Monday, February 4, 2013
Dispatches from New York (In which I Wander the City Streets with my Best Friend, Brave the Cold to Take a Picture, Gush Like A Goofball to my Author Idol, and Remember Why I Love to Write for Children. PS. I also learn Julie Andrews' secret to writer's block)
The past four days I've been in NYC for an awesome SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference and my head is still spinning with the cool stuff I learned and the amazing people I met and chatted with (mostly in the long restroom lines between sessions). Now I'm home and contemplating the two tons of laundry I've got to do while watching the snow fall from my writerly perch on the couch, sweet doggie curled up on my lap.
Sometimes I fear that I border on agoraphobic. I live in my pajamas, for example. I rarely leave my home except to walk sweet doggie and/or cart my teen daughter around town. Soon I will not even do that. She has her driver's permit! She is counting down the days to getting her license! I am both relieved and appalled! My point is that I rarely take trips to New York City to shmooze with fellow book writers. It's costly. I know I will have to, um, wear non-pajama-like clothing. I enjoy this solitary curling up on the sofa kind of life where I get to write and read all day. When I chat with other writers, it is a virtual style of chatting, where I can plan out what I want to say and NOT say and generally present myself as a much cooler younger hipper version of my actual self (the one in the pajamas on the couch surrounded by laundry piles).
But, oh! I loved going to this conference. I could probably write 20 blog posts about all of the things I learned and all of the people I met. In fact, maybe I WILL write 20 posts, but for now, here is an overview before I forget:
1. The best thing about the trip was meeting up with my long time critique partner Donna. If you've been following this blog, you know that I met her in the port-a-potty line at another conference five years ago, and we have been emailing each other daily ever since, sharing our writing goals, critiquing each other's work, basking in each other's successes and sobbing over each other's near successes. I love Donna and simply would not be where I am in this writing journey without her. We spent two days together wandering around NYC. We drank coffee in a funky cafe. Shared a bottle of champagne at an elegant Italian restaurant. Sat on a bench near Central Park and made guesses about which passersby were native New Yorkers. Trekked like, 50 blocks up to the Simon & Schuster building in frigid blustery weather so Donna could take my picture with my dying cellphone.
I brought a stack of postcards printed up by my publishing company with me, but when push came to shove, I was feeling chicken-y about handing them out to strangers. Donna grabbed most of the stack and did the work for me. One of the highlights of my trip was talking to a fellow writer and noticing halfway through our conversation that he had a copy of MY postcard folded up and placed prominently in his name badge. (Donna had already gotten to him, you see.)
2. I don't know why I always forget how inspiring the speakers at these conferences are. I am a shameless author groupie. In fact I signed up for this particular conference specifically so I could see Meg Rosoff, the author of one of my favorite books of all time, How I Live Now. I read this novel a few years ago when I was at a low point, despairing about my chances for publication and feeling pessimistic about the state of YA literature in general. I was in a weird book slump, having the bad luck to pick up meh book after meh book, and then I picked up How I Live Now and was blown away. The book is brilliant and heartbreaking and funny. Impossible to characterize, so I won't. But it renewed my faith in writing and what good writing can do. I will never be as good of a writer as Meg Rosoff, but thank God, writers like Meg Rosoff exist in the world, is all I can say. Yes, I realize I am gushing like a goofball.
You should have seen me in NYC when I sat in the audience while Meg Rosoff gave the keynote speech. I laughed. I cried. I gave her a standing ovation. And you should have seen me when I spied Meg Rosoff standing at the bar, like, ten feet away from me, surrounded by Meg Rosoff groupies. I wanted to go up to her, but I didn't want to come off looking like a Meg Rosoff groupie. Donna suggested I go buy myself a drink so I could sidle closer. She gave me cash (I never carry cash) so I could buy a crazy expensive drink. I sidled. I forked over the 14 dollars for a drink. My eyes met Meg Rosoff's eyes. Boldly (yet shakily) I introduced myself. I told her I once reviewed her book. She kindly pretended that she remembered that review. I told her how much I loved her speech and her books. I told her I'd read her blog post about how she was 46 years old when she published How I Live Now and that was inspiring to me because I will be, um, 46 years old when my first book comes out in the fall.
She said, "Oh. What is the title of your book?"
I said "Thin Space" at the same moment that Donna, my loyal wingman, miraculously appeared at my side, postcard in hand. Donna pressed my postcard into Meg Rosoff's hand and Meg Rosoff said "The book cover is lovely."
I thanked her, blabbered for another minute about I don't know what, and then Donna and I drifted away and giggled like lunatics at the cupcake table.
3. Other speakers at this conference were inspiring too. Margaret Peterson Haddix, author of 30 books for children and fellow Ohioan, talked about the importance of stories in a world where books may be going out of style. I laughed and cried during her talk too. I was in awe of illustrators Shaun Tan and Mo Willems, great artists and thought-provoking and hilarious and moving speakers. These people reminded me why I love being part of the children's writers and illustrators community.
Sometimes--shockingly--we are disparaged. There are many people who actually believe that writing for children is somehow lesser than writing for adults, as if children don't deserve good literature, as if writing for younger humans is easier. Meg Rosoff spoke about this. She said something like, ask people you know what their favorite books are; ask them which books they read more than once and which books they remember and love. Chances are these books are children's books. They come into your life when you are still being formed and they change you. It is an awesome responsibility, she said, to be a writer for children. And there is nothing lesser or easy about it.
4. I guess I should mention that Julie Andrews was one of the speakers at the conference too. Julie Andrews wrote dozens of books with her stepdaughter and the two of them gave a presentation about how they collaborate on their many projects. OH MY GOD JULIE ANDREWS IS HERE, was something I heard quite a bit over the past few days. I also heard this: oh my god, julie andrews is here.
She's a celebrity author, and it's not hard to wonder if she was given a break; if things were, in fact, easy for her in the publication journey. Yeah. Most assuredly. Still, it was cool to see the woman and to hear her talk in her familiar lilting Sound of Music voice. At one point she mentioned that when she's stuck in a story, she will get up and go to the bathroom, and she nearly always finds the solution. The tweeters in the back of the conference hall were tweeting up a storm. Julie Andrews goes to the bathroom!! They tweeted, excitedly. And we all shared a collective laugh and sense of camaraderie with Julie Andrews, just another fellow writer for children.
5. Because I am like Julie Andrews, I went to the bathroom a lot during the conference. I met people in line who are just starting out on this potentially long and potentially soul-crushing journey. I slipped them my postcard and told them they should keep writing and working and dreaming. I met other people who have books out already and I picked their brains about publicity and social media and balancing writing with these other obligations. (Also, I slipped them my postcard.) I attended a session given by a veteran editor who once rejected something I wrote. She was beautiful and brilliant, reading passages from books she loved and talking about voice and texture and narrative layers. I went to a session presented by a newby editor-turned-agent, who was beautiful and brilliant and too new to have ever rejected me.
6. One night I wandered into a panel discussion on LGBTQ characters in children's literature. More on this in another post, but I was fascinated by the discussion and then amazed when I realized that the writers presenting just happened to be Jane Yolen, Bruce Coville, and Ellen Hopkins. I almost fell out of my chair.
7. On the flight home I chatted it up with a new friend--a YA writer just starting out. I gave her my last post card and then I settled into my cramped plane seat and read a young adult novel called Ask the Passengers by A. S. King. More on this book later, but holy moly, it was amazing. The main character, like so many of us humans, is struggling--with who she is, with what the point of life is, with what she wants to be and do. Sometimes, in despair, she lies outside on her picnic table and looks up at the sky. She waits for a plane to fly by and she sends the anonymous passengers in the plane her love.
I sat on my plane, reading about this girl and her painful and heartbreaking and hilarious story. For several hours she was real to me. When I closed the book, I was crying. I looked out the dark window and thought about the writer A. S. King. I imagined that I was flying over her in the dark, and I sent her my gratitude and love.