Friday is two weeks since the SCBWI conference in LA and I have yet to fully absorb what it meant to me. I had intended to blog about the sessions, share notes with those who couldn’t be there, revisiting the experience as I went. But my notes aren’t cutting it for me. It’s not just that they are inadequate, which they are. Fellow attendees have shared notes that are a model of thoroughness and efficiency. Mine in comparison lose the thread of exact quote even as the speaker finishes the sentence. No, there is the sense that I had an important experience that is slightly beyond my grasp to comprehend. This feeling of being overwhelmed that has haunted me since the conference clearly set in on the conference’s first day if not the night before. I have been thinking and thinking about the meaning of the conference for me, and revisiting keynote speeches for their emotional afterlife.
I keep returning to Donna Jo Napoli’s keynote on writing terrible things, dealing with difficult material for the young reader. Her view is that challenging books are important for the unprotected child:
“One thing about the world is that most children don’t have the power to change their situation. They need to see that non-magical characters cope with challenges, (to see a character) who still manages to be hopeful and hang on to their dignity. It helps the reader to understand that you can live decently within your world, even if it’s only inside your head.”
The protected child needs these books too, in order to develop empathy and understand that they are lucky, not simply entitled.
On the last day of the conference we had an unprotected child speak to us about his life. Gary Paulsen has written about his extraordinary life in memoir as well as in his books for children. Re-read Hatchet or any of his books. His is a spirit not only of survival, but of adventure and fearless pursuit of experience, mostly in the wild places of this earth. Unsentimental, unvarnished, bitterly funny and a crackerjack narrative, his talk has stayed with me as I go through my days of work and writing. His passion for writing and storytelling is as elemental as his connection to nature.
Judy Blume is a wellspring of cheer and support for other writers and their process. Filling in at the last minute for a presenter who had fallen ill, she talked about her long career, the compulsion that led her to write and how her practice has changed with the advent of the digital age. She has cheerfully embraced social media but is trying with her current book to return to writing the first draft straight through without rewriting as she goes – a pitfall of the ease of writing on the computer. Along with Laurie Halse Anderson she spoke of being constantly ill before she settled into writing, and how wellness came with the writing practice.
I loved her faith in the knowing heart that serves the writer by internalizing truth and experience, and can be called upon in the writing. She admonished us to take notes if we liked but to go home and simply write. We would know what we needed to, as we wrote. It was clear that in the writing she revisits childhood and her youthful self, engages fully with the age she is writing for – she referred to the fun of “being” the age of the character she was writing.
Finally, Richard Peck. Dry, erudite, witty and all heart – what successful writer for young people is not? He spoke passionately about reading and storytelling, and once again of acknowledging the reader’s experience, difficult as it might be. This has stayed with me:
“Unless you find yourself on the page early in life you will go looking for yourself in all the wrong places.”
Despite excellent and inspiring keynotes and presentations on craft and the writing life, I was most deeply moved by these writers who spoke to the child and their reality. Every day when I open up my laptop to write I remind myself of the need to bring this to the work. To put it first, before opening the tool kit of structure and characterization and plot and theme. So grateful for that reminder.