I sat in a bustling, cavernous ballroom, pen in hand, poised to capture enough knowledge to improve my writing and enough energy to get me through the next Canadian winter. It was my first time at the SCBWI Summer Conference, so didn’t know what to expect… but it wasn’t “We Will Rock You.”
It quickly became clear why that anthem had been chosen, though, because they did. The faculty I met and friends that I made rocked me to the depths of my writerly soul.
Mem Fox started it. I cried twice during her speech – once during the reading of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, which perfectly captures how it felt to watch my grandfather experience Alzheimer’s, and once when she told of meeting a mother who saw her own son in the star of Wombat Divine. Fox’s speech was the quintessential testament to both the joy of story time and the power – and importance – of children’s books.
It seemed impossible that any other moment that weekend could top her opening keynote. But there were moments as inspiring, as enlightening, as heart-tugging, and as laughter-inducing in almost every session:
- Meg Wolitzer’s admonition to write about what obsesses us, and as freely as if everyone we know were dead (and therefore unable to judge!)
- When Barry Goldblatt said that creative time is a gift to ourselves that will someday be a gift to the world, giving us permission to horde and protect those precious hours
- Dan Santat’s story about passing up a job with Google to follow his passion for illustrating children’s books… and winning a Caldecott
- Varian Johnson’s colour-coded schedule, and advice to show up for work even when the muse calls in sick
- When Shannon Hale showed us her collection author stalking photos – proof that even the most accomplished among us are fan girls (and boys) at heart!
And these diamond-bright moments weren’t limited to keynotes and panels and breakouts. I met Stephen Fraser in the elevator and stood in line for the bathroom with Jodi Reamer. I sat next to a science teacher who’d shaken Obama’s hand while receiving a Presidential Teaching Award the day before, and spent serious quality time with a critique partner I’ve worked with for five years but met in person only twice before.
I learned the deceptively simple secret to transportative fantasy world building from Shannon Hale, and listened in awe as Linda Sue Park gave the only concrete definition of “voice” I’d ever heard – a definition that actually explained how to get one! I discovered new techniques for maintaining narrative tension, and new ideas for bringing my characters off the page and into three-dimensional life. I came away from these sessions buzzing with fresh ideas and new strategies that will take my work in progress – and all future works in progress – to a level that, before this conference, I could recognize in others’ work, but never achieve in my own.
As I sat in that same cavernous ballroom waiting for Kwame Alexander’s closing keynote to begin, I paged through my notes, heart and mind brim-full of new ideas and experiences. I didn’t think anything could be left to add to what I’d already heard. Once again, I was proven delightfully wrong. His story-in-basketball-metaphors made me feel, more than anything else that weekend, that I was part of a community – member of a team with the common goal of bringing fresh, funny, universal, emotionally-resonant stories into children’s lives. And I promised myself that when the dark days come for me, as they come for us all, I’ll remember his advice and dance through the rain.
As the summer conference began, the faculty shared single words that they felt captured the spirit of the journey we were about to take together. As it ended, only one word could properly encapsulate the impact SCBWI LA will have on my writing and my life.