Death and the Writer’s Conference

Writers Conference

“things took a frightening turn”

I’ve just returned from three days of literary and psychic mayhem known as a writer’s conference.  Three days of packed workshops, three days of trying to sell your latest project to an army of agents, publishers, studio representatives etc.  Three days of trying to network with people that spend most of their time alone in front of a keyboard, messing with their own heads.

The first order of business on the first day, at a time when civilized people are hammering their alarm clocks into submission, was to stand in line to collect my conference ID Badge, which I had been assured by OFFICIAL EMAIL would gain me entry to all the rights and privileges for which I had paid.  But, the email also assured me, if I were caught on the premises not wearing the badge, I would be taken into custody at once by the INS and deported to an undisclosed location in Mexico.  The badges themselves were, of course, demon possessed.  Hanging on a lanyard around my neck, the badge perversely rotated so that my name was facing my chest, remaining that way in spite of my many attempts to turn it around.

After breakfast, my first workshop was a panel of literary agents giving their takes on the current market, and taking questions from the attendees.  I had chosen this one because I signed up as part of a group meeting with an executive from New Line Cinema and thought it would be easy to sneak out early.  I could have skipped it entirely since I wound up leaving before they were through introducing themselves.  Nerves and too much coffee directed me to the men’s room before the meeting.  That’s when I became aware of the tragedy.

I needed a stall and so tried the door to the first one that appeared vacant.  The door was locked.  I tried again (no feet were showing below) without success, so I peeked in through a space at the edge of the door.  The stall was completely empty, but my writer’s mind, conditioned by Sherlock Holmes and many hours of old CSI episodes, at once deduced the truth:  some poor writer had had an early meeting with an agent or publisher and been crushed.  This writer was male (it was the men’s room) and had gone into the stall, locking the door (they only lock from the inside).  He then stepped into the toilet and flushed himself into oblivion, thereby ending as a horrible cliché.

I didn’t have time to dwell on this horror.  I finished my own personal business and then dashed to the group consulting area where six of us were to meet the film exec.  The two minutes I had to present my 700-page novel made me into a quivering, inarticulate Bozo.

“And what is the plot of your novel?” the exec asked.

“Uh…um…duh,” I replied.

“That’s a great title,” said the exec.

“I’m sorry but your time’s up,” burbled the conference volunteer who had just entered the room to clear the way for the next round of meetings.

I left the meeting imagining how Leo Tolstoy might have done:

“What is the plot of your novel?” the exec asked.

“War and Peace?” Leo queried.

“That’s a fantastic summation of such a massive manuscript,” the exec responded.  What is the title?”

“Uh…um…duh,” Leo replied.

Having finished my meeting, I snuck into a dialog workshop and relaxed by watching snippets of movies followed by commentaries on the dialogue.  This lasted until lunch.  The morning’s ordeal had left me ravenous, so I stoked the internal furnaces with a massive roast beef sandwich and all the trimmings, plus a heap of pasta salad.  I made some new contacts, but immediately lost them when I began talking about the tragedy in the men’s room (writers hate clichés).

After lunch I made my way into a workshop on plotting.  As I sat there struggling to keep my eyelids from closing, I noticed that the presenter was speaking very slowly

and pronouncing each word very carefully, while the vocabulary she was using seemed somewhat limited.  I realized too late that I had wandered into a class on children’s literature by mistake.  But I was too sleepy to get up and leave.  Besides, if I fell asleep, I thought, it would be better to go to sleep with children’s stories ringing in my ears than with the depraved motivations of serial killers twisting my subconscious.

The day finished off with an unforgettable workshop on writing unforgettable stories and I went home for the night.

The next morning, I was back at the conference—ready for some serious work and looking forward to the evening’s festivities.  I resolved to say nothing further about the tragedy in the men’s room until the announcement was made that one of the conference attendees was missing.  Then I would step forward and lead the authorities to the scene of the crime.

The classes of the previous day had been packed to overflowing so I made it to the first one early enough to stake out a strong claim to a good spot with a chair.  Reports of claim jumping from the first day’s workshops were widespread.  There was one rumor of a gun battle between latecomers and seat-holders that lasted for fifteen minutes before the police arrived to break it up.  I noticed one other individual that had arrived early because his badge, unlike mine, had his name showing.  But what really got my attention was that underneath his name the word FRUSTRATION glared back at me.  In my amazement I continued to stare which clearly made him uncomfortable.  While he was growing increasingly agitated I made one of my futile attempts to turn my badge so my name would face out.  Underneath my name, in bold letters, a line read: FRI/SAT/SUN.  I hastily put my glasses back on and looked in another direction.

To keep us off our guards, this second day’s lunch was served at the tables, while the first day’s lunch had been served buffet style.  The hotel had hired out-of-work Ninjas to do the serving.  They approached a table with the silence of a cat and struck with the speed of a cobra.  I was sent crashing onto the table when my empty plate was jerked out from under my elbow by one of them, whose approach was unheard and unseen.  You don’t need to know what my elbow was doing resting on my empty plate.

The rest of the day’s offerings passed without incident, or perhaps I was growing accustomed to the general weirdness of things.  After the last workshop had finished, I put on a tie to get ready for the awards banquet and waited for 6:30 pm to come around.  I found a table and took a seat and was soon surrounded by convivial fellow diners.  Wine was available and soon there was a roar of conversation, which soon made it difficult to hear exactly what was being said.

That’s when things took a frightening turn.  some of the women seated at the table began discussing inflatable breast implants, complete with valves so they could be inflated and deflated at will.  Fortunately for the sanity of the rest of us, the awards presentations interrupted this line of conversation before things had gone too far.

The keynote speaker was sparkling to the point of hauling the winner of the lifetime achievement award back up on the stage where they sang “…you’ll never write alone” to the, by now well lubricated, crowd.  Amid the thunderous applause punctuated by the barks of the service dog accompanying one of the attendees, they bowed their way off stage, and the party dissolved as everyone made their way to their nighttime residences.

The last day started with breakfast as usual, and the workshops continued throughout the day, but the conference was clearly coming to an end.  There were fewer people in the halls as the writers that had come from far and wide began leaving for their far-flung homes.  The first to leave were those from far, and those from wide followed them soon after.  The remainder (those from near) stayed to the bitter end in the hopes of winning a door prize.

I lingered for just a moment after the last prize was awarded, expecting to hear the announcement that one of the attendees was missing, thereby uncovering the tragedy in the men’s room.  But the organizers clearly had a premonition as to the nature of this disappearance and had decided to hush it up.  After all, writers hate clichés.

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About P. W. Fox

P. W. Fox, a.k.a. Wayne Howard, born in Mississippi, grew up in Nevada, Japan and Guam, returning to Mississippi where he attended high school and college in Mississippi where he received a degree in chemistry from Mississippi State University, and after working as a plant chemist for two years, he returned to the university, for graduate study in geology and geochemistry both at Mississippi State and the University of Texas at Dallas. On leaving school, he worked for a number of years in the oil and gas industry in Texas before moving to Oregon, where he has lived for the last 22 years. He has always been drawn to fiction writing and won a story writing contest at the age of nine. He began but later abandoned a science fiction novel while an undergraduate at Mississippi State. In recent years he began a more deliberate and sustained writing effort, producing short plays, poems, short stories and meditations as well as lyrics for choral pieces. Current projects include a science fiction novel and a children’s story.
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