Aloha Writer’s Conference Lessons

I had the privilege (and I do mean that, in every sense) of attending the recent Aloha Writer’s Conference on my home island of Maui. Lessons from a top notch writing conference are best digested in small bites, but the experience itself was like eating a whole chocolate fudge cake at a sitting after being on a no-carb diet. In a word, overwhelming.

Headliners for the event were Kaui Hart Hemmings, John Lescroat, Diane Lake, Thomas Cook, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Rebecca Walker and a host of others.


What I loved:

Rebecca Walker. Memoirist and author of bestsellers such as Black White & Jewish, she is the award-winning daughter of Alice Walker and an activist lawyer. Every word she spoke was as deliberate, beautiful and fully formed as a pearl individually knotted on a string. What I got from her two presentations is that words matter. Quality matters. Taking time for excellence matters. And I saw and experienced a writer who embodied qualities I aspire to. I literally hung on everything she said, making notes as fast as I could.

Jacquelyn Mitchard. Author of the Deep End of the Ocean and many others, she now heads up a YA imprint. I loved her presentation on Why Adults Read YA, and I was thrilled to pitch my YA novel, `Aumakua, to her after being so inspired by her passion for what young adult literature is doing in the world.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I did very well—she baldly told me that the title (`Aumakua) wasn’t going to work, people couldn’t remember or process a new/foreign word like that. I got so rattled I forgot what I was going to say and babbled sweatily, and in the end she told me to read the guidelines for submission and if I thought the book qualified, go ahead and send it in—not exactly a “I wanna see this.” Still, (with my Facebook friends’ input) I renamed the manuscript Path of Island Fire and Richard Parks, my agent, submitted it. We’ll see what happens.

In any case, I got some valuable insight into why it may have been rejected before. Embedded in Hawaii, I tend to forget things like how many words begin with K and that I need to define things that to me, are so clearly meaningful. The other valuable takeaway I got from that is that I really want to see my books out in mainstream America, shaping and educating perceptions through an entertaining story. Someday, everyone in America should know what an `aumakua is—so getting clearer about what I’m trying to do with all of my books was worth gold.

Keiki O Ka Aina. The conference was run by a culturally relevant nonprofit, and the hulas, chants, talks and organization of the event were beautifully rendered by this lovely and inspiring group of parent educators. Vicki Draeger, head of the nonprofit and organizer of the event, did a great job keeping things smooth, friendly and inspiring.

What I Didn’t Love:

The whole orientation of the conference was toward the traditional publishing model. Thomas Cook’s presentation on The State of Publishing Then and Now was epically depressing and inaccurate in that he didn’t present the hope and joy that midlist authors can now make fortunes by self-publishing. There was one seminar on social media, and the speaker, whom I knew wasn’t at the forefront of using social media regarding books and writing, cancelled. Upstarts like me, with the temerity to be successful “outside the box” were left feeling like upstarts rather than a new wave of hope and freedom for writers, which is what I think we are. A valuable opportunity to encourage writers was missed—that, even if chances of a pub deal are even more miniscule than they always were, there are a million new ways to be successful if you’re creative, hardworking and have a business mindset with your writing.

The Ritz Carlton Kapalua. Maybe it’s my social worker perspective, but the money I spent on the hotel felt wrong, and was way too expensive for most writers I know. I just got done writing a book that posits an uprising of the working class in an anarchy movement against being invisible “Oompa-Loompas” in uniforms, pushing brooms and mowers as they make Hawaii a playground for the rich—and there I was, going down the hall handing out tips to my brothers and sisters in uniform, feeling like a hypocrite.

Paying my bill made me feel physically ill. I’m not a rich haole member of the 1% and I resent being made to feel like one. Yes, I enjoyed the great beds and vanilla soap and drinks by the pool, but I don’t need to do that again.

Lessons from the Aloha Writers’ Conference continue to be learned in my dreams, in my conversations with others who attended, in my very bones and marrow. I've been encouraged to have the courage of my convictions, to hunt for the exact right word for every sentence, to believe unwaveringly that I have a unique message. I think the lessons of this conference are slowly coming clearer for me and they have to do with who I am as a writer and a woman walking in this world.

What are some of the lessons conferences have taught you?

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