Jumping into the Deep End: My First Writer’s Conference

Water drop

Water, by Jiri Hodan

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.
I’m sure I’ll spend weeks unpacking my head and putting what I’ve learned into practice.
Of course, any action that is truly worthwhile is very rarely easy. I’m still a writer with a concussion, a bruised and hampered brain. The buzz of over seven hundred people chatting in an enormous ballroom challenged my limited concentration, my intolerance for noise. I had a nearly-constant headache, and sometimes struggled to follow conversations or instructors. Twice, I’ll admit, I thought I might pass out. My doctor would shake his head and scold me, so let’s keep that to ourselves.

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. 


25 thoughts on “Jumping into the Deep End: My First Writer’s Conference

  1. Oh, Lisa – what an incredible experience! As a fellow introvert, with a gigantic fear of talking to strangers, you have demonstrated the pay-off that comes from kicking fear in the teeth. And to have done it with a bruised brain, fighting through the symptoms and constant headache – well done, my friend! And I am just giddy with excitement that you recorded one of our collaborative stories for the Drum Literary Magazine Contest. Yes, Yes, Yes! Take THAT, fear!

    • I LOVE your phrasing — “kicking fear in the teeth.” That is going to be my new mantra. I’m writing it down and posting it at my desk. Thank you!! I wish you had been there 🙂

  2. Way to go, facing your fear and going for it anyway. Isn’t it funny how many of us have the same kinds of fears and its through reading stories like your own that some of us our encouraged to jump into those icy waters too.

    • Thanks! It’s funny how fear whispers that we are the “only ones” to feel this way. Good luck with your icy waters too.

  3. I wasn’t able to make it to the conference so I’m so happy to read this post! Thank you! Maybe next year we’ll *both* make it!! Something to look forward to .

  4. Bravo!!! I’m so glad you went, and that it was so good. I wish I’d been there and had had a chance to meet you. xoxo

  5. I was lucky to get to meet you at the conference. I knew you had accomplished something big by getting there (leaving children is hard enough) but reading your blog made me realize the achievement was even bigger than I realized. Thanks for sharing and congratulations. See you at muse 2013.

    • Thanks Amy!
      Fear is my achilles heel, ankle, shin and knee . . . (oh, and I lack patience too!)

  6. SO glad you went! And I appreciate the run down since I loved that conference so much last year and just couldn’t swing it again for this year. Looking forward to having you at my “place” soon.

    • I wish that you’d been there too. The Drum editor said it was so lovely to have you record “David” for them last year.

      And I’m thrilled that I’ll be on your site in a few weeks! (http://ninabadzin.com/).

  7. Thanks for a great post Lisa, and for sharing your courageous leap into the deep. I love that you “stuffed a rag in the mouth of Fear.” I hope that your concussion heals well and soon. I fell on the ice the first week of February and cracked my ribs. Not as serious as hitting your head, but it was very painful and required a lot of patience because I had to give up all physical exercise for 6-weeks, and then gradually add different movements. Just in the last week or so, I am feeling healed, and no pain when I take a deep breath.
    The conference sounds wonderful! I am sure you will continue to receive benefits from this experience for a long time.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your fall. It sounds like a difficult recovery that has required a lot of patience — I know how you feel! I hope you continue to heal, and thanks so much for the comment.

  8. So glad I found you/your blog via Nina Badzin! And I’m thrilled you jumped in feet first to this conference (though I hope you are feeling better). I’ve been a little nervous about the idea of going to one, but I’ve decided to make it happen! And reading your bulleted list from your notes makes me even more certain it would be an enriching experience!

    • Oh, the conference scared me!! But I am so glad I did it and now I’m hooked — can’t wait for the next one. Maybe I’ll see you there. 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by. It’s nice to meet you.

  9. “Discovered” you today on Nina’s blog 🙂
    Yay to the leaping, making ourselves do things outside our comfort zones! I would count blogging among those things. For me, it’s taken a year to feel less fearful everytime I post. Everytime I press “publish” feels like a little leap- putting myself out there, feeling vulnerable. That little knot of fear tells me I’m on the right track.

    • Thanks so much for coming by and reading. I feel so lucky to be on Nina’s blog today and share some readers with her.
      The leaping is still scary, no matter what I do. I know what you mean about hitting the “publish” button. I think my finger always hovers for a bit over the key before I hit it.

  10. Thanks for sharing this experience. Fear and a concussion are a formidible obstacle to overcome, congratulations. I go to my first conference this September. I spent 20 years in sales, so I can talk to people when I’m representing someone else’s product. But now I am representing me, at the beginning of my writing career. Scared doesn’t begin to cover it. But, you and the other authors who are talking about their conference experiences are buoying my confidence and I am looking forward to going.

    • I am sure that your sales experience will help a lot, even though it feels different to be representing yourself, rather than an external client or product. The hardest “bump” for me was just starting to talk to people. After that, it was easy because everyone I met was extremely nice and eager to chat. I also went in with the mindset that I was there to learn and soak up as much as I could. That helped too. Good luck!

  11. I think the first one is the scariest. At least, that I what I keep telling myself. I attended my first conference this year and learned so much about what I would do differently next time — among other things. It takes a lot of nerve to walk into a room without knowing a soul…and walk out with acquaintances. You rock!

  12. I am so very proud of you, Lisa, for facing your fears head on! It was uplifting to see you come home from each day of the conference with so much excitement! You are a brave and courageous woman who can accomplish anything you want to!

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