I inherited Mom’s poker face – that calm-in-the-storm mask that has served me well throughout my life. It’s foolproof except for the tiny twitch in the corner of my left cheek, evidence that inside my head, I’m a screaming jungle of emotions, a dark mass of self doubt entwined with the past.
Picture that Zen-like face as I entered the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland last weekend. I was scheduled to pitch my unfinished book to two agents. But one look at the other writers mingling about and my inner critic began to shout. I was waay over-dressed. How had I forgotten that this is the land of plaid flannel?
Then I remembered the article I had consumed at 3:00 in the morning about surviving a writers’ conference. The well-respected author had listed three things to stand out of the crowd: wear something that makes you feel good; slow down when talking; ask interesting questions. I planned on doing all three.
I am nothing if not a diligent student. To prepare for this conference, I spent my entire summer vacation completing the tasks suggested by the publishing pros. I read everything I could get my hands on that dealt with entering the publishing world in 2016. It didn’t matter that I didn’t like that publishing was a fast-changing industry, a foreign place where I now had to participate in my own success in ways never imagined when I first thought about writing my book 20 years ago. None of that mattered. I wanted my story to be read, and I now had a job to do.
So I created a website to show I meant business; started a Facebook author page; devoured the tips of publishing gurus who described the qualities of the perfect pitch and condensed my story into a gripping two-minute paragraph; memorized the pitch (but remembered I’d need to deliver it as if it wasn’t); made business cards; and even researched the background and interests of the agents I would be pitching to. (Sounds creepy, I know.)
For the first hour of the conference I felt like I was playing dress-up. Totally out of my comfort zone, I watched myself make small-talk at a round table of other writers as I sipped lukewarm tea, smiling self-consciously at the earnestness of topics discussed, and later, clapping at the opening speaker’s perfect speech, as if I hadn’t a care in the world.
But as time passed my smile grew genuine as I heard the squeals of delight when writers reconnected with each other, and again as I realized there was none of the yucky competition or jealousy that I had imagined would ooze through the walls and take hold of me. This was my tribe. I liked these people. I felt supported. I looked at all the faces around me, and wished I knew all of their stories.
In the end, I made it through each pitch. What helped was remembering that agents survive because of great storytellers. They have a job to do, but so do I. I even silenced my inner critic when they each asked to see my work. And that’s when it hit me. I can do this. I belong here.