Authenticity, Vulnerability, and Synchronicity: My 2017 Writer’s Digest Conference Story

Wow. Was Writer’s Digest Conference really three weeks ago? Somehow it seems longer ago than that (maybe because I caught a cold on the final day, so it took a couple weeks to resume my normal routine). Yet I still remember that weekend as clearly as the last book I read – because the ideas and lessons I carried home this time struck very close to the heart.

It’s not right, then,  to write this year’s report as an in-depth overview like I did for last year’s. Instead, I’d like to share why WDC 2017 was so meaningful to me, more so than the 2016 or 2015 editions. So if you’re interested in learning about (or refreshing your memory of) the conference format, venue,  and range of writing and publishing topics, check out last year’s post. Otherwise, let’s start not at the beginning, but at the moment when the impact of this conference first began to sink in.

Candles, Callings, and Outstanding Keynote Speeches

While I’m not always familiar with or excited about WDC’s choices for keynote speakers at first (they typically don’t write in the genres I read most), gosh do their insights stay with me long afterward. That was certainly the case for two of this year’s speakers.

Like Kwame Alexander last year, thriller author Lisa Scottoline delivered an opening keynote full of energy, enthusiasm, and belly laughs. She shared her rollercoaster ride to authordom, real-life moments that unexpectedly inspired (or appeared in) some of her books, and the joy of writing three different genres (legal / crime dramas, women’s fiction, and humor essays, the last with her daughter Francesca Serritella). All the while, Lisa spoke frankly and unabashedly, unleashing wisecrack after wisecrack yet knowing when she needed to be serious.

The final point of Lisa’s speech, however, is what still sticks with me now. She compared the writing dream to a candle, a delicate thing we must protect because no one else will value and believe in that dream as strongly as we do. It reminded me of the candles I like to burn when I work on my WIP – a habit that, I now realize, I’ve fallen out of recently. So thank you, Lisa, for reminding me (indirectly) to resume that habit, and to give more symbolic resonance to such a simple pleasure.

(For more on Lisa’s candle metaphor, check out this outtake from her 2014 interview with Writer’s Digest.)

David Levithan’s talk on the final day of WDC was fantastic, too. His angle was unique, since he’s a bestselling YA author as well as the editorial director at Scholastic Books. So he touched on topics from an editor’s perspective and from an author’s perspective, from the increasing need for diversity in new literature, to writing collaborative novels with John Greene and Rachel Cohn. His most salient point, though, was authenticity in one’s work, regardless of the genre. In a way, he reminded me (and perhaps the rest of the WDC audience) that every writer has stories inside that deserve to be written, stories that are true to us and to the people who need to read them. I came away from David’s speech feeling inspired to continue working on my new WIP – and convinced me that I should read his books in the future.

I’d go into more depth about David’s words on authenticity in writing. But it also tied in brilliantly with one of the overarching themes I noticed during WDC this year.

Authenticity and Vulnerability Are Just as Important as the Three Ps (of Writing, That Is)

During my first two trips to WDC, many of the panels and seminars discussed what I now call the Three P’s of Writing: passion, persistence, and patience. Those ideas still prevailed at this year’s edition, and were also joined by two others: authenticity and vulnerability.

What does it mean to be authentic and vulnerable as a writer, though? After considering all the ideas I absorbed during the conference, here’s how I’d define it:

Being authentic and vulnerable as a writer means allowing your work to accurately reflect you, your personality, your values and beliefs, your unique perspective. It also means having the courage to share your genuine self with your audience and connect with them through your stories and other mediums.

For some writers (especially introverts like myself), the mere thought of this is intimidating, even terrifying. But deep down in our core, aren’t authenticity and vulnerability among the reasons why we write? To nurture a part of ourselves that would otherwise be neglected? To embrace the stories within us (which undoubtedly have pieces of ourselves embedded throughout) and fling them out into the world, knowing we might be criticized and rejected as well as loved and admired?

Those themes took root early on in the conference. Gabriela Pereira‘s “Pixels to Platform” offered an innovative strategy to platform-building: by presenting your best self, making meaningful connections, and drawing readers to a “home base” (website or blog) where you can control and curate your author identity. Later, during “Authenticity & Authority in Culture-Specific Writing,” Anjali Mitter Duva reminded us about not only the importance of research, but also the soundness of our decisions and the need for our characters to be well-rounded and realistic. And in “I Hear Voices,” Heather Webb talked about crafting a unique writing voice, emphasizing that while it’s important to understand genre expectations, writers should still evoke emotion, structure sentences, and approach description in ways that feel true to themselves.

In short, writers need to be more than persistent, passionate, and patient with our work. We also need to be open, honest, and brave with ourselves, each other, and our readers if we want to build the career we truly want.

The Magic of Synchronicity (or How the Saturday Morning Sessions Almost Brought Me to Tears)

Some of you might remember that, for a while, I’d been uncertain about going to WDC this year. Then a “funny” thing happened: Anathema, one of my favorite bands, announced a headlining tour that would take them to NYC’s Gramercy Theater – the night before WDC began. (You can read more about the gig here.) I took it as a sign that I was meant to return to the conference, and resumed planning my trip.

During the second day of WDC, another “funny” thing happened. The three sessions I attended explored topics at the core of my writing struggles earlier this year.

It started with Hank Phillippi Ryan‘s “Banishing Doubt: What I Wish Someone Had Told Me about Being an Author.” An award-winning mystery writer (and, oddly enough, an investigative reporter at one of my local TV stations), Hank shared anecdotes from her career and practical ways to battle the self-doubts that can cripple a writer’s confidence. The advice wasn’t new, but it reinforced ideas I needed to hear, like listening to one’s subconscious (“It always knows more than you think”), being careful of the Internet (“Write first – what you choose to do speaks to your priorities”), and being brave in the face of rejection and criticism (“What would you attempt to do if you could not fail?”). Each tip therefore felt like a knock on the door of my heart. That’s how much this session resonated with me.

Next came Danny Gregory’s “Shut Your Monkey! How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Writing Done.” This equally wise and humorous session was all about the different types of fear – the monkey chatter, in other words – that can plague writers. Dan also discussed ways of quieting the inner critic, from journaling (“Move the internal dialogue onto the page to get the chatter out of you”) to seeking support from writer friends as well as yourself (“If a friend said these things about themselves, you would defend them because you know they deserve better. Be on your side; defend yourself, too.”).

Many of these suggestions seemed like common sense. But we all know what monkey chatter is like. It drowns out any common sense. Since then, I’ve resolved it keep my WDC 2017 journal open to my notes on Dan’s session (and Hank’s, too) whenever I’m at my writing space, in case their guidance is needed.

Finally, I went to “Being Seen: A New Approach to Attracting Your Ideal Readers,” led by Corey Blake, founder of Illinois-based indie publisher Round Table Companies (RTC). This workshop, centered on embracing our (what else?) authenticity and vulnerability in order to write the stories we’re meant to write and attract our ideal readers, turned out quite different than many attendees might have expected. In fact, several people walked out before the session ended. But I didn’t, and here’s why.

During “Being Seen,” Corey guided us through a worksheet where we wrote down our values, words we’d use to describe ourselves, sources of conflict with ourselves and others, and our past and current roles in life. He then helped us funnel those “buzz words” into a streamlined approach that… well, laid our souls bare for ourselves to see, in a gentle and honest way. The exercise was high-concept, so it’s difficult to describe it without repeating it in detail. But the point was, each writer’s final answers should reflect her true self – the self that deserves to be seen when we share our stories with the world. Corey also said that he wouldn’t be surprised if, for some of us, the heart of our current manuscript was reflected in those answers.

“Oh… my… gosh.” That was all I could think as I read my answers again, and tears stung my eyes. Because there, as my final answer on the worksheet, was the word that spells out the heart of my main character’s journey in the novel I’m drafting.

My book haul from WDC 2017, from left to right: Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Jenni L. Walsh’s Becoming Bonnie, and William Kenower’s Fearless Writing.

Finding the Wind in My Sails Again

That moment was when I realized why I needed to be at WDC this year. Sure, the event is meant to be educational, entertaining, and social from a business perspective; and it certainly accomplished all that for me. But this year, WDC was also incredibly personal.

Thanks to sessions like “Banishing Doubt,” “Shut Your Monkey!,” and “Being Seen,” the conference compelled me to re-examine my recent battles with self-doubt and confidence in my storytelling abilities – battles that, admittedly, I may have inflicted upon myself. It gave me pause so I could contemplate how to better manage those issues now and in the future. It also offered me the second safe haven this year (the first one being the Iceland Writers Retreat) to honestly answer questions like “How’s the YA fantasy coming along?”, “Did you finally pitch this year?”, and “What are you working on now?”

And by “honestly,” I also mean “courageously.” In a take-a-deep-breath, ignore-the-monkey-chatter, you-can-do-this sort of way.

So as I chatted with old writing friends and new acquaintances, I did just that. I explained how I was taking a break from my previous manuscript because I’d hit the figurative wall with it. I also shared the premise of my new WIP, a YA magical realism novel about the struggles that students can face during their first year of college, including its effects on a students’s mental health.

In short, everyone’s responses to my answers were like gusts of ocean wind that filled my sails again.

Maybe it was because I chose to be vulnerable, and admitted that yes, my freshman year of college was painfully difficult, and yes, I’ve had anxiety and depression before. But maybe it was also because, as other writers pointed out, very few YA novels (magical realism, contemporary, or otherwise) address the first-year college experience. Or, maybe it was both.

Either way, connecting (and, in some cases, reconnecting) with other writers during WDC and talking about the new WIP gave me the boost of confidence that I didn’t know I was craving. Their encouragement sent me home with a skip in my step and a reaffirmed conviction that there’s not just a place for this story in the world, but a need for it, too. If the feeling was something I could bottle up and keep for the days when my confidence trembles again, I would have done it in a heartbeat.

You Are the (Writerly) Company You Keep

That’s one of the other reasons why I’ve gone to WDC three years in a row: the people. I always feel more comfortable being my true self around other creatives, especially writers. So while I entered the conference wanting to stay inside my quiet, protective shell, eventually I stepped out of it. I stopped at some of the exhibitor tables and ask questions, sometimes out of curiosity and other times with purpose. And after a somewhat anti-social start to Saturday night’s networking event, I kept finding writer after writer to chat with. (The cheese and fruit station is good for nourishing those second winds. *wink*)

The best part, though? WDC served as a DIY MFA “reunion” once again. This year there were seven of us: me, Gabriela, web editor Bess Cozby, fellow columnist Leanne Sowul, and interns Elise Holland, Laura Highcove, and Marielle Orff. (Elise and I were roommates for the weekend, too, and we had a blast getting to know each other.) It’s one thing to interact with members of your “tribe” through email, social media, and quarterly “staff meetings” on Zoom. But nothing beats meeting them in person and having conversations that turn a semi-working relationship into a full-bloom friendship.

I’m so grateful to be a part of the DIY MFA team. I’m grateful to be a writer, even if I still have a ways to go on my journey. And I’m grateful for the story I’m currently drafting. But most of all, I’m grateful that I went to Writer’s Digest Conference this year. And I hope I can take everything I learned and absorbed that weekend to heart, so that I can become a stronger, wiser, and (dare I say it?) more authentic and vulnerable writer that I was before.

Did you attend the 2017 Writer’s Digest Conference? If so, which sessions, quotes, or lessons learned left the greatest impact on you? Have you ever experienced something similar at other writing conferences or similar events?

26 thoughts on “Authenticity, Vulnerability, and Synchronicity: My 2017 Writer’s Digest Conference Story

  1. Your new WIP sounds interesting, Sara. First-year college can suddenly thrust a student into a sea of competition where it is hard to retain their self-confidence and individuality and identity. The opposite of what happened to you at WDC 2017 in fact!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, John. 🙂 And college can be an incredibly tough time for freshman students socially, too. For me it was more of a culture shock than anything else, and I had to try to find where I fit in all over again (something I’d struggled with as a teen when my family moved to a new town and I started attending a different school system). Plus, the pressure of figuring out what you want to be when you grow up is a whole other challenge unto itself. So there are certainly different angles you can take on a story with this focus… but there’s only so much you can touch on in a 300 to 400 page book. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like this was just what you needed, Sara. I know from experience it isn’t healthy to always live in your head. That’s when self doubt rears its ugly head, at least for me. Getting out in the world and connecting with like minded folks can be so energizing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Totally agree with you, Tammy. The writing retreat in Iceland did that as well, but that was a whole other experience in that I traveled someplace new and was more immersed myself in the adventure of it all. But with WDC, I could focus on educating myself further and engaging with other writers and industry professionals. Everything else sort of fell into place after that. And yes, there’s nothing better than connecting with other people who are passionate about your passions and are working toward similar goals and dreams. It makes it that much easier to be supportive of one another’s endeavors. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like it came just when you needed it most, Sara. I loved reading about your experiences – as ever you are courageous and honest and I was moved when you rediscovered your purpose and energy and what is important as a writer. For each of us, that is a bit different. Yes… we all want to tell a story in a particular way; yes… we would like to share that story with others. But there are all sorts of other reasons why a number of us go through the long, often painful journey of trying to craft a story thousands of words long – and some of them are very personal.
    Thank you for taking us a long way into your particular journey, it was a privilege being there alongside you:)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m glad this year’s WD conference was able to boost your confidence in your writing. I’ve been needing a boost like that too lately. Thank you for taking time to share all that you learned. I like the way you formatted this post compared to other years’ WDC posts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, E.! Like I said in the post, the way I’d approached last year’s report of WDC wasn’t going to work this time around. There was too much to say about the sessions that had a profound impact on me this year, and how they touched on the heart of my recent writing and confidence struggles. And to think none of this would have happened if I hadn’t gone to WDC this year… Funny how that works sometimes, huh? 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m so glad this was a refreshing experience for you. Conferences tend to do that, eh? That’s so cool that you got to meet David Levithan! I thought he looked familiar than when I saw he was from Scholastic I remembered him from the behind the scenes of the Hunger Games. He helped push the book to success! I’m so glad you have a new direction now. I feel that way with my current work. I’ve been hesitating with it for years but after Realm Makers I feel like now it’s the time to write it. Best wishes with this new novel! The concept sounds great! I know a lot of people who have had first year anxiety.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yup! David touched on The Hunger Games briefly during his keynote, too, along with a couple others he was proud to have brought to Scholastic (like Maggie Stiefvater) and a big one he had passed on but is thrilled to have seen it done so well now (Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief). So those stories were neat to hear as well.

      Thank you for your well wishes on the new WIP! I actually have a writing update posting later this week, so I’ll talk a little more about it then.

      Liked by 2 people

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  8. I’m late to this but glad to hear you’re over your cold. Enjoyed reading your recap of the conference. Made me want to go too. I could definitely use a confidence boost in my creativity and lots of the points that stood out to you are things I’d like to have heard as well.
    That vulnerability in my writing is scary and tough to accomplish. It’s something I’ve been working since blogging, so for years.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I vaguely remember your last year’s conference, Sara, and this one seems to have been much better for you, on a personal level. With perfect timing and themes. It’s sad that even though in a way “we all” face the same fears and insecurities, in the end we’re left alone with them and have to face those struggles on our own. It seems that the conference reminded you that you can do it. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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