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02/28/2012: "Reflections on Potlatch 21"

Last weekend I attended Potlatch 21, a science fiction writer's convention that is held in the Seattle area every other year (and in the Bay Area in alternating years). This is the third time I have attended Potlatch and it is safe to say I have a unique perspective on the proceedings. As an aspiring sci-fi writer, I have come away each time not only with lots of ideas, but regrets at what the experience could have been. I really enjoy coming and want it to survive and thrive. In that vein, I would like to put forth a modest proposal based on my observations.

Potlatch is a rather small (it has deliberately never been more than 200 people), narrowly focused convention that is aimed at science fiction writers and readers- nobody is dressed up in costumes. There is only one track of programming and one book that is featured as the "Book of Honor," which every attendee tries to read. Most of the panels discuss either the book, subjects related to the book, or are practical discussions about issues relating to the life of a sci-fi writer. If none of the panels are tickling your fancy, any attendee can create what is termed "nanoprogramming," and create your own panel on the spot. I had a discussion with Jack William Bell the Potlatch 21 chair (Thanks Jack- great job!) and he told me that the conference grew out of an anarchist group and could be considered to be an example of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, which made complete sense/ blew my mind when I thought about it. It is definitely an example of, and perhaps one of the first, unconferences as well.

The first one I attended was Potlatch 17 in 2008. I was putting the finishing touches on my first novel and I was looking to: 1) meet some fellow sci-fi writers and 2) get some practical tips on how to approach my career through going to the panels and talking to some of the pros. What sealed the deal for me was that the Book of Honor was "Parable of the Sower" by Octavia Butler, whose work had really influenced me. She had also attended Potlatch before her untimely death. When I got there, I was surprised to find that there was a real generation gap. There were people who were far older than I was and a contingent of "younger" ones as well. Luckily for me, I really hit it off with three fellow younger writers who were in the same "unpublished/barely published" boat and we formed one of the greatest writer's groups in the history of writer's groups, The Shining Creamsicles. Noted steampunk author Cherie Priest was in attendance (this was just before she published her Hugo and Nubula- nominated book "Boneshaker") and she politely answered our questions and gave me a lot to think about.

As for the older generation, I had a real hard time breaking through and getting to know them. It's not that they were unfriendly per se, it's that they kept to themselves. Since the older writers and attendees had known each other for many years, they were more interested in hanging out with each other than talking with someone much younger than they were. I'm not the world's most outgoing person, but I'm pretty sociable when I want to be, and I figured since it was by and for sci-fi writers it would be a welcoming crowd. I hadn't expected to encounter the Seattle Freeze at a sci-fi convention, but here it was- at least with the older crowd. The younger writers, however, were another story- we came looking to make connections, and many were made. My fellow Creamsicles and I are all good friends. I figured that maybe my lack of contact with the older writers was all in my mind or a result of my not reaching out and that at the next Potlatch, once people knew who I was, they would open up more.

I did not attend Potlatch 18 in 2009 as it was in the Bay Area, but several of the Creamsicles made it into a road trip and had a great time. Potlatch 19 in 2010 was back in Seattle and it was fun and informative as ever. One thing I noticed was that there were several of the younger writers who didn't return, but I got to meet a few new people as well as perennial political candidate Goodspaceguy! Overall, though, I found myself in the same situation of getting to know the younger convention goers but not the older ones.

I was looking forward to attending Potlatch 21 for many reasons, the least of which was that the Book of Honor was "A Canticle For Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller, Jr., one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels. It is also a deeply Catholic novel, and I thought that I would bring a different perspective to the discussions of the novel as a practicing Catholic. What was even more exciting was that one of my short stories was accepted into the Writer's Workshop that was lead by noted sci-fi author Vylar Kaftan. The writer's workshop was great and I not only got to read and comment on several awesome short stories, I got some really solid critiques and practical advice from Vylar as well.

In the main panel about the book, I made several comments, and while they were listened to respectfully, I was disappointed that some of them were not taken up or ignored. In order to engender further discussion, I created two nanoprograms where I talked further about the issues of faith and religion that were raised in "Canticle." The first discussion had 6 people, and the second was just someone sitting at my table, but we turned it into a wonderful conversation.

So again, for the third time, I enjoyed myself, learned a lot, didn't break the ice with the older people and wished I'd had more time to talk to some of the younger/aspiring writers. Then on Sunday afternoon, it hit me. At first, I thought I should have done a nanoprogram where I got all the younger/aspiring writers together to break the ice. Then, I thought while that would certainly have been a great idea, why wasn't Potlatch doing this?

If Potlatch is going to survive and thrive, I would suggest that it become slightly more structured and be more welcoming towards the younger/aspiring writers. I was extremely lucky that I met 3 good friends right off the bat the first night of my first Potlatch. But what if I hadn't? What if I was an introverted young/aspiring writer hoping to meet some new people, regardless of their age, and I had gotten the Seattle Freeze all weekend long? Would I return next year? Having been to 3 Potlatches, I would have to say that there are a lot of younger/aspiring writers who may have felt this way and did not return. Having some official programming geared towards this audience may technically violate the ethos of Potlatch, but I think it is necessary to add a little more structure if it is to retain enough new fans to survive.


on Tuesday, February 28th, Puss in Boots said:

My first Potlatch was also 2008, where I met you, Jessie Kwak, Jesse Bangs, Natasha Oliver, Vylar Kaftan, and some others, and I do remember realizing there was a generation gap.

Sometime between 2008 and 2012, I had a revelation about science fiction people, though. They're all nerds--and they have nerd social skills, which tend to be awkward rather than inviting. So this year I simply started inviting myself into people's conversations. I didn't experience the "Seattle Freeze" at all, and I'm not convinced it's the same phenomenon. I think this is more like "Nerd Freeze," and at least in my case, it can be resolved by employing aggressively friendly social tactics. I'm not naturally as outgoing as I force myself to be at conventions, but I think it's worth the perceived risk. If all that's at stake is being momentarily awkward, failure is the same as not trying at all. satisfied

on Wednesday, February 29th, santo26 said:

Hello there San! Thanks for reading my post. I think you really hit on something here with the "Nerd Freeze" and the efficacy of employing "aggressively friendly social tactics" to combat it. I had quite a few great conversations at Potlatch just by jumping in despite the risk of looking like even more of a dork. Not only that, the "Nerd Freeze" is even more pronounced at the bigger cons I have gone to so far. Potlatch looks quite friendly and welcoming in comparison.

When it comes down to it, any con or social interaction comes down to what you make of it, and that includes putting yourself out there. I appreciate the great advice/reality check.

At the same time, do you think it would help at Potlatch to have more events for new attendees to meet and mingle or is that the responsibility of the individual?

on Wednesday, February 29th, Mark Andrew Edwards said:

Heya. It was good meeting you, both at the workshop and at the convention.

I liked your comments on the Canticle deconstruction.

Thanks for the blog post, I wasn't aware about Potlatch's anarchist history, though on reflection, that does explain some of the conversations I overheard smile

Like you, I felt the generation gap and I agree, if Potlatch is going to survive, it needs to be more inclusive. Micaiah Evans was interested in planning for the next Potlatch, being one of the 'younguns' like us. Maybe we should get together over lunch and talk things over. If there's going to be any changes, I'm guess we'll have to make them ourselves.

on Wednesday, February 29th, Micaiah Evans said:

Hi all. Glad I stumbled upon this.

Yes, as Mark mentioned, I'm very interested in getting involved with next year's planning. I've emailed Jack Bell, who chaired PL21, reminding him that I'm standing by, and strongly hinting that there are several others (all of you) who would likely be very supportive as well.

I think that the more ideas we can bring to the table, early in the process, the better.

I've been in touch with Mark and Lana Ayers (someone I met at a couple of the CW 1-day workshops) by email, but I'd like to get the discussion going in a more inclusive venue.

Is Google+ good with everyone? Drop me an email if you see this and you're interested: [my first name] dot [my last name] at gmail dot com.

I'll start a circle with as many potentially interested people as I can find and we can start scheming, dreaming, etc.

on Wednesday, February 29th, Puss in Boots said:


I think Potlatch's only obligation is to try and get more new people to show up--regardless of age--because having Potlatch "virgins" would stimulate the exchange of ideas! I think if there's a large enough number of New Nerds, they'll integrate more easily.

That said, I'm highly in favor of your idea of adding a nano-program right at the beginning (maybe even as a "sample" nano-program written by the con) inviting new members to meet and discuss why they decided to attend and how they found out about the convention, etc. That was brilliant.

And everyone take all of this with a grain of salt. No, more like a whole dry crunchy spoonful. I don't know crap about marketing for or organizing conventions--I'm just opining wildly, like a monkey with too many projectiles to resist throwing some around. Duck!

on Wednesday, February 29th, JS Bangs said:

I'm glad to hear that you got to Potlatch this year and had fun! I think you've described pretty well the vibe that I got from the years I attended: cool people all around, but the young 'uns had a hard time breaking into the social circles of the old 'uns.

Fortunately, the younger folk were pretty cool, so I didn't miss too much. But I think you're right: having some kind of programming or explicit goal to make cross-generational relationships possible would be *awesome* for Potlatch, or almost any other con, and I think that it'd be great if you could encourage something like that in the future.

on Thursday, March 1st, santo26 said:

Wow- it's great to know my blog post has spurred so much discussion!
@Mark: It was great to meet you as well and look forward to taking you up on the lunch offer.

@Micaiah: That's great that you are interested in taking up the planning cause. I will definitely get in contact with you. Are you planning for a Bay Area Potlatch or a Seattle one?

@PussInBoots: Your crunchy grain of salt is just the kind of thing that Potlatch needs to enhance its flavor. I'm looking forward to hearing your "Nerd Freeze" revelation story sometime!

@JS Bangs: Great to hear from you! I hope that we can maybe take these observations and ramblings and create something positive for the next Potlatch.

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