I spent months looking forward to the SCBWI New York Winter Conference
(my first one on the East Coast), fussing over my manuscript, making hasty revisions and re-revisions and later (just as hastily) restoring the much-butchered files to their original glorious disorder. I had also become aware of the great lack of warm winter clothes in my closet and the even greater lack of said items in my favorite downtown shops. With ferocity I packed layers upon layers of sweaters, scarfs, tights and ponchos (those proved especially comfy and toasty) -- California's perpetual summer made me spoiled and alarmingly thin-skinned. No matter. I was ready to brave New York's blustery winter chill, to endure hours of turbulence at 33,000 feet above ground and even (gasp!) to face rounds of critiques by my peers and publishing professionals alike. All for the love of words. Most storytellers are a fearless lot and, as a writer-friend insists -- self-punishing.
From the smooth, easy flight to the balmy, sunlit days awash in cool blue light (no frost! hardly any snow!) to the inspiring keynotes to the roundtable critiques friendly in spirit and rich in feedback, the conference proved an experience full of surprises -- all pleasant. The halls, the conference rooms and the very intimate-feeling workshops brimmed with positivity. The kind that makes one want to pick up a pen and start scribbling away on any loose bit of paper, the kind that truly inspires. Yet, despite all that nurturing of intent, despite all that validation of purpose, the speakers didn't glaze over the harsher realities of writing -- writing takes work, no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grinding-stone work; months, years, perhaps decades of honing your craft, of enriching your palette, of slowly growing rhinoceros-thick skin by experiencing failure, after failure, after failure.
The subject of failure, or rather the fear of failure, struck an all-too-familiar chord with many attendees (after all, the paths of artists and writers are often paved and painted with it) and became the focus of Kate Messner's fantastic lecture "On the Spectacular Power of Failure". Spectacular, indeed. I might as well call it crippling. Or paralyzing. But... inspirational? Hardly. Ms. Messner put a fear so many of us know on a first-name basis in an entirely new context. And her seemingly hopeless premise blossomed into an ode to hard-work, perseverance, and, above all -- fearlessness. Only by embracing our missteps can we ever hope to reach our destination. So true. Lives are meant to be lived to the fullest and writers are meant to venture out and take chances. Fear of failure keeps us from realizing our full potential, of discovering what we might have to offer; it is a lock that guards the vault of our minds. If none of us ever feared taking risks, what would we accomplish? What would we learn? Teach? Create? How free would we be to pursue our dreams? How brave? Failure often becomes the much-needed catalyst that pushes us in an unexpected direction, opens us to a myriad of new possibilities; suddenly one path branches out into a thousand new roads, one idea splits into a dozen visions. It can be a strangely positive, transformative force. A threshold to success, even.
"How so?" you may ask.
~Failure tells us that we're going in the right direction.
~Failure teaches us to ask for help.
~Failure brings us together as a community of writers.
~Failure teaches us to celebrate the dance.
~Failure lets us be role models.
Failure is... one of life's many experiences,
an experience that shapes, tempers and enriches us. And the following
lessons help us master the courage needed to walk towards our goals
despite how often, or how hard, we fall:
Lesson #1. Be Brave! But it's okay to be afraid.
If you're not nervous, it's not worth doing.
Lesson #2. Never underestimate the power of failure.
As writers and illustrators we set all sorts of bars for ourselves with the statement: "If I could just…"
If we keep moving the bar, we can turn anything into a failure. We cheat ourselves of our many successes.
Lesson # 3. Instead of focusing on failure, celebrate your successes no matter how small.
In her talk, Ms. Messner cited Art and Fear.
Consider this quote from the book: “You learn how to make your work by making your work.”
It's as simple as that. Keep at your craft no matter how frustrating or futile it might seem; you learn by making mistakes. By trying and failing. Making art is daunting, it is hard, sometimes terrifying (otherwise, everyone will be doing it). It is also incredibly rewarding. Fulfilling. Joyous. Liberating. As close to magic as we'll ever come. Totally worth those bleak moments of self-doubt. Those sleepless nights and shadows under the eyes. Ray Bradbury said it best, "You fail only if you stop writing."
And another quote from the book that, to me, spoke true: "Art making involves skills that can be learned. ... Even talent is
rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of
“A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd.
For me (in addition to Ms. Messner's keynote), the highlights of the conference had to be author Jack Gantos' witty and warm account of his journey as a writer, Nikki Grimes' speech on Patience, Perfection and Poetry (and daydreaming), wonderfully informative workshops on world-building and character development, those initially dreaded critiques that allowed glimpses into the works (and wild, wild minds) of my very talented peers. The thrill of meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends at the Gala Dinner/mixer, the pleasure of picking out new books in the vast and well-stocked conference bookshop and, of course, oohing and ahhing over gorgeous works in the Illustrators Portfolio Showcase with my favorite husband-friend (Troy made time in his ridiculously busy schedule to accompany me to New York! Best. Husband. Ever!!!) were extra icing on a delicious, multi-layered cake. Mmm... cake. Next year, I will definitely be returning for another slice!
Illustrations by Lori Nichols
winner of the Illustrator Portfolio Showcase