This week I visited the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, which is a retreat center for children’s and YA writers, to be a special guest speaker at a Whole Novel Workshop. My task was to do a lecture on something craft-related (my choice), something hopefully inspiring, and then the next day read from my upcoming book The Walls Around Us, and soak in some of the good writing energy while there.
Just calling it a “lecture” made me unsteady. Doing a reading from my book is easier—all the words are already down on the page; I put them there. I can read them, make eye contact every once in a while, and just have the book speak for me. Talking about something smart is a whole other animal. Lectures are so very serious. Lectures are done by experts. What am I an “expert” in, distracting myself on Twitter and revising paragraphs 101 times before I can move on to the next paragraph?
I spent days trying to figure out what I would say. My topic kept shifting. Then, in a bundle of nerves, I asked for advice from Libba Bray, who a few years ago I saw give a talk at the annual SCBWI winter conference in New York City that made me crack up laughing and ended with me in tears. I felt so connected to her after she did that keynote, though this was before I had ever met her in person, and it was because she made us laugh with her and at ourselves, she blew our minds with brilliant writing advice, and then she brought it in close to herself and touched our hearts. She’s an incredible speaker… wise and eloquent and hilarious. I knew I couldn’t steal her away in my suitcase to Pennsylvania and have her pretend to be me up at the podium, but still I asked if she had any advice about how I could go about giving this lecture.
She told me that the best lectures about writing aren’t the ones just about craft. They’re the ones that combine a craft talk with something more personal. This gives the audience something to connect to—and it’s true, I think I connected to her talk years ago because of this. When it’s just writing advice coming at me, no matter how brilliant, I know sometimes I fade out and lose focus. (Rewind many years to me lying down on my aching back in the rear of the auditorium during Robert McKee’s STORY workshop, which I was forced to attend by my day job, and which I am kind of thankful for now, but that’s another story. Story, hah. Anyway, the point is, it was a lot of lecturing, and my brain shut down.)
I went home after talking to Libba and starting writing what I would tell these Highlights writers, hoping I had something worthy to tell them. I thought of all the books I’ve written, and not just the ones I published, and the craft lessons I learned through each one, because each book for me is a different beast. Each one put me through a new struggle, and gave me a new life and writing lesson along the way. …Even, possibly especially, the ones I never published.
I really do believe you grow from this process of writing, even when the end note isn’t your book on the shelf of a bookstore or library but in a box under the bed, where two of my unpublished novels still live, along with over eight years’ worth of my life spent writing them. These are not failures. It’s just a part of the process.
I’ve learned through the mistakes and missteps and I’ve learned from the glitzy successes and the high, high moments in which I felt like I was soaring and would never come down, until I came down. I learned a lot about having patience and listening to myself as a writer and trusting myself. And none of this came easy. Is anything worth doing ever easy?
The lecture went so well, and so did the reading, and I was proud of myself for making it through. The writers asked me so many wonderful, thought-provoking questions, and I felt very honored to be there speaking to them. (Special thanks to Sarah Aronson for inviting me to speak at her Whole Novel Workshop, and to the rest of the faculty: Nancy Werlin, A.M. Jenkins, Nicole Valentine, and Rob Costello. And thank you to the Highlights staff for being so helpful and accommodating! I only regret I didn’t stay longer.)
With that, my short visit to the Highlights Foundation was over, and I was being driven back home, to Manhattan, over the George Washington Bridge. I was wondering what possible life & craft lesson I’m in the midst of right now, writing this new novel that’s got me stuck, that’s challenging me, because I do want every new book I write to be a challenge, and yet that’s not always such a glorious experience when you’re deep in it tearing out chunks of your own hair. It’s impossible to know how best to handle myself at this point—nothing ever makes sense to me except in retrospect.
All I know is that if I look back on this year, this time in my life and in my career, I may just see it as the year I pushed myself, publicly.
Lectures and talks. Readings and more readings. Taking on every teaching opportunity offered me—and pursuing many more, some of which involve people never ever answering my emails and some of which involve people actually giving me a shot and allowing me to rise to the challenge, which is what I’m striving for right now.
I know what kind of working author I want to be. It’s just a matter of finding a way to get myself there.
(Oh and finishing my book, of course. Back to it.)
If you are near Tempe, AZ, I will be at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe on Wednesday, September 17 at 7pm. Author Elizabeth Fama is joining me! Please come.
My next workshop and retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program will be in June 2015. Applications aren’t due until February, but if you’re itching to apply now, the announcement is now up and we are accepting applications!
The ARCs of The Walls Around Us are now available—and look for a giveaway through my publisher next week to get a signed ARC of your own!