Friends and Fun at Potlatch 21

Last weekend I attended Potlatch, a literary sci-fi/fantasy convention in Seattle. It was a small convention, with only a couple hundred attendees; in fact, it was easily the smallest con I’ve ever been to. I mean, there was only one panel going at a time! Crazy!

That said, it was a fun weekend. As I make more friends and get to know people in the Seattle genre writing scene, faces are becoming more familiar, and local cons are becoming less intimidating from a social anxiety perspective. Fellow writing group members Folly Blaine and Mark Edwards were there, and I met a lot of folks at the Writing Workshop, which was probably the highlight of the weekend.

This was my first time attending a writing workshop at a con, and I’m glad I did. There was a little rockiness in the planning stages– apparently Potlatch didn’t expect more than a few people to sign up, because only one author, David Levine, was lined up to lead it. But eleven people signed up, which means they had to get a second session going. Luckily, author and Nebula-nominee Vylar Kaftan stepped up to help, and the workshop was able to proceed (although three sessions probably would have been even better than two).

I was in Vylar’s session, along with Mark, Brian LeBlanc, Caszie Schroeder, and Kelly Horn. Over the course of two hours, we did a Clarion-style critique session, in which we took turns giving feedback on each person’s story. It’s always interesting to do a critique session with new people, both to read different styles of stories and to hear how other people approach giving critiques. (Note to self: do a separate blog post about critiques sometime.) Vylar also had some great feedback on each story, and the overall discussion was really fun– the only downside was that we had to rush to get through it all in two hours.

As far as sci-fi conventions go, Potlatch is a bit unusual in that anyone can sign up to be on panels– you don’t necessarily need to have a bunch of short stories under your belt or be the most experienced in order to join a panel on a given subject. And this was not a detriment– in fact, I’d say that having less experienced authors added an interesting voice to some of the panels that you don’t usually hear. Maybe I’ll sign up for a panel myself next year, if I can force back my anxiety long enough to contemplate it in anything more than the abstract.

Potlatch is closely tied to Clarion West, and on Saturday night there was an auction to raise money for scholarships. (For those who don’t know, Clarion West is a six week writers’ workshop held at University of Washington each year for science fiction and fantasy writers– but it’s expensive, at about $3,000 per person.) It was the first time I’ve ever bid in an auction, and it was pretty fun. I walked away with some old science fiction magazines, and signed books by Jack Skillingstead and Octavia Butler. Good times. I later heard that they raised at least enough for one full scholarship, which is awesome.

The crowd at Potlatch did skew a bit older than at most cons, which isn’t a bad thing, although it did mean that some of the panel discussions tended to focus on older rather than newer stories. In the panel on “Collapse Fiction”, about post-apocalyptic worlds in science fiction and fantasy, most of the examples cited were fairly dated– again, not a bad thing per se. Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick are awesome authors who should absolutely be read by anyone who loves the genre. But for new and aspiring authors, wanting to learn about current trends, it’s more useful to look at authors in the past few years– Scott Westerfeld or Suzanne Collins, for example– to get a sense of where the genre is and where it’s going. It took a question from a younger audience member to move the discussion toward present day.

The generation gap was also evident in the Friday night trivia contest, which focused on the history of Potlatch and Clarion West, and mostly asked questions which would only ever be known by people who had been immersed in the local community for decades. Which is all well and good if you’ve been attending Potlatch for twenty years, but for those of us who haven’t (aka my entire team), it was a beatdown. We consoled ourselves by seeing how silly we could make our answers, but by the end, our team name (“The Redshirts”) felt unfortunately apropos.

But all in all, it was a fun weekend. Lots of good conversations, some great panels, and once again I walked away with more books than will actually fit in my apartment (thanks largely to the table where they were selling paperbacks for a dollar each). Despite my kvetching about social anxiety, conventions are fun, and if I go for a few months without one, I really start to miss the energy and creativity I feel from simply being in the vicinity of dozens of other writers. In that sense, Potlatch was a rousing success.

Hopefully next year I won’t have to pull an all-nighter for work on Saturday night. That made for an interesting mental state on Sunday, but the sleep deprivation was totally worth it.


One sad note: we got word during the con that a local author and longtime member of the community, Mark Bourne, passed away on Saturday. Unfortunately, I never got to meet Mark, but I just wanted to pass along my condolences to his family and friends, many of whom were at Potlatch this weekend.

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