To become a published novelist, there are certain things you should do. One of those things is to attend writers’ conferences and workshops.
Oh, I’m sure there are plenty of examples of published authors who didn’t attend some sort of writers’ conference or course before publishing a novel, just like there have been a few professional football players who never played college football, and groundbreaking scientists who never went to college. I’m not that brilliant. So when I found out how close I live to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC), I had no choice but to attend. I found it to be productive and informative. I also found it to be depressing.
I hear you asking, “Why would you find such a well-run, well-attended writers’ conference to be depressing?”
Precisely because it was so bloody well-attended. There were over 500 attendees and it seemed like every one of them had written a novel. Some had written more than one. And everyone I met was there for one reason – to get published.
As a statistician, I must confess that this result was not obtained through a random sampling of all attendees. I spent much of my time standing in line to sign up for pitch sessions. No one is going to stand in one of those anxiety-ridden lines unless he/she wants to pitch a book. So my sample of new friends was possibly a little biased.
I knew this, but I still felt like the smallest of 500 nestling chicks with one mother and a worm shortage. You can see where that could be depressing.
So it was with a sense of cynicism that I showed up to a conference luncheon to listen to Ivan Coyote, yet another keynote speaker hired to tell us how he became a published writer and to give us struggling newbs a pep talk.
I had never heard of Ivan Coyote before, so I listened with interest as the MC introduced him by explaining that he was an oral story teller. What? No one calls themselves an oral story teller, any more. That’s sort of a lost tradition, isn’t it?
I put my deductive powers to work: Ivan is a Slavic name, but with a last name like Coyote, I thought maybe he was at least partially of First Nations descent. That could explain it. Feeling clever, I glanced around the room as the MC continued her introduction and tried to spot an old guy with long, graying braids and a Russian accent.
But then the MC said, “. . . over the last thirteen years she has become an audience favorite at music, poetry, spoken word and writer’s festivals from Anchorage to Amsterdam.”
She? Did she say she? Had the MC misread the cue card?
The MC continued, saying she had spoken to “her” earlier in the conference. Huh. Ivan must be a she. Unusual name for a girl. Come to think of it, I had seen an older lady in traditional First Nations garb in the hotel lobby right before the luncheon. That could explain it. Feeling smug, I rearranged my expectations and waited for the speaker to appear.
Then a youngish man with an above-the-ear haircut stepped up to the podium and started messing with the microphone. What’s this? More introduction? A fellow newb suggested maybe he was a techy fiddling with the sound system. I frowned doubtfully. The sound had been working perfectly well, moments before. But that could explain it. Feeling confused, I waited for something to happen.
Then the man spoke and my brain flipped in its pan. This was Ivan Coyote, and he was a woman.
As open-minded as I try to be, I had fallen into the trap of stereotype and expectation. I don’t think I’m the only one. We rely on generalizations, repeating patterns, and predictable colorations to help us process the world around us. Without these short cuts, we’d be staggering around in confusion and bumping into walls. The key to open-mindedness is how we react when someone throws a wrench into our coping mechanisms.
As surprised as I was, I might have exchanged raised eyebrows with my lunch partners or let my mind wander into speculation. But that’s just not possible when Ivan Coyote speaks. Ivan dresses like a truck driver. She moves like a weight lifter. She has the timing and wit of a comedian. And she has the charisma of a preacher (and I don’t mean the kind that lets you catch some extra Sunday morning Z’s). It’s impossible to not watch her when she moves and it’s impossible to not hear her when she speaks. As someone who is relentlessly ignored in large groups and has a tendency to freeze under the pressure of too many eyes, I couldn’t help but envy Ivan Coyote’s natural stage presence. I wished I had her ability to capture and hold her audience’s attention.
Ivan spoke of how, as a young person, she never imagined she might do all the things she has done. She shared something of how she attained her success, and assured us that it didn’t matter if we were too old or too young, whether we were male or female, or what the nature of our ethnic background was. Success could happen to anyone. She stood there as living proof.
I’m sorry that I can’t share the specifics of her speech—too many weeks have gone by. But one line stood out more than the rest. (I’m going to butcher it, so if anyone out there is able to correct me, please do.) She said, “If the gay daughter of a welder from Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory can stand here [she points down at the podium], then so can you.”
It was a helluva pep talk. As her speech ended, the audience erupted in the most sincere, spontaneous, energetic, and universal standing ovation I’ve ever witnessed. And, cynic though I am, I stood too.