Thursday, February 17, 2011

Another Austin Trek

Saturday morning I'll be driving up to Austin for the 2011 Austin SCBWI Regional Conference. This means I'll miss the Friday night reception with wine and cheese I couldn't consume, reading, bookstore where I couldn't afford to buy anything, and general schmoozing; also the breakfast of stuff I probably shouldn't eat. Part of the point of these trips is the schmoozing, but I can't afford a hotel right now and I suck at schmoozing so oh well. The site is located on the south side of Austin, so if I hit the road by a quarter after seven I should be in plenty of time for the opening remarks at 8:45. So tomorrow I'll get my stuff together, including emergency food, decide what I'm wearing, and obsessively plan the exact route - though it looks simple enough even for me driving solo to a new place.

I don't do many conferences for a variety of reasons. Most of them are geared more toward the unpublished, between health and economic limitations I need a really good pay-off in order to go to the hassle of traveling, and as badly as I sleep in my own bed at night I'm about 20 times worse in a strange one. Thank goodness I finally seem to have outgrown laughing jags, mostly. Used to I'd have one at least once per trip, which was okay if it happened in alone in a hotel room but problematic if, for example, I was at a banquet.

But everybody should do conferences relevant to their passion once in awhile. It can be hard, slogging away at whatever it is you love to do which the people around you don't, to keep the fire going; especially with creative pursuits in which gratification is routinely delayed and long dry spells without any external validation are the norm. You may or may not lose the impetus to create - that is, after all, the fun part - but it's just as bad to lose the impetus to treat your creation as it deserves, to go to the efforts that make it possible to get it out where other people can see it.

A long period without sales, awards, or feedback apart from "sorry, don't love it enough" gunks up the initiative like a hard freeze gunks up 100-year-old iron pipes. (Why no, we aren't recovered from the big freeze yet, thank you for asking; but there's pink on the redbud and spring is arrived.) Writers are by and large a bunch of shy depressives to begin with, continually feeling our inability to live up to our own standards - to write a groundbreaking novel a year, raise perfect children, be there for our aged parents, contribute our fair share to the household economy, cook delicious and nutritious meals for our loved ones, keep a clean house, and grow all our own vegetables. (Yeah, there's a little hyperbole there, but be honest with yourself - not much!)

When the people around us treat our work as a sideline, as they too often do (not my husband, thank goodness!); when our best work returns to us time after time; when the markets shrink around us through no fault of our own, it's easy to feel that the game isn't worth the candle. That maybe we should give up - not writing; never that - but trying to find a larger audience for the writing. Nobody wants it that badly. The vast chorus of literature, or whatever we're producing, is doing fine without us, and our voice would just be lost in it anyway.

And certainly there are good and valid reasons not to seek publication. I've said it here repeatedly - anybody who wants to write should do so. Creativity is part of our human heritage. We should all indulge ourselves in it as recklessly as we can, with as little self-consciousness or restraint as we feel when playing a game, or sunbathing, or birdwatching, or reading. It's easy, it's fun, it's natural. Selling writing, for most of us, is none of those things, and only those who want that larger audience more than anything else should put ourselves through the process. There's nothing wrong with writing for yourself, or your family, or your subculture with little renumeration apart from recognition, in that limited sphere, of the worth of your efforts.

But if you want something more than anything else, you should never stop trying to get it. You owe it to yourself to keep at it; and there's nothing like going to a conference of people who aren't sick of hearing you talk about it, who understand what you're saying before you're done, who have different apparent levels of talent, success, and luck but who are all facing the same discouragements and problems, to make you feel that yeah, you can keep at it.

Also - editors and agents go to these things. Editors who don't read slushpile will give special dispensations for attendees at conferences they went to, and you get a chance to size up the people who would be reading your work. This can provide a solid lead in the search for clues to where to send things next in which some of us are endlessly mired.

And although there's nothing wrong, per se, with private writing, consider how much poorer American letters would be if Emily Dickinson's family had never published her poems. Much about her literary estate was done wrong, but at least we have the poems. How many other brilliant artists through the years had families that discouraged them from breaking out of their personal boxes - their fundamental lack of self-esteem, their awareness of the disrespect they risked, their fear of failure or exposure or whatever gunk was stopping up their pipes - and then used their lifework as firelighters? How would the grand chorus of literature sound if we had those silenced voices to fill in gaps we can't even hear now?

Wouldn't it be a shame to be one of them, for lack of an occasional refresher?

So, I'm going to Austin, and when I come back I'm going to query the hell out of every single one of my dormant manuscripts and then I reckon it'll be time to look at Len and start revising.

That's the plan, anyway. Maybe I'll see you there. I'll be the one in The Hat.

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