Pen in Hand

I carried two bags to school every day.  One was my backpack, which was adorned with keychains and patches because it was 2000 and that’s what we did back then, and the other was this awesome white leather messenger bag, the coolness factor of which can never be replicated.

In this messenger bag was everything I needed to write my novel–notebooks, printed pages, pens.  I wrote in math class, during study hall, lunch.  My whole world was consumed with my writing.

So when I was accepted to the Pen in Hand writer’s conference in Little Falls, I couldn’t believe how fucking lucky I was.  Finally, my writing was being taken seriously!  For 24 hours, I would be surrounded by other writers.  I would get to meet authors and they would talk to me!  It was everything I’d hoped for and more.  I made friends there that I still have today.  It’s where I first drank coffee.  It was better than my prom.

So after I published The Big Rewind, I looked back on Pen in Hand and realized what an impact it had on my view of myself as writer.  And I was happy to see that it was in it’s 20th year.  And happier still when I was able to get in touch with Diane Wager, who not only remembered me as a student (right down to the black lace fingerless gloves I wore upon my arrival!) but invited me to come back and mentor.

Everything, right down to the food they served, was the same, but in the best way, like coming home.  A familiar shyness settled in for a moment — will they like me?  Will I make any friends? But a cup of hotel coffee later, I was feeling a little braver, and sat down for my first workshop.

What struck me about these kids was how passionate they were.  They were there to learn, sure, but more importantly, there were there to be writers.  And sure, I could have worked them to death on sentence structure and plot devices, but my approach was this.:

Let them be writers.

I wanted them to feel the same magic I felt when I was there.  To know that my work was valued, rather than picked apart.  These kids have their whole lives to have their work nitpicked, their characters dissected, their plots shredded.  But by my logic, if they nurtured that magic, that love of craft would help them continue to push forward even when the haters, as the kids say, tried to get them down.

Each kid who read got to hold Valerie, our workshop mascot, and she got tossed around the table like a little football.  I let them thumb through Lucca and Dutch, and at lunch, set up a little table where they could cut up magazines to decorate their own notebook pages.  I gave them prompts and paper to write on.  I gave them the kind of workshop I would want to be in — on that celebrates the spirit of writing.

For me, it was about giving back.  It has always been my policy, as a writer, to share what I have learned.  Diane and the authors at Pen in Hand were the first people (outside of my family, obviously) to really believe in me as a writer.  Diane and the staff helped set me on the path that produced The Big Rewind, and I couldn’t think of a better way to thank her for that gift than helping nurture the next generation of writers.

And at the end of the workshop, I asked all of them to sign my anthology as a memento.  It’s sitting on my coffee table as I write this.  I don’t know how many of them will continue on their writing careers, but I was honored to be a part of all of them.


One response to “Pen in Hand”

  1. That sounds like an amazing experience, both as an attendee and as a teacher!

    (how funny, I also wrote allll through my classes in high school. I didn’t have a swag leather bag, though [but I do now!]I kept my Epic Fantasy Novel in ring binders, but could only carry the most recent chapters with me, as that behemouth topped 1000 handwritten pages by the time I put it to sleep. Bed. Put it down. You know what I mean.)

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