I arrived ready.
|One of my illustrations being critiqued at the Eastern PA SCBWI Conference
Sitting in the audience, waiting for the first speaker to start, I chatted with the other attendees. Everyone was really nice, and full of hope. But for some strange reason, this is precisely the moment where I felt discouraged. I used be full of hope in the beginning of the first few conferences. I always left feeling encouraged too. However, I had nothing tangible to show for all the time, money and effort invested in my career or these conferences. I started to believe that this weekend would be the same.
There were many speakers that morning, but only one that broke through my wall of discouragement. His name is Bryan Collier. He told us his path to making books (which is over 20 now I think). Despite being awarded a scholarship to Pratt Institute (huge vote of confidence!), he spent 7 years showing up at publishing houses with his portfolio once a weekâ€“with no offers. He described the yearning, the struggle, the almost moments. He told us that some publishers even acknowledged, in 1990, that picture books don’t sell with black main characters. I couldn’t believe how an industry that is supposed to champion the childâ€“of any background, culture or situationâ€“could be that racist. And in my own lifetime, when my school environment was rich with multicultural awareness.
Finally someone came to their senses, and gave him a chance. His first book, “Uptown,” is poetic and gorgeous. The rest of his books only get better. He talked about one school visit where he asked kids what you need to make a book. Many kids said pencils, paper, etc. But one girl stood up and said, “Purpose.” When he said that, I had goosebumps. I don’t know why I reacted that way. Perhaps it’s because the industry is full of marketing and sales and projections. At the end of all that processing, there is a real child with a real brain, and she wants to read something with purpose.
Bryan talked about another visit where kids were waiting at the door for him. He was in New Mexico, and the children were mostly Latino. They told him they had been waiting for him all their lives. Every other story out there featured white children, but his stories were different, and they connected with his work. Bryan said, there are children waiting for you to tell your stories. Tears welled in my eyes. At the end of his talk, I gave him a “Super Hip” button and told him how awesome he is.
After all the speakers, we had breakout sessions for YA/MG novels or picture books, etc. Bryan led the picture book talk, so I made sure to grab a front row seat. He continued to be amazing and inspiring. The one concept that really hit me though, was after a frustrated illustrator asked a question about how to make progress despite giving it her full effort. He said, and I’m paraphrasing hereâ€“the world is set up to prevent you from making your art. Although that sounds so discouraging, it was freeing to hear. He validated that we have obstacles in our path unlike many other careers. He erased so much frustration in one sentence. He also validated that well-meaning people will drag you down. He said friends and family will tell you to get a real job. Many people in my own family have gently suggested that I go back to what I do best, web design. When venting my frustrations about writing, another family member suggested I find a fellow parent at my son’s school to help. Not an English major, an editor, or a critique group. Just some other random adult connected to me only in that our kids go to the same school. Bryan’s words erased the doubt that my own friends and family had planted in me. I am so grateful for this change in perspective.
After the breakout session, we regrouped in the auditorium for a critique of first pages and illustrations. The panel was made up of ten editors, authors and agents. The first few illustrations and manuscripts were really honestly judged. Since there are no names attached to the work, the panel really dug in deep to discuss the problems. Part way through, I was hoping my illustrations did not get picked since having them projected would reveal so many mistakes.
As luck would have it, I was picked. I was relieved when some of the images made the crowd laugh out loud. Not a bad sign. When the panel really started their critique, I was shocked at how nice they were. The best compliment was Bryan Collier, who said he really wanted to read the story. Yay! I left after the first day of the conference, full of hope, encouragement, and a strange new feeling, pride.
The next day there were no speakers, only critiques by peers, editors, agents and authors. Bryan critiqued my work first, and continued to inspire me. I can’t remember what I paid for this conference, or for all the other ones over the years. But there is no price I could put on that feeling that my choice to be an author/illustrator, was a valid one. (Though still in need of an editorâ€“as this blog post proves.) I walked out of the critique room glowing.
My next critique was with an editor. Instead of polite small talk, she began with (and more paraphrasing here) “I am so happy to meet you!” I almost looked over my shoulder to see who she was talking to. She proceeded to tell me she loved my book dummy, “Quincy Blends Out,” and wants to work with me on it. It was an unreal experience to hear her enthusiasm. In response, I flushed an amazing shade of pinkâ€“just as Quincy wouldâ€“my poor camouflage-challenged protagonist. She probably thought the story was inspired by my blushing. (It was not. It was inspired by those early, socially awkward years.)
So here I am, three days later, sitting at my computer and chronicling my transformation from doubt-riddled author/illustrator just putting one foot in front of the other, to OMG! I have a 4pm call with the editor to discuss other possible endings for “Quincy.”
A little seed has taken root.