Writing While Anxious

In my session on writing about mental health at NESCBWI 17, I talked about some tropes/stereotypes I particularly disliked. One of them: that medication makes you an emotional zombie. This, and the idea that creative people with mental illness will lose their creativity through therapy/medication, get me super rage-y. If you have a mental health issue, medication can be a huge help, and the right medication/dosage won’t rob you of your creativity.

Which is why I was so happy to see this article about creativity, mental health, and medication in the New York Times.

Julia Fierro describes her experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression, and eventually finding medication and resources that work for her. But all of this care came after years of stress, and of going on and off medication, and how this has been a long journey to caring for herself as a person and as an artist.

One part in particular that stands out for me:

“Many of my favorite authors had suffered from anxiety or depression — Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald, Plath, Woolf and Emily Dickinson…Surely, I told myself, their anguish was linked to their greatness. Instead of fleeing anxiety and depression (although many did douse their emotional instability with alcohol), they dived in and used their misery as inspiration for their creative work. I was convinced that killing the mad part of me with medication would also kill that which made me unique. I memorized a line by Proust: “Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.””

I feel like this is a pretty common assessment people make when it comes to creativity and mental health. For some reason we assume that if you want your brain to be firing on all creative cylinders, you need to embrace the parts of your brain that are bringing you down with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. That creative people have to be mentally ill in order to be creative.

Which is total crap.

Like Fierro, I can’t write if I’m not taking care of my mental health. If I’m experiencing a bad bout of anxiety, I can’t focus on anything, much less muster the kind of focus that a draft requires. I can’t let myself spend time with my characters and their worlds, because I’m too busy worrying about what the publishing market is like, or if I should give up writing entirely because I’m the worst. When I’m anxious, I’m both way too hyped up and way too exhausted to be a creative person.

Thanks to therapy and medication, I can mostly write when I need and want to. (Getting myself off Twitter is another issue.) For me, creativity happens when my brain doesn’t have to deal with its own bad stuff. Maybe some artists don’t work well with medication, but that’s super not me, and that’s not what I know from most artistic friends who have mental health issues.

Fierro begins and ends her article by talking about how she shared the truth about her mental health struggles and successes with an audience at a reading. Fierro connected with her audience members by being honest, because some of them have been dealing with the same kinds of issues. At NESCBWI, I was so grateful that people in my session also opened up and talked about their own struggles and concerns. Because the more we talk about mental health and art, the more real we can be–and the more we know we’re not alone.

Links Galore

Lots of good links:

Blueprinting Your Novel, Evel Knievel, and Why Sympathy Is Not a Positive Attitude: the NESCBWI 2016 Conference

At the annual NESCBWI conference, surrounded by writers and illustrators and editors and agents, it’s easy to think about community. Writing can feel like a solitary job, and it’s good to spend a weekend with people who really get it. And being around people who get it was just what I needed.

Due to scheduling and budgeting, I didn’t get to go to any writing retreats in the last year, and I didn’t realize how much I needed that time with my writing community until I got to Springfield. There’s something about being surrounded by people who share your passion and by setting aside time to remember that, no matter what the struggles, you are a writer.

A few favorite moments from the conference:

  • BSoS crit group NESCBWIGetting to spend time with my critique group, including two members who no longer live in the New England area and make the trip out for the weekend.
  • Showing off our love for The Bitter Side of Sweet by crit group member Tara Sullivan.
  • Wendy Mass‘s touching and hilarious keynote, including gems like “It’s easy enough to write what you know. Write what you want to know about,” her giant scroll of rejection letters, and how she takes magic lessons.Swings
  • Also, Wendy Mass’s blueprinting/outlining method that might legit change my writing process for the better.
  • Tara Lazar on how picture books need to be the more exciting narrative roller coaster.
  • Patrick Carman’s keynote about being inspired by Evel Knievel and how we are all entrepreneurs.
  • Amitha Knight and Padma Venkatraman‘s thoughtful and engaging workshop on writing disability, with tons of helpful resources and frank discussions about things like how “sympathy is not a positive attitude.”
  • An awesome panel about working with booksellers and educators, including shoutouts to graphic novels as legit reading.
  • Winning a copy of Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles in her fabulous NESCBWI bookstore‘improv’ writing workshop.
  • Seeing The Chance You Won’t Return in the conference bookstore alongside so many wonderful books (and so many wonderful books by friends!)
  • Spending time with lots of my favorite local writers and illustrators (even though there were still people I somehow didn’t run into all weekend).

I headed into May feeling inspired and rejuvenated and ready to write. No matter what you’re working on now, I hope you can find a chance to connect with your fellow writers and remember what we’re all in this together.

NESCBWI Prep: My Dos and Don’ts for Conference Newbies

One of my favorite annual conferences, NESCBWI, is this weekend, and I’m so psyched to see lots of wonderful writer and illustrator friends for a weekend of bookish inspiration. But only a few years ago, I was a total NESCBWI newbie, and was headed to Springfield equal parts excited and nervous.

In case you’re a newbie to the writing conference experience, here are my tips for getting the most out of your weekend and having a blast.

Do: use the conference hashtag
Intimidated by how everyone seems to know everyone else? Joining in on social media can be a great way to connect with a lot of people at once, and it’s way easier to meet people in real life if you’ve already interacted on Twitter. This weekend, follow along at #NESCBWI16.

Don’t: be scared to talk to people
I know, it’s hard to be the new kid. But everyone’s there because they love the same thing you do, and that means you already have something in common. Ask what they primarily write/what kind of media they use in their art/what book they’re totally fangirling over/how their last session was.

Do: take notes
It’s easy to think you’re going to remember everything from that amazing session on outlining, but details get fuzzy a week later when you’re diving back into your WIP. Bring a notebook or your laptop/tablet and jot down a few helpful points in each session.

Don’t: stress about remembering everything that was said in every talk/workshop
The stuff that really resonates with you will stick with you. Sometimes it’s more important to be present than to feel like you’re going to have to recite the workshop verbatim next week.

Do: get your time and money’s worth
Conferences can be expensive and take you away from your other responsibilities for a weekend. (Sorry, laundry, see you Monday!) Take part in workshop exercises, listen to the keynotes, join in on open mics, get a critique from an agent or editor. This is your weekend just to be a writer, so you might as well get the most out of your time that you can.

Don’t: get conference burn-out
Getting the most out of your weekend is one thing, but you don’t want to be so drained by it all that you end up zombie-walking through your last four workshops. Take some alone time when needed, or hole up in your hotel room and grab an hour of inspired writing time.

Do: dress comfortably
It’s a writing conference, not a fashion conference. (Miranda Priestly will not be there to judge you.) Modcloth-cute outfits are appreciated, but you’re also going to be walking from room to room and floor to floor and dodging people to get a seat at lunch. Comfortable shoes are key, and a lot of people wear jeans.

Don’t: forget to bring a few essentials
I like to have a notebook, a few pens, my cell phone charger, some business cards/bookmarks/other swag to hang out with my name and book on it, cash for the bookstore, and a reusable water bottle. Your essential items list may vary, but I think these are good basics.

Do: ask questions that benefit everyone
Most sessions have time for Q&A, but nothing’s worse than someone taking up 15 minutes on a question that only applies to their very specific situation. Think about questions that might apply to lots of other people in the group. If you have a specific question and the workshop presenter is available to talk after, bring it up individually.

Don’t: network all the time
We’re writers/illustrators, but we’re also people. You don’t have to be pitching your book or bragging about your daily word counts all the time. Remember that your fellow conference-goers are also people who have families, other hobbies, favorite movies, etc. The best ways to connect with your colleagues are when you remember that they’re regular humans, too.

Do: have a pitch for what you’re working on
This one is still hard for me, too. At some point over the weekend, someone will ask, “What do you write?” Instead of mumbling “Oh something about people and feelings, but it’s funny” like I do, think of a one or two sentence pitch for each of your projects.

Don’t: feel bad if you leave a critique without an offer from an agent or book deal
I’m not gonna say getting signed by an agent or editor can’t happen, but instead of worrying about getting that contract, try to focus on what’s working in your story and what you should consider in revision. And remember that not every agent/editor is the right one for you–maybe the one doing your critique could offer helpful suggestions, but ultimately isn’t the one who’s the best match for you or your book.

Do: have fun!
Conferences like NESCBWI are a great opportunity to meet people and learn more about your craft, but they should also be a chance to enjoy yourself among your peers. Writing is hard enough, so when we’re all together for a weekend, we might as well celebrate.

And if you’ll be at NESCBWI this year, copies of The Chance You Won’t Return should be available in the bookstore. I won’t be doing an official signing, but if you have a book and find me around, I’ll totally sign it for you (and give you a hug/high five).

Other conference tips? Share them in the comments!

ARCs, Feminism, Thin Mints, and Librarian Friends: a Weekend at ALA Midwinter

collage-2016-01-12 (1)This weekend I got to go to ALA Midwinter–aka where librarians, educators, authors, publishers, bloggers, readers, and general fans of books and media come to learn and engage and share Girl Scout cookies. (Seriously, bringing Girl Scout cookies to a conference is a way to ensure people love you.) I’d never been to an ALA event before, and I only got an exhibit hall pass, but it was such a fantastic weekend. Some highlights:

  • Meeting librarian and writer and blogger friends from the Internet in real life–you get to hug them in real life!–and seeing lovely librarian and writer friends from the Boston area.
  • Seeing adorable baby pictures of aforementioned friends. (Or adorable pictures of their babies or their nieces/nephews.)
  • Having writer friends in from out of town meant an awesome panel at Brookline Booksmith, one of my favorite places to both meet readers and buy books. Awesome questions, thoughtful/hilarious discussion, fantastic audience.
  • Saying hi and the Candlewick booth and snagging an ARC of A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls.
  • Listening to thoughtful discussions at the We Need Diverse Books panel and the Class of 2K16 Debuts panel.
  • Seeing ARCs for friends books and getting excited about all the future readers who will love these books.
  • Sharing Thin Mints with friends old and new.
  • Talking about reading, writing, publishing, teen readers, feminism, graphic novels and more with people who get it.

collage-2016-01-12This is the kind of weekend that reminds me why I love being part of the book community. People are so enthusiastic and smart and talented and kind and thoughtful and funny. They’re pushing the boundaries in all sorts of fields and making a difference for readers everywhere. I cheered along with the webcast of the ALA Youth Media Awards this morning, and was so proud to be part of this larger community.

Thanks to all who helped make this such a fun and inspiring weekend. Here’s to another awesome year of our bookish community!

Guerrilla Marketing, Authenticity, and Daring to Disturb the Universe: the 2015 NESCBWI Conference

IMG_2117Last weekend, I got up at 5:30am, bought a giant coffee, and drove to Springfield, MA for the annual NESCBWI conference. Since my first time a few years ago, when I knew absolutely no one and spent breakfast thinking, Maybe if I tweet enough I’ll look popular, I’ve gotten to know so many wonderful writers and illustrators from the New England area, including my very own critique group. This year was a great combination of seeing friends, having thoughtful conversations, getting new ideas, learning about new resources, and generally feeling inspired.

IMG_2097Some favorite moments from the conference:

  • Being back together with the full critique group, including two members who have moved to other time zones over the last year. (Guys, anytime you want to move back to New England, you’ve got a spot in group.)
  • Wearing t-shirts to promote crit group member AC Gaughen’s upcoming book, Lion Heartand getting major props from other conference members. (We even got a shoutout during Jen Malone’s marketing workshop as an example of cool, alternative marketing.)
  • IMG_2098Great conversations about writing diversity, including an excellent workshop with Mitali Perkins about writing diverse lives and asking the important questions, another with Ellen Wittlinger about LGBTQ YA books, and a dynamic panel including 2015 author Cindy L. Rodriguez. Favorite panel quote by Justina Ireland: “How good are the characters on your page already if you can’t write a diverse character?”
  • Learning about picture book structure and how to use line breaks and page turns to build tension/build a joke.
  • Listening to Newbery winner Kwame Alexander talk about the power of poetry.
  • A powerful keynote from Jo Knowles about a quote from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” books that can shed light on darkness, and her journey to writing YA novels about tough topics.
  • IMG_2096Seeing old friends, making new ones, and reminding myself of the awesomeness of the children’s literature community.

Major thanks to the NESCBWI conference organizers, volunteers, and faculty for their hard work in making this such a successful and inspiring weekend. See you all in Springfield in 2016!

Listening to Your Characters, Shaved Heads, and Hamster Divination: the 2014 Boston Teen Author Festival

The raffle table, filled with bookish goodness.

The raffle table, filled with bookish goodness.

Saturday was the Boston Teen Author Festival and it was a huge success! I’m so glad I got to be part of this event. The BTAF staff did such a wonderful job bringing everything together, running thoughtful and fun panels, and sharing enthusiasm about YA. Also major thanks to the Cambridge Public Library staff and the team from Porter Square Books for their hard work at the event and bringing books to so many readers. A few highlights from the day:

  • Getting to hear my fellow authors’ most useless talents, including reciting all the states in alphabetical order, making some seriously weird faces, and telling the future via hamsters.
  • Hearing about how MT Anderson worked in the image of a shaved male head into his novel at the last minute.
  • Learning about how authors use their current concerns about technology and the future to create chilling and emotionally grounded sci-fi worlds.
  • Being on a panel with amazing authors Francisco X. Stork, Emily Franklin, Stewart Lewis,  Huntley Fitzpatrick, and Erin Dionne.
  • Talking with aforementioned amazing authors about how essential it is to create a complete web of relationships for your main character, not just romantic ones.
  • Emily Franklin saying that she knows she’s really getting into a story when she starts telling people, “So it turns out…” Love that phrase for the moment of discovery!
  • Signing books for awesome readers (seriously never gets old).
  • My mom befriending half the authors and attendees.
  • A mug full of chocolate minis from the BTAF staff, aka everything I love in one place.
  • Getting to see and talk to so many wonderful teen readers. You guys warm my heart!
Buttons and mugs, my favorite forms of swag.

Buttons and mugs, my favorite forms of swag.

Thank you again to everyone who made this event possible, and to everyone who came out and spent the day with us at the Cambridge Public Library.

Is it time for the 2015 Boston Teen Author Festival yet?