and learn more about writing.  At Wild Mountain, I’ll immerse myself in memoir writing, which I hope improve the project I’m working on right now. I’ve attended almost every ASJA Conference since I’ve been a member to meet with editors and agents and other writers, which has lead to more new clients than I can count.

Why go? A few reasons.

1. Contacts. I’ve received work from editors I met in the halls, and while waiting in line at the bathroom. I learned about publications I’d never heard of before, and now write for them regularly because I met the editor at a conference. I’ve met in person people I’d been writing for for years – and then they gave me more work after. My career would not be where it is today if I hadn’t schlepped to New York City for the ASJA Conferences over the last eight years. At the time, those train rides and hotels were out of my budget, but I went anyway. The investment has been returned multiple times over.

2. Continuing education. I have no interest in getting a graduate degree in journalism (I already have an M.A. in English Literature, and consider journalism something you learn on the job), but I want to keep improving my writing, and keep learning. At East Meets West, I took pages of notes about narrative journalism. It’s something I do already but want to do better, and for better publications. I was also curious about new long form publishing outlets like the Atavist and Byliner, two groups forging new business models for publishers and writers. What better way to learn about this style of writing, and these new publication outlets than at a conference where the editors and writers of those publications are speakers? Conversations with the writers doing this nearly full time was almost as educational as talking with the editors. The writers got more into the nitty gritty of it, especially the financial aspect, which is key for freelancers. Specifically, the conference helped me wrap my head around how I could write about Sandy’s devastation for a larger, national audience, and how looking for small pieces of the big story would be more effective than an overall sweep of everything that happened.

3. Meet other writers. I’ve always relied on the online freelance community for guidance and support. Meeting some of those people in real life has been an amazing experience. There are just things you can’t talk about unless you’re sharing beers and cheap burritos at a crappy Mexican restaurant. Every time I leave a conference, I feel less like I’m alone in this business. I call back on that feeling when I want to give up (and usually email those writers for help).

4. Travel. I’d never been to California before East Meets West, so the conference was a good excuse to go. I went to a dud of a conference in Vancouver last fall, but at least I saw Canada for the first time, and ran in a Canadian race (medal with maple leaf included). I’m still burned that this trip resulted in no work (as of yet), but I can’t say I hated running around Vancouver’s waterways. I also learned what kind of writing I do NOT want to do, which is a valuable lesson since I no longer invest time in those ventures. The trip cost less through the conference than it would have if I went on my own, and I can deduct it from my taxes, which mitigates the loss.

5. Stay excited about the career. Freelancing is a lonely, sometimes boring and almost always frustrating career. Going to conferences with people who do what I do is always a charge, in a good way, and pushes me ahead. I abandoned long form journalism years ago when the economy collapsed and I couldn’t afford to invest the time in the required legwork. But since East Meets West, I’ve pitched one such piece and am working on another big pitch right now. I hope they’ll land somewhere, and even if they don’t, I know I’ll use the information from the conference going forward. I’m already devouring the books some of the speakers recommended.

What conferences have you attended in the past? Have they been worth it?

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