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Guest Post: Rachel McMillan, "Room for Everyone" at the L.M. Montgomery Biennial Conference


Last month, Avery Award winner, Michaela Wipond, wrote about her experiences attending the L.M. Montgomery Biennial Conference as a student. Today, author, Rachel McMillan, talks about what it was like to attend the L.M. Montgomery and Gender conference for the first time. McMillan is a history enthusiast, lifelong bibliophile, and author of the Herringford and Watts series. Her new novel,  Murder at the Flamingo (Harper Collins), will be released in July. When not reading (or writing), she can be found at the theatre, traveling near and far and watching far too many British miniseries. Rachel lives in Toronto where she works in educational publishing and is always planning her next trip to Boston. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

I followed the news around the L.M. Montgomery conference for years before attending. Well known scholars whose names graced the spines of my prolific Montgomery collection, an international gathering of minds and ideas and was too nervous to go—I was just an enthusiast. I didn’t have any academic credentials. I didn’t belong.

I was completely wrong, of course.  While the conference presents rigorous research and holds a high academic standard, it is possibly the most accessible literary conference in the world.  There is room for everyone: regardless of academic tenure or background.  For instance, while one of the seminars I attended was given by a noted legal authority on L.M. Montgomery’s legal issues, another presentation was a scathing and tremendously funny look at the historical inaccuracy (and embarrassing storytelling) of the third Kevin Sullivan Anne film.

My other mistake was assuming that it was an Anne of Green Gables focused symposium. Where because of my personal preferences in Montgomery’s work, I wouldn’t have anything to contribute. I was wrong on that front, too.  People talked about Montgomery’s reading life, her poetry, her short stories, her pseudonyms. Others spoke to Magic for Marigold and Jane of Lantern Hill. There was no corner of her broad literary contribution that was left untouched.

I also falsely assumed that I would have the credentials needed to give a paper of my own. What I learned was that the committee is driven by finding topics from a myriad of readers regardless of scholarly background. There is room for every manner of subject and discussion and no one judges on the presence or absence of academic letters ascribed to your name.

I loved standing in the cafeteria line with Jane Urquhart and getting coffee with Elizabeth Epperly. I loved meeting new friends who, like me, were just enthusiastic about talking about and engaging in all things Montgomery. I loved that every last one of my initial perceptions was proved completely wrong. Every last one of my misgivings about attending conference left the moment I arrived. This was a community. I always think that once you find out you have one thing in common with someone, you are destined to find more. The conversations I had and the connections I made still resonate. This community brought out the best of myself and my passion. 

Another favourite part of my experience was staying focused and attuned enough to share my experience in real time on social media. I tweeted and Facebooked and Instagrammed and knew that I was a link in the connection of a larger chain that would bind people who could not make it to PEI.

The conference experience did well to cater to every manner of person and interaction.  There were silent auctions and the ability to get away for a quiet moment. There was no forced socialization, rather an intentional variety of engagement to allow attendees to move and learn at their comfort level.

I wondered more than once what Maud would think should be able to listen through a slightly-open door as we all enthused about her and her work and placed her name in the same scholarly sentences as many of the authors she read and re-read.  I wonder if she would be flattered or amused or just downright giddy with joy that women and men from all over the globe formed a community in her honour.  Community was such an integral part to Maud’s writing.  She coloured the canvas of small towns and cities. She peppered her prose with supporting characters that structured the framework of the importance of neighbourhood. While she often bemoaned her responsibilities as a pastor’s wife to tend to the needs of the community as her position required, I know she respected it.  How wonderful to be able to continue this community –something second nature in her life and her work--- but in a natural, organic and deeply lasting way.

I would encourage anyone who has thought they don’t have anything to offer the bi-annual conference to revisit that notion and then scratch it out and stomp on it. However you engage and whatever level you participate in, you will leave having formed vital friendships, new opinions, and having experienced the best that a group of enthusiastic readers and word-lovers have to offer.