Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Tackling writer's block at the Japan Writers Conference

by Rebecca Saunders

Contributing Writer

(Due to the pending arrival of Typhoon Hagibis, the Japan Writers Conference has canceled all activities on Saturday, Oct. 12. Some seminars and workshops may be held on Sunday, Oct. 13, instead. For updates, visit www.japanwritersconference.org.)

Fancy yourself a writer? Then you might want to pay a visit to the Japan Writers Conference taking place in Tokyo this weekend. It’s free of charge and open to anyone who’d like to sharpen up their writing skills, hone their prose, or learn tips and tricks from other writers and industry professionals.

Currently in its 13th year, the conference has garnered a reputation for being a welcoming place where writers are able to meet and share stories and techniques. Taking place annually in various places around Japan, this year’s Tokyo location may see a boost in attendance, thanks to its centrality (the event took place in Otaru, Hokkaido, last year).

The event spans two days, and includes lectures and workshops that delve into various aspects of the writing process from learning about how science can be used to tell a story in “The Science in Storytelling” presented jointly by writer and astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker and science writer Amanda Alvarez, to practical tips from music writer Steve McClure on how to conduct an interview in “The Art of the Interview.”

Pens across Japan

The first Japan Writers Conference took place at Tokyo’s Ochanomizu University in 2007. Since then, poet John Gribble has been involved in organizing the event for 11 of its 13 years so far.

“It grew legs of its own right from the start,” Gribble says. “After the first conference there was a group of us who thought, ‘This is great, this is wonderful!’ After that, we moved to Nagoya and then, the following year, Kyoto.”

Addressing a hankering to feed and guide the country’s English-language writing community, the small team of organizers aim to provide a regular space in which creative thinkers can meet and share ideas.

“There are pockets of writers everywhere,” says Gribble. “There is, as you know, certainly an active writing culture here in Tokyo. But there are also pockets in Kobe, up in the north, down in Okinawa — we met a lot of people there.”

Rather than being Tokyo-centric, the team behind Japan Writers Conference moves the event around yearly to ensure that everybody gets a chance to attend. More than that, though, Gribble says the creative experience varies from region to region.

This year’s conference is hosted by Tokyo-based essayist and author Michael Pronko, who is also a professor of American literature at Meiji Gakuin University, where the event is taking place.

“Writing is a lonely business,” Pronko says. “It’s something you discuss after too many drinks as opposed to something that you put out front. (The conference is) a great opportunity for everybody to share the pain in writing.

“There are a lot of writers in Japan, and a lot of wannabe writers, too. … That term, ‘wannabe,’ sounds bad but I mean it in a very positive way because I was one for years. ”

The small, community-centric conference is intended to be a low-key exchange of ideas and techniques rather than a place to indulge in self-promotion.

“Everybody has a chance to hand their books around and things like that,” says Pronko, “but I’ve never got the impression that people are just there for another step in their career or something.”

Gribble and Pronko both agree that Japan has a solid community of writers and believe this can be attributed to the kind of people that this country tends to attract. According to Pronko, “People want to articulate their experience in Japan.”

With many people coming from overseas to work here as English teachers, or simply being drawn to the country by everything from anime to Zen Buddhism, the non-Japanese population tends to be creative and tuned in to both traditional and pop culture.

Go in with a plan

The conference boasts 48 speakers, 34 talk sessions and six workshops. So what’s the best way to tackle such a lineup?

“I could go through all of these things and say why they’re interesting,” says Gribble. “Look over the schedule, look over the abstract, it’s 25 pages. We’re not printing it out. Go over it, mark the ones you think you want to go to — ahead of time.”

Pronko agrees that a little prior planning can help and adds that it also helps to look up seminar presenters because they have taken different paths in their careers.

While seminars are easy to attend on the day, some workshops require pre-registration (another reason to plan ahead). There will also be some activities outside the workshop, the monthly Nerd Nite event at Nagatacho Grid will indulge in a literary edition with “The Official JWC Friday-Night-Before-the-Conference Gathering,” which starts at 8 p.m. on Oct. 11. A meet-and-mingle for attendees, the night will also feature novelist Evan Fallenberg who will be speaking ahead of his appearance at the conference itself with a talk titled, “Sex on the Page: How Writers Deal with Writing the Sex Scene.” A book-ahead Saturday night buffet at Harvesterrace Restaurant in Shinagawa features another opportunity for meeting writers outside the event setting.

“This is not a literary conference, we’re not talking about symbolism in novels,” Gribble asserts. “I did not learn to write from studying literature. I remember beating my head against the wall on that (idea) when I was an undergrad back in the 1960s and early ’70s. The thing I cared about was how you do this, and that was never part of the discussion in English major courses.”

Pronko agrees, “Unlike the many dedicated literary groups that are running in Japan, this conference is all about how to write, how to write better, how to present — how do I do this?

“The part of the conference that I really like is hearing people stumble through having to talk about and articulate the process of writing. It’s not an easy thing to explain but having a place to do it is really helpful to writers wherever they are in the writing game.”

The first time Pronko attended the conference a few years ago, he admits he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“Before I left for the train I remember saying to my wife, ‘I’m not going to hang out with these writers, man, they think they know everything,'” he says. “But it turned out that it was people talking about what they’re doing in a really direct way — there’s no ‘I’m the great writer and here’s the method to follow.'”

Participants won’t necessarily be learning the obvious. Rather than being told, “Here’s how you do it,” the advice being given is more the speakers imparting their own experiences and it’s up to participants to take away what they think can help.

“You might be sitting in somebody’s session saying, ‘I don’t want to be a stringer with the newspaper,’ but the way that person organizes his or her life to do that work is very apropos to anybody who wants to seriously pursue writing,” Gribble says. It’s a lot of “cross-pollination,” as he puts it.

Taking what you need

The thing with attending a well-established conference in a place where people already know each other is that it can seem off-putting to outsiders, especially fledgling writers. Turning up somewhere new can be hard enough, but to be confident in your work and abilities among your peers is another thing entirely.

Gribble says he has tried to make sure that the conference is a very unassuming and open space for everybody.

“This is a sharing thing, rather than somewhere to be spoken down to,” he says.

It’s that exact sentiment that encouraged Japan Times columnist Baye McNeil to follow a path of self-publishing after first attending the conference back in 2011.

“I left feeling optimistic, informed and inspired. The following year I self-published my first book, utilizing the principles and insight I’d learned,” McNeil says via email. “Ever since then, when possible, I either attend or myself present at the JWC. I want to inspire and advise other writers the way I’d been. That’s what it’s all about to me.”

McNeil will be presenting a short lecture titled “What Skills and Expertise are Essential to a Successful Writing Career in Japan” on Oct. 12 at 2 p.m.

Informative as much as informal, the Japan Writers Conference is a friendly and welcoming event. Not only is it free to attend, it’s free in spirit. Workshops and seminars can be engaged with as much as the attendee feels like.

“People walk in, walk out. If it doesn’t fit, then they just kind of head back out. Open and porous,” as Pronko puts it, “there’s new people every time.”

The big question, however, remains: Has the conference helped Pronko himself become a better writer?

“Without question,” he replies. “When I listen to some talks I think, ‘Well, I wouldn’t do it that way, but maybe I’ll take that idea’ and when I’m sitting in the really good talks I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man, of course!’ and I’m writing it all down.

“And when I’ve been in past presentations I can see the light bulb go off in other people’s heads, too!”

With over a decade of events and thoughtful discussions, expertise and know-how, helping writers across Japan, this year’s event aims to continue a legacy and build its community. But when asked what Gribble considers the real success of the conference, he replies with a laugh, “That it’s still going!”

The Japan Writers Conference takes place on the fourth floor of the main building at the Shirokane Campus of Meiji Gakuin University in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 12 and 13. For more information, visit www.japanwritersconference.org.

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