Friday, August 20, 2010

Willamette Writers Conference — Some Thoughts on "Making It" as a Writer

On August 6th, 7th and 8th I schlepped to a middle-of-nowhere location (the Sheraton at PDX airport, inconveniently located right between two Max train stops) to attend the Willamette Writers Conference. This organization has been around for 25 years and has chapters in various parts of Oregon. If you live in the state (and even if you don't), check out their website  

In my previous incarnation as a doctoral student I had attended academic conferences before but never a writers one; at the Willamette's, the atmosphere was relaxed, informal, the people cordial and open. I attended some interesting workshops, made a few connections with fellow writers, and pitched to five industry professionals, three agents and two editors. Two of them were even interested in my book!
The pitching process was quite an experience in itself: scores of us hopeful writers nervously waiting outside the banquet room to be called inside when the time of our pitches came. The professional you had signed up to pitch to (a list was available well in advance, at the time of registration for the conference) was waiting for you at a table with their name tag on; you had fifteen minutes to find this person and proceed to convince her/him that your idea would be a worthy investment of their future time.
Some of us (the old-fashioned "purists" — do you still exist out there? If so, drop me a line) would maybe contend that this is a terrible process, a sort of literary "speed-dating". It was indeed like speed-dating, but not terrible at all. I enjoyed it; learned a lot about presentation, communication and persuasion skills; and ended up slightly revising my pitch each time according to how the person in front of me presented themselves. Most of the agents/editors I talked to were kind, responsive, friendly.
It is true, though, that in the tough publishing business of today the more commercial your idea, the more chances of your pitch being accepted. But hasn't this always been the case? 
I am uneasy with glorifications of a mythical past when art was a commerce-free zone and "true genius" would eventually be recognized and triumph. Years of graduate studies in art history have taught me that this is indeed a myth. Many artists who enjoyed commercial success in their time have today been forgotten by history; many artists we today put on a pedestal did not have that great an acclaim in their lifetime.

What's that recipe again? 30% Perspiration, 20% Inspiration and 50% Sheer Luck? Whatever percentages you believe to be true, these seem to be the ingredients that combine to make a "successful" writer.
But what's the definition of "success"? What is yours?

I have a little tag from a fortune cookie that I keep in my wallet: 
                                           "Success is being at peace with yourself."
My definition of being at peace with myself is to fulfill what I, perhaps arrogantly, believe to be my calling in life: Art (I use this word in its widest possible acception, to include all creative human endeavors). 
At times in my life I've strayed away from that path, and always eventually come to regret it. Now that I'm not young anymore, I feel the acrid breath of finality on my neck, and this both terrifies me and pushes me to try harder for that elusive "success" and its attendant gift — peace of mind. Of course we know how scores of successful artists have been mentally ill, have succumbed to real or invented despair through drugs, alcohol, suicide. That is also another cliché, isn't it? The mad genius. Though some contend that there is a correlation between manic depression and creativity. Psychology professor (and herself bipolar, as she bravely confessed in her memoir "An Unquiet Mind") Kay Redfield Jamison researched this widely in a provocative and beautifully written book, "Touched With Fire".

Again, that 30% perspiration. But  when you have to struggle with depression even to get out of bed and try to make sense (let alone meaning) of your day, it becomes harder to keep perspiring. 
One strategy could be not to demand too much from ourselves in order to avoid setting us up for the spiraling depths of disappointment, disillusion and despair. 
If you try to impose too much discipline on yourself, you will fail and then the blame game will begin, leaving you with even more negativity as a residue. 
But if you take it only one day at a time, though, you won't achieve much of anything and time will slip through your hands like sand. 
It's a difficult balance, one I'm still working on today. 
A tightrope walk with no safety net below.

I'd love to hear from you, Gentle Readers. What's your recipe for success? What's your balance? How do you cope with depression or any other debilitating illness and still find the energy and time to be creative?

I leave you with another recipe, a quote (yes, you've gathered it by now: I'm the Queen of Quotes — they, like certain songs, have accompanied me through life — different ones according to the phases I find myself in) by Willa Cather, from her wonderful novel "The Professor's House":

                         "Desire is creation. It is the magical element in that process"

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