he Big Apple! Normally, I am a big fan of apples--I even have two apple trees.
I saw the email come across my computer in the fall and thought, "Maybe I'll do it. I'll hop on a train and head out to New York City to the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators winter conference taking place the second weekend of February. After all, it's February. Dark. Cold. A good time to shake things up.
Part of it felt like a good excuse to get some alone time and focus on my writing. Another part of me was wondering what it was like to attend a writing conference solely as a participant since for the last several years I have been a volunteer at the New England SCBWI Spring Conference either as a Manuscript Critique Coordinator or more recently as a Volunteer Coordinator since there were no Manuscript Critiques at last spring's conference. And then, there was the fact that there was no conference, altogether, planned for New England in 2024.
That left New York to seem like something worth trying!
Even if only for one year. And after this conference?
Yes, one year was all I need.
I have to admit that just sitting on a train for four hours, alone and in the designated Quiet Car sounded like a rare luxury that I looked forward to, and even though I may not be eager to attend another NY conference any time soon, I am glad I went even though it was admittedly a bit of a steep and pricey learning curve.
First lesson, when they say "coffee" from 7-8am on the first day of the conference before the welcome, they mean just coffee, and tea, and you're lucky if even just that holds out for the full hour. Luckily, I drink tea because they ran out of coffee that first day before 8am. Those of us used to the New England conference where there's fruit, bagels, muffins and pastries available had to rush down to buy an overpriced muffin three floors down at the hotel's grab'n'go store. Oh, right, conference participants got 15% off their purchases, though you couldn't make use of that if you arrived before Saturday because you needed your name badge to get the discount. The vendor assured me that there was actually something for free: the receipt. At least he had a sense of humor:) Luckily I do, too.
I was happy to run into Federico Erebia, an author I knew from back "home," who I had met because he was one of the volunteers at the New England conference. It was so nice to see a familiar face. Another unexpected face? A gal I graduated with from high school, Andrea Keyo, who happened to sit next to me at a workshop. What are the odds??!! It was so great to see her--she was one of the high school friends that I never saw outside of school but we had a lot of fun in our library study block. She had done a pivot from lawyering to writing and NY was her first conference.
One thing to know when you go to a conference is that there is a lot of stuff in a very little amount of time, so you will leave absolutely exhausted. Even an imagined "veteran" like me was ready for a one month hibernation after my trip to NY. I really enjoyed the speakers and the workshops. I feel like I took some great tips away, but honestly it was the personal stuff that helped me justify the cost and time. My two run-ins with familiar faces were highlights along with a planned run-in with a friend I had met while spending a semester in Ireland for college and that I had not seen in, I think we did the math, 18 years!
It ended up that she was only available at Saturday night, which was when the networking events were happening as part of the conference. But, honestly, I was so exhausted by Saturday night that I was really looking forward to easy conversation with an old friend more than having to put forth the brain power that would be required to network and make connections with strangers--even those I had the commonality of writing with. So, it was like a mental vacation to meet up with my old pal Lisa and catch each other up on the last almost-two-decades of our lives. We had a great burger and some beers and even--like the old Irish Catholic ladies we are--took time out to duck into St. Patrick's Cathedral to light a candle and say a prayer for a couple of sick people in our lives.
Seeing Lisa? "The" highlight!:)
As with so many things in life: it's the human connection that makes the difference.
So, I had some fun! Was it because of the conference?
Actually, I think the conference was exhausting and frustrating with how expensive it was, how cumbersome it felt at times, how little it offered for the price, and how it seemed they wasted opportunities, like when people flooded the ballroom to look at portfolios on Friday night. The ample space in the room was not well used. The portfolios were all crammed on a few tables so that everybody was looking over shoulders as someone else turned the pages of a portfolio. Only an hour and a half was allotted to that event, which was definitely not enough time to look at portfolios, let alone reconnect and try to network with people we hadn't seen in a year or wanted to get to know at the same time. It was practically over before it began. Perhaps scheduling the networking events for Friday night, when people were charged up and had energy, would have been better than sticking networking at the end of a long Saturday.
That's my honest reflection. Between the train ride, the hotel cost, the cost of the actual conference (and that doesn't count if you paid extra for a critique, which I did not) and then food--it's really, really expensive if the only reason you're there is to attend the conference. But--luckily I connected with an old friend, I ran into another, and I got free tickets to sit in the studio audience of Stephen Colbert's The Late Show where I was fortunate enough to see Stephen Colbert, but also his two guests that night: Billy Joel and Ryan Gosling. Yes, Ken! My teenage daughters were very jealous!
Was there are robbery and a shooting where a Brazilian tourist got shot while I was watching Ryan Gosling present a mink fur coat to Stephan Colbert and then walk out unaware of the manhunt going on only blocks away? Sure.
I like to walk and so I made good use of my Friday covering miles of New York: Central Park, Madison Ave, 5th Ave, the Empire State Building and Times Square (where the prior night's shooting took place). I asked the door man at the Empire State Building for a good place for lunch. My hot tip: The Playwright's Tavern! Besides the receipt, it was the one thing I got "free" in NY. Any beverage with lunch was free and of course I maximized the value by ordering a beer--the house ale (or lager? I can't remember, but it was good--even if it wasn't free:).
There was something so exhilarating about walking as far as I wanted in whatever direction I wanted for as long as I wanted without any teenagers complaining about how long we'd been walking, getting hungry or wondering, "Why are we going this way?" What I needed more than a conference, was some freedom. You need that every now and then.
So, am I glad I went?
Will I go next year?
But, like carrot cake is sometimes just a way to get the cream cheese frosting, a little professional development can be a good way to get out into the world, connect with friends expected and unexpected, and to travel and see the world beyond your front yard. Also, it served as a good dry run for the DC trip my family was planning to take the following week--also on the same train.:)
One thing that can be a struggle for many of us--writers, artists or not--is making connections, building community and forcing ourselves to be social. Despite the unpredictable weather, Wakefield's Festival by the Lake on Saturday, June 10, 2023 provided a wonderfully casual way to do just that and connect the good old-fashioned way: face to face.
In my capacity as director of The Room to Write, I like to think of the festival as a big party that presents a wonderful opportunity to introduce our nonprofit to the public, answer questions, and a great way to find out what the community needs from our organization in terms of programming and support for writers of all ages and all levels.
This year we were fortunate to have four local authors as guests in our tent available to talk to, purchase books from and to have books signed. Each author sees book events as more than just an opportunity to sell books. It's a chance to be social, to connect with their audience and to meet author creative people looking for community.
Local author essayist and TRtW's Coordinator for Senior & Veterans Programming Linda Malcom joined us to start the day at 10am with her collection of essays, Cornfields to Codfish. To learn more about Linda and her book click here or watch her interview as part of our Journey of a Story series here.
Local writer Lisa Varchol Perron stopped by next at 11am with her nonfiction picture book, Patterns Everywhere, and her very sweet board book about unconditional and enduring nature of a mother's love, My Love for You. To learn more about Lisa and her books click here or watch her interview as part of a collaborative project with WCAT Studios here.
Next up, the wonderful Monica Acker came by with her picture book Brave Like Mom. She received a visit from a family who appreciated the beautiful message in her book. If you would like to learn more about Monica and her book, click here or watch her interview where she talks about the inspiration for her book as well as the process of bringing it to publication.
At 1pm Christine Ricci-McNamee was happy to talk about her children's picture books, Logan and the Lost Luggage and Louella and the Librarian. If you would like to follow Christine on Instagram click here or learn more about her writing journey by watching her interview here.
Last, but certainly not least, David Watts Jr joined us as representative of Boston Pen People. He was under our tent when the rain started to pour and the thunder roared and yet people still found their way to our table to talk to him about all things pens--fountain, dip and otherwise.
Big shout out to Tom Furrier at Cambridge Typewriter who made sure our typewriters were up to snuff and had all the ink they needed to be sure the steady stream of kids who stopped by would leave with their words printed onto their paper of choice. It's always so much fun to see how much fun writing can be for the youngest among us.
The Room to Write will be on hiatus for the summer months, except for our Writers and Illustrators Meet & Greet in July, but we look forward to seeing you on a more consistent basis in the fall.