Two hundred and fifty buzzing literati from across Canada—writers, storytellers, translators, booksellers, publishers, and directors of literary organizations—settled in at tables of ten in an underground conference room at the McGill New Residence. Around the perimeter were the impresarios of this unprecedented two-day extravaganza: the team from the Canada Council for the Arts. The ambitious goal of the gathering, dubbed the National Forum on the Literary Arts, was to establish a manageable handful of priorities for addressing the challenges facing the literary ecosystem. This seemed a worthy goal, but it quickly became apparent that the single greatest challenge was getting people to see themselves as members of a group with common interests rather than lobbyists for the segments of the community they represented. At the end of two days, we had a list of what must have been over a hundred “priorities,” so, as one fellow at my table put it, no priorities at all.
A few weeks later, I headed off to Banff for another two-day conference, the National Summit of Writers’ Associations. This one brought together a more cohesive group, the directors of Canada’s provincial writers’ organizations, the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Writers’ Trust of Canada, who organized the event. The schmoozing was great, as it had been in Montreal. But more than that, we gloried in finding one another. Most of us had been working in silos, with no peers or mentors. Imagine the thrill of finding ourselves among “our peeps” for the first time, with hours and hours for in-depth discussion of what we do and how we do it. Imagine the relief of finally getting answers to those pesky questions we’d carried around for years; the pleasure of providing helpful suggestions to our less experienced colleagues. Every item on the agenda was apt. Every contact made promised concrete mutual benefits.
And the payoffs have already begun to roll in: since returning to my desk, I’ve sent QWF’s “literary dinners” documentation to my new colleague in Saskatchewan, who is interested in setting up a similar fundraising initiative; I’ve answered an SOS from my New Brunswick counterpart, putting him in touch with a YA literature juror from Montreal when one of the people he’d lined up pulled out at the last minute; we’ve begun to talk about a 2016 national writers’ “super-conference” that would include other groups like the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers; the League of Canadian Poets; and the Professional Writers Association of Canada. We’ve also set up a calendar to share information about when our writers are traveling to each other’s provinces, a practice I hope will lead to more variety in QWF’s one-day workshop offerings as well as more out-of-town opportunities for our members to lead workshops and promote their new books.
So what to make of the difference between these two conferences, both admirable in intention, but—to my mind, at least—miles apart in impact? My take-away is this: even in a group of people with similar values, it’s hard to let go of your own point of view and see yourself as a single cell of something larger. In Banff, we didn’t have to sacrifice anything to see anyone else’s point of view because it was our point of view. Each one of us immediately understood the mutual benefit of collaboration and everyone glowed with enthusiasm for building on what we’d started. But most of time when we work in groups, we need to work hard to find the core of what unites us.
Only then can we agree on priorities and begin to put them into action.
Lori Schubert is the Executive Director of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.