Last year, I wanted to go to Grub Street’s Muse & the Marketplace writer’s conference, but I let fear talk me out of it. Fear is very good at making up excuses. She told me that I couldn’t leave the kids, that my husband’s boarding-school schedule would never cooperate, that the “logistics” of getting there and back would be too difficult (Fear likes to use fancy words. They make her feel important.) She said I’d have to talk to people, talk to strangers, and that those real writers would recognize me as a total sham, a fake, a charlatan with a pen.
I didn’t go. But, behind the back of Fear (she was gloating in a corner), I vowed to go next time.
In January 2012, before registration for the conference began and before Fear could inhale a dictionary of imposing words, I fell on the ice, hit my head and got a concussion. From there, I’d say it was a toss up — maybe the concussion gave me a different, wider, braver perspective — or maybe it just made me reckless. In either case, I signed up for Grub Street in March, paid the fee, and stuffed a rag in the mouth of Fear.
Then, a few weeks before the conference, my concussion symptoms — dizziness, confusion, headaches — got worse. I thought about not going. Fear smirked, and, well, that ticked me off, I think, because the next thing I knew I was all dressed up, with lipstick on, driving to Boston, on my way to my first writer’s conference.
And it was amazing.
Once I was there, I jumped into the deep end. I did everything that scared me. I chatted with other writers. I asked questions during panels and spoke with the teachers afterwards. I recorded my flash fiction piece, “The Mood Circus”, for the The Drum Literary Magazine contest, simply because it terrified me.
I, the shaky, fear-sodden introvert, jumped into the deepest part of the pond and found that I could swim quite well.
I can’t imagine a better first experience at a writer’s conference. Those Grub Street Grubbies know how to put on a fabulous show. I have reams of notes and a head packed full of ideas, but here are some of the highlights:
- Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich demonstrated how voice is always a “constructed performance” that varies slightly with each piece of writing, depending on audience and purpose. I loved her quotation from Phillip Lopate, the injunction to “write towards your quirks.”
- Lynne Griffin encouraged us to throw our characters under the bus, to trust them more than we care about them — to trust they’ll find a way out.
- Eileen Pollack showed us how strong, compelling characters are forged from their desires, and Jacqueline Sheehan provided a host of questions and exercises to “unpeel” the layers of a character, adding “texture and complications”.
- In the Saturday keynote, Richard Nash argued that books make culture, and that readers and writers of the twenty-first century have even more opportunities to join this conversation.
- Lisa Borders and Michelle Hoover led a seminar on the essentials of the novel, slicing up character and plot so well that I left with a stockpile of revision ideas for my novel.
- Ann Hood gave a brilliant talk on “How to be a tough editor of your own work.” She offered a list of ten rock-solid revision strategies, and I took pages of notes. Plus, her stories are hilarious.
- Sunday’s keynote speaker was Julia Alvarez. She offered inspiration through a Mayan weavers prayer: “Grant me the intelligence and the patience to find the true pattern.”
- Deni Béchard provided an amazing list of questions to help develop villains into complex characters, rather than stale, flat cutouts. Plus, his reading voice is absolutely stunning.
- I ended the conference with Sarah Banse‘s creative exercises and examples of flash fiction, and generated notes towards a new story of my own.
We all know that the best way to enter an expanse of cold and imposing water is to jump into the deep end. Wading is a torture. I jumped, and at the end of it all, there were three little words singing through my brain:
I did it.
Fear, with all her heavy burdens, is never a match for the buoyancy of such small, invincible truths.
What potential goals scare you the most? Have you jumped yet? Let’s chat about the waters.