Writers Unite: Navigating the Craft at the English-Speaking Japan Writers Conference

Since 2007, the Japan Writers Conference (JWC) continues to be the meeting place for English-speaking writers to share insights, experiences, and a passion for the written word. It is also the venue for book lovers and aspiring writers to speak with celebrated poets and novelists, and to meet peers on the same wavelength. Held this year at Sugiyama Jogakuen University, where over a hundred people attended, many of the JWC 2023 presentations seemed to gravitate towards exploring “how to cope with the need to write.” Here are some highlights.

Elizabeth Coll’s lecture on oral narrative told the story of how, as the nonfiction author Jean Stein’s assistant, she fell in love with Stein’s approach to interviewing, coaxing side characters to reveal the main character’s story, instigating disagreements on tape, transcribing books of handwritten notes, and assembling conversations in a manner that challenges journalistic ethics with scissors and glue sticks—all to create oral-narrative masterpieces. Ever since Stein’s death in 1997 by suicide, Elizabeth has had the urge to share what she witnessed with writers at large.

Suzanne Kamata’s lecture discussed blurbs as a necessary evil. Starting writers must choose the right person to ask, craft the perfect email, endure heartless rejections or typo-ridden/irrelevant lines, rinse and repeat. And just when enough blurbs have been collected, they must restart from the other side, writing blurbs for others. But fear not, advised Suzanne. Be thoughtful and resilient when asking, and be kind and accountable when writing; persevere, and these nightmarish lines will turn into testaments to one’s growth, and a means to help the next generation.

Journey into the Writing Life

Authorship on display: Books by conference presenters await exploration on the table.

In a group reading session, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s prose took listeners on a mad dash through darkness in and out of consciousness, fighting against both the disease taking over her body and the medical device designed to snatch her back with everything she’s got: courage, humor, profanity, resignation. And while I listened to her describe the savagery of cancer like screams behind closed doors I could not help but wonder how much joy she must have had the moment she realized every word she had been working on was perfect, strung together the right way, and fixed onto a surface. That night she must have slept that much better.

In his lecture on how to build an AI writing toolkit, Feral Rizvi confirmed that AI is in the room sitting with us. Yes, AI looms with pros and cons. And yes, AI could cause some of your writing muscles to atrophy while generating unimaginable amounts of garbage emulations and replicas that will choke the human spirit out of the cultural landscape for the foreseeable post-AI generations. But what if AI was the only way to save you a little time trying to find the perfect words, string them together the right way, and put them down on paper to describe your pain? Would you then take it?

Christopher Simons's lecture "Lyric to Song, and Song to Lyrics."

In the relaxed and convivial atmosphere of JWC 2023, writers of all genres eagerly shared anecdotes. Here are some responses to the question “when and how did you realize you are a writer?”

Suzanne Kamata, novelist, educator and editor: “I loved writing since childhood. I guess all children love writing when they’re introduced to it. I just never grew out of it.”

Felicity Tillack, screenwriter: “I clicked on the keyboard of my dad’s laptop and typed words. I knew then I had to become a writer. I even prayed for it. Now I make movies so I can write.”

Coffee (Jennifer Hammer), author and game narrator: “I realized in fourth grade that the stories in my head could be written and shared, and ever since I feel anxious when I don’t write. It’s a condition.”

Iain Maloney, novelist, educator, and JWC 2023 host: “I was 10 or 11. I wrote a poem about trees, a relative sent it out, and it got published. That’s how it all started.” 

The JWC is always looking for universities or other institutions to host its events. Persons interested in hosting JWC 2024 or later can email at japanwritersconference@gmail.com. We invite you to visit the official website for the latest developments.

(Photos by Patrick Han)

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