I got most of my "writing education" through attending school for writing and I went to more academic writing conferences like AWP (Associated Writing Programs). These were definitely fun, though usually more than half of the panels didn't apply to me because they were about poetry or ummm something super literary that honestly made me feel dumb and like my books were fluff. But one of my coolest conference experiences was being on an AWP panel in 2009 when it was here in Chicago that was about pop culture and literature and (I believe) proved that if you write about superheroes or rock stars or make references to B-movies, your books can be just as interesting and powerful as those uber-literary books (in fact I'd say more interesting, but that's just me.)
I also enjoyed the socializing aspect of these conferences, though um... at 2 out of the three AWP conferences I attended, I enjoyed it too much, and got way too drunk with my literary friends and missed things I wanted to see because I was hungover. But um.... hopefully I've learned that lesson.
But definitely my ultimate conference moment was meeting my agent. This happened at a very small conference that my writing program at Columbia College Chicago puts on annually called Story Week Festival of Writers. It lasts a week and there are readings and panels with authors as well as people in the industry like agents and editors. All of the events are free and open to the public, but the advantage to being a Columbia student is that the teachers handpick some students to meet with the Story Week guests. In the past I'd gotten to meet with author John McNally, who in a half hour session, showed me how to inject humor into my darker stories to make them more accessible and also make the darker sides have more impact. John and I actually went on to become friends and he was the one who later helped me plan that AWP panel on pop culture. Then I'd also gotten to meet with Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, who also gave me some great feedback and that was pretty much what I thought I was going to get when I was told that I'd be meeting with agent Caren Johnson, who at the time was with Peter Rubie (now she goes by her married name Caren Estesen and runs her own agency Caren Johnson Literary Agency).
Caren read the first chapter of what would become I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and I entered the office she occupied hesitantly with a notebook at the ready. The first words out of her mouth were, "I loved this. I want it. When can it be done?"
I was two-thirds of the way through the book at that point and seriously having writer's block. But as it was March, I decided a summer would give me enough time, so I told her, "Umm Labor Day?"
The cool thing was that she wanted my friend Katie's book, too, so I had someone to celebrate with. She took the two of us out to lunch and I stepped out of the academic world and started to learn about real writing industry stuff for the first time. I danced around giddily at Story Week's best event, Literary Rock N Roll, where writers read from the stage of Chicago's greatest rock venue, The Metro. (And if I ever get invited to do that event, it might become a top conference memory.) I felt like I was living in a dream world. I knew that this was not how authors generally found agents, so it seemed like a Cinderella story.
Of course, the part of the Cinderella story we never hear is how Cinderella's married life with the prince actually works out and how she adjusts to going from living among the ashes and evil step-sisters to being royalty. I'm sure it wasn't all happily-ever-afters and of course neither was my journey. I did a lot of hard work and revisions for Caren before she decided the manuscript was ready to shop, a little less than a year after I met her, and it was more than two years after I met her that I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE actually sold. During that time, Caren changed agencies and opened her own, Caren Johnson Literary Agency, but she always stuck by me and continued to encourage me when it seemed like IWBYJR wasn't going to sell. She believed in the book more than I did at times.
So I didn't just meet an agent that was interested, I met an agent who was truly passionate about my work and really believed in me... and honestly now that I think about it, I don't believe any other conference experience *could* top that, even being invited to be a part of Literary Rock N Roll. I was invited to read at the Harold Washington Library as part of Story Week, which was a huge honor and what made it even better was they had Caren back that year, so she got to attend my event and go to dinner with me, my mom, and my critique partner afterwards. That was another cool moment.
So my conclusion is that conferences are definitely worth it, even the little local ones--maybe especially those, since you never know who you'll meet!