It’s just after 7AM and I’m driving due east into a pink sunrise. On the passenger seat next to me is a black and red briefcase which I had to dust off last night having not used it since my corporate days. Within my briefcase are two notepads, three pens, freshly printed business cards, my laptop and a granola bar.
I love that briefcase. My grandfather gave it to me as a graduation gift when I earned my degree in English from the University of Houston years ago and just remembering him and how much he believed in me briefly calms my firing-wire nerves this morning. I’m headed towards the waking sun that will lead me to a small town north of Dallas to attend my first ever Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference.
It’s a long, sprawling drive across north Texas and I’m having twelve conversations in my head about how nervous I am to be attending a conference with professionals in the industry all on my own. I’ve not met one person who is attending this conference and as one of my favorite bands, Mandolin Orange, plays through the stereo of my car, I can’t help but feel like that lonesome whistle calling from down the railroad tracks. [that track here. I can listen to this song forty times in a row.]
“Be brave,” I tell myself over and over again. “Be brave. Don’t ramble nervously like you always do. Don’t drink too much coffee. Check your teeth after you eat lunch. But just be brave. Be brave.”
“…I should’ve gotten a haircut.”
“…Why did I decide to wear purple and black. I look like a bruise.”
Sweaty palms, racing heart.
I’ve attended many conferences in my life but never a writer’s conference. I’ve attended oil and gas conferences, yoga conferences, international trade conferences, small business conferences and, wow, just thinking about how many others, I’m losing track. Never, ever have I attended a writer’s conference and I’m terrified. I am not a writer by profession, I am a writer by hobby. I love to write. It’s one of my favorite things up there with donkeys and yoga and King Ranch and Little Foot. It’s so important to me and when time goes by that I can’t or don’t write, I end up like an A/C filter that’s not been changed for too long: mucky, dusty, annoying, and useless.
Several times on this drive, I think about turning around. Maybe I’ll try again next year. I’ll say I got sick or something.
But on I drive, on towards the rising sun because I think I’m finally ready to try and do something more with my writing than leaving my stories closed up in dark folders. I just have no idea what “do something” looks like and maybe I can start to gain a semblance of an understanding by connecting with and learning from others who do and who have “done something” successfully. And I’m nervous about it—the idea of putting my writing out there terrifies me. It feels like carving out a chunk of my heart and putting it out on display to be examined, critiqued, poked and prodded.
It’s now three days later and I’m still digesting the events and feeling the warm, buzzing effects of the NTX SCBWI conference. I’ve pulled out stories that have been sitting in the dark for ages, blown the dust off the top of them, and am actually seeing them as new, tiny works of art. I want to edit absolutely everything I’ve ever written—give each story a good bath and haircut and maybe manicure while I’m at it. I want to do these things because as nervous as I was going into the conference last Saturday, I left feeling freaking pumped.
I’ll not go into detail of what I learned or who I met that day. Instead, I’ll say how grateful I am for the opportunity to have met so many eager, kind, and talented people. I’m grateful for the admins, faculty, and volunteers that made the conference possible and brought us all together—for getting me out of my own head and allowing me to realize that in my nerves, my passion, my fears and my curiosity, I’m not alone. I’m grateful for the inspiration I drove away with that day that’s still burning like red-hot embers in the belly of a fire pit. Turns out that when you’re surrounded by others whose craft means just as much to them as yours means to you, there’s no brutal carving of heart pieces…instead, there’s gentle and kind examination and encouragement to be better.
I’m excited for what’s to come. Indeed, there is change rising on the horizon like that neon-glowing sun that guided me on Saturday morning. There are always surprises and treasures waiting to be discovered beyond our comfort zones. There is strength in community and much to gain by being kind, open, and a little bit brave. And no one cares if you needed a haircut—in fact, you might just bond with someone over big hair…I did.
For more information on SCBWI, check them out here: https://www.scbwi.org/
In many ways, I still feel like that lonesome whistle and I suspect I always will. But I’m travelling. I’m trying. I’m calling.
“So hear that lonesome whistle blowing, hear that engine call from line.
See those black sails meet horizon, that old black bird knows its time.”