Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A very merry UNconference to YOU!

I attended the Surrey International Writers Conference again this year and had a completely different experience than I did last year. Not better. Certainly not worse. Just different. And mainly I can attribute that to the people I met and the things I did. Last year I surfed the sessions, took a ton of notes and my take away friend was fantasy author Miriam Cumming from Australia. Fabulous, fabulous time and it completely changed my views on my career and how I approached my writing every day.

Fast forward an entire year (almost) to this past summer. I had randomly read on the SiWC blog that they were trying out something new called the "unconference" and that you could submit a proposal to be a speaker. After a few minutes of consideration I thought nope, better not. I was pitching this year and had to focus on one thing at a time. Not my usual million things going at once, fly in with my hair on fire, forget my pants, breaking stuff, always late type of situation. Nope. I was going to be a grown up (what?!) and focus on one important thing at a time.

Did anybody snort when reading that? If you know me at all, you probably snorted. Me? Not speak at something? Impossible. I know. Well, be that as it may, I really did decide to not submit a proposal and the deadline passed by without a second thought. I had a pitch to craft. But as life sometimes goes, things were in the works that I had no control over. Stuff happened. And as events unfolded I found myself sitting late one night reading on the SiWC blog that the deadline had been extended. The events in my own life told me to just submit a damn proposal already. You won't get in, certainly...but if you don't at least send one you will regret it. SO. I quickly pounded out an off the cuff proposal into the body of an email, proofed it once for glaring spelling errors, did no editing whatsoever and hit send before I could stop myself. It got the regret out of my system and I turned my attention to my pile of words that needed to be written.

Fast forward (again) to the next day. I was having lunch at the tea room with my boys and while they were in the bathroom I checked my email. I was a speaker at the unconference and could I fill 15 minutes? Um, I'm sorry...WHAT?! It took a while to believe I was accepted to speak. Mind. BLOWN.

The title of my little 15 minutes was "You ARE a writer" and I ended up presenting to almost 20 people in the Dogwood Room on the Saturday shortly before lunch. With my broadcasting background, I wasn't nervous...maybe the best word would be apprehensive? I wanted to do justice to this awesome thing I got to do. But with a few familiar faces in the crowd and the brilliance of our moderator Sean Cranbury, things went very well and I left on a high of having spoken words that someone may have heard. Not just with their ears, but with their heart.

And because brevity has never been my strong is the speech in its entirety if only for my few friends who have admonished me for not recording myself at the conference so they could hear it. It was an absolute pleasure to present it.

Good afternoon and welcome. I’m Kate Kading and they have named this little part of the unconference “You ARE a writer.” This is not about writing tips. I am not going to lay out for you the roadmap of how to write and why to write and who to show it to. First, before you do any of that, you need to feel confident of one thing and one thing only. That you ARE a writer. I really needed to share my experience with you to let you know that you are already a writer. Right now. This second. No matter what you have otherwise convinced yourself of. You. Are. A. WRITER. But Kate, are you sure? How do you KNOW you are a writer?

 I have discovered that SiWC is all about interaction so let’s get our required audience participation out of the way with a little crowd survey. Show of hands, who has been to more than 5 conferences? Who is back again this year for the second time or more? And the question everyone just loves to answer…who is here for the very first time? Two things for you: First, congratulations on jumping in on your first conference! And second, I am going to reveal to you a secret that NONE of the organizers tell you in advance.

 It is the best kept secret at SiWC and to tell you the absolute truth, if I had known this little gem when I was signing up, I may have thought twice about coming to MY first conference last year. Whoa, wait a minute. Did she just say it’s only her SECOND conference? Yup, in fact she did. So what qualifies me to be standing up here speaking at the unconference? The answer to that goes very nicely with the huge secret I am about to reveal. So here it is: At SiWC… they make you confess. And not in a small way. I am talking confessions of epic proportions that you thought you would take to your grave. Things you would never breathe a word of to anyone. Confessions that embarrass you, make you doubt yourself and confessions that you think will end the weekend for you, right then and there. Confessions that expand your career. Confessions that make you believe you even HAVE a career. Confessions that lift your spirit. Confessions that inspire you for the next 365 days until the next conference.

 So my confession this year is this: My name is Kate Kading and this is only my second time at SiWC. I have no idea why they let me speak. (big breath) Woo! Feels good to get that off my chest! But I’ll tell you, my confession last year almost broke me. I think this is what qualifies me to talk to you about this today. I thought I could hide it pretty well. You see, I didn’t actually go to school to become a writer. I don’t have any amazing letters behind my name. My formal training is in Radio and Television Broadcasting so I always say I paid twelve grand to be this obnoxious. It also gives me some pretty serious skills at hiding my insecurities and short comings and faking whatever skill is needed at the time which led me to believe I would be completely fine last year, hiding this deep dark secret of mine.

I didn’t want anyone to find out that I had come to a writer’s conference but I wasn’t actually a writer.
Never mind that I had written since I was old enough to hold a pencil. Won creative writing awards throughout high school, earned spots in some of the hardest to get into workshops for teens in my province of Saskatchewan. Then went on to write material for websites, promotional stuff for businesses, creating whatever was needed for my volunteer positions, speeches, petitions and anything else that dropped itself into my lap. General consensus was “Get Kate to do it. She talks good.” Hm. Talks good, indeed. But all of this stuff, in my mind, did not qualify me as a writer. When someone asked me what I did for a living, it honestly never occurred to me to say “I’m a writer.” No publishing house had presented me with silk bags full of money. An agent had never produced a feathery quill with a flourish, begging me to sign on the dotted line and really, until that happened- I was obviously not a writer.

And one more thing I didn’t know about SiWC is the insane inclusive spirit of the group which leads every single person here to ask that one question I did NOT want to answer last year. Does anyone know what that question is? Whenever you sit down at a meal with people you don’t know, they ask you your name, maybe where you are from and…that’s right. They ask you “So what do you write?”

 Like what the hell, people! Are you kidding me? I was all prepared to keep this hidden for the whole weekend and I am outed 5 minutes into the conference? Well that is just friggin’ awesome.

I fidgeted. I looked around. I lowered my head, surely convinced that KC Dyer was going to have the conference henchmen escort me out the second the answer escaped my lips. I bungled my way through a bit of a sentence about dabbling in some nonfiction and maybe a children's book or two but quickly rushed on to say that I wasn’t a published author and still had tons of work to do to get there.

I am always the first person to downplay my work. We are our own worst critics, right? And if there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s people who inflate their importance and accomplishments. I never want to be that person. In my head, I was chanting "Please don’t kick me out, please don’t kick me out…" and then the lady I was sitting with said “Honey, do you write for money? What do you get paid for?” Oh, it’s nothing. I just work freelance for a weekly newspaper. It doesn’t pay much but it’s fun. She kind of gave me this look like I was a lunatic and proceeded to tell me…wait for it…that I WAS A WRITER. Um, I’m sorry. What? No, I’m not. I am a fraud pretending to be a writer.

 Still convinced my minutes were numbered and I better soak in all the conference goodness I could before being dragged out the door, I listened to the ladies at my table and I truly wish I knew who they were so I could hug them and thank them for what they did for me that day. It was a pretty uncomfortable 30 minutes of confession for me…but they grilled me on what I did, how I did it and where I was published. I kept saying I wasn’t published. But they pushed on, getting details of what I did every day for money, what I did for fun, what I loved, what I hoped to be someday.

They were ruthless. And pushy. And eye opening. And wonderful. Little did I know that being published every week in a tiny town paper was a thing. Really? So I settled in a bit, thinking that if someone came to kick me out the ladies at my table would at the very least hang on to a leg or something and defend me. And the more I listened to them, what they did for money, what they did for fun and what they hoped to achieve in the future, I discovered that I wasn’t the least experienced person in the room. I wasn’t the most experienced person in the room by any means. But most importantly, I wasn’t a fraud. I deserved to be in that seat. And the biggest, most heart stopping and life changing revelation of that weekend: I AM A WRITER.

After that first lunch it was like floating on a cloud. I think I even spent some time puffing out my chest. I was elated to discover that the career I had secretly wanted my whole life was what I was already doing. Kathy Chung once wrote on the SiWC blog that she didn’t understand conference bashers and I have to agree with her. This really is professional development even if your brain won’t allow you to define it as such.

Because lunching with Diana Gabaldon, sipping fine whiskey while listening to Jack Whyte read his latest book with his Scottish burr and soaking in the valuable, personable and straight forward teachings of Hallie Efron just doesn’t seem like any kind of work at all.

I have heard people say they prefer to read books on writing and I do own several. And that anything you need to know can be found on the internet. Ok, sure. I can google stuff too. All that may be true. But there is value in networking. Does that mean you should corner an agent in the bathroom and tell them all about your latest novel? Um. Probably not. Don’t be that guy. That’s not really what I am talking about.

Your goal of SiWC should be to meet people. LOTS of people. All kinds of people who write all kinds of different things and have all kinds of skill sets, opinions and experiences. Because you never know who is going to say something that strikes you. You never know the connections that can be made that will mould, grow and shape your inner writer. And like me, you never know when someone is going to knock you in the head and tell you that you really are a writer. For real. No fraudulent activity involved. And that working for dimes has actually put you on a valuable career path.

Last year’s conference was the biggest gift I ever gave myself. It was the single most important point of my career as a writer and completely changed my attitude on the definition of writer and what it means to call myself that. I am not even going to qualify that by saying “most important point to date”. No. It was THE single most significant event of my entire career because it made me believe that I even HAD a career.

 My best stories at the time were about farm drones, tractors and crop sciences. Actually, my best stories are still about farm drones, tractors and crop sciences. My critics are the folks on coffee row who cheer me on when they see their grandson or niece in the paper and yell at me in the same breath that I need to be writing about the important things like who owns the new restaurant in town. I am a very big fish in a teeny, tiny little pond. But I am still a writer and writers write many different words at many different times.

So at 10am on a Tuesday at the coffee shop when I am rounding up my second caramel macchiato of the day and discussing my latest feature on the Heritage Harvest Festival with the gentlemen who sit at the table by the window, I am a big fish in my small pond. And if the ONLY thing I ever wrote about was the price of cattle, the rodeo coming to town, the latest town council minutes and the heritage threshing demonstration…guess what? I would still be a writer.

But because of SiWC, I write more than that. And because of SiWC I have this friend from Australia with mad skills who asks me almost every day now “So what did you write today?” and I want to be able to tell her something amazing. So late at night, when the dishes are done, the lunches are made for the next day and the children are dreaming their little boy dreams, I will write. And when I write late at night, into the wee hours of the morning because let’s face it…none of us have proper respect for the next morning when we are in the throes of writing the night before…but when I am writing the stuff that may never make me a single dime, that is when I am a regular fish in a huge ocean of other fish. Can I make it in that ocean? Can I single myself out amongst all the other fish in this vast ocean? Hell yeah, I can. And SiWC helped me realize that. And you need to realize that too. So go write something because you ARE a writer!

So that was my speech and it was really fun presenting it at the unconference. I also pitched that weekend (it went horribly) but turned that around with the help of new friends Char and Katherine (now labelled "take away friends 2015"), met amazing author Leanne Shirtliffe (The Change Your Name Store and Don't Lick The Minivan) who had some brilliant suggestions for polishing a children's story I am working on and just generally rubbed elbows (hello table 30!), gained ideas and perspective and soaked in the incredible goodness that is SiWC. This conference amps you up with enough creative flow for the 365 days until the NEXT conference. And believe me, I will be back. Because my stories matter. And yours do too.