On the night before the final day of my first conference, my anxiety was higher than it had been in months.
The first night hadn’t gone as smoothly as I had hoped, work on Friday left me feeling like I’d run a mental marathon, and I was desperate to get all of my typical “Saturday chores” (laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning) done before I went to bed that night since I’d be occupied all day Saturday. To say I was exhausted would have been an understatement.
I attempted to go to bed early, but shortly before turning in, my husband spotted a red spot on my shoulder and asked what I’d been bitten by. I shrugged, saying that I thought the bite was a pimple. But upon further inspection, I realized that there was a large, red circle surrounding the bite, and my anxiety-riddled brain drew the obvious conclusion that I had been bitten by a tick and now had Lyme Disease. (I don’t, BTW. It was probably a bad mosquito or spider bite, but this is how anxiety works). So I spent the next hour crying and scouring my bed sheets for ticks, while simultaneously wondering if my dog had the dreaded disease.
Saturday dawned hazy, hot, and humid, and by some miracle I was up on time and made it to the (much closer) parking garage . . . forty-five minutes early. I used the time to highlight the events on my schedule that I wanted to attend, and kick myself for not deciding to meet with an agent. (Looking back, I’m kind of glad I didn’t pay the extra money for said meeting. This was a conference that focused on non-fiction, and all of my manuscripts are fiction. The majority of my time at this event was spent learning more about the non-fiction world).
Breakfast was a lively affair with no shortage of good food. As I munched on my bagel and fruit salad, I met about a dozen writers, but at this point I was still too nervous to offer up my business card or talk too much about my work. I was also slightly intimidated by two high school girls, aged fifteen and seventeen, who made me feel incredibly old, fat, and unsuccessful by their sheer youth, effortless good looks, and obvious intelligence. I did make sure to tell them not to listen to anyone who doubted their writing dreams, though, as I had been there and done that.
One woman, a retired writing instructor, gave me the name of a local women’s writing group at a nearby college, and I met an older gentleman who agreed to swap manuscripts with me later that morning. We said good-bye as I headed to my first talk of the day, Writing the Tough Stuff, hosted by Jessica Handler.
Jessica blew me away. She shared the experience of writing her memoir, Invisible Sisters, and I found myself tearing up several times while she talked about the emotions of re-living two unspeakable tragedies. Jessica had us do a five-minute free write, shared some invaluable advice, and gave us “homework” to hone in on the most important parts of telling our stories. I took a moment to meet with her afterwards, asking for some advice on how to proceed with the fictionalized account of several traumas I’d experienced the summer I graduated high school. Jessica was incredibly helpful and gracious and I wasted no time in following her on Facebook and putting her book on my reading list.
Next I headed to an informal manuscript swap where I met up with the gentleman I’d had breakfast with. While we did critique each other’s first chapters (his, a memoir, mine, contemporary women’s fiction), I was a bit disappointed that not many more people showed up to take part in this event, but my new writer friend was very complimentary of my work, which I felt really good about. It meant a lot to me that someone WAY outside of my target audience thought so highly of my writing and the story I was telling. As I read his work, though, I realized that I should probably work on becoming a more effective reviewer.
We broke for lunch, and upon my return I sat in on a talk about submitting to literary magazines. I learned about a fantastic website, The Review Review, and got a lot of questions answered about the submission process. I also now have a much bigger list of potential magazines to submit to, and renewed assurance that even professional writers face rejection and frustration. The presenter also stressed the importance of not rushing your submissions – wait until your work is ready. Wait for the right publication.
The next seminar I attended was all about self-promotion and platform building. I was really looking forward to this one so I could up my social media and SEO skills, but the class ended up being more of a basics for beginners. While I didn’t learn much new information, I did realize that I am on the right track when it comes to my Facebook writer page and my blog.
As I made my way to the farewell portion of the conference, I was feeling both reassured and inspired while simultaneously disappointed. I’d definitely gained some important information and connected, however distantly or briefly, with other writers, but I hadn’t given away as many business cards as I’d hoped and only one person read the first chapter of my manuscript.
Just as I was wallowing about not being more outgoing and missing Friday’s events, a woman took a seat next to me and introduced herself. We chatted a bit – she was a writer and instructor – and she asked me for my card! I handed it over, hoping she couldn’t detect my giddiness, and she gave me hers. My new writer friend told me that she’d taught online classes for Creative Nonfiction and also referenced some other websites (including hers) to check out for online courses. I also became Facebook friends with another woman I’d met earlier, so I suppose the networking wasn’t a total loss.
When Creative Nonfiction founder Lee Gutkind took the floor again, he graciously thanked us for attending, then spent plenty of time giving us what we needed most – inspiration. He read us the famous Winston Churchill quote and begged us, pleaded with us, to follow this advice. He reiterated again and again that no matter how long it takes us to get published, no matter how many rejections or rewrites we face, we are not alone in our frustration or isolation. He told us that even if we only ever sell one book, help one person or get one paycheck or pat on the back, then we have done our jobs as writers. Writers, he said, change the world, as our words will still be here long after we have gone.
I’ll readily admit that I teared up a few times during the farewell speech. Because although things didn’t go exactly as planned, and I didn’t get to pitch my book idea to an agent as we ran into each other over breakfast or washed our hands in the ladies room, I realized that I belong at events like this. I realized that although being a writer is often incredibly isolating, I am actually not alone. I learned that all of us face feelings of inadequacy and impatience, and that you really do have to just … keep on writing.
And although the presenters and a vast majority of the attendees were professional writers, teachers, agents, and editors, even though their resumes are filled with seemingly endless accolades, I still felt like I belonged.