If you will be speaking to writers, unless you were asked to do so, it's doubtful that the organizers want you to give an "author talk" or a bookstore "book signing talk" where you share your journey on how you became an author. Of course, you will reference what you know, but this isn't about you; it's about your audience.
And who is that audience at a workshop or conference? Other writers. Writers listening to other writers want practical helps to take home. Think about what in your experience can encourage or inspire them. Think about what you've learned that someone else might be able to use. What practical tips can you share? What do you continue to struggle with?
One of the things I've found that people appreciate in a workshop is good handouts. They might be a copy of an article on the topic at hand, internet resources, a page of info they'll probably want so they don't have to scribble fast, a booklist for further reading.
Think about this tweet quote from Erin Bow: "BTW, the complete stack of MS for PLAIN KATE, which I use as a prop for my HS writing presentations, just *barely* fit in one suitcase." (I know I've used this quote before.) Is she taking that large stack of manuscript pages to say "look how great I am" or is she taking it to show that writing a good book is hard work? I'm guessing the latter.
If you've heard writers speak at conferences and events, you've probably been disappointed at the ones who seem to have an ego larger than the stage. Keep your ego in check.
When a conference or event organizer gives you a topic and you agree to speak on that topic, don't cheat and not give that talk. Yes, I know you may be asked way in advance to choose a title, but that's a burden you should bear, not your audience. Attendees will be most likely be disappointed if they come to hear about "A" and are given "K" instead, no matter how good your speech is.
Of course, sometimes authors are asked to give an inspirational speech or keynote. If that's the case you probably will mention some parts of your journey as that's the one you know best. I saw good examples during keynotes at the SCBWI 2011 LA Conference (on tweetchat go to #LA11SCBWI for quotes and comments and/or go to the official SCBWI blog for a taste of the conference.)
Here are a few "thumbs up" tidbits from the conference:
Bruce Coville gave us 13 practical tips on "How to move in the world as a writer," many of which he illustrated from his life. I loved his story of how he and Paula Danziger pledged to each other: if you don't write 3 pages tomorrow, you will have to endure unendurable shame. At the end of his talk, Bruce said, "Don't start with a message. Start instead with your good heart." I'm so thankful that Bruce has a good heart and has been willing to share his wisdom and insights over the years.
David Small made us cry with tears of sympathy for the abuse of his childhood shown in his illustrated book Stitches, which has been a voice for others who don't have a "voice." After being the downer of the morning, according to David himself, he said, "I'm going to be the upper." He gave us a hysterical visual view of book signings in chain versus independent bookstores. I'm thankful for the memories I'll carry with me from his talk.
Libba Bray had us in a different kind of stitches--laughter--from the get go of her keynote as she talked about "Writing It All Wrong: a Writer's Survival Guide." But it wasn't just sharing humor of how-she-did-it- wrong, she also gave some practical suggestions. The one that has been retweeted a lot is, "Your book is in there buried under the one you hate."
Judy Blume and Laurie Halse Anderson both talked about their unhappiness before they became writers. How could we not be inspired by what they shared from their lives? Laurie reminded us we shouldn't do so many writing related activities that we don't write. (I'm sometimes guilty as charged!) Judy said, "The first draft is finding the pieces to the puzzle. The next draft is putting the pieces together." She believes technology has made that harder as it's too easy to go back and edit before the first draft is finished. Since Laurie's keynote was the closing one of the conference, she ended with, "Go forth laughing and disturb the universe!"
These "big name" speakers ably demonstrated the purpose of their talks was to encourage, enlighten, inspire, and challenge their listeners. If we are asked to do those things, great. However, if we are asked to teach on a topic, we should teach.
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