On Saturday I got to go to the Willamette Writers conference banquet to accept my first-ever prize for writing! I found out on my birthday that I’d won first prize for poetry at the Kay Snow Awards. It was just about the best birthday present ever. The news did a lot to bolster my confidence, in terms of my writing and also by justifying my decision to major in creative writing. I’ve been able to apply what I learned in college as communication skills in the workplace, but it’s been hard to find opportunities to make “real” writing successful. This was the first, and I don’t intend for it to be the last.
To keep my mind off the possibility of embarrassing myself in front of famous Oregonian writers I’d never heard of (turns out I didn’t meet any) or flubbing my poem (didn’t have to read it), I naturally focused on what to wear.
There were a few things to consider:
1) Oregon is not the most fashionable of states. I wanted to look nice, but not get glared at for looking like I was trying too hard.
2) It was safe to assume I would be one of the youngest people attending, aside from the winners from the youth categories, and I wanted to dress accordingly. Again, I wanted to look nice, but not get glared at for looking like I was trying hard.
3) How formal was this banquet supposed to be, anyway? Judging by the previous year’s photos, the formality level varied hugely, and I always like to get dolled up…but I wanted to not get glared at for looking yeah you get the idea.
So I went with this:
I actually got this dress to wear for Kevin’s cousin’s wedding coming up in a couple weeks. I went through every store in my budget trying to find something, but I’d avoided this dress because sheath dresses tend to make my shoulders look like knives. After buying and returning two dresses, scouring Clackamas, and making multiple trips to multiple Targets, I finally decided to see what this would look like on me. It was a perfect fit! The softer scoop neck makes it a lot more forgiving on my frame than the usual boat neck, and the color is a fun new one for my wardrobe. I like the many opportunities it presents for belting, too, and although I don’t really understand why dresses need pockets, I have to admit they’re fun to play with.
With that hurdle cleared, I was able to obsess over the actual banquet. I was already intimidated because it would involve mingling, something I’m not great at, and I’d be mingling with people who might be famous and who I probably should have heard of, which could end in disaster. I wasn’t sure if other Linfield students would be there, although I had my fingers crossed that one or two professors might go.
No luck. The foyer was packed with unfamiliar faces, all in groups, all talking about their latest projects and schmoozing with the event coordinators. I was probably one of three adults under 25 in the whole building. My heart leapt while scanning the conference schedule because Miguel Tejada-Flores was going to be teaching a class during this conference. He taught (and hopefully still teaches) the Jan Term class on screenwriting at Linfield, and his was probably the only name I’d be able to drop.
And…he’d had to cancel.
So I took some deep breaths and loitered around with Kevin until we were able to take our seats. At that point I was finally able to introduce myself without feeling like I’d be interrupting someone’s very important conversation, and things went well from there.
(Although apparently the time I chose to go to the bathroom during the banquet was when Gus Van Sant went up to accept his award for Distinguished Northwest Writer. D’oh.)
Chatting with the conference attendees at our table brought up a new challenge, though: they were all unarguably writers. Everyone at this conference is seriously dedicated to writing. They come to these conferences with completed projects (yes, multiple projects) to pitch. (There’s even an award for the attendee who makes the most pitches during the weekend – this year’s winner made twelve.) They come to take classes to perfect their craft. Agents for novels and screenplays come from all over the west coast to find all the talent that apparently comes to this conference. (Agents come from California to find screenplays because it’s too hard to weed them out in California, and Californian screenwriters come for the same reason. It’s that big.) YA authors, thriller writers, romance novelists, poets, writing-as-therapy instructors, and more were all in attendance. Even some of the other Kay Snow winners are already published, or nearly so.
And me? I was having a hard time explaining the plot of the book I started three years ago (the thesisbook) and how I’d rewritten it four times because I’ve never been able to distill down into a couple sentences what it’s actually about. I had to explain that I didn’t identify myself as a poet, that it may be something I’m good at but it’s not something I do regularly.
Honestly, for most of the night, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. I felt like I’d won on a fluke. All the attendees around me were people who have had the guts to do this for a living, people who have not pussyfooted around with their lives whimpering about money or fear of failure or impressing people. They may have worked for a job they hated for a few years, but sooner or later they couldn’t look themselves in the mirror anymore and decided to finally do what they felt they were meant to do.
I haven’t done that yet, and it made me feel like a fraud.
It took the keynote speaker, Robert Dugoni (author of “The Cyanide Canary“), to jar me out of my self-pity. He said exactly what I have thought of as my reason for writing, but had never vocalized because I didn’t think it sounded like a real reason; he said, in more or less these words: “We feel something, and we want others to experience that feeling, so we write.” It resounded with the advice Lex always gave us in class, in two parts: write what you know, but above all, write what you like. It was those words that convinced me to write a YA steampunk-esque story about political corruption, large-scale war, and psychic espionage instead of my Great American Novel about family dysfunction.
And there was Dugoni, a man who worked in law for years before finally admitting to himself that what he really wanted to do was write, reaffirming everything every writing teacher I’ve ever had has said before, but which I’d never really let myself believe.
After that I was finally able to look at my certificate and say I have earned this. I write and I am good at it. I am not a fluke and I am not a fraud. No, I’m not published, and I haven’t come close to finishing a manuscript, but I am a winner, which takes just as much luck and skill as every other writer. I got home, put that certificate in a frame, and put it on my dresser so it’ll stare me in the face every morning and say you are good at this, don’t you dare walk away from this.