It was my first writer’s conference and I must have printed the program grid at least three times, attacking it fervently with my yellow highlighter. There were so many lectures, workshops and panels and no matter how I looked at it, no way to fit them all in.
In addition to the full three-day schedule of learning opportunities, the Creative Ink Festival offered extra sessions that you could sign up for, and I did sign up, not wanting to miss a single experience. Because my focus is poetry, not all the panels and workshops were relevant for me, but in almost every time slot, I found something I thought I could use. When it didn’t seem like there was anything appropriate, I chose something anyway, reasoning that there can be no bad learning. In some cases, those random workshops turned out to be the ones that were the most fun.
But the most important thing I learned this weekend didn’t come from any of the workshops or panels. It did, however, stem from one of the extra sessions – the one in which I had the opportunity to pitch my work to an agent. I had 15 minutes to convince an agent to sign me. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I was reasonably confident in my work. One of the children’s stories I was about to present had recently taken second place in a National competition.
I walked into the boardroom where my designated agent waited. We smiled and introduced ourselves. I handed her my flagship story. She read the first stanza.
“I can’t do anything with this. No one buys picture books that rhyme.”
The reason, she went on to explain, was that rhyming picture books couldn’t be translated, so immediately, that eliminates the potential to reach an international market.
Her eyes skimmed over the rest of my piece.
“It’s a nice enough story.” She shrugged. “You might be able to rewrite it without the rhyme. But really, does anyone even use Vapo-Rub anymore?”
I stumbled. I didn’t know what to say. I had brought six or seven of these stories with me – all useless. I had nothing else to offer. My 15 minutes was over in three. I was humiliated. I did my best to excuse myself from the room without bursting into tears, but I wasn’t successful there, either.
I escaped to the cool, quiet of my hotel room. I put on some music and lay down on the bed, trying to come to grips with what had just happened. I’d have to go home now. I’d have to quit my writer’s group. I certainly wouldn’t be able to show my face again.
This was not the agent’s fault. If anything, she was kinder than she should have been.
I was the one who came unprepared, who hadn’t done the homework. In my… enthusiasm… to sample everything, I forgot some basic rules. Or maybe, in my own twisted way, I didn’t think they applied to me. Either way, I only had myself to blame.
I wallowed in self-pity for a while, but as I’m not a teenager anymore, that got dull in a hurry. I started formulating a new plan. A short time later, satisfied that I had regained control of myself and wouldn’t have to go home or quit my group, I rejoined the conference.
And yet… when my son and I were having dinner later, and he asked me about my day, I changed the subject. I wasn’t ready to share my story. It was still too raw.
Sunday came, and one of the hours I had been looking forward to all weekend – the Live Action Slush. For those of you who already know what a Live Action Slush is, feel free to skip the next paragraph. Otherwise, read on.
A slush pile is the name given to the stack of unsolicited manuscripts that builds up on an editor’s desk. An editor, or more likely an intern, will go through the slush pile, reading just a few lines or paragraphs in order to determine whether a manuscript has any potential. If so, the manuscript moves on to the next stage. If not, the manuscript is discarded. In the Live Action Slush, conference goers were invited to submit the first page of their manuscript, to be read aloud, anonymously, in front of a panel of experts. During the reading, the panelists raise their hands at the moment they would personally stop reading. As soon as two of the three panelists raise their hands, the reading is stopped, and the panelists explain their decision.
Of course, I brought a piece. I was trying for the full experience, after all. But a feeling of apprehension settled like a shawl across my shoulders. I sat down with a friend and her fiancé. She excused herself to use the restroom, and I was left alone with the fiancé.
“I was going to submit something for this, but I’m having second thoughts. I had kind of a rough day yesterday and I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Then you probably shouldn’t.”
“On the other hand, I’m curious to know what they would say about my work. They are professionals.”
“Yes, they are. They probably aren’t going to be mean.”
“It’s just that I’m still sore from yesterday. If I did put it out and got negative feedback, I might be tempted to throw away my pen forever.”
“You definitely don’t want that.”
“You know what? Screw it. I’m going to do it.”
“Go for it.”
It’s clear this man has been down this road before.
A fist bump later and I was on my way to the front of the room to deposit a piece of paper onto the ever-growing pile.
In the end, I never did get to hear what the panel would have said. Time ran out. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I did it. I took my lumps and I put myself back out there. Instead of retreating into my introverted, writerly self, I took a chance. And because I found the guts to take that first step, the next one will be easier, and the one after that, and the next one…