Sunday, September 4, 2011

In Which I Seek Connection

I've got another conference coming up next week. I'm pretty darn geeked about this one, actually. It's a children's writing conference and I get to spend the week talking about books and kids and why the very most important work in the world is bringing them together. Can you think of any better way to spend a few days in September? Any way at all?

I was at a conference with my father a few years back (and it might help you here to know that my dad is probably the most extraordinary children's writer of his generation) (and I only say this because so many other people said it first). He gave a keynote address about the importance of story, and by the end he had everyone weeping. Even me, and I'd already heard all his stories. Afterwards I asked him if his goal was to make people cry, and he said, "I want them to take this work seriously."

That's my goal at this conference, too. To teach the writers to take their calling seriously. To teach them the craft and give them the tools to become excellent. Also, I get to bring some picture books and read bedtime stories. (It would be easier to find a good selection, incidentally, if Hubby-of-my-dreams had let me take the unliftably-big-box-o'-picture-books when we moved. This was a source of some contention at the time. It's still a source of contention, actually. While I understand that our apartment is laughably small cozy and if we get more books we'll have to start stacking them underneath the pots and pans, or possibly on top of the refrigerator, I'd still feel a lot better if they were close by instead of sitting in the guest room at my parents' house.)

Another advantage of this conference: I get to actually spend time with the writers. This usually doesn't happen. Here's how it often goes:

I sit at a table in an overcrowded room with a bottle of water, pad of paper, and professional-looking pen in front of me. A woman walks in, looking like Marie Antoinette on Guillotine Day, and takes a deep, shuddery breath as she extends her hand. I introduce myself, give her a massive smile, and tell her to sit down and tell me about her work.

She speaks very quickly for thirty seconds as she gives me her memorized pitch. It sounds like she's reading marketing copy. She stops abruptly and looks at me, then glances down at her notes. (I can read these notes upside-down. At the top it says, it big letters, SMILE and at the bottom, DON'T LEAVE WITHOUT BIZ CARD.) She looks back up at me as if she's being hunted.

"Tell me when you first felt that you needed to write this book," I say. My whole goal here is to calm this person down. I know it's nerve-wracking to meet a publisher. I know she's been preparing for this fifteen-minute interview for weeks. But I also know that I'm not as big a deal as she thinks I am. (A few months ago I told a friend that I was teaching a class at a conference, and her jaw just dropped. "You?" she said. "Why would they ask you?" All I could think to say was, "I'm extremely important, you know," and then she just bust out laughing. Lord, grant me more friends like this.)

So this woman and I chat about her work. Sometimes she tells me a story--a sickening, heart-wrenching story--about an event that changed her outlook on life. Sometimes she cries. Sometimes she laughs. Sometimes she takes my hands and prays with me. And then the fifteen minutes are up, and another writer is waiting in the wings, and we shake hands and say goodbye. And the part that I hate about conferences is that I have sixty appointments like this in the space of two or three days, and I don't always recognize the writers when I see them again. I hate that. I hate making a connection with a person that I know is going to be so temporary. I hate that my next communication with this person will probably be a rejection letter.

But the connection's important, brief though it may be. That's why we're here, after all. To look another person in the eye and make them understand that they matter. Their work matters. Their passion matters. Their pain and their joy both matter.

And that connection is even more important when it's made with children. When you take the time to give a kid a hug, to ask about their hopes and dreams and the mundane little details of their lives. When you dig a little deeper than "What grade are you in?" or "So, do you like school?" Writers for children have the enormous joy--and enormous responsibility--of connecting with more kids than they could ever reach individually. Of teaching them that they matter and their stories matter.

That's what I'm going to be saying, in one way or another, at the conference next week. I'll be making connections with writers and hoping that they, in turn, pass that connection on to a whole generation of kids.

I absolutely love what I do.