You Can Do It – UtopYA Keynote Address

This past weekend I was the keynote speaker at a brand new conference held here in Nashville called UtopYA. It was organized by Janet Wallace, and I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful it was. I’m sure posts will go up from the attendees, here’s one from DB Graves, and you can check out more about the conference itself here. All I can say is that I smiled from the time I left my house until I got home, and then when I got home and told my husband about all the sweet faces I saw in that crowd, I cried.

You might have seen me put the call out on Twitter last week for help with an encouragement project. It was for this speech, and I spent most of that day crying as well. Over forty authors responded to ask how they could help – in less than six hours.

I love this community. Sure, it’s not always shiny perfect, but last week restored a lot of hope for me.

Here’s the speech, and you’ll find the encouragement project within.

Everyone has their own story.  

Chapter One.

Beginnings are hard.
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a starting a life, or starting a story. Moving to a new town, starting a new grade in school, transferring to a new college. Taking a new job. Or, deciding, that after almost thirty years, you’re finally going to do the thing you believe you were born to do.
For me, it all started with the The Wizard of Oz.
I was four the first time I watched it. The flying monkeys absolutely terrified me, but the idea of leaving home, having adventures, beating the big bad – I couldn’t imagine anything better. (And? There was dancing. I’m a dancer from way back.)
Then, it was Star Wars.
I was five, and I made my dad take me to the theater to see it three times. I had no idea what the story was truly about, just that it meant leaving home, having an adventure, and beating the big bad. The rush I got when Dorothy had to steal the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West was the same rush I felt when Luke Skywalker escaped the giant, sewage filled trash compactor. And while I shipped Dorothy and the Scarecrow, this was the first time I was intrigued by the bad boy. Oh, Han Solo. Even at the ripe old age of five, I saw you coming from a mile away. And I liked what I saw.
Second grade was ass, let’s just go ahead and get that out there. I hated math, I hated spelling, I hated sitting still.  I wanted to be on the playground, taking a trip to the Emerald City, or pretending to break up a bar fight in the Star Wars cantina. While my schoolwork was lousy, one truly amazing thing happened that year. I learned to read. Now my imagination could move beyond Oz and the Force. I could do anything. Go anywhere.
My biggest mistake at this point was taking my second grade class to the suburbs of New Jersey via a book report on “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?” I ended up taking myself to the principal’s office, because apparently, some people take issue with a seven year old ending a book report with “and then, she got her period.”
I was really happy when second grade was over.
Because third grade is where the magic happened.
My teacher, Gigi Hillman, had long black hair, tan skin, and an amazing laugh. (My second grade teacher … didn’t laugh at anything.) I’d suffered academically in second grade, so much so that the school had me tested for delayed development. Turned out, I was “gifted.” That really fixed my second grade teacher’s wagon, but it didn’t sway Mrs. Hillman at all. She insisted that I still do my work. I had to finish it if I wanted to go to “gifted” class. I only went once.
Here’s why.
Multiplication tables were the bane of my tiny existence. I hated math. HATED it. And instead of doing it, I would hide my Trixie Belden books under my desk and read. At first Mrs. Hillman tried to stop me. Eventually, as long as I did my math, she’d let me read as long as I wanted. Because she’d figured out, years ahead of any publicized studies on reading and its impact on the brain, that I was learning.
When I wasn’t reading, I was imagining. Mrs. H told my mom, “ I don’t know where she goes, but she has a really good time when she’s there.”
I was inside my brain, with the BobWhites in the Hudson River Valley (Trixie Belden’s gang – they had a club house and a whistle signal and matching jackets, hello). If you’ve ever read the Trixie Belden books, you might remember that one character is a swimming champion. And that another character has violet blue eyes. These books influence the Hourglass books in so many ways, whether it be physical characteristics, setting, or that both include a group of teens with special skill sets that they use to make their world a better place.
All of the aforementioned things shaped me, and all of them occurred before the age of eight. Coincidentally, age eight was when I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
Our hearts know early on what our brains can’t fathom. Sometimes you admit wild and crazy dreams out loud, to parents or teachers, and because they’re all trained to be practical, they suggest something safer. You can’t blame them; they think they’re doing their job.
But then, at some point, our hearts move from wanting to knowing, and whenever in life that happens for you, safe ceases to matter. That’s when we’re at our new beginning. That’s when dreams turns into choices you make on your own, as an adult, and you own them, or you don’t.
When my son was one, and AOL and dial up were still the only options for Internet access, I was on a fan chat with Nora Roberts and about a million other people. I typed in my question and waited an hour or so and they finally, finally got to me.
The question was along the lines of, “How do I write a book when I work full time, from home, and I have a small child (who never ever sleeps)?”
Nora’s answer was, “If you want to? You will.”
It was curt. It was to the point. It was TRUE. And I wasn’t ready to hear it.
Cut to five years later, and the second I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I know exactly where I was standing. In the hall, upstairs, outside my laundry room. I hit my knees, bawling, partly because of what I’d just read, and partly because surrender took hold of me. There was nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. I had to give in, wholly and completely.
I’d told Him I would, so I had to. That was my beginning.
Chapter Two.
Take the first step.
Look around.
There are people here who are fans of young adult books, and people who have written them. There are people who are happy to stay readers, and some who will eventually be compelled to write.
Maybe you’re both. Aren’t you just in a perfect place?
This is your first step. This is your chance to gain wisdom from people who’ve gone before you. To make friends who will be part of your publication road. To encourage and be encouraged. You have a whole weekend ahead of you, and if you open your mind and your heart, who knows what you could learn? I can guarantee this – it won’t be anything you expected.
My first conference was Killer Nashville, way back in 2008. I didn’t want to write thrillers, but it was located close by, it was the cheapest I’d come across that wouldn’t require me to stay in a hotel, and authors and agents and editors would be there, and my husband didn’t freak out too much. I figured I could soak up some knowledge about the craft, at least.
I learned so much that weekend, and I was thrilled to discover that there was a YA panel. It was on Sunday morning. At 8am. And it was attended by all of two people. I’m sure the authors there thought it was a bust, and maybe the organizers, too. But for me, it was a miracle. I had three young adult authors at my disposal for a solid hour and a half. I asked every question I could think of, although most of them were some version of “How do you DO this?” “What does the writing life LOOK like?” (Especially with kids.)
The time with those ladies (Kristin Tubb and Tracey Barrett) is still one of my most precious memories from my early writing life. They were so open and honest, and they made me feel like I could maybe one day be one of them. And it was at that conference that Tracy Barrett told me about the SCBWI conference. It happened right here at Scarritt Bennett.
Writing a book involves you and the page, you and your thoughts, for a long, long time. Other people start to work their way in when you search for critique partners, and then again when you look for an agent or publisher. But as independent as the writing process is, the need for validation always manages to work its way in. If you don’t suffer from this problem, I envy you. As a matter of fact, meet me in the parking lot at four so we can throw down.
You want to feel like you belong to the community, like you have a place that is special, and your own. I have writer friends who say they want to be the next big thing, or make the “fill in the blank” list, or win the “fill in the blank” awards. I think this is all well and fine and good, but I also believe that if that’s what you’re here for? This industry will eat you alive.
Bloggers will sing your praises – until the next big thing comes along. People will be excited about your book deal, your cover reveal, your synopsis, your trailer – for a day or two. If you learn to live and feed off of the attention and affirmation of others, when it comes back to you and the page, you’ll be sorely disappointed. And very, very alone.
That’s what writing is really about. You, and the page.  What you can produce, what you have the imagination to create, and what you have the dedication to perfect.
The way to achieve Zen in this business is to either have friends who are wildly more successful than you, or to pursue the art, the craft, the page, the story over every other thing.
I want to take a second to say something about social media here, too. If you’re on Twitter to promote yourself – even solely to promote other people – you’re going to be disappointed. Retweets, reviews, hashtags, at some point it all becomes noise. Use social media as your water cooler. Go there to encourage people. Go to have conversations, to meet people with common interests, to debate Damon versus Stefan.
I stepped back from the personal aspect of my blog over a year ago, because I was convinced no one wanted to hear about the trials and tribulations of being a writer from someone who was published. I believe this was a mistake. I thought posting contests and other author interviews and fancy updates about my own books was the way I was supposed to go. Again, mistake.
My blog is getting ready to undergo a major overhaul. (After I meet this deadline!) I want to get back to the “in the trenches” part of social media.
It’s hard to be vulnerable and real and authentic sometimes, but when I think back to early days, that’s what I craved from other writers. To know I wasn’t in it alone. I recently asked for help with a project from other author friends, and I got a few emails back from people who were on deadlines. They hadn’t showered in days, they hadn’t eaten in hours, they hadn’t seen sunlight in weeks. One of them had a major stress zit outbreak. Another couldn’t bring herself to wash her hair. All I could think when I read those emails was this:
And that felt so, so good.
My hope for you for the next few days is that you meet some people who are in the same season of life as you. That you can connect and be real, not be intimidated by what they’ve done or haven’t done. Don’t let what you know or don’t know stop you.
I have friends I lean on who are New York Times best sellers. I have friends I lean on who aren’t agented yet.
The important thing? Having friends.
Chapter Three.
Beginnings are endless.
A few quick quotes from Ze Frank, who wrote “An Invocation for Beginnings”:
“Let me think about the people who I care about the most, and how when they fail or disappoint me I still love them, I still give them chances, and I still see the best of them.  Let me extend that generosity to myself.”
“Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else, and if it is, let me become fascinated by the shape of the stone.”
“There is no need to sharpen my pencils anymore.  My pencils are sharp enough.  Even the dull ones will make a mark.
Warts and all.
Let’s start this sh*t up.”
Own it. Boss it. Don’t give in to yourself, don’t give in to anyone else. Ultimately, YOU are responsible for YOU.
My daddy always said, wish in one hand, spit in the other, and see which fills up first.
How about this? Instead, you use both of those hands to fulfill your dreams.
Because YOU. CAN. DO. IT.


Chapter Four
This chapter belongs to you. Are you ready?

Thanks for letting me share, friends! 

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