After visiting with friends and family and launching THE GOOD NEIGHBOR in Philadelphia, I headed to the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, Virginia (check it out, no lie, I will shrivel up if they don’t invite me back). I had a ten-minute turnaround after a 5+ hour train ride, and then it was off to the speakers and volunteers welcome party.
I’m like most writers I know, a friendly introvert. So when I walked up to this mansion, with my car mates nearby, all I could think of was HELL NO I HAVE TO MINGLE and WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA FOR WRITERS?
But I prevailed. In situations like these I simply pretend I’m comfortable. I headed toward the crab dip and made a new friend; the bar where I made another. I met people I’d never known and I met people I’ve known for years. (You know how it is with internet friends.) I was social in intimate groupings, and have come to a place where I am also okay, if needed, being on my own in a large group. One good thing about being a writer in a group of writers, if you’re alone and minding your own business, no one thinks you’re antisocial or weird. They just think you’re plotting a chapter or taking notes for an article.
Awake and with lipstick on before 8 am the next morning, I was off to the conference where I’d be on multiple panels for the next two days. And it was off to a helluva start. Friday night to Saturday morning by 9 am I’d met award-winning journalists, multi-published novelists, acclaimed poets, and tenured professors. I was in awe of the level of talent around me, of the accomplishments of these people who also had the word “author” under the name on their badge.
For a moment, I felt small. Intimidated. And very much as if I didn’t belong. I’ve always felt at home in my writer skin and never like an impostor. Until then.
But people started talking, asking, laughing, collaborating — and I realized, there was no where I belonged more. Being completely at home among familiar strangers is really a wonderful thing.
Among this diverse group of working writers, were people who spoke my language before I’d said anything. There were journalists who wished they were novelists and poets who wanted to save the planet. There were professors who were authors and authors who’d written one or twenty books. There were writers of every genre talking and laughing and nodding.
And then, there were the aspiring authors of every kind.
These were the people we were there to serve and inspire.
I spoke to large groups and I spoke one-on-one, and one thing I found these dedicated writers had in common was that when I asked, “What do you write?” their answer almost included…”but I’m not published.” My reply was always the same. “Don’t say it that way.” Truly, folks. Stop it already.
It got me thinking about how writers apologize for where they are or aren’t in their writing journey. No other professions do this. You don’t hear someone say, “I want to be a heart surgeon but I’m not one yet, I am so sorry.” You never hear someone mutter, “I’m working really hard to become an accountant, but I’m not quite there yet. Ugh.”
“I write middle grade fantasy. Oh, but I’m not published.”
“I write women’s fiction, but I’m not published or anything.”
“I write historical non-fiction but I’m not ready.”
The tone was always apologetic, the eyes looked away or rolled as if to offset the implied disappointment felt by the writer — perhaps what they imagined I was thinking.
Stop apologizing for not being published.
These were people who wanted to be published, some who were close (and if you don’t want to be published, that’s fine too, but most of these writers were working toward that goal). Some had agents, many did not. Some were pitching, some were not. Some had books and work piled under their figurative mattresses, some did not. But they were all at a freaking WRITERS CONFERENCE where they belonged because they were with hundreds of other writers, published and not, all connecting and talking and learning things they’d never known before or being reminded of things they’d forgotten or cast aside. I learned so much that weekend simply by being there. Through listening, through talking, answering, and maybe through a little osmosis.
Just because you’re not published doesn’t diminish the value of your writing. Most of us don’t get rich at this stuff, face it. So anyone who’s working his or her ass off (and you know you do that by sitting all the time) deserves to use a period at the end of the declarative sentence that answers the question, WHAT DO YOU WRITE?
I write women’s fiction.
I write middle grade fantasy.
I write essays.
I write political satire.
I write poems.
Because that’s what I was asking. WHAT DO YOU WRITE? And that’s what I wanted to know. There were no assumptions, just curiosity. As a women’s fiction author, blogger, reader, and devotee, I’m usually surrounded by women’s fiction writers who are usually women. Here I was at a writer’s conference with men! With poets! With romance writers! With journalists! (I’m not even mentioning the racial and ethnic diversity, that’s another post.) Here I was, rubbing shoulders with people who wanted to talk about the pitfalls of publishing even though they had seventeen published novels; people who wanted to talk about plots, networking, technology, querying, character arcs, research, and anything else closely or remotely related to writing and publishing — big publishing, small publishing, self-publishing — whether or not they had a byline or book credit. This was a group of people dedicated to the idea that words matter, and that getting those words to the public, matters.
There was no bickering that your publishing is better than my publishing. There was no fighting that your genre is better than mine.
There was a sincere generosity of spirit, a sharing of information, and a seriously awesome vibe.
And no apologies necessary.
So, WHAT DO YOU WRITE?