Friday, October 25, 2013

Confessions of a Conference Newb

By Jessica McDonald


At my first-year student orientation in grad school, the professors spent a long time talking about imposter syndrome. If you’ve never heard this term, I’m sure you’ve experienced it—it’s that feeling that you didn’t really earn your success, that it’s only a function of luck, timing, trickery, or a mistake.

Basically, it’s sitting in a room of fifty other students with luminous backgrounds and going, "HAHA I SO DO NOT BELONG HERE." Or, in the particular case of PPWC, driving down to Colorado Springs (through a snowstorm that had me playing a thrilling game of “where the hell is the road”) and feeling so anxious I seriously considered turning around and feigning illness.

I’ve been to lots of conferences for lots of things. I spent a long time in academia and at think tanks that sent me to conferences on things like nuclear disarmament and cyber-terrorism. I worked for associations that hosted their own national conferences. I’ve experienced the truly epic lines and tsunami of people at South by Southwest. And yet, none of these scared me more than PPWC.

Why? Because of that crippling impostor syndrome.

The last fiction work I published was in a magazine for young authors when I was 20. That was [redacted] years ago. And here I was, heading down to what Wiki called one of the top ten writers’ conferences in America. I had, in a moment of insanity, scheduled a read and critique session and made a pitch appointment.

I was 99% certain I was going to get to both and the reviewer/agent/random passersby would snort and say, “Go home Jess, you are drunk.”

It was something Libba Bray hit upon in her speech—this feeling that apparently all writers have, that we’re not “good enough,” not authentic enough, that we’re impostors. We’re not “real writers,” for whatever reason our malicious subconscious concocts. It’s not true, but it feels true, and it sucks.

But, because stubbornness is the better part of bravery, I soldiered on through white-out conditions and made it to the Springs. I showed up at the registration desk and slapped my “Nope, not freaked out, not at all, I’m awesome” smile in place and marched to my first session—the Thursday morning workshop on pitching.

Within about five minutes, I was talking to other writers about everything from dead bodies (can anyone other than writers and law enforcement/forensics conference attendees do this without going to jail?) to the difficulty in pitching your own work to Internet memes. I discovered I wasn’t the only newbie and started to relax.

I was still super nervous when it came time for my R&C, that niggling voice of “They’re all gonna' laugh at you!” itching at my brain. I told it to sit down and shut up, and may or may not have wished for a shot of whiskey. But, alas, I took my sober self into the room and read my pages in a relatively steady voice.

And people laughed. Not at me, but at my writing—in the good way. They laughed where they were supposed to, at the jokes I’d hoped were funny. The criticism I received was solid, constructive, and useful. I also received heaps of praise.

Not a single person told me to go home because I wasn’t a “real writer.” Fancy that.

More than the reassurance I received about my own work, though, I got to hear other people’s writing. And let me tell you something—I know there were only about eight people in my R&C, but y’all are some talented folks. Seriously. I felt honored to be around so many clever, witty, wonderful people.

And that’s really what PPWC boils down to for me. It was a screaming success professionally in terms of the connections I made with editors and agents—as evidenced by the fact that this blog post is nearly two months’ delayed because I’ve been so busy working, writing, for people I met at PPWC. One of my top-choice agents asked to see my work and I didn’t pass out! The panels were fantastic and I took 26 pages of single-spaced notes. I learned things that improved my writing by leaps and bounds.

But what really made it worth it, what really justified the cost and the time and the death-defying drive from Denver, was the attendees.

I made amazing friends. I laughed and shared stories and got to geek out about writing. Lots of speakers talked about how writing is a solitary endeavor, but it’s not just the lack of social interaction that feeds the Impostor Monster and Dragon of Self-Doubt. Humans crave community, and that’s what PPWC gave me—for three days, I was with my tribe. We sang the songs of our people (“Dear god, please don’t let me choke during this pitch session”) and shared our common cultural heritage (“When I die, please delete my search history.”)

I don’t know what other writers’ conferences are like, but that community factor at PPWC was something magical for me, and it’s what will bring me back next year. The theme, “Writing from the Ashes,” spoke to picking yourself up when you’ve been knocked down, but I think there was something else implied there too. We come together in times of adversity—a community born of and tempered by fire.

So to anyone considering attending: do it. I promise you won’t regret it, and it will do wonders to silence your inner villains.

Which, thanks to Libba, now all of my inner villains are also French.


About the Author: Jessica McDonald lives in Denver and spends an inordinate amount of time on Facebook—and gets paid for it. She is a social media strategist, working with authors and businesses. She has published original research and presents to national conferences on how social media really is more than cat videos. When she’s not writing, she spends time with her mad scientist husband, two cats, and dog; playing the cello; gaming; doing outdoorsy stuff; and avoiding adult life as much as possible. She is the author of the urban fantasy novel BORN TO BE MAGIC, and belongs to PPW and RMFW. Find her at her website, on Twitter at @coloradojess, Facebook, or on Tumblr. Or possibly all of those at once.