On Writing Something Good…

imgresYou guys, I gave my first keynote address a few weeks ago at the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference in Cleveland! Even though I’d prepared (a bit obsessively) way in advance, let me tell you something: I was pretty nervous. The theme of the conference was “Reconnect, Recharge, Renew,” and the title of my speech was, “Reconnecting With Your Dreams: That Time I Rewrote the Story of My Life.”

First, let me share with you why I was nervous:

  • I’d never given a speech to a roomful of people before
  • I wasn’t sure my topic (basically just talking about myself) was actually appropriate for a keynote at a writing conference
  • I had some built in laughs that I wasn’t sure were funny
  • I didn’t feel I’d mastered that “look at the audience, not the paper” thing
  • It was pretty personal material

Now, let me share with you what happened:images

  • I  delivered the speech in a relatively self-assured way
  • Afterwards folks told me (repeatedly) that it was exactly what they needed to hear
  • People laughed at the appropriate places
  • Nobody noticed that my hands were shaking a little and that I looked at the paper more than the people
  • I got a standing ovation
  • People thanked me the rest of the weekend

Am I bragging? Well, yes, a little. But besides patting myself on the back, I think there’s something for writers to learn from my experience and I’d like to share that here. After I was asked to do the keynote I was faced with the huge (to me) responsibility of deciding about what I wanted to talk. I think this is basically where all writers begin. What’s the story you’re burning to tell? I had to ask myself, “what is it that only I can speak about?” I mean, I could speak about querying or submitting manuscripts, for sure. I could speak about the things I look for in a manuscript, or what I feel makes a query or manuscript strong or weak or sellable or interesting. I could speak about the things I, personally, am seeking in the slush pile. There are a gazillion things that “Linda Epstein, Agent” could speak about. But I wanted to speak about something of import. I wanted to make a big difference to the people to whom I was speaking.

urlSome people say to “write what you know.” Well, as an introspective person, and as someone who has consciously worked for many years on “improving” myself, I decided to write about context. I gave a speech about contextualizing the life journey that landed me in the position of “literary agent.” In it I shared some personal things about my life, my choices, my thinking, and how really embracing who I know myself to be has not only afforded me the ability to powerfully live my life, but also delivered my current career to me as a gift (replete with pretty wrapping and a sparkly bow).

I think the success of the keynote though, was in telling the truth. This is something that I believe all writers would be well advised to take on. It’s not only that I told the truth about my life, but I wasn’t afraid to bare my soul. Ok, maybe I was afraid, but I did it anyway. So in the case of writing fiction, how does this correlate? It’s not that you should “write what you know,” like stealing from the things that you’ve directly experienced in your life, but more that you want to dig deep to the veracity of your story. The truth about your characters or setting. Authenticity, in dialogue, voice, tone.

20080524125528!GertrudeSteinAnd then there’s the part about taking a risk. I could easily have done a keynote on any of the aforementioned topics. But that wouldn’t have really achieved my goal of making a big difference for people. Perhaps their querying would have improved some or they might have a new nugget of hard information that they didn’t have before. But that wasn’t what I was going for. That shouldn’t be what you’re going for in your writing either. I mean, don’t settle for just writing a story. Take a risk and write from your heart, from the deep recesses of your imagination, from where you’re not sure. Michelangelo and Picasso didn’t play it safe. Neither did Billy Holiday or Kurt Cobain. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Virginia Woolf or Kurt Vonnegut or JK Rowling or Amy Tan or Michael Chabon or even Stephanie Myers.

Does taking my advice guarantee that you, too, will get a standing ovation? Or published? Or the National Book Award? No. No, it doesn’t. But let me tell you something else: you’ll greatly increase your chances of writing something good.




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14 responses to “On Writing Something Good…

  1. Molly Yellin

    I have spoken many times in public and had ovations and people who never stopped talking to one and other. If all these people appreciated what you said than you had a message that they came to hear. How lucky to be the messenger and know that you connected. It is like plugging in the coffee as you can hear that sound that calls to you in the AM. You made a bunch of people percolate with enthusiasm….good show. Decaffeinated ? I don’t think so !! Cousin Molly

  2. Susan

    Terrific post. Continuing to inspire more with your bravery. Congrats on the success.

  3. Wish I’d been there too.

    I’m all for writing outside of my comfort zone–until I actually start to do it. Then I’m still all for it (because it’s pretty much WHY I write), but it makes me happy and miserable in equal measures. So I just hope that, at the very least, it makes for good tension.

  4. There’s so much to be said for honesty, sincerity, and authenticity. Great post to convey that message to our work as writers and to life in general. Sounds like you really nailed the key note. Wish I was there to hear it!

  5. Judy Ratto

    Congratulations, Linda!
    Excellent advice.
    I just decided this week, after three years of editing and tweaking and editing my novel, somebody had to go. He was a minor character, to be sure, but his death would have a profound impact on my middle grade mc. And that was the point.
    It wasn’t easy. After all, how could I write a children’s story where father didn’t know best—because he had died. Why should I burden my mc with this loss? If I could help it, kids, real or imagined, wouldn’t have to deal with the death of a parent at a young age. I write fiction so I can write about happy people. Whether the character had one parent or two wasn’t germane to the story. He’s still the hero. He still saves the day. Regardless of what happened before the first page.
    But, easy or not, it was necessary.
    Now, my mc has more depth. He is no longer a two-dimensional cardboard character. He has a past. He has loved and lost. He is someone the reader can, either commiserate with or feel empathy toward; less picture-perfect; more real.
    Why was it so hard to make a minor change that would be a major improvement to the novel?
    It was so hard because it was personal.
    Who knows what other troubles I may heap on this unsuspecting figment of my imagination, but this, at least, is a start.

  6. Wish I could have heard it!

    My writing motto is not “write what you know,” but “Write what you fear.” It makes for some nerve-wracking stuff.

  7. writeforapples

    I was lucky enough to be in the audience for that speech and it was AMAZING. I believe she inspired every person in that room. 🙂

  8. Dear Linda,

    When I published my first novel, I gave my first television interview, and was asked:
    “How would you describe your relationship to writing?”
    Being a newbie (i.e. incredibly nervous), the only thing that came to mind was something I’d learned from teaching: “There’s a saying in education that you teach who you are.”

    I’ve since realized that I may have thought I was writing who I was until I read another quote that said WE TEACH WHAT WE NEED TO LEARN. I also believe that about writing. This is the authenticity I strive for.

    It certainly isn’t easy and I can’t think of a greater message to impart from your heart.

    Lucky audience members!
    (hope to hear a version of it during the conference in Surrey?!)

  9. Thanks for getting my brain churning this morning and my fingers itching to write. (And congrats on the keynote.)

  10. Congrats on the great keynote!

  11. A timely post for me to read, friend. Thanks. Your honesty is at least half the awesome that makes me love you, so I’m not at all surprised you were a hit!

  12. I think you’re still be modest. A little birdy told me that was only the second standing ovation given in the history of the conference. Wish I could have been there (and not just for the sponge candy!)