If I could describe SCBWI’s (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’) annual international conference in one word, I’d call it:

infreakingtense.

But what can you expect from a group, 20,000+-strong, as they cap off their 40th year?

This was my first SCBWI-LA conference, and I only wish I’d stocked up on sleep beforehand. I was in for some serious inspiration.

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Arriving late on the night before the festivities, I was wired enough that of course I didn’t get a proper night’s rest. Of course!

The first day began with a wonderfully honest and engaging run-down of writing advice from Bruce Coville. His first tip? Marry rich.

I took to heart another piece of Bruce’s advice: “Scare yourself.” Take on projects that rattle your nerves. You’ll grow immensely. He followed that up with “Stop scaring yourself” – meaning, don’t talk yourself out of taking action. I believe every writer struggles with this at one point or another. This sort of self-sabotage paralyzes everyone who’s ever wanted to write… but just hasn’t yet. A story’s in there. Just put it down. And “Don’t be afraid to show your heart,” as Bruce put it. “Don’t be sentimental, just honest.”

The conference was full of honest voices, including authors Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blume, Libba Bray, Donna Jo Napoli, David Small, Gary Paulsen, and Nova Ren Suma, agents Marcia Wernick, Barry Goldblatt, Tina Wexler, Michael Bourret, and Tracey Adams, publishers Julie Strauss-Gabel, Alessandra Balzer, Jennifer Hunt, Allyn Johnston, Debra Dorfman, and Beverly Horowitz, plus the SCBWI’s own exec director Lin Oliver and its president Stephen Mooser.

More than one of my favorite authors shared that they’d started writing to escape a sour marriage. Writing had given other authors refuge from personal demons. For one, writing became therapy in lieu of mental health coverage. Author David Small, whose vocal cords and ability to speak had been severed for 10 years following a neck surgery, rather appropriately quoted Vargas in his rousing talk: “Life is a shitstorm. And when it begins to rain, the only umbrella we have is art.”

If you want to write, trust me (and everyone who’s done it before): The story won’t be good right away. If you don’t believe me, take it from Judy Blume, whose book Summer Sisters didn’t truly emerge until her 23rd draft. Twenty-three drafts. So just put the words down, to start. Writing’s a little like recovering from alcoholism. Take it one step at a time, and through some steady work, you’ll get stronger. You’ll show your best self. (Yes, I take liberties with metaphor.)

Here’s my favorite part of attending SCBWI-LA: Wherever I looked, I knew I’d find someone just like me, toiling away on that thing they love. That story they have to tell. If they’d made the trip to SCBWI-LA like me, that means they’re just as serious about telling it. And I find so much hope in that. Don’t you?

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