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 Luckily for me, I really hit it off with three fellow younger writers who were in the same "unpublished/barely published" boat and we formed one of the greatest writer's groups in the history of writer's groups, The Shining Creamsicles.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.