You 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:
- 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.
Some 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.
And 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.