Secrets of the San Francisco Writers Conference Revealed!

The San Francisco Writers Conference was amazing.

Still life with business cards

Still life with business cards

Truth: Ahead of time, I had convinced myself that the event would be pretty stressful, full of intimidating publishing industry “gatekeepers.” I kept thinking, I just have to get through this. I had gotten myself a little worked up by last Thursday, the day the conference started, and even considered popping a Xanax before the first session. But then I went to hear Brooke Warner, Cynthia Frank, Regina Brooks, and other editors both local and from New York talk about writing and editing non-fiction, how to create a memoir book proposal, who to work with, how to categorize your work, and more. I felt immediately happy I’d trekked up Nob Hill on a hot day with a heavy bag (sans Xanax, for the record). The editors were accessible, the content was good, the format was easy, the hotel was nice—it was an utter treat to be there.

This was my first writers conference, and I’d managed to get in as a presenter in the poetry division. Saturday morning, I moderated a panel on “deadly writing habits” and then presented on a panel about how a day job can support one’s writing. Because my duties were fairly limited, I was able to attend all the sessions I wanted on Friday and Saturday: craft (in the sense of, how-to-write) sessions, meet-the-agents sessions, sessions about how to use Twitter and Facebook and other social media to build a writer’s platform. I filled my notebook to the brim with notes, ideas, contacts, questions. I collected a fistful of business cards. I pitched my memoir to five incredibly kind literary agents (three of whom gave me the green light to query them—yeah!). I had a lovely lunch with a book editor I’ve hired, a woman I felt I could be fast friends with (she’s terrific: if you’re looking for an editor, ping me via the contact page or on Twitter and I’ll connect you. Also check out the eatery Harrow, in downtown San Francisco—yum.) I met, paneled with, and read poetry with a wonderful poet from UC Davis, Andy Jones, and spent a lot of quality time with my writing-mom-walking buddy Aya deLeon (who has great news—check out her blog!). I met writers, editors, agents, publishers, teachers, social media experts, and more.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk at the conference about community. In a panel on building a writer’s platform, Andrea Dunlop from Girl Friday Productions, a Seattle-based editing/publishing/coaching business, talked about how the best way to build your writer’s platform (e.g., your stance as someone people will want to read) is to simply be a part of a writer’s community. That means reading your friends’ books, reviewing them, being in a writing group, hosting a reading series, going to readings, supporting your local bookstore, and tweeting and blogging and Facebooking about all of that. It was enormously comforting to me to hear that something as simple as having a thriving community of writers could do wonders for your work. Because I do have that wonderful community. (You know who you are.) And being at the conference was another exercise in community-building. I’d feared it would be about posturing or one-upping, but instead, it just felt supportive, like gates were opening rather than being held closed.

During the conference, I felt so invigorated, despite the fact that I was up at six on both Friday and Saturday mornings and the days went long (and my dinner Friday night consisted of some cheese and charcuterie and about three glasses of wine, which made Saturday’s wake-up less than awesome). During the week in my normal life, I often feel exhausted by working, writing, parenting, and keeping everything together. It felt promising that while at the conference I felt energized, excited, and possible, and that nice feeling stayed with me through a leisurely Sunday and Monday at home with my boys. Of course, questions were raised as well, particularly about the catch-22 that is “the writing platform”: in order to build one, you have to publish a book; but when you try to publish a book, everyone wants to know whether you already have a platform.

That, and other conundrums, will certainly stay with me over the next few weeks as I dig out from the conference: I have emails to send, tweets to tweet, notes to make sense of, ideas to put into fruition. I’ve got a handful of new connections, was just invited to join a writer’s group, and of course have some queries to send out (and a book or two to write). It’s exciting, thought-provoking, and good, and I’m so glad I went.

Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

I got a rejection from a literary magazine the other day. It was simply awful. It was awful because they’d had my essay for eight months, and because the assistant had emailed me three times to tell me that she was grateful for my patience and was passing my work on to the editors and would get back to me soon. For those not in the know, that kind of language usually means, “I have read and liked your piece, so I’m passing it on to the big guns, and I hope they agree with me that we should publish it, but of course we’re all disorganized and the meeting keeps getting postponed.” Sure, the waiting was tedious. But mostly, the rejection was awful because—well, here, read it:

So, I touched base with our assistant editors and they decided it wouldn’t be a good fit at this point for our magazine. After reading it, I tend to agree. You can take this or leave this, but I do want to encourage you to keep writing, and perhaps even put this piece away for a while, and come back to edit it after you’ve written other things. The challenge with this piece is making something that didn’t happen become just as climatic as what ends up happening. Writers that seem to know how to do that well— Jack Kerouac in “On the Road” and pretty much anything written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Thank you for your patience, and good luck on your endeavors.

Dude. I’ve been writing seriously for twenty years. And in one small paragraph I was reduced to….eighteen. Inexperienced. As if I hadn’t heard the whole “put it in a drawer and come back to it later” thing before. As if Kerouac was news to me. As if I hadn’t already “written other things.” But thank God she encouraged me to keep writing, because in that moment I did have the thought that if I can’t fool someone into thinking I have an iota of experience and talent, I probably should just

stop

writing

right

now.

But as my new philosophy for 2014 is to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided that instead of strangling with the desire to write back that if she didn’t think the essay was any good herself, likely she should not have wasted all of our time by passing it on to the editors in the first place, I’d share that rejection here on my blog. There it is, folks. Eat your heart out.

And I got to thinking about rejection.

I have a folder in a file cabinet labeled “Rejections,” and I pulled it out this morning and sifted through it. There are 282 rejections in the folder, which predates electronic submissions and thus represents a small fraction of those I have actually received in my lifetime (now I keep track on an Excel spreadsheet). In that folder I found form slips; form slips with a human signature or a brief quip; and longer, typed, personal letters telling me how close I had gotten. There are rejections from lit mags, from literary contests, from writing fellowships, and from famous magazines that actually gave me the time of day before telling me I just didn’t quite cut it. There were rejections that it was very hard to see again—like the one from 2004 telling me I’d been a runner-up in a prestigious book contest but that ultimately, the judge had chosen the other poet over me. And of course, The Fulbright committee telling me that even though I’d made it to the last stage of the process, they couldn’t fund my year studying poetry in England.

And there were quite a few little gems.

This one, from a famous literary agent, cracked me up not because she said no—I’d expected as much—but because of the dangling participle in the third line:

photo-11

“While interesting, Ms. X did not have enough enthusiasm to take on your book.”

I’m bummed Ms. X is not enthusiastic about my memoir, but I’m sure glad to learn that she’s interesting.

And I loved this one, so chatty, so kind, about an essay I’d written (and forgotten about entirely!) on the poet Louise Bogan:

Bogan

And then there was this one, from a tiny literary mag I am quite sure does not exist anymore. I felt sad that the man’s wife was “gravely ill,” but I thought the gesture of returning my stamp entirely human and kind:

FreeLunch

Thank you, editor. You can see I used the stamp. Probably to send out more poems.

This trip down rejection memory lane has brought home a couple of things for me. The most surprising was the wistfulness I felt, not about having been rejected so many times, but for the period in my life when I felt so optimistic as to send out hundreds of poems every year. For a time when editors wrote sweet notes about moving offices and sick wives. It reminded me that my poetry seemed to get close a lot—many of the rejections are kind, handwritten ones—and it makes me wonder if I gave it up too soon. On the other hand, it reminds me why I did: poetry, with all its rejection, and a readership the size of a rejection slip, was beginning to feel like a dead end.

And I thought about how much better it is to know than to not know. One thing that folder gives me is—I hate this word, but—closure. Nowadays you’re as likely to hear anything at all as you are to hear that you’re being published (which is to say, not likely at all). The radio silence is the worst.

Of course I ruminated on the part that rejection plays in my work and in all writers’ work. In order to get published, you have to send out, and usually, you get rejected. It’s depressing, it’s demoralizing, it’s sometimes soul-crushing, but at the end of the day, it’s also the only way. Some days, I have better luck remaining dispassionate.

And, of course, I thought about the rejection slip as metaphor for life: how many things we fail at, every day. How many times each of us is told no—by a boss, a boyfriend, a crush, an editor, a publisher, a friend, a bureaucrat, a teacher, a student, a kid, a parent, a loan officer, a landlord, a blood test.

I’ll close with one last rejection, that I read and remembered fondly. It’s from a poet who’s pretty well known, who worked for a journal that was also pretty well known, and I recall approaching him at a reading a few months after I got this note. He remembered me, and I thought how cool he was. Though his journal didn’t take my poems, it helped me to hear that at least he thought I was writing “very sweet, very good lyric poems” that he happened to like.

NiceRejection

Here’s to rejections. And lemonade!