The Austin Writers' League Writer's Resource

What do James Michener, a Bosnian refugee, Texas First Lady Laura Bush, a Parisian screenwriter, and a Mexico City study group
have in common? They all belong to the Austin Writers' League, the local literary guild that's come a long way from its inception in 1981. The League's current membership -- 1,600 strong, with writers ranging in age from six to 105 -- boasts representation worldwide.

"We have a group of six Syrian writers who are members coming to attend the meeting this month," says executive director Angela Smith, "And last month we had someone come from India, and a writer from Germany come."

A slight, white-haired woman with an encouraging smile, Smith has become a kind of a mother figure to wordsmiths both aspiring and prestigious, a nurturer who supports and promotes her progeny through the variety of services the Austin Writers' League (AWL) provides. Her valiant efforts have helped to make the AWL the largest regional writing group in Texas, and one of the largest in the country, second only to the well-known Washington Independent Writers after which it was modeled. Now, too, as the only literary arts association with the means to take over, AWL will have the added responsibility of dispersing funding formerly granted by the Texas Commission on the Arts. Since funding is one of the League's constant concerns, the monies will be going into hands knowledgeable about surviving on grants both public and private.

"We receive funding from the City's Cultural Contracts office, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and from the corporate community as well; [and] we get a grant from the Lannan Foundation," Smith explains. "Of course, money also comes from individual members of the community, membership dues, and fees charged for classes and workshops."

Aside from numerous classes on subjects such as writing query letters and book proposals, and workshops in screenwriting and journalism (in March, Zod Wallop author William Browning Spencer will present "Beginning the Novel" and novelist/NPR commentator and Chronicle contributor Marion Winik will discuss the personal essay), the biggest service the Austin Writers' League offers is an opportunity to network. Networking, and diligent tech support; Smith and her two-person staff take from 500-1,000 calls monthly from writers wondering how to get something copyrighted, how to acquire an agent, or how to find the perfect illustrator for their children's book. If the staff can't answer a question immediately, they research it, making the AWL something of an expert source on the publishing industry.

An onsite job bank at the League offices listing freelance and employment opportunities is a popular reason for joining -- Smith says she has a hard time keeping office volunteers because, so often while taking listings over the phone, they get hired away. And they're not all tech-writing positions either. One year, the king of Morocco contacted the League wanting a writer to cover his annual golf tournament. It turned out to be an incredible opportunity for Austin writer Jim Apfelbaum, author of Golf on $30 a Day or Less and the newsletter Bottom Dollar Golf. The King was so pleased with Apfelbaum's visit that he sent for six Writers' League writers to come on the same junket this year. "It was an amazing experience both years," says Apfelbaum, who returned to Morocco with the second group. "Nobody who went has actually sold the story, but I've used the experience a number of times for other things."

Another aspect of the League worthy of national attention is its annual Violet Crown Book Awards. Three published books win the $1,000 prizes yearly -- one in the fiction genre, a non-fiction work, and a literary title including poetry and short-story anthologies. Awards bring stand-out recognition to a work, and the Violet Crowns have become a very desirable ambition.

"People have joined the League just to be eligible for the book awards. Non-League members judge the entries and it's getting harder and harder to find judges," she chuckles, but it's apparent that with the League's reach, this could become a real problem. This March, Laura Bush will present for the AWL their first Teddy Award to an outstanding children's book.

Still, it's that daily support and the networking opportunities that makes Writers' League so invaluable. The in-house library houses over 1,000 resource titles on the subject of writing and publishing, and Smith supplies counseling on writing careers. The library and the monthly meetings are open to the public (100-200 members attend these meetings, depending on the subject matter -- the March 21 meeting will host Jeff Abbott, the 1995 Agatha Award winner), and Smith makes it clear almost to the point of over-concern that the League doesn't discriminate.

"We try to be as accessible as we can, we never turn away anyone who says they can't afford a membership or can't afford a workshop registration." Smith's tone has become more serious, as if the League has been accused of elitist practices. "We have scholarships we offer through the Adopt-a-Writer program, and anyone is welcome to apply for those. We would never turn away anyone because they were financially restricted in any way," she reiterates.

Writers' League services include the monthly newsletter Austin Writer, containing a listing of upcoming classes and seminars, a note from Angela Smith herself, and regular columns dealing with the business and practice of writing. This newsletter has done the most to dispel the notion that the League is elitist: its articles are voluntarily submitted, and it has kind of an amateur look to it, both comforting and at the same time disclaiming its projected professional status. But the League doesn't have to defend itself here, because it makes no bones that it caters as much to hobbyists as it does to Pulitzer Prize winners.

"We have members that are barely literate and members who have won the American Book Award," Smith states proudly. "We don't discourage anybody from writing here." And although some would contend that there will always be writers who perhaps should be discouraged from pursuing a literary career, that's not what the Writers' League is all about. The AWL's more successful writers remain members because they are either still benefiting from it or feel an obligation to repay the league for their successes.

Smith doesn't know exactly how many published writers there are in town, but estimates that of the 1,600 members of the Writers League, half are published. "And half of those have been published since joining," she adds. The smaller study groups, of which there are various genres (the science fiction/fantasy group has over 200 members), especially help to get new writers discovered. Published authors with similar interests see something they like and let their agents know what's out there.

"It happens all the time," Smith says. "The Trashy Paperback writers group -- that's Mary Willis Walker's group -- all those people now have the same agent."

In the same way that the relationship among writers is a two-way street, so is it between the League and its members. Smith makes it plain they couldn't make do without the writers giving something back. Sarah Bird, an original member of the AWL and winner of the first Violet Crown award for her novel The Mommy Club, gave the check back to the League after she won it. "Sara considers herself a founding mother, and gives us a lot of credit for her successes," Smith says.

Bird, an organizer of the legendary pre-League backyard potlucks with "writers, poets, and weirdos," concurs. "Even though I prefer the original potluck thing to the folding-chair format, the Writers' League has remained wonderfully democratic -- it's a real valuable organization."

And what of the popular criticism that the Writers' League is just a bunch of blue-haired West Austin literary wannabes with nothing better to do?

"That is one attitude," says Bird. "But writers like Mary Willis Walker and Lars Eighner are very active in the League, and I certainly wouldn't call them wannabes."

"I just tell people it's there," says Jim Apfelbaum, now writing an online golf column for America Online. It's an opportunity he feels he wouldn't have gotten without the Writers' League: "I'm not usually a joiner, but I'm very enthusiastic about the League because they've helped me so much."

That statement in itself is total validation for Smith, whose apparent love for the job really is maternal. "Austin is incredible as a resource for the writing community. It's just unbelievable. Every day I have a chance to work with an eclectic membership of great writers and see how they grow. Our oldest member, Bess Whitehead Scott, now 105, was first published at age 99, and 11-year-old Han Hong, who recently published her first book, now has a national reputation."

With the burgeoning Internet industry providing previously unforeseen opportunity for writers, and Texas' first state book fair planned in November, the League is bound to be busier this year than they ever have. But for any writer who is overwhelmed by the never-ending shelves of published works, certain that there is no room to squeeze in one more thin book, or even one more word, the Austin Writers' League will still have time to do all they can to convince them otherwise. n The Austin Writers' League is located at 1501 W. Fifth, next to the Children's Museum. Call 499-8914 for membership information.

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