I was able to go to the big SCBWI National conference for the first time this summer in LA. It was amazing! The speakers, the authors, the people! It was … overwhelming. I took in as much as I could in 5 days and walked away exhausted, stunned and (dare I say it) zombified. It’s taken me a few days to let it all soak in until my brain got prune-y. WHAT was my take-away?
Well, it wasn’t 1 thing. It was a LOT of things. SO I’ve boiled it down to 7 thoughts that I found resonating over and over throughout the conference.
1) Find your Tribe!
You guys! It’s AMAZING to be surrounded by over 1,000 people who all have the same goals and desires you do. I met so many friends and was overwhelmed at the powerful sense of community around me. These people GOT me. They were my tribe.
Writers and Illustrators work alone. We are used to being alone. We are mostly introverts and LIKE being alone. BUT we forget that we don’t HAVE to do this journey alone. In fact, we NEED connection. We need a community to support us when we get rejected, push us when our first drafts are terrible and need to be improved, and lean on when times are rough. The greatest writers have already figured this out. They’ve culminated a group of other writers who can understand their struggles.
You don’t need to go to a conference to find this (though conferences help). You can find your tribe online (like a Facebook Group) or at critique groups (like monthly ones via SCBWI). Find your tribe.
2) Be Yourself!
Vanessa Brantley-Newton opened the conference with the most rousing speech I’ve ever heard. She was the first to say this:
Sean Qualls also talked about this quite a bit. As a self-taught artist, he suffered from doubt and had a rocky path to success. He has reached a point though where he too can say, “Accept yourself! What makes you unique may make you stand out in a crowd.” I heard this over and over. Your style, your voice, will be the uniqueness that will be your path to success.
Even Kwame Alexander said it took him a while to figure out his voice and style, but it was worth pursuing. Your way is different from everyone else’s, but it can still be the voice that speaks to readers. PURSUE IT.
3) Be Obsessed!
Sean Qualls was the first to encourage everyone to pursue their passions. “Do something you love and keep thinking about it.” He gave the example of Ezra Jack Keats thinking about a photo of a little boy (who would become Peter) for 20 years before he wrote “The Snowy Day.” It’s obsessions like this that lead to great things in our writing and our illustrations. Jane Yolen once said that you have to write for yourself first, as you may never have an audience.
Sean Qualls went a step further. “Do art for YOURSELF. Do something you love that maybe no one else will ever see.” Enjoy yourself in your craft. If you don’t, why bother? Have fun!
4) Be Brave!
Once again, the amazing Vanessa Brantley-Newton gave the greatest illustration of this concept. She told a story of a little goat stuck in a well that I’ve heard many times before (but she put her own spin on it).
You can’t let anything hold you back. You’ve got to shake it all off and keep stepping up. Agent Alexandra Penfold talked about being brave and unlocking the right words to tell your story. Stephanie Garber talked about doing what you’re afraid of. But it was Kat Yeh’s story of going to her first conference and staying in her hotel room because she was too afraid to go out amongst all the other people that stuck with me the most.
As LeUyen Pham said, “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not going to grow.” You’ve got to come OUT of your room to learn. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone, sometimes even out of your own way, to write and illustrate truly great material.
5) Keep Showing up on the page!
Sean Qualls said you need to the daily work if you want to see improvement. In fact, he learned very early on from one of his mentors that talent is NOT enough. “You have to work twice as hard to push yourself. Or those without talent who keep working daily will pass you by.”
Daily work leads to improvement. Don’t know what to write or draw daily? Experiment! Play! You will only learn new techniques or find favorite new materials if you do so. Push yourself. Doodle! Raul Colon accidentally discovered his book “Draw!” by doing just that. Free yourself up to discover and you might be surprised what you find.
6) Be Willing!
Agents are looking for someone who is willing to revise. Editors are looking for someone willing to compromise. And most importantly, if you don’t want to end up an internet joke, you need to be willing to learn new things. Don’t stop at what YOU think is perfect. Learn to do it all better. Learn all you can about the craft and then APPLY it. Never stop learning.
7) This is a journey.
There are MANY stories of success out there. Each one of them is different and not a single one of them will be yours.
You will have a story unlike anyone else’s and people will love hearing about it someday.
But this whole process is a journey. There are steps to publication. There are steps after publication. The journey never stops. It is long and twisty. It is hard, with a variety of challenges. So most importantly you need to take care of yourself. As Deborah Johnson says, “You cannot create out of an empty vessel.”
After this conference, I’m SO inspired. I’m continuing on with my own journey, walking my own path and finding my own way. We have a local conference in September. Are you coming? What will be YOUR take away? Will you be a part of my tribe?