Some Musings Before Muse

There are two events in Boston that I look forward to every year, events that frame all the other days that blend into a blur of kung fu classes and mornings in bustling cafes, walks past community gardens in Jamaica Plain and evenings at home, knitting and watching episodes of anime and Battlestar Galactica.

The first is Anime Boston, when hoards of geeks cosplaying as their favorite characters from video games and manga and movies crowd the Prudential and the streets in Back Bay, carrying elaborate weapons and props they constructed in their parents basements. Strangers dressed as characters from the same anime will gleefully embrace one another. Dozens of people dressed as Storm Troopers and Mario will slap hi-five with Harry Potter and girls in lolita dresses as they ride the escalator in opposite directions.  When someone shouts “MARCO!” hundreds of people cry back, “POLO!”  There’s a feeling of community and acceptance, where anyone is welcome.

I love Grub Street’s annual Muse and The Marketplace Conference for the exact same reason.

You probably wouldn’t think that a conference of writers would share much in common with a convention of anime fans.  Writers certainly don’t show up at the Park Plaza wearing faux fox tails or donning flashing LEDs.  The panels and workshops at Muse are led by award winning authors and distinguished editors– and although many respected animators and voice actors make appearances at Anime Boston, many of the attendees disregard these events and head straight for the exhibit hall where they can play xBox among friends for six hours without interruption.

What these events share is a sense of belonging.  When I arrived at my first Muse conference three years ago, I settled at a table for breakfast so shaky and nervous I practically spilled my coffee.  I was a couple years out of college, working as an after school teacher and writing in the morning, absorbed with a feeling of inadequacy because I had not finished a project or had any work published.  As I introduced myself to other writers, people who seemed older and more self-assured, some married with children, professionals who had established careers and still managed to get published, I realized we disregarded our differences to listen to each other, happy to share what we had in common.

Both Anime Boston and the Muse conference are attended by people who are passionate about their interests.  Many, although certainly not all, identify as introverts or underdogs or the otherwise misunderstood who are relieved to have conversations about their interests without worrying about the judgment of other people.  To many it’s a relief to share your experiences about your latest revision dilemma or finding the time to draft new work between shifts at your day job.  Not only are you not judged, but you are understood.

For me, both events feel like coming home.  It’s awesome.

I registered for one day of Muse this year, sacrificing my typical weekend pass for the chance to get feedback on the first 20 pages of my manuscript from an editor and an agent.  When I checked my inbox and received my itinerary confirming the workshops I registered for and meeting times for my feedback sessions, my stomach dropped.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, I knew who I requested to meet with and the Grub office assistant, Rowan, told me who I should address my queries to–but still.

For the past five years I have been preparing my work to meet with publishers.  I’ve attended workshops and lectures, spent hours writing and re-writing, shared my work with friends.  I thought about writing and read until my eyes hurt.  I did everything I could to get better.  I am starting to see the result of my hard work–but still.

Seeing the times and places on my itinerary, I was struck by the reality that I was going to actually meet these people, they were actually going to read my work, and they were actually going to tell me what was good– and bad– about it. They could tell me anything.  They could tell me to quit and go home, never pick up a pen again.  They could tell me I have a lot of promise, and for a moment I indulged in a fantasy about signing some ridiculous book deal before the conclusion of our 20-minute sessions.  I was resting the fate of my whole career on these two meetings.

No wonder I started to feel nervous.

Staring at my itinerary last Saturday, I knew I needed to get a grip.  If nothing else, I couldn’t live a whole week on edge with high anxiety.  I went to kung fu to blow off some steam, followed by dinner with my dad.  We ate burritos at Whole Foods, sitting by the window on the last chilly day of April.  When I told him about my upcoming meetings, he looked me straight in the eye.

“It’s about you,” he told me.

“Yeah, I guess,” I shrugged.  “Me and my pen and pad of paper.”

“No,” he insisted, holding out his palm in protest.  “Just you.”

I’ve been thinking about his comment.  Just you.  These words have become my anchor when I am tempted to become uncomfortably optimistic (hand me a pen, of course I’ll sign a contract) or wildly anxious (what if they make me cry).

I might mention here that one of the most helpful bits of writing advice, and the other thing that has kept me centered this week, was a quote from one of Grub Street’s micro-interviews.  Grub Street has been counting down to Muse with a series of micro-interviews with authors, agents, and editors who will be presenting at the conference. Author Debra Spark, said– “Don’t be too full of yourself.  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  Try to get atleast 20 minutes of aerobic exercise every day.  And floss your teeth.”  Kudos to Debra, she whittled what I have been trying to figure out and sharing in this blog for the past year into a near haiku.  But this too, has helped keep me grounded this week.

Just me.  My dad was right.  I know, despite all my effort connecting with other writers, attending workshops and readings and conferences and tweeting (which I’m clearly still adjusting to and a little resentful of), I return to my writing desk, alone.  Just me.

What he also meant, aside from the solitary nature of this craft, was that my writing is more than just the product of consistent effort and applied determination, but years of making mistakes, falling in love, staying up too late, waking up too early, trying and failing at being a perfectionist, eating strange and delicious food, reading a ton of books, sitting in the bath, learning Chinese, making a mess in the kitchen, traveling the world, doing the unexpected, taking risks and trying to figure out who I am and what this whole life thing is all about.

My writing is my entry into the world, and maybe it’s best expressed by this image, which I shared before but think about every day–

The conference will come, and I will go, and then I will return to my desk, alone.  I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep doing the work.  I’ll look forward to next year and I won’t stop writing because I love this life and there is no other life I would rather live.