Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Senior Year



By Cornelia

Tomorrow I’m flying to New York for the second annual Backspace Writer’s Conference. I still have a lot of laundry to do, and packing, and thinking, and all the usual stuff that backed up over the last few days while I was at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference out here in Corte Madera, California. Plus, I am supposed to be cooking dinner right now.

I remember the first day I attended the Book Passage Conference in 2002. It seemed as though there were over a thousand people there, all of them more knowledgeable about writing and publishing than I was. Everything was blurry and overwhelming, like the cafeteria on the first day of high school. I clutched the hand of my friend Charles King, from writing group in Berkeley.

I took a seat in the store’s events room, notepad ready to write down pearls of wisdom during the introductory session. All the writers were sitting along a high window seat as Book Passage founder Elaine Petrocelli got up to get things rolling.

I was in complete awe, and couldn’t imagine that I’d ever get to be one of those people on the other side of the podium, or even that I’d ever get up the nerve to talk to one any of them: Tony Broadbent, David Corbett, Claire Johnson, Ridley Pearson, Jan Burke, Camille Minichino, Laurie King, Rhys Bowen, Cara Black, Michael Connelly, Sheldon Siegel, George Pelecanos, Ayelet Waldman…

Judy Greber (who writes as Gillian Roberts) and Marilyn Wallace had started this annual gathering of mystery authors, students, and publishing professionals some years earlier. I was in awe of them more than anyone. They were funny and kind and smart and welcoming to one and all.

I had a “finished” manuscript, and had just started querying agents--hoping to get rejection letters that were personalized enough to let me know why they were turning me down, at best. I was generally terrified of everything, and pretty damn certain I’d never be published.

That was four years ago, and I’ve attended this conference every summer since. I can honestly say it changed my life, and if you are interested in writing mysteries, you should try to go even if you have to hitchhike from Pascagoula.

Last week I got to be on the faculty for the very first time, and I hope I’ll be invited back again. I still didn’t sit on the window seat, but took a place on the floor down at one end. It seemed fitting, since I still feel as much like a student as I do one of The Authors.

This summer was my senior year, if you’ll bear with me for continuing the high school metaphor. I think it’s an apt one. I mean, remember what seniors looked like when you were fourteen? They had things like drivers’ licenses and facial hair and stuff. They were often tall. They all knew each other.

Seniors looked, let’s face it, like GROWNUPS. And it’s only when you come back yourself for that final September at your alma mater, aged all of eighteen or so, that you realize maybe they didn’t actually FEEL like grownups, at least all the time.

In real life, I am now old enough to know that most of my teachers in high school probably didn’t feel like grownups MOST of the time. And I also know that those people who were sitting up on the Book Passage window seat behind that dais in the summer of 2002 are actually people, and that just sitting amongst them doesn’t make you feel like An Author, all the time, because nobody does.

You’d implode. It’s a law of nature.

One thing I worried about at Book Passage this year, though, was that people might figure I now knew the Secret Handshake. I wish I did. I wish there were some incantation, some combination of newt eyes and baking powder and gum Arabic you bake at 375 for twenty minutes and voila, you’re published. And happy about it. Because I would like that for EVERYONE who came to the conference, and everyone who wants to get published. Hell, I’d like it for me and my second book.

Here’s the thing: there is no Secret Handshake, and everybody’s nervous. God knows I still am.

And maybe the best thing I heard over those four days this year was something Denise Mina said: we’re all terrified, and if you’re not terrified, you’re not writing as well as you could be. She didn’t mean you have to be leaning over to barf on your shoes every five minutes or so as you type, but that you have to honor your craft and your work--and the people you hope will read that work--with a sense of awe at the responsibility.

I liked that, and I think what she said really is the Secret Handshake of writing. You have to take risks. You have to try harder than you ever thought you’d try at anything. You have to go back again and again to make it better. You have to take criticism gladly. And even if you do all of that, you can’t know how it will turn out.

It’s scary. It should be scary.

It’s also wonderful, and it should be that too.

I got to hang out with amazing people for four days—writers and people who love writing, including Our Jacqueline. Old friends and new friends.

It was nourishment for the soul, and I wanted to bring everyone home with me (except maybe for David Corbett when he read that limerick at the reception, but that’s another story). It was really like getting to be a senior in high school, in the very coolest way.

It reminded me of the Kerouac quote on my high school yearbook page (Class of '81):

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars....

But the main thing about getting to be a senior in high school is, if you’re lucky, that you get to be a freshman again at college the following fall.

And it’s funny how all those seniors in college look like such GROWNUPS, you know? Especially Denise Mina.

12 comments:

  1. You're gonna have to change your avatar if you keep on with this growing up shit. Good on you, Cornelia!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Most excellent post.....love the Kerouac.....

    ReplyDelete
  3. Damn! Are you telling me that all the footage I took with my Nancy Drew Secret-Mini-Looks-Like-Schmutz-On-My-Blouse-High-Powered-And-Did-I-Mention-Small-And-Secret Camera is useless! No Secret Handshake! Come on! What the hell did I spend $600 for anyhow?

    Actually, hanging with you and all the other "seniors" was worth every dime. And I hope it's my first summer of many too.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey Heidi, that actually was schmutz on MY blouse, so I'm impressed. I HAD SUCH A GREAT TIME WITH YOU!!!!

    Angie, no worries about me actually growing up, ever.

    And Rae.... YAY!!! will report back after NYC.

    Gotta go catch my Jetblue plane... thanks guys!!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hey Heidi, that actually was schmutz on MY blouse, so I'm impressed. I HAD SUCH A GREAT TIME WITH YOU!!!!

    Angie, no worries about me actually growing up, ever.

    And Rae.... YAY!!! will report back after NYC.

    Gotta go catch my Jetblue plane... thanks guys!!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Terri Micene7/19/2006 8:51 AM

    Beautifully said. You really captured the essence of that conference.

    For me, the magic of hanging around published people is how normal they are. Scared, funny, convinced that their writing sucks. See, you really are a true author!

    Now I will go back to barfing on my shoes. Er, writing.

    Terri

    p.s. The summer after high school I went to Woodstock so the 'college seniors' I met were covered in mud, naked and high. Growing up didn't seem to be an option.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Cornelia...you probably flew right over my house in NW PA. enroute from Calif. to NY -- Was sitting around in my cast feeling bummed that I couldn't be at Book Passages this year, and hoping you would blog about it. Thanks, big time! I used the time wisely, however, in search for agent, now that I've finished the tear-down, rebuild of mystery I decided to do after reading Hallie's how-to over and over again! Have fun in the Big (Hot) Apple! Elizabeth Lytle, Book Passages 2005 alum

    ReplyDelete
  8. Aw, man, now you're making me wish I had gone this year (never mind the whole thing about not having any vacation days or a book that's anywhere close to finished). Next year, definitely; maybe then I won't feel like such an underclassman.

    Have a bitchin' summer!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hope you're having fun on the other coast. Stay cool!

    ReplyDelete
  10. You have to try harder than you ever thought you’d try at anything. You have to go back again and again to make it better. You have to take criticism gladly. And even if you do all of that, you can’t know how it will turn out.

    Can I get a witness?

    Great post, Ms. Cornelia. But I have a question...

    What the h*ll is that graphic?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Cornelia,

    Thanks for this post which captures how many of us feel about conferences. Except you forgot to mention that aside from being terrified, lots of authors are also PARANOID, which is why I still suspect there is a secret handshake. :)
    Julia

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hey, Cuz--

    Just wanted to serve up a smile at the way your description of your mystery writer confab matches up with my experiences at the [another form of writing] conference which is MY annual Event Not To Ne Missed.

    Far and away the most amazingly empowering aspect of my time at said event ("a different god, a different mountain-top....") is the realization that none of those pros are very much different at all than little old lonely unnoticed unloved unrepped me.

    When a friend breaks through and sends back postcards from that shining city on the hill, it makes me feel warm all over, as it serves as proof that some impossible dreams do in fact come true.

    Continue to rock hard and often, woman.
    .
    .
    .
    B

    (class of '81? Dayum! We're closer than I'd thunk!)

    ReplyDelete