On the first weekend in May, I went to an event I’ve been attending for several years: the Ontario Writers’ Conference. This is a wonderful opportunity for writers to mingle; attend writing workshops on practical matters like plotting and point-of-view; meet publishers, agents and editors; and generally spend time in the company of like-minded people.
I remember attending my first conference, when I nervously eyed all the “successful” Writers and felt like a fraud. Sure, I wrote stories and I’d completed a novel or two but, really, who was I to call myself a Writer? That title is for real Writers, like I saw all around me. I didn’t really belong there among them. All I had was a stack of rejection letters. Little did I know: nothing makes you a real Writer like having a stack of rejection letters.
I found out about the conference through social media and there were a few people I’d met online that I could now meet in person. I stuck with my friend from home whom I’d travelled to the conference with, and my little group of online (now IRL) friends, and stared out, wide-eyed, at that world of writers that I didn’t think I was, or could ever be, part of.
By the end of the conference, I almost felt like I could someday be a legitimate Writer. I was exhausted and elated, inspired and motivated. I went home and worked. I worked and worked. And then I dug deep into my shallow barrel of courage and submitted that work. Rejections still came, but they started to be personalized. And I also got requests for material. Partials at first, and then fulls. Gears began moving slowly forward.
At the 2011 conference, I pushed my introverted self to meet those Writers. I also had news. I’d signed a contract to publish my first novel. From the get-go, despite the initial excitement, I was sure that it was some kind of cosmic trick, so I kept it low-key. You never know when the rug can get pulled out from under you. As the 2012 conference approached, my novel neared publication. It finally felt real. The rug would not be pulled out.
It pays to use social media and network at conferences. Not only do you meet really fantastic people, they actually want to help you. There might be stories out there about shark tanks full of competitive writers ready to attack their counterparts, but I’ve only had positive experiences in meeting my fellow authors.
And now we get to my friend and mentor, the wonderful poet and novelist, Kevin Craig. He’s on the organizing committee for the Ontario Writers’ Conference and is a tireless champion of all writers, everywhere. Several weeks before this year’s conference, I got a message from Kevin saying he would try to get me a reading spot. He and the other wonderful conference organizers wanted to start a new tradition of giving one first-time novelist, and past conference attendee, an opportunity to present their work. Needless to say, I was thrilled, excited and slightly nauseated at the prospect.
I soon discovered I had five minutes, at precisely 9:08 am. This was good. I like to know exactly what’s expected. Plus, reading in the morning would allow me to get it over with so I could relax and enjoy the rest of the day. I practiced my scene over and over at home, using an online stopwatch to gauge my time. I consistently came in at 5:07, but I figured I’d be nervous and would read a bit faster anyway. But, oh, how I agonized over those seven seconds.
Only a couple of weeks before the conference I got another message from Kevin: would I like to drive the conference’s honorary patron, Wayson Choy, to the venue that morning? I immediately responded: hell to the YES!! And then contacted my friend who was driving me to the conference that morning. Thankfully, she also said hell to the YES.
I’ve listened to a speech by the beautifully eloquent Wayson Choy every year. I’ve also read all his books. His quiet grace, lyricism and no-nonsense approach are always inspiring. I’d been awake since 4:45 am and I was jazzed, nerves jangling, but determined not to miss the opportunity.
“I’m doing my first public reading today, Mr. Choy. Do you have any advice?”
He thought for a moment. “Always remember that they want to hear what you have to say. They want to hear your story.”
I thought about that. I focused on it over the next hour, while I nibbled at a muffin and added caffeine to my nerves. These were my peers. They wanted me to succeed.
Finally, I heard my name and began the long walk to the podium. Deep breath.
When I was done, they clapped. I felt the faintness of relief. Release. Well or poorly, I’d done it. I’d read my little story in front of two hundred writers, readers, agents, editors and publishers.
We all began to make our way to the washroom, and then on to our first workshop of the day. Before I left the room, I got stopped by several groups of people, congratulating me on how well I did. I was stunned. A lovely young lady had already gone to the book table and bought a copy. Would I sign it? I did. The response overwhelmed me. I felt like Sally Field. They liked me!
From this, I gained courage and met more people than I ever had. And I was thrilled to finally meet in person a friend I know through social media, the fabulous author of several very successful children’s and young adult novels, Adrienne Kress. Get your kids to read Alex and the Ironic Gentleman. It’ll change the way they see the world.
So, Writers (and those who write are Writers), take every opportunity that comes your way, find the courage to attend conferences, submit work, read aloud, meet your peers. We aren’t here to compete, we’re here to elevate, inspire and encourage. There’s room for all of us to publish our best work.
And, if you’re ever in a position to help a fellow writer, do it. I sure plan to.