Creating art is often a self-indulgent, solitary craft.
So each spring, I make a point to attend a 300 person conference hosted by SCBWI, a trade organization serving the KidLit community. For two days, writers, illustrators, literary agents and editors who are committed to making books for children and young adults hole up in a hotel to teach and take workshops, socialize and share.
Making the emotional transition from a solo gig to an environment packed with peers and prospective partners requires a hefty dose of vulnerability, grit and guts.
I’d rather tackle burpees over a barbell than participate in an event where it behooves me to talk to strangers, explain projects or pitch ideas. But year after year, I close my eyes, swallow the medicine and go.
When it’s over, some leave the conference motivated and alive. I always left, after my writing had been criticized and critiqued, feeling demoralized, dejected and done. Tired of clammy skin, frayed nerves and a cracked ego, in 2016 I took a break.
But without a conference lined up, I let life – parenting, work, presidential elections and Russian investigations get in the way. I wrote less KidLit. The more the dust bunnies nested, the more I missed the craft and writing community.
When the 2017 conference registration appeared in my email, I decided to try again knowing the only way to recharge my batteries was to change my approach.
These 5 things helped me to keep this spring’s experience in perspective.
In the past, I wheeled my bags into the hotel lobby filled with a binder of manuscripts, a personal agenda packed with scheduled critiques, printed copies of my story’s first page for a public reading, an elevator pitch for any peer or professional willing to listen and the expectation that my work would catch the eye of an agent or editor before the closing speaker’s remarks.
My preoccupation with an end goal only created stress which in turn, made it tough to stay engaged with attendees, pay attention during workshops and feel happy for others’ successes.
This time around, I opted out of critiques, avoided forums where my stories were read aloud and didn’t pitch ideas unless someone asked me. I also left manuscripts home and replaced the binder with a paper clip and a notebook. To get my money’s worth, I interacted with faculty during meals, workshops and in my capacity as a formal volunteer.
Lower expectations improved my mood and preserved my ego.
Took a risk
I signed up for a workshop billed for visual thinkers. The class seemed like the right fit for the way my brain works.
Upon arrival, I took a corner seat in the back row and noticed I was the only non-illustrator in the room. The teacher explained we were going to draw in an effort to generate ideas. He demonstrated and then told us to get ready to doodle. The artists pulled out their tools. I stared down at my pen.
“Draw a line,” he said.
I can handle that, I thought.
“Now switch with someone and turn the line into a living creature.”
My fingers froze. I was about to sneak out when a lady handed me a paper. I transformed her line into the best living creature I could.
“Switch again,” the instructor announced. “Add accessories.”
Oh for the love. A new sheet with someone else’s beautiful living creature came my way. I took a deep breath and sketched.
This activity went on until we had a developed character. The class concluded with each person speed drawing the character we started out with in different scenarios.
After it was over, I smiled. I remembered how much I loved to draw and felt proud to have gone out of my comfort zone.
At dinner that evening, I happened to sit next to the teacher. “Thank you,” I told him. “Your workshop was the most fun I’ve had at a conference.”
Stayed positive about the little things
At an event where there’s lots of new people, it can be easier to bond with them over the negative: room temperature, food quality, elevator speed, noise in the common area.
During the weekend, I did my best to heed the advice of my CrossFit coach. “Complaining is like a rocking chair; gives you something to do and gets you nowhere.”
In an arena where there’s a solid chance my creative endeavors will be sliced to smithereens, it made sense to harness as much positive energy as possible.
Took mental breaks
Conference days are 12 hour marathons. Whenever burn out set in, I skipped a workshop, took a walk outside or passed on the post dinner festivities.
And when I wanted to move the conversation away from KidLit without jeopardizing a chance to network, I chose a lighter topic like the 2 senior proms and the wedding party who shared the hotel with us.
In the past, my mission during community meals was to secure facetime with the person who had the power either to sign me as a client or buy my story. This year, I vowed instead to listen more and lobby less.
At lunch, there were two women of color at our table; one was an industry professional, the other a writer new to the conference. I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but somewhere between soup and the entree, an organic, honest conversation blossomed about white privilege in publishing and in life.
Each woman described the heaviness they felt any time they left the safe space of their home and entered an environment, like a conference knowing their skin color, accent and culture would be judged and on display.
They shared their experiences as children, women and parents. Neither sought sympathy; only the acknowledgement that white people, particularly white men are not burdened with daily inquiries as to why they pronounce their words “funny”, won’t be called “an angry black woman” after voicing a strong opinion and never have to fear their son might be hurt or harassed during his travels because of the way he looks.
The industry professional emphasized our need to do a better job of making room at the table while keeping everyone else there. As writers, illustrators, agents and editors, at the very least we owe this to the children for whom we write and for the ones we raise.
I’ve returned home to the quiet of my desk. As I type, the hum of talking heads in the background keeps me company. My outlook is fresh, creative process inspired and commitment to young people renewed.
Time to do a better job.
After having attended a Writers Conference in February that seemed high on the negative and low on the positive, I could especially relate to these suggestions! I’ll be attending a week-long workshop on Shakespeare and Art in a couple of weeks, where I find, unexpectedly that I will be expected to participate in some drawing sessions. So your description of participating in the drawing workshop was particularly well timed and encouraging!
Sound advice! I’m taking a break these days. Need to just work on the WIP. Wishing you the bestest, Jennifer!
I found myself enjoying the conference much more this year as well. The workshops I took were excellent for published as well as yet-to-be-published writers. And, I also left home the pressure and anxiety of having a manuscript critiqued. Thanks for sharing your experience Jen and good luck with your writing!
Jen, Wonderful tips! The NJ SCBWI Annual is one of my favorite conferences. I enjoy it more when I don’t bring ms to critique beyond the first page sessions. So much pressure. I think it’s very hard to sell a ms at a conference (although not impossible). It was lovely seeing you. Glad we had a chance to catch up a bit.
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You go, Jen! It was a good conference – made better by your five tips. 🙂
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