While I was at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference last week, I gave my very first Keynote Speech on Saturday night. What follows are my notes for the speech, though I embellished and changed a few things when I was up on stage.
My thanks to Laura Taylor, who was kind enough to record and share the speech on YouTube. It’s broken into three parts.
A number of people asked about the cancer story I mentioned. That story is called “Stranger vs. the Malevolent Malignancy,” and just came out in Unidentified Funny Objects 2. (I’m hoping to get it published online once the exclusivity period in my contract is up.)
It’s four days later, and I’m still a little overwhelmed by the response to my first keynote. (I got saluted by a Mountie!!!)
Thank you all.
First off, I’d like to thank Kathy Chung and everyone else for all the work they’ve put into this conference, and for inviting me to be a part of it.
When Kathy emailed and asked me to do a keynote address, my initial address was, “Wait, are you sure you have the right email address?” This happens a lot — and not just to me. It’s imposter syndrome. It happens to brand new authors and big name bestsellers alike…
I’m going to wind back to that in a little bit.
I love this kind of event. I love the energy you create when you pack this many creative minds into one hotel and turn them loose to talk about their passions. I come away from this sort of event both exhausted and completely energized. I’ve got to believe that’s why most of us are here: because we’re passionate about writing. Because we believe stories are important.
Not only that, we believe our stories are important. Lots of people love stories. Far fewer ever try to write their own. And fewer still have the determination to see it through, to keep going, and to come to events like this and commit not just to writing, but to being a writer.
There’s a weird mind game you have to play as a writer. You have to have confidence in your work. You have to believe this thing you’re writing is going to be the best thing the world has ever seen. If you don’t believe in your work, it’s awfully hard to finish, let alone to submit it anywhere.
At the same time, writing is hard. A lot of people talk about how they’d like to write a book someday, as if you just sit down in front of a typewriter and the manuscript fairy swoops in from New York City to blow bestseller glitter up your nose. Heck, the first time I wrote a short story, it was because a friend of mine had been trying to write some fantasy and I figured heck, how hard can it be? I packed it up, mailed it out, and waited for the money to roll in.
It took ten years of practice to learn to write well enough to sell my first fantasy novel. Nobody is born knowing how to write, any more than you’re born knowing how to perform brain surgery. We’ve got to get past the myth of inborn talent and recognize that this thing we’ve decided to do is hard work. It takes time, and there’s no end point to the learning process.
I think there is a manuscript fairy, but he’s not the kind of cute, happy, helpful fairy you see on the Disney channel. He’s an old-school fairy, the kind with just enough power to really mess with us foolish mortals. He hangs out in the shadows of our offices while we work, waiting for us to get to that moment where we say, “Aha! I think I’ve finally got this writing thing figured out!”
That’s when he sneaks over with his sack of brand new challenges and frustrations and dumps them out for you, like a cat leaving little presents on in your shoes. That’s when the imposter syndrome returns.
There are days where you want to throw up your hands and say, “Why do the words all hate me?” “Why am I banging my head against the keyboard when I could be watching Sleepy Hollow?”
But we persevere. We carve out the time to write. We come to conferences. We lock ourselves away with our laptops and our notebooks and our typewriters. We do it because we believe stories matter. Because we believe our stories matter.
I want everyone here to remember one thing: you’re right. Your stories matter.
I can’t write your stories. I don’t have your knowledge, your experience, your passions. I don’t love the same things you do. I don’t see the world in the same way. I don’t have the same relationships, the same values. These are just some of the things that give you your voice as a writer, and your voice matters. Your stories matter.
When I first started trying to write stories that “mattered,” I thought it meant I had to be serious and profound and dripping with angst. The first time one of the people in my writing group told me a story I had written made them cry, I wanted to jump up and do a victory dance. I’d finally done it! I had finally written something good and important!
Forget all that shallow, meaningless crap I had written before. At last, I had become A Writer. An Author.
Forgive my bluntness here, but that’s bullshit. Unfortunately, it’s something we see a lot as writers. This is literature. That’s formulaic hackwork. This story matters. That’s just low-brow escapism. We’ve all seen it. Romance novels. Comics. Twilight.
My second fantasy novel opens with a scene about a goblin suffering from a nasty nose-picking injury. Let’s just say this book did not get reviewed by the New York Times, nor did I get shortlisted for any big literary awards. One review called it “bubblegum fantasy.” I accepted that label at the time. It didn’t bother me because I liked the books, and I was having fun. I didn’t care that I wasn’t writing anything important.
It took me a bit longer to realize that my light-hearted, bubblegum-style trilogy with its scrawny, nearsighted goblin hero and his pet fire-spider mattered. It took an email from a teacher on the west coast, talking about a struggling student who flat-out refused to read. Until she left one of the goblin books sitting conspicuously on her desk. That book – my book – was the first book that connected with this student.
To that one kid, my story mattered. It spoke to him, engaged his imagination and connected with a life in a way that none of those other “important” books had been able to do.
That’s wonderful and humbling.
Your voice matters. Your stories matter, not just because you’re the only one who can write them, but because there’s someone out there who needs the story you can write.
People talk about escapism like it’s a bad thing. Like those stories aren’t as important as gritty books full of Truth and Meaning. But go talk to the woman who’s sitting in the hospital room, waiting to find out if her father survived a triple bypass. Talk to the kid who’s getting the crap kicked out of him at school and at home. Ask them about the value of escapism, about finding a story that takes them away, even if it’s only for a few hours.
I wrote a short story earlier this year – one of the hardest stories I’ve ever done. It was for an anthology of humorous science fiction and fantasy. I wrote about a superhero who’s dying of cancer. Why did I want to write a humorous story about cancer? Because writers are masochists. And because I have a writer friend who’s dying of cancer, another who passed away earlier this year, and a third who was recently diagnosed.
The first time I read that story to an audience, a woman came up to me afterward and told me her father was in the hospital with cancer. She said she thought he’d appreciate the humor in the story. So I handed her the manuscript. She emailed a little while later to say that she’d given it to her mother, that her parents had read it together, and that they had laughed together.[1. I jumbled a detail or two when I gave the speech. I’ve reread that email, and her parents weren’t in the hospital at the time they read the story. I apologize for messing that up.]
Don’t tell me stories don’t matter.
What we do isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work and practice and determination. But it’s important. Whether you’re writing thrillers or poetry or romance or science fiction or television scripts, someone out there needs those stories.
And your stories matter.