Monday, May 7, 2007

Conference Cacophony

cacophony: a harsh and discordant sound

Yep, that could describe our emotional rumblings when we think about conferences.

Should I go? Do I really want to go? Should I invest the money? Should I sacrifice the money? Will it be worth my while? Am I ready? Do I really know how to write? Will I know anyone there? Will anyone talk to me?

I've attended many writers' conferences, but one stands out in my memory. The Golden Triangle Writer's Conference in Beaumont, Texas. Editors and agents from New York were to be in attendance, as well as big name authors, all willing to share everything they knew about writing that best seller. My friend Barbara and I planned to squeeze right into the mix. All we needed was just the right look—no wide-eyed naïve gawking from us. We’d honed our pitch and hoped to exhibit just the right amount of charisma because everyone knows important people are drawn to charisma.

Personally, I’ve always been short on charisma. That’s something that’s eluded me from the beginning. I tend to stand back and listen because I was taught that one learns more from listening than speaking. After meeting Barbara I doubted that was true.

Barbara and I met at a writer’s meeting in Lafayette, Louisiana. She was boldly attractive with very short red/blond/brown hair combed straight up. That should have been a sign. She wore a huge heavy bracelet on one wrist, gaudy necklace and earrings, and she had the liveliest eyes I'd ever seen.

“Hi, I understand you know everything there is to know about writing,” she challenged.

That alone made me want to scurry out the door. I did know about writing, but I’d taught myself by reading the trade magazines, and even though I'd had some nonfiction published, I wasn’t exactly secure in my little bit of knowledge. Before I could respond, Barbara moved on to her next thought.

“Why don’t I come over to your house tomorrow and you can look at some of my work and tell me what you think.”

Not knowing how to gracefully turn down this aggressive, fearless wannabe, I mumbled something that she mistook for okay. Barbara showed up bringing a sack lunch and eighty-five pages of her novel. That was the beginning of a very special friendship.

So, standing in the luxurious Atrium of the Holiday Inn in Beaumont, Texas, we two unpublished novelists looked at each other and grinned as if we had the world by the tail.

“The Golden Triangle Writers’ Conference,” I whispered in awe. “We’re here.”

“The crème de la crème of conferences,” she answered, then suddenly got that look in her eyes. “You know, if I just had a set of long nails, I could do anything! You’d think I clawed wood or something the way these things look.” She held up her hands to prove her point. They looked okay to me but off to Wal-Mart we hurried to visit the Sally Hansen aisle and find Barbara just the right length of confidence. As if she needed one ounce more.

The conference seminars were to begin early the next morning, but there was a mixer that night where we would have the opportunity to mingle as we juggled a plate of finger foods and a glass of punch. Barbara and I had practiced telling each other about our novels in twenty five words or less, being sure to get the goal, motivation and conflict in there somewhere. In our rooms, we primped and giggled and imagined what we would do once we became famous writers, and then Barbara read the program just one more time.

"Hey, there's a theme. We're supposed to dress Hawaiian! Where are we supposed to get our hands on grass skirts and coconut bras?” she shouted. She looked around our hotel room as if some might materialize.

I held up my dress. “Hawaiian enough?”

“Absolutely not. You'll look like you came in from Mexico or Cuba – maybe even Haiti.”

She was right. I had brought an odd little number that looked suspiciously like I should be doing the Mexican Hat Dance.

“But mine isn’t much better.” Barbara held up a dreary, dark blue dress. It didn’t fit her charismatic personality at all.

“My mother made it for me. It doesn’t even feel right.”

Suddenly, right before my eyes, Barbara ripped her dress. The sleeves flew across the room. The bodice sailed into the air. I wondered if she thought our chances of getting an agent had been destroyed because we wouldn’t be wearing grass skirts and coconut bras, but that wasn’t the case at all. Barbara was creating a dress more compatible with her personality.

We laughed ourselves into a stupor while getting dressed. I wore my red, white, black and yellow Mexican/Haitian/Cuban dress that fell into three tiers and flared at the bottom, and some of Barbara’s flamboyant jewelry. Totally not me. Barbara wore the bottom of her blue dress with a colorful blouse. One long sleeve was tied around her waist like a cummerbund. She wrapped the other around her head. Outrageous earrings dangled from her ears and both arms were adorned with wild bracelets. She looked as if she needed a platter of fruit on her head.

We left our hotel room and entered the elevator. Down, down, down we went where we would enter the Atrium filled with important people. The hotel doors opened and together Barbara and I made our grand entrance. But wait. No grass skirts. No coconut bras. Not one Hawaiian shirt in the crowd.

I wanted to scurry back to our room, but Barbara didn’t seem to notice that we were the only ones in costume. With her head held high, chin jutting, she made her way to the banquet table of finger foods. I followed but my head wasn’t held as high and my chin didn’t jut an inch. Barbara proceeded to fill her plate and talk as if she wore sleeves on her head every day, while mingling with the rich and famous. We were back to the original plan.

All we needed was just the right look—no wide-eyed naïve gawking from us. We would act and sound just as professional as anyone there, and we planned to exhibit just the right amount of charisma.

We didn’t get agents that night, but many years later, Barbara and I are still laughing about our favorite writers’ conference. None have been as special or as much fun as the one in Beaumont, Texas. And no one has taught me as much about creativity as my friend Barbara did when she ripped the sleeves off that ugly blue dress and wore them on her head.

After writing and selling eight books, my friend Barbara is no longer writing, but she's still marching to her own beat. She's a flea market dealer. Of course, she calls herself a treasure hunter. I'm sure you probably know after reading this true story, my friend Barbara is the treasure. :)

My conference wish for each of you is this: Make it what you want it to be. Don't take yourself too seriously, laugh a lot, enjoy every minute with every person you meet, have fun, and learn. Don't go home disappointed. There's always another conference right around the corner.


Sandra Robbins said...

What wonderful memories of your first writers conference! I have some favorites, too. One involves my roommate losing her ticket for lunch at last year's ACFW conference. I didn't know if she was going to be able to talk her way into the dining room past the guard at the door. Now who was that woman? LOL


upwords said...

And I will never forget MY first writers conference, with you as a roomie! I never would have made it without you. And our theme was Texas, wasn't it? LOL