Okay . . . so I’ve been home for a few days now. You’d think I might have eased up on the rhapsodic feeling that came from rubbing such awesomely famous and talented elbows! But no, I’m still up there somewhere, a couple feet off the ground.I mean . . . come on!! Norton Juster of the fabulous Phantom Tollbooth fame! A good friend of mine recently told me how the Tollbooth had been one of her favorite books growing up. And it still is. During Juster’s keynote, he took us on the kind of fantastic word journey that only Norton Juster can. He ended his talk with a hilariously spoonerific rendition of Cinderella which led nicely into his parting advice that “if the foo shits, wear it.” And Bruce Coville! who reminded us that everything we do, say or write is like ripples in a pond. Sort of like that story of the butterfly fluttering its wings in Japan and creating a hurricane in Texas (or something like that). Bruce’s advice was to polish every stone before we toss it in. After all, “it’s the shiniest ones that attract the most attention.” He offered thirteen pieces of advice, topping the list was his suggestion to “marry rich” and ending with a notion to “embrace the unfinished thought.” Which reminded me of something similar I’d learned from one of my favorite professors in college. Dr. Oaks said to always leave your reader with an image that will linger well past their reading experience.
Then there was Donna Jo Napoli. Someone once asked her why she writes about horrible stuff and when she really thought about it, she realized that she just writes what needs to be said. She thinks it’s wrong-minded to shelter kids from learning about things like racism, drugs and incidences of violence. And her reasons for feeling this way were both powerful and profound. It was her frank criticism of censorship that brought tears to our eyes and yanked us from our seats for an ear shattering, fist pumping, hell-yes of a standing ovation.
Each keynote speaker had his or her own unique message about writing and living and learning—all with our hearts wide open. I found myself wondering how on earth Stephen Mooser (President SCBWI) and Lin Oliver (Executive Director) could possibly find someone to top or even match the last speaker. And yet—like the song the DJ played Saturday night—it just went on and on and on. And on and on and ON!
Like the journey David Small took us on. First we watched an emotional trailer of his book Stitches—his graphic novel of his troubled childhood. So yeah . . . that was a hard part of our afternoon. But David lifted us out of that place and into a great little story about book signings and comparing the experience of signing at a large, behemothic brick & mortar to signing at a small shop called Hicklebee’s. His pictures of Hicklebee’s reminded me of Houston’s own Blue Willow Bookshop, all soft and warm, cozy and inviting. If you live here in Houston, you should definitely check it out.
And then there was Judy Blume. Judy Blume, people! She agreed at the last minute to fill in for John Green whose gallbladder had its own agenda and kept him from attending the conference. Which was a horrible loss for us! But we couldn’t complain too much considering how Judy was gracious enough to step up to the mic for a discussion with Lin Oliver. The two ladies just sat on the couch and had a conversation about writing, as if they didn’t have 1,300 of us listening in. It was awesome!
And Gary Paulsen who lives close to the earth and writes from that same place inside himself. He wrote Hatchet long-hand while in the company of just his sled dogs. He shared the story of the first time he’d taken a team to run the Iditarod and how his lead dog came up with its own course out of Anchorage. Gary’s parting words to us were to “read like a wolf eats” and to “go home and shoot our televisions . . . they’re like carbon monoxide, you breathe it in and you think you’re getting air.” I bought Gary’s book Hatchet for my son, the soon-to-be Eagle Scout. But, of course, I’ll read it before he does. I have yet to shoot my T.V. though.
Our final keynote speaker was Laurie Halse Anderson, whose book Speak was one of the ones I took home from last year’s conference. She started off by quoting a poem from T.S. Elliot when he asked “do I dare disturb the universe?” Laurie shared her own story about how, once she realized that she had to do just that–to disturb the universe with her writing–she stopped volunteering for things, she gave up late night T.V. (but she didn’t shoot it) and traded it in for early morning writing. If you’ve had the chance to dive into one of her books, you’ll know that she’s succeeded. And she sent us off with that as our charge: to “go forth laughing. And disturb the universe!”
Like the song from Saturday night’s celebration said, I could go on and on and on. And on and on and ON! But all this talk of writing is making me want to actually do some! Before I go, I should mention that I’ve not included all of the fabulous speakers who were in L.A. last weekend. There were panel discussions and breakout sessions . . . and chance meetings with authors, editors and agents. Which only serves to emphasizes how awesome this entire experience was!