The Power of Making Friends at Writing Conferences

by Jackie Holness

I was blessed to attend the inaugural Publishing in Color (PIC) conference in 2018 at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I loved that the PIC purpose is to “foster relationships between prospective authors from under-represented groups and representatives from the spiritual publishing industry.” I had originally heard about the conference from a friend who knew about my writing journey and some difficulties I was experiencing at the time. I registered with a certain goal in mind as I had come to a standstill regarding a book writing project. I had hoped to find a publisher for the book. Aside from that goal, I thought it would be interesting to see what opportunities could arise from meeting the other publishing professionals who would be there “looking for new voices – new writers of color.”

Sadly, I must admit that typically when I attend writing conferences, I’m so focused on networking with the people on the various programs, I don’t really put that much energy into networking with my fellow conferees. Some of that is about the competition that is so detectable in the air at many writing conferences that it could be a topic on a writing conference agenda: How to Vie for the Few Opportunities Offered at Writing Conferences While Making Friends at Writing Conferences. But by the time I had registered for PIC, I had experienced so much rejection for a book writing project that I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to be as competitive as I usually am at a writing conference. My attitude was either the door will be opened for me via this conference or it will not be, and there was no need to get my emotions wrapped up in either outcome. I had had enough of experiencing a victory on that journey only for a subsequent defeat to nearly push me back to the starting point. At least it felt that way even if it was not exactly true.

That attitude enabled me to approach the conference without any expectations, and because I did not have any expectations, I was emotionally free to make friends with my fellow conferees. However, I did recognize that competitive spirit I typically had in some of my fellow conferees in that they seemed to be only focused on networking with the “representatives from the spiritual publishing industry.” I recognized it because that was my usual modus operandi. And inwardly, I wished them well. That PIC was a feast for those of us who are starving for writing opportunities. Additionally, the writing journey, particularly for a writer of color, can been be exhausting as there are not very many conferences in which the elevation of the work of writers of color is the end goal. But that competitive approach would not be my approach this time. I endeavored to meet the representatives AND meet my fellow conferees. One of my fellow conferees I met was Joy A. Williams. Joy and I instantly liked each other, and from the first day of the conference, we spent all of our free time together. In one of our meals together, she introduced me to Morgan Lee from Christianity Today magazine as they were friends in a Facebook group. I had no meetings scheduled with Morgan (To be honest, I am not even sure she was on the program.) so I was not trying to impress her. I was just friendly. I did mention to her that I had written for CT before as I had written a book review for the magazine a year earlier, and that I was from Atlanta. And that was that.

After the conference was over, I discovered that I was in a couple of Facebook groups with Morgan, so I saw her various posts and I imagine that she saw my posts as well. I had no idea that a random connection I made through a new friend at a writing conference from two years earlier would result in a cover story for Christianity Today magazine. But that is what happened. This summer, I was contacted by a Christianity Today magazine editor who was looking for writers for a package of cover stories about Black Christians in Atlanta as Atlanta, the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is known as the civil rights capital of the nation. She told me that Morgan Lee recommended me as a writer living in Atlanta who could write about my hometown and the Black Christians who live here. I was stunned because this was an opportunity that came to me through networking but not my usual mode of networking. This opportunity happened because not only had I networked with representatives at PIC, I networked with new friends. Now, I know the power of making friends at writing conferences, and this new approach will be my networking modus operandi moving forward. I hope my story helps my fellow writers of color as we continue in our quest to elevate our writing so that it is no longer “under-represented” and on our journeys, separately and collectively.