This weekend, I was privileged enough (okay, I worked me arse off) to be able to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference East for the second year in a row. Last year was an eye-opening experience, and I wasn’t sure what to expect this time, heading into the conference with my agent at my side.
Most of all, when I left DC Friday morning having had only one measly hour of quasi-sleep after a 5 AM pharmacy run, I was looking forward to being just a writer for a weekend. I know, I know. Not the highest of aspirations. But when you work a day job and manage to write full time around your other full time hours, having only one job for a weekend is like a warm spring breeze ruffling your hair. Especially when that one job is the one you love more than anything.
Now, I’m gonna get a little sentimental here for a second. I’ve been to New York multiple times, easily five or six times by now, and still when I get close to the city something buoys me on the inside. I couldn’t help cranking Spotify over to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys singing Empire State of Mind as we crossed under the East River through the Lincoln Tunnel. New York IS the Empire State Building of publishing. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. And for me, New York is a city built with books.
Last January, I remember stumbling across the Random House building and seeing the careful shelves of books from floor to ceiling. Like a shrine, like a dedication, like a remembrance, like an homage all in one. New York is books to me. And crossing the river into the city, seeing the bustle overtake us — the song sort of became truth for me.
New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothing you can’t do.
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you.
Because as warm and fuzzy and shiny as it might sound, every time I go to New York I feel it. It’s a city born of possibility, of millions of people just trying and trying to get farther, move upward, dream. It’s a city that got hit with heart-rending tragedy and rebuilt. It’s the place where writers, musicians, actors, singers, architects, businesspeople — all these people aching for more — it’s where they go to bring the hope in their minds to life.
It’s not a perfect city. It’s smashed as many dreams as it’s allowed to soar. But it’s the hope and possibility that keeps people coming back, generation after generation.
That’s what I went into the weekend with. Blame my sentimentality on having only an hour of sleep.
One of the first sights that greeted me as I stared out the bus window somewhere around 37th Street was a group of men clearing rubbish from a building. The rubbish they were moving filled gray bags in equal bundles. They tossed those bundles from person to person in perfect, precise rhythm. And they did it with smiles, taking some small amount of joy from their harmonic motions.
Just a small thing, but it’s those small things sometimes that bear witness to something greater. Do what you do. Be what you are.
When I’m at my day job, I do my job well. Everyone has their bad days, and I have mine too. But I try to be what I am in that moment. As soon as I drove into New York, I felt at liberty to be the most authentic me.
I could write five thousand words about the weekend. About how amazing my agent Jessica Negrón is in person and how fortunate I am to have someone like her as my advocate. She’s a hell of a woman to have in my corner. I could tell you how we talked into the wee hours about the business of publishing and those intricate little details that would probably bore most people to tears. I could also tell you that we followed the recommendation of some Tweeps and waited over an hour to get into Serendipity’s 3 and glut ourselves on carrot cake and their signature frozen hot chocolate.
I could sit here and write about how great it was to get to know my writer friend Kevin Klein (guys, he’s awesome) better and get to be the sounding board for his pitch practice. Tell you about the Bruce Willis look-alike P.I. we met (whose actual name is James Michaels, and he writes supernatural investigator stories) and how I am still secretly hoping he’ll yell “Yipee-ki-yay, mother fuckers!” in my presence someday. James was a high point for our entire little gaggle — his friendly exuberance and kindness were just over the top and awesome. I could go on about the badass H.E. Goodhue, with whom I had an eerie amount of life experiences in common, from teaching students with Emotional Disturbance (though he still fights that good fight, and I don’t) to traveling around Scotland. He also writes zombie stories and is well-versed in martial arts.
I could tell you about how much I loved getting to meet agents who were kind enough to help me through the Query Trenches, like Suzie Townsend, who is just as lovely in person as I thought she’d be. And how I didn’t quite have the courage to snergle Sarah LaPolla like her client Summer Heacock bade me. Heh. I could try to explain how much it meant to me that my agent’s boss, Gina Panettieri, greeted me with a warm hug and showed an overwhelming amount of enthusiasm for me and my book. Or how nice a surprise it was that Chuck Sambuchino remembered and recognized me from last year’s conference or Twitter or where-the-hell-ever. He will probably never forget my eyebrows, now. Or to hear Don Maass say he was excited to hear that his books had helped me get to where I am in my fledgling career — and that he was looking forward to reading it someday (I’ma pretend he meant that entirely in earnest). Or to chat to Chuck Wendig about superheroes and feminism and the awesomeness that is John Scalzi. (And about this picture…)
And there were heaps of lessons to be learned. From Tayari Jones‘ moving keynote “You Already Have Everything You Need” to Don Maass teaching us how great characters are born. There are any number of things swimming around in my head that weren’t there last Thursday.
Mostly, what I came away with was this:
In an age where publishing is a landscape that shifts as quickly as the San Andreas fault and we connect online more than in person, people are what make this business go. Agent Kristin Nelson talked about how agents and authors are partners, and I want to extend that to everyone in this field as well. Writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, readers, agents — all of us form the web that keeps stories flowing into the world.
People are hugely important. This weekend would have been lackluster without them. Marisol, Steven, Brittney, Renee, Erin, Sara, Rachel, Eleni, all the others I met or got to see again — they are what make New York that place where dreams happen. Brittney came all the way from Alaska; Eleni came from Queens. None of us make it alone.
Today I went back to my day job, and I had two tables of regulars (not even in my section!) wave me over and stop me just to ask what’s happening with my book, none of them having a clue that I spent the weekend in New York at a writing conference. And I realized then that even in the part of my life where I wait tables and sling beers and occasionally spill water on people, I’m recognized for being what I am. A writer. “Oh, here she is! I was telling you about her. She’s an author, and she’s just gotten a book published!” I immediately interjected that erm, NO, my book’s not published or even under contract yet, and this woman shook her head violently and said, “Close enough. It will be.”
For a moment I thought that these people just sort of randomly believed in me, but then after writing through this blog post, I came to the conclusion that they just see the authentic me that spills over, that leftover Empire State of Mind that’s always there even when I smell like woodsmoke and beer. It doesn’t really matter if my feet hurt and I’m exhausted and have spilled ketchup down my front when running food. I’ve somehow learned how to be what I am.
So go forth, gentle viewers. Go back to your world of whatever you make it. Be a writer. Be an actor. Be an artist. Be a musician. Believe in yourself. Surround yourself with people who are as committed to their art as you are to yours. Take risks. Be what you are.
To quote Tayari Jones in her closing keynote:
If you commit to your art, doors of opportunity will open for you.
And try to take a smidgen of this with you wherever you go:
One hand in the air for the big city
Street lights, big dreams, all lookin’ pretty
No place in the world that could compare
Put your lighters in the air
Everybody say “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”
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