Three Notes to Remember When I Go to My Next Annual SCBWI Conference
by Mariko Nagai, Tokyo, Japan
I’ve been a member of SCBWI since around 2005, but I’ve only attended one SCBWI Annual Summer or Winter Conference (Los Angeles or New York City) so far. The first SCBWI Annual Conference I attended was a Winter Conference in New York City back in 2005, which was smaller in size and shorter in length. So much has happened in the ten years I’ve been a member: increases in membership, publishing houses closing and merging, SCBWI opening more international chapters, editors retiring while new young editors join. In other words, the publishing landscape has changed drastically. I became ARA for SCBWI Japan in 2013 and co-RA in February 2015, so it seemed like a good time to go to the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference in Los Angeles. Now that I’ve been back from the conference for nearly two months, I wanted to write a note to myself about what to remember when I go to my next SCBWI Annual Conference:
1. Talk to Everyone: Though there are hundreds and hundreds of conference attendees, many clustered with their friends or joyfully giving hugs at every corner, don’t be shy. There are many others who are on their own like you. Yes, it’s hard to talk to people. It’s difficult when you see so many people walking around, already fast friends. You feel like you did back in middle school, standing there with a lunch tray, wondering where—and with whom—to sit. Remember, though, you are no longer an awkward thirteen-year-old. You’ve been around the block and through half of life, and you know that even at your age, people feel insecure—just like you are feeling. So stop being shy. Make eye contact. Smile. When you go to keynote speeches in the big ballroom, find an empty seat, ask people sitting nearby whether the seat is taken or not and, once settled, introduce yourself. One good thing about SCBWI conferences is you don’t have to explain yourself. There are some already-established commonalities: Everyone there is involved in children’s book writing—whether as writers, illustrators or translators. Everyone there loves to read kids’ books. Everyone there wants to talk about craft and process and failures. How easy is that? And how rare is that in your everyday life? You are among your peeps. Take off the shy hat and introduce yourself. The same applies to breakout sessions. Seat yourself, smile to the person next to you, talk to them. You just never know who you will meet there. Maybe your new writing buddy or a new great friend.
2. Don’t Despair: It’s not the end of the world when you can’t attend all the sessions you want to. There will always be sessions that overlap with each other, and the best thing to do is not stress out about it too much. If you’ve made friends, you can exchange notes later. If you are an introvert and it’s hard to make friends easily, just go with your intuition. Before I went, I circled almost every session that had “nonfiction” in its title, only to discover when I got there that I was drawn to fiction craft sessions. I despaired about so many choices. Then I realized I just had to let my mood take me where I needed to be—and in most sessions, I came out with hints and ideas toward my work-in-progress. Another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes it’s not the session, but what happens in the hallways and outside of the conference rooms that gives you ideas.
3. Sleep Well, Rest Well, Eat Well: You are up early to catch the first session, going nonstop until night. If you are an introvert—and perhaps all writers, illustrators and translators have a big percentage of introverted self—the second and third day of the conference will be exhausting in a soul-sucking sort of way if you don’t sleep well, rest well and eat well. Not because anyone is leeching energy from you or there’s a demand on your energy. It is just exhausting. That’s how we introverts are. So a note to myself when I attend my second major SCBWI Annual Conference: don’t feel guilty for going to bed around 9 p.m. Go for a walk to grab lunch somewhere else—this will clear your head and clear the energy of the crowd. If at one point in the day you feel weary, don’t be afraid to go up to the hotel room and take a catnap. Don’t feel guilty for missing a session because you can’t take it anymore—it happens to many people, and it’s not a bad thing. Just enjoy this time away from your everyday life where people don’t quite understand why you write or why you love reading children’s books. All you learned at the conference may not be apparent at first when you head back to your everyday life, but it’ll be there when you need it—phrases you jotted down in your notebook, ideas you heard in passing, words of encouragement and stories of failure to carry you forward when you are questioning why it is you write.
Having grown up in Europe and America, Mariko Nagai has received the Pushcart Prizes both in poetry and fiction. Author of books for both children and adult, she is also a translator of Japanese modern poetry. She is Co-RA of SCBWI Japan.