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Strength in Numbers
The League of Utah Writers offers support for the often-lonely work of writing.

By Scott Renshaw

The creative life of a writer is generally a solitary affair. In the words of author Gene Fowler, "All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." And while the technology of the 21st century generally means staring at a computer cursor rather than paper, it can feel pretty lonely waiting for those drops of blood to turn into sentences.

Writers groups have long been a way to combat that isolation, offering places for people to share and improve their work, or simply find sympathetic ears for the struggles of creating stories. Author Johnny Worthen—currently the president of the League of Utah Writers—has committed himself to creating a place where writers of all skill levels can work together at creating the art that calls to them. "We try to be supportive because one in a thousand of us will ever make money at this," Worthen says. "One in 10,000 will make a living. But the rest of us can still be a community."

Worthen, a graduate of the University of Utah who now teaches continuing education classes there, took a long journey of his own toward writing full time and finding that supportive community. At one time an entrepreneur who owned his own company processing drug tests, he found his business on thin ice after losing a contract with the state of Utah. "I looked at my wish list and said, 'The only thing I've ever wanted to be that I haven't been yet is a writer,'" he says. "I had a war chest built up, so I started writing." Seven published novels later, he describes himself as "six years into my 10-year plan to be an overnight success."

Even after getting published, however, Worthen found himself searching for networking opportunities, both to improve his writing and to address the practical business considerations of getting work out into the world. After attending out-of-state conferences, he eventually became aware of the League of Utah Writers, an organization that was founded in 1935. He dove right into getting involved, winning the group's Writer of the Year award, giving a keynote speech at its annual conference and ultimately becoming part of the executive committee.

Worthen describes the LUW as "a loose federal structure, with strong states." The organization's website currently lists 29 individual chapters, sometimes organized by geographical location, sometimes by focus on a specific writing area, like poetry or non-fiction. Worthen is a member of a South Jordan-based chapter called The Infinite Monkeys, which focuses on speculative and genre fiction. "I wanted everyone to know, let's not take ourselves too seriously," Worthen says about the choice of the chapter's name. "How can you take yourself too seriously when you call yourself monkeys?"

Every chapter is unique, Worthen emphasizes, not just in its area of focus, but in the way its participants choose to run gatherings. Infinite Monkeys meetings, for example, might include somewhere around 40 attendees, and include a guest speaker to address writing and business tips. Then there's time for people to share pieces that their working on with a small group, and receive feedback. "We're mostly creative," Worthen says. "We will do some marketing stuff, a little symposium on the side. For the most part, though, it's about how to write the best stuff you can. Then, when you're ready to query, we'll talk about that."

click to enlarge Johnny Worthen (center right) participates in a live critique for attendees at League of Utah Writers’ 2018 Quills Conference - BOB CAREY
  • Bob Carey
  • Johnny Worthen (center right) participates in a live critique for attendees at League of Utah Writers’ 2018 Quills Conference

While each chapter approaches that process of critiquing each other's works in a different way, Worthen believes that mutual encouragement is the most important element when dealing with a field that's full of rejection. "We begin every meeting with how to critique work: Positive suggestions," he says. "If you don't have anything nice to say, then shut up. Reality will hit them soon enough."

The Infinite Monkeys engage in other group efforts beyond the regular meetings. Once a year, several members participate in a weekend retreat in Coalville; Worthen describes it as a "30-person writer sleepover." The group even provided a unique publishing opportunity for its members when they spent a year creating a short story anthology titled The Year of the Monkeys, released in August. The process allowed writers to go through the entire process of editing, proofreading, deciding on a cover, pricing and marketing, providing skills that are needed in an era when many writers self-publish.

In addition to his work with his own chapter, Worthen's role as president means helping organize the LUW's Quills Conference, held each year in August. The recently completed 2018 Quills Conference included panels and programming on every aspect of the writing life—creative and commercial—and included among its presenters writers like Tim Dorsey and Maria V. Snyder, as well as editors, publishing house representatives and literary agents. The organization also gives out awards—including a "New Voices" award available exclusively to someone who has never made money previously as a writer—as a way to provide would-be authors with something to put on their résumés.

Collaborative efforts like this are more important now than they've ever been, Worthen suggests, because the business of publishing has changed so radically over the past decade. "There's not a larger industry in the world made up of amateurs, making it up as they go along," he says. "The biggest agent, the smallest editor, they don't know. The big publishers don't know what to do about Amazon. Amazon doesn't know how to do self-publishing. ... If you're trying to make money at this, it's a whole new ballgame."

But while the business is hard, it's the act of creating itself for which groups like the League of Utah Writers offer the most support. It becomes a place where that lonely work of creating becomes a little less lonely, and where creation is viewed as its own achievement, no matter how—or if—it's ever published. "The League is just a place for you to bring your art, because the chance that you have other people looking at your art is slim," Worthen says. "Hopefully, we provide the support and the understanding of what [writers are] going through. Some people think competitively: write, get published. I don't think that way. I want a community. That's my mantra."

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