At the time of writing this essay, I’m less than a week from having attended the third WU UnConference in Salem, MA. If you click on the UnConference button in the header above, you’ll find an apt description of what it’s all about, ending with this:
“In other words, we’re going to lean on our strengths, the qualities that have made Writer Unboxed a strong site and community. We’re going to empower you, but this time we’re going to empower you in person.”
UnCon has always marked pivot points for me. It signifies the end of another writing year, but it’s bigger than that. UnCon sessions and the communion with tribe always prompt me to take stock. In the aftermath of this one—in assessing the current status of my work and myself as a writer—I found my own way to the word Therese leans on in the blurb above: empower.
Allow me to try to lead you to it, as well.
Describing the Indescribable
UnCon is difficult to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. It’s different for everyone, of course. First-timer Carol Newman Cronin makes a nice attempt in her wrap-up post—particularly when she says: “[The UnCon’s] craft-only approach—and the homey comfort of the Hawthorne Hotel—eliminated much of the frenzy I’ve seen at other conferences. Our common goal was to write a better story, because that’s the only thing we really have within our control.”
Although Carol’s post reminded me how UnCon continues to evolve for me, some aspects remain the same. Focusing on story with such singularity always produces a sensation not unlike an extended waking dream. And yet, the rapport and good cheer found in the lobby can feel as familiar and real as a visit to your hometown. UnCon seems both fleeting and enduring at once. By the end I’m always stunned that it’s over, and yet sessions and conversations from the early going seem like they occurred eons ago.
It was amid this somewhat ineffable atmosphere that I discovered I’d brought along a stowaway.
Those of you who’ve been following my posts here might recall that I’ve been working on an epic fantasy trilogy for some time. Indeed, the project has been my WIP through all three UnCons. As a result of the first UnCon (in 2014), the story that became The Sundered Nation Trilogy went from a side-project to a new take on the first third of it. For the second (in 2016), I brought a finished and fairly well-vetted book one manuscript as well as my developing notes on book two. Book one, The Severing Son, went out on submission to editors shortly after that second UnCon.
To the third UnCon ( earlier this month) I brought an unsold book one, a finished book two that had been out to readers and revised once, and a newly-finished draft of book three. In other words, I had a huge but somewhat intact story, offering abundant fodder for in-session pondering.
But alas, I also brought this stowaway I mentioned. Yep, to the reportedly haunted Hawthorne Hotel, I came with my own phantom in tow. I brought along the specter of being not quite good enough.
Did you just roll your eyes? Okay, I know now, and knew then, that this is a simplistic and unfair reduction. I’m aware that many people have embraced my story and are fond of its characters. But somehow, after two years of: “Not right for us”; “Not a good fit”; “Not quite connecting with both protagonists,” and so on, I had internalized the result of being on the market as, “Sorry, it’s not quite good enough.”
And at times, for me, it’s a short leap from, “The story’s not quite good enough,” to “You’re not quite good enough.”
I wasn’t really aware of my phantom stowaway until I’d had the chance to catch up with dozens of writer friends—many who have known me throughout the years I’ve devoted to this project. Beyond their genuine interest, their consolation for my setbacks, and their heartfelt encouragement, I imagined (yes, it’s on me) what my friends must also have been taking away from my updates. “Oh, got it. It’s not quite good enough. You’re not quite there yet.”
Look, I realize that this isn’t rational. But to me, in the moment, my phantom stowaway felt undeniably real. And revealed!
Fortunately, as we cruised into midweek, my stowaway phantom became a faded, secondary concern, swept aside by this sheer collective of creativity, talent, and passion for language and story. UnCon’s magic made it all but impossible for self-consciousness and doubt to hold sway.
It was around this time that I had a deeper conversation about my work with a dear friend. My friend asked me why I hadn’t simply set my trilogy aside to focus on a new project—one that might boost me over the publishing hurdle. I could always go back to it, my friend assured me.
“Because I’ve got to see it through,” I blurted. My vehemence surprised me. But my friend smiled. “Good,” she said. “Then you know what you have to do.”
I instantly realized that I did know. I recognized that I’d merely been distracted by a phantom I’d allowed to sneak into my cranium.
Truth is, I not only knew what I had to do regarding seeing my project through. I’d already begun taking the steps to do it. As it became clear that my manuscript wasn’t selling, the first thing I’d done was an important one: I kept writing.
I started work on book two immediately after book one went out. But by the time I began on book three, I’d gained a strong suspicion that things weren’t going well. I’ll admit that my dedication to forging ahead was a bit like whistling past the graveyard. Or maybe more like plugging my ears and singing to myself. But continuing to write can never be a bad thing, no matter the motivation.
Upon finishing a draft of book three this past July, I was forced to a reckoning of sorts. I knew I needed some time away from it. I also had a long list of household chores I’d been putting off. But it was at this point that I instinctively took another step. I sought out and hired an editor for the first two books. This turned out to be an extremely fortuitous and beneficial move. My new editor has an amazing grasp for my story and characters, and has not only provided an astonishing new perspective, but has challenged me to go deep—deeper than I’ve ever gone as a writer.
In August I began a rewrite of book one, with hardly a thought about the marketplace. I was focused on depth, on treading where I’d thus far feared to go. I was well into this work when I arrived at UnCon, but looking back on the first few days, I avoided talking about it. Silly as it now seems, and as fresh as the work felt, I was embarrassed to still be working on the same ole’ book. This is even sillier considering I would feel no such judgement about a colleague in the same circumstance.
It wasn’t until we were over UnCon’s midpoint that I acknowledged, to myself and others, that not only was I committed to going deeper—to making this entire story the best it can be, publishing prospects aside—but that I’d already begun to dig.
A WUnderful Outlook
I’ve mentioned the magic of UnCon, and its effect can’t be overstated. Its spell is cast in the sessions and affects the vibrant discussions outside them. You feel it in the workshops—coming through your pen as the prompted words flow onto the page with ease. You’re utterly alone with your story, and yet you’re surrounded and buoyed by a hundred-plus kindred souls.
Therese’s chosen theme of wonder (WUnder) for UnCon 3 was so fitting. As Don Maass observed in opening the final session, we writers can get so focused on conflict and insurmountable challenge that it’s easy to overlook the wonder of immersion in story. I realize now that this is true not only on the page, but in our lives.
UnCon made me see that my phantom felt real for a reason. My gut knew that I hadn’t gone as deep as I could. Indeed, it was telling me that I’d avoided going there. UnCon reminded me not only that I could, but that I must—that I’ll never be truly satisfied until I do.
UnCon reminded me that the tools are already there for me to use. That, due to my diligence, I continue to gain the aptitude to wield them. Over the years since UnCon 1, I’ve gained a grasp and intention for my work that provides me with the growing mastery to deliver my story in its best possible form.
UnCon reminded me that I’m not at the whim of anyone, in the publishing world or elsewhere. I get to decide: the shape and form of my story, when it’s really ready, and when it goes back to the market.
UnCon also reminded me that I’m not alone. That even when the days stack up, and nothing seems to change, including the overwhelming odds against me, my friends and mentors are always with me, lifting me up, battling beside me and often for me.
More than anything, UnCon has revealed what I often refuse to see: That I’ve got this. As my protagonist’s dueling mentor calls to him before his first trial: “Your victory is already there. It’s yours to take.”
And that, my fellow writers, is how I came around to the word empower. Not every writer has the good fortune to attend an UnCon. But we all reach writerly pivot points. We can all stretch and put ourselves out there. We can all recognize our phantoms, and listen to what they’re really trying to tell us. We can all acknowledge the steps we have already taken, and see how far we’ve come. We can all recognize our allies, and see the benefit and appreciate the support they continue to provide.
We are all able to open our hearts and minds to empowerment. It’s already there. It’s yours to take.
As for this lucky writer, I can’t think of a more fitting description of the WU UnConference than empowering. Or a better gift.
How about you? Ever had a stowaway phantom? Where do you go to seek the magic? Are you feeling empowered?