"Challenge every word you write, forget about publishing and have fun," Tom Robbins told us at lunch on Saturday as he lounged in a chair on the stage, looking more hipster than octogenarian. His words echo the ones I have been telling myself lately, and as I ride the train back to New York, leaving Richmond, Virginia and the James River Writers' Conference I feel invigorated by my time with other writers on every stage of the journey.
From pre-published to poet laureates and everything in between, we are one big writing community.
It was thrilling to be asked to be a speaker and panelist, to travel and make new friends, and stay with old ones (Kristi and Adam Austin. Kristi got me down to Richmond after EDGES came out, and as conference chair, brought me down again.)
I arrived in time for a cocktail party on Friday night, held in a grand old Southern house where I had some fabulous one on one conversations with the incredible Eleanor Brown (Weird Sisters), Josh Cane, agent Ayesha Pande and I met debut author Kristen-Paige Madonia (Fingerprints of You) and Gigi Amateau (Come August, Come Freedom). It was inspiring to learn about the James River Writers and how it came to be, how the torch has been passed and that now they are celebrating the tenth conference. (I'd love to have something like this in Westchester!)
Saturday was my opportunity to soak in the whole conference and meet lots of people. I had never been to a conference like this before and I was amazed. Allan Wolf blew us away with his performance poetry in the opening session, followed by "First Pages", a panel where two agents and an editor gave feedback on some brave writer's first page of their manuscript. I hadn't realized that agents and editors make a habit of going to conferences to find talent. (I know, where have I been?) So all of you pre-published authors, get thee to a conference! (I know that Tom Robbins says not to worry about being published, but it can't hurt to network!)
There were two success stories on display from the conference of 2009 where authors Jeri Watts and Lana Krumwiede (Freakling) met their respective editor (Liz Bicknell) and agent (Molly Jaffa with Folio) and are now published authors with Candlewick!
It was a whirlwind of fun and of sharing ideas, and we didn't stop. A bunch of us went out to dinner in downtown Richmond, and got to bed very late!
And guess who else I met - Malinda Lo! (Ash, The Huntress, Adaptation) She is the coolest.
On Sunday morning, it was Camisha Jones' turn to blow us away with her spoken word poetry - she is relatively new to the scene, but this is someone to watch out for - surely a prodigious talent! Later that morning I had the opportunity to be on a panel with her called, Finding the Time, Keeping the Faith. Joining us were editor Cherise Fisher and Jeri Watts. We all had a great time, having much to say on the subject! (I brought my glitter with me, and even anointed another young writer at the end!) I led a lunchtime discussion on teaching creative writing and then I was on another panel called Creating Atmosphere with Virginia poet laureate Kelly Cherry and author Emily Mitchell (The Summer of the War).
The conference closed with Pitch-a-palooza, the American Idol of pitches as created by husband and wife team David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut (The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published). I heard that several authors were asked for partial or full manuscripts - awesome!
I was even able to meet with my friend Randy, songwriter and singer for Lamb of God for a strong cup of coffee and intense conversation about the value of art and our obligations as human beings. He spent the month of July in a prison in Czeckoslavakia - you can read the Rolling Stone article here.
On that tantalizing note, Randy got me back to Kristi and we went out for pizza with some of the JRW crew to celebrate the completion of a successful conference. I'm so proud of Kristi, and I hope to be invited back next year!
Now I'd better practice what I preach and use the rest of my time on the train for fiction writing - although Malinda's book Adaptation is calling me . . .