The First And Last Time I’ll Talk About Being Vegan

[Joke 1]

“How do you know if someone’s a vegan?”
“Don’t worry, they’ll fucking tell you!”

Here’s how the conversation starts. I say, “Hey, guys. I have something to tell you. I decided to adopt a vegan diet on January 1, 2016, to protest animal exploitation at the hands of the factory farming system.”

You roll your eyes. Cue [Joke 1].

We’re already off to a bad start.

I want to tell everyone who’s reading this blog not to be defensive, because I’m not attacking you. I want to tell you not to worry that I’m judging you, because that would make me a hypocrite. If I were to judge you, I’d also have to judge the person I was four months ago, when I ate meat regularly; a year ago when I ate hot wings at least once a week; four years ago, when I openly exclaimed, in a barbeque shop “fuck vegetarianism!” I want to tell everyone that I’m not forcing my views on you, or assaulting you with an asparagus spear, or crying the vegan war cry unto the wrath of a red dawn. (Asparagus spears don’t make very good weapons, I promise.)

This is the first and last time I’ll talk about veganism on this blog, because (a) it’s not a very popular subject, and not relevant to the other things I generally write about; and (b) veganism isn’t my crusade. It’s not my war. I am merely a foot soldier, not a general in this fight. It is, however, a growing movement that I have decided to join, and I want to explain at least once why it’s an important path for me, and one that I think you should consider as well.

Four months ago I was a devoted carnivore. I ate al pastor burritos and steak sandwiches for lunch and dinner all the time. I lived on hot wings. A medium-rare hamburger with blue cheese and bacon was about as close as I could come to heaven without actually dying. I didn’t eat meat every day, but close to it. I loved it. And my taste buds still do.

Amira Hot Wings (2).PNG
I’m not joking about my love of hot wings.

And don’t even get me started on cheese. Cheese is magic. Cheese – blue cheese, goat cheese, swiss cheese, cheddar, gouda, brie, emmenthaler, and oh my god, feta – tastes like unicorn milk aged in the soft skin of a puppy’s ear spiced with myrrh and the nectar of the Olympians.

It’s easy to see why I thought giving these things up would be hard, why I didn’t want to do it. It’s easy to see why I erected psychological barriers that stopped me from admitting the truth. I blinded myself – to the realities of factory farming, animal abuse on farms, environmental destruction, and the unholy lack of compassion and kindness inherent in the act of slaughter – so as to not rob myself of these singular pleasures.

But then the strangest thing happened.

I fell in love with a pig.

Esther Piglet 1
Esther, as a piglet, on the left. Be still, my heart. That smile. That nose.

Not just any pig. A wonder pig. I’ve never even met her, but she’s changed my life. Her name is Esther, and she lives with her two dads on a farm sanctuary in Canada. Her story is pretty amazing. Her dads adopted her when she was just a piglet, thinking she was a mini pig and would never grow larger than a small dog. When it quickly became apparent that she was, in fact, a farm pig, a rescue from the horrific world of factory farms and slaughterhouses, the dads sprang to action. Unable to keep Esther in their small apartment, they started an IndieGoGo campaign to buy a plot of land to start a farm sanctuary. Now, at Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, dozens of rescued farm animals live peacefully, along with the dads’ two dogs, two cats, and Esther, who is treated like the queen she is.

Shortly after I fell in love with Esther, I started having nightmares. I dreamed I was chasing Esther through the woods with a knife. I heard her squealing as she tried to escape my blade. I dreamed I was shooting her in the head with a hunting rifle in the dank confines of a slaughterhouse. I dreamed I had to kill her and eat her in order to survive. I’d wake up in a sweat each time, my heart pounding as sadness, anger, and guilt ripped me apart.

I was having these nightmares because I was doing two things that were irreconcilable: claiming to love animals and to love Esther, while eating the literal flesh of thousands of other animals just like her. I knew I had to do change if I wanted to be able to sleep at night, to look at myself in the mirror. So in early October, I stopped eating meat, and I resolved to go full vegan on January 1.

The nightmares stopped. The guilt stopped. Suddenly, the things I was saying were aligned with the things I was doing. Because the reality is that you can’t protest animal cruelty while supporting a system that perpetuates it. That’s exactly what I was doing at the time. When I stopped eating meat, the nightmares stopped. My values were once again aligned with my actions.

[Joke 2]
“But bacon is so tasty!”

Experience has taught me that this is when you, my hypothetical interlocutor, interrupt. Cue [joke 2]. Which means it’s my cue to stop. I can take it no further. All I can tell you is that my love of animals – all animals – stopped me from eating meat, and if you are a person who also loves animals…well, it’s in your hands now.

It is your decision whether to make any of the following arguments:

(1) But, don’t plants have feelings, too?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a tomato plant squeal in terror before I pulled a fruit off the vine. I’ve never seen a plant cry or whine over raspberries plucked too soon, I’ve never seen a plant rejoice when released from the confines of a greenhouse into an open field. Plants might have feelings, and maybe scientists will one day find a way to understand their expressions, but for right now, they sure don’t have feelings the way animals do.

(2) I could never go without meat. It’s too tasty!

I hear ya. I really, really do. I still love meat. Just the other day I walked by the Trader Joe’s packaged meat section and sighed, wishing longingly that meat grew on trees just like apricots and peanut butter. The delicious smell of barbeque is what led to my fateful declaration of “fuck vegetarianism!” four years ago. Meat is delicious. But here’s the thing. When you start to see that piece of meat as if someone had slaughtered your dog and served it to you for dinner, or if someone had skewered your cat and turned it into a shish kebab, it doesn’t sound so good anymore. When you start to see every piece of meat on your plate as an animal that cried when it was separated from its mother, felt terror when it smelled the death coming from the slaughterhouse or the people who had fed and raised it for the last two years, and fought desperately to free itself before dying, afraid and alone, at the hands of abusive farm workers, it just doesn’t sound good anymore.

(3) How do you get enough protein? Don’t vegans just, like, eat lettuce all the time?

I get plenty of protein, and I definitely don’t eat lettuce all the time. If I did, I would starve. If you are seriously interested in vegetarianism/veganism as a way of life, I’m happy to talk to you about some great resources to get started on how to eat a well-balanced diet and simultaneously not eat like a rabbit. I’ve already been complimented on my delicious-looking food several times at work, by people who didn’t even know I was vegan.

(4) Humans are omnivores. We need meat to survive!

First of all, as I and the millions of other vegans and vegetarians are proof, you do not need meat to survive. The very definition of omnivorous is that you can survive off a variety of food types, both plant- and animal-based. It says nothing about need. In fact, one of the incredible things about human biology is how versatile we are – how many different kinds of diets we can eat without being malnourished. In a modern society where the vast majority of us have no trouble getting our calories, it becomes less about need and more about choice. And if you could choose kindness, compassion, and empathy, why wouldn’t you? Vegan Sidekick 1At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide: do I take the safe, conventional route, stick with these arguments, and ground myself in my habits? Or do I join the revolution, save the lives of countless animals, and contribute to a kinder world? If you feel inclined to make these arguments, and do not feel inclined to change your eating habits, then I can only thank you for reading this far, and hope that these ideas will stay with you, and maybe one day, down the line, you’ll change your mind.

If anything in this post has given you pause, and you want to take up the discussion further, I encourage you to write to me in the comments or on Twitter. You can find me @akmakansi. I am new to this, too, so I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have every solution. But I am convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that going vegan/vegetarian means being on the right side of history.

Together, we can all contribute to a kinder, happier, greener world.

Esther Steve Bowie.jpg
In honor of David Bowie’s death, Steve (one of Esther’s dads) posted this photo with the caption, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

 

 

Why I Run (Why I Write)

It’s very popular among writers to spend a lot of time hemming and hawing over the grand question of Why We Write. I think almost every one of my writer friends has penned at least one blog entry with that exact title. I’m not saying this as an accusation. I haven’t actually done the same thing, but I’ve thought about it, many times. It’s a great exercise. It forces you to look at yourself in the mirror and say, I am doing this for something other than the moneyI am doing this for something other than the fame. It’s also a way to come up with a half-dozen ways to tell your friends why you keep doing this stupid, insane thing that sucks up your free time, doesn’t make you any money, distracts you from your friends, and keeps you perpetually as sleep deprived as a third year college student.

It’s the same with runners. Often, you have to explain to well-meaning friends and family that running is actually something you enjoy. The problem is, this basic fact doesn’t make a lot of sense. When you run, you’re cutting into nap time. You’re cutting into time with your family. If you’re a writer, you’re cutting into writing time. You’re beating your body in a thousand different ways. Knee pain, back pain, and soreness all become intimate friends. You’re submitting to self-imposed torture for as many miles – which translates to many thousands of steps – as it takes to finish that run. You do that three to five times a week, minimum, if you want to make progress. When you sign up for a race, you’re paying – paying! – for the privilege of waking up at a godforsaken hour of the morning, eating oatmeal for breakfast, shivering in the cold for forty-five minutes, old-man-jogging for anywhere from six to thirteen to twenty six to fifty miles alongside hundreds, or thousands, of other weirdos who also thought this was a good idea. And at the end of it all you are rewarded with free water, energy gels, a banana, and the endless admiration of your friends and other runners.

marathon_definition

Why the actual fuck would anyone in the modern world subject themselves to this?

We have naptime. We have indoor heating and air conditioning. We have pools and couches and down comforters and Netflix and chill and refrigerators constantly stocked with food and iPhones and video games. We literally have people that bring pizza and Chinese food to our doors. We have alcohol and prescribed marijuana and a revolving door of movies delivered to our computers. We have books, comic books, cookbooks. Why the fuck would anyone want to go outdoors, into the real world, just to subject themselves to fifteen minutes to five hours of running, without food or water, up and down hills, in the cold and snow and heat and humidity? I mean, didn’t we specifically invent the social contract and the barter system so we could avoid doing shit like this?

For some stupid reason, I’ve been running off and on for eight years now. Even I was confused when I impulsively registered for my first half-marathon two years ago. I was astonished when I somehow completed the race a few months later. Just last night, I made the financially unsound decision to pay over a hundred dollars for the privilege of running another half-marathon in Oakland in the spring.

I come back to running over and over again, no matter how many times I stop.

When I started training for my first half-marathon in February of 2014, I assumed, at the time, that I was going to lose weight. I assumed my body would magically mutate into that of a Victoria’s Secret model. I assumed I’d wake up the day after the race with a flat stomach, killer abs, and a thigh gap Katniss could shoot an arrow through. When none of those things happened, it turned out, much to my surprise, that I did not give one single flying fuck.

Because running is never about losing weight. (Writing is never about money.) Running is never about changing your body type. (Writing is never about fame.) I might have started running to lose weight and tone up, but that’s not what kept me running. If it did, I would have quit years ago.

What keeps me running is the thrill of the open road. (What keeps me writing is the promise of an open page.) The power I feel after finishing a loop. (The power I feel after I finish a scene.) The rush of air as I pick up pace. The strength in my body that pushes me up that hill. What keeps me running is the sound of a creek as I run on a path paved with leaves and lined with birch trees. (What keeps me writing is the world that unfolds as I write.) What keeps me running is the sight of clouds gathering on the horizon, of sunsets in the distance, of green fields or fresh white snow crunching beneath my feet. What keeps me running is the feeling that I have conquered something. (What keeps me writing is the feeling that I have created something.)

Murakami Running

Running makes me feel like if the zombie apocalypse happened, I could outrun those slow motherfuckers. If Godzilla came after me, I’d just run up his tail and chill out on his head for a little while. If Donald Trump gets elected and a bunch of right-wing nutjobs come after me with AK-47s and confederate flags, I’ll run through the forest and over mountains to Canada. If a serial killer tries to eat the flesh off my bones, I’ll run at him, deliver a flying kick to his nutsack, and run away cackling at my superior athleticism.

Running makes me feel like I can win any battle, defeat any enemy, overcome any hurdle. Running makes me feel victorious.

(Writing makes me feel like I can change the world one page at a time, can tell stories that need to be told, can bring a little light into a place where once there was darkness. Writing makes me feel like magic.)

Even when the enemy is myself. Even when the battle is for self-confidence, willpower, or moving on from a trauma. Even when my only hurdles are things I put in place long ago. When I’m racing towards a finish line – no matter how slow I’m going or how beat-up I feel – all those problems are silent.

In 2014, when I was a few weeks away from my first half-marathon, I wrote a blog post called Writing and Running: On Triumph And Sacrifice. A week after that race, I wrote what ended up being my most successful blog post ever: Half-Marathon: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Body. A lot of people wrote in, via the comments, that they would love to follow in my footsteps and wanted to know if I would write a post about my training regimen. I never did that. This time, I’m going to. I’ll blog occasionally about my training plan and how it’s coming, along with tips, tricks, and (hopefully) funny anecdotes along the way.

If any of my blog readers want to follow along with my progress and participate themselves, I’d love to read your posts and check in to see how your training’s going. Just leave a comment and I’ll come say hi. If you’re a writer who also runs, so much the better! Let’s chat. Because bonding over two forms of extreme masochism is better than one!

(Really, though, I write so I can do more of this.)
Really, though, I run so I can do more of this.

Four Tips for Writing Successful Blog Posts

A few days ago a young man contacted me asking for writing advice. It was the first time I’d ever been asked for writing advice, and it was a bit of a shock. I thought that was something that only happened to famous writers like Neil Gaiman, Margret Atwood, or Anne Rice. But here was another human being asking me how to write “simple and sophisticated” posts “like your blog”. (For context, my most popular post, Half-Marathon: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Body had just been re-run by WordPress Discover, which diverted more than a thousand new readers to my blog over the course of three days, and apparently inspired this young man to write to me.)

I briefly considered refusing, on the grounds that I am not a good enough writer or blogger to give out advice, and advising that perhaps he should seek out someone more proficient. But egotism prevailed: after all, he had asked, and wouldn’t it be rude to refuse after he had sought me out and humbly requested a few tips from a “really inspiring” writer? I sat down and wrote the email.

old-letters-436501_1280

Since then I’ve received one or two more solicitations for blogging or writing tips, or from writers requesting to cross-post my posts onto their site. I’ve decided, therefore, to share the tips I sent off a few days ago. What follows is the small amount of writing wisdom I’ve acquired over four years of blogging and writing. Here are my tips to writing simple and sophisticated blog posts that make a big impact.

1. Keep It Short. I recognize that my readers have hundreds of thousands of blogs and articles they could choose to read, from journalists and  writers much more accomplished and talented than I, and that I am lucky they have alighted upon mine. To this end, I try to keep my posts simple and concise. Almost none of them are longer than 1500 words, and most are below 1200. I know that some bloggers have had great success with longer, 2,000+ word posts, but I think these are the exception, not the rule. In general, it’s easier to draw in readers with a post of substance that they can read from start to finish in fifteen minutes or less.

2. Tell Your Stories. If you share stories that are meaningful to you, people will see that you are writing stories that matter, and have made an impact in your life. They in turn will be influenced by your words. If you write about experiences other people had, or that you wish you’d had, or about lofty dreams and goals that you haven’t yet achieved, you won’t be writing about real things. What influences people most, in my opinion, is writing that gets to the heart of the matter, that cuts to the core, that touches on what is most real in our lives. By sharing stories about personal experiences that have affected you, hurt you, inspired you, moved you, or changed you, your posts will hum with a truth that others will recognize. They will be drawn to that truth. They will empathize with your story and be transformed, just as you were.

3. Make your stories broadly applicablePart of the reason I believe my post on running a half marathon and accepting my own body was inspirational to so many people is that it struck a common theme. Many people in the 21st century struggle with body love and self-acceptance. By sharing my own story, and then subsequently writing about how others might feel similarly or learn the same lesson I learned, I made my story applicable to a broad and diverse group of people. By telling a personal story and discussing in your post what others can take from it, you will draw people into your world and inspire them both by the experience you had and because you had the courage to share it.

4. Write In Your Own Voice. Do not try to write like someone else, unless as writing practice. Do not try to write like your favorite author. Don’t try to be Ernest Hemingway, or Fyodor Dostoevsky, or J.K. Rowling. Just try to write, simply and clearly, telling your stories. As you practice, your writing will improve, and you will be able to affect more people with your stories. Then, when or if you decide to turn to fiction writing, essays, or long-form journalism, you will have a distinctive voice all of your own, as charismatic and powerful as Jon Krakauer or Toni Morrison, and it will be yours.

So, what do you think? Are these tips helpful? Are they garbage? What advice would you give to aspiring bloggers or writers, if someone wrote to you asking for advice? Thank you for reading!

 

 

 

Skeleton: A Poem

Dan Beckenmeyer CardioToday was the first day I felt your bones
And not your breath.
Today was the first day I ran my fingers over your clavicle
And not your skin.
Today was the first day I lay against your rib cage
And not your chest, taut and rich with youth and fear,
Today I felt the hardness of your jaw
Not the warmth of your tongue, not the richness of your lips, not the redness of your mouth.
Today I wrapped my hands around stark jutting knuckles
Not sweaty palms, not sweet grasping fingers
So eagerly seeking my own. .
Today as I slept my feet wrestled with bare bright shins
The kind of whiteness that blinds
Colder than January snows.
Today was the first day I listened not to the beating of your heart
But to the echoes of wind through your ribs, to words you never said,
To echoes of words.
Today I lay with the skeleton of what might have been
Dry and brittle, gaping eyes, wide smile
The dream of you
Crumbling into dust
At my feet.

Dan Beckenmeyer Cardio 2

Images are photographs of a mixed-media work by illustrator Dan Beckemeyer. Pen and ink with stitching and hand-felting on abaca paper. 

Mirrors: A Poem

“Forget him” was the most useless advice anyone ever gave me.
“Forget about him,” my friends said. “You deserve better, anyway.”
Forget him. The thought had occurred to me one night years before, but it meant nothing to my hoofbeat heart, stampeding in my chest, meant nothing to my butterfly eyes, wings beating open every five minutes as I slept.
Forget him.
My mother said the same thing on the phone the first time I broke up with a boyfriend in college.
“Forget him,” she said. “If he doesn’t recognize how special you are, he’s not worth your time.”
I didn’t understand.

I wonder where anyone ever got the idea that we are anything but mirrors.
Polaroids that capture wavelengths of spirit
After all, I’d have never seen a rainbow if not for clouds crying, cracking rays of sunlight into technicolor halos in the sky.
I’d never have seen the moon
Without the sun’s reflection to crown her every night.

(I am your ocean
You are my moon.
In the undulations of my body
You crystallize and bloom.)

Forget him? 
We are all refractions of each other
Prisms triangulated for a multitude of color
“Forget him” means nothing to my autumnal palms
“Forget him” means nothing to my bellows lungs
“Forget him” means nothing to the billowing sea,
When told
To forget
Her moon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Artist: Jim Hughes, Installation Series: “Give More Than You Take”

Saltwater and Ink: A Poem

Opalescent moon, senescent sky
A fog at dusk that speaks to me in tongues
Like the prophets of old
My phantom dreams, papier-mache and origami, so fragile,
Milk-white, and pale
Are laid at the altar
As I clutch this knife
With your name on my lips.

This love isn’t pretty but it is real
(Real like the paint peeling off your front porch
Real like the first scent of smoke on autumn’s breath)
Drenched in it, saltwater and ink
(Your sweat, and mine)
You will lick me clean, and I, penitent
Will baptize you.

John Atkinson Grimshaw

“Lovers in a Wood”, oil on card, John Atkinson Grimshaw

Promises: A Poem

Like smoke on the horizon
Like ash at my feet
Like grey soot and bony plants
I am afraid.

Like cryptic messages passed from hand to hand
Like acrid liquor in my throat
Like heat in my belly, growing
I am afraid.

Succulent fruit, lush and sweet
Are your promises.

Like smoke in my mouth
Like ash in my hands
Like grey eyes and bony limbs
I am afraid
Of your promises.

intaglio

Skin Tone Delectable-Decadence

First image: South Downs Winter #1 by Christopher Knox. Second image: Skin Tone by Miss Hush (tumblr). 

Book Review: “The Vintner’s Daughter” by Kristen Harnisch

Last week I blogged about attending the 2015 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. I met so many fantastic agents, editors, and writers there, some of whom I hope will be contacts for years to come. One of the most astounding connections I made was with author Kristen Harnisch, who lectured at a session called “The New Model of Publishing: Combining Traditional and Partner Publishing For Success”. As a self-published author who is interested in one day publishing traditionally, I was naturally excited about her session, co-hosted by her agent April Eberhardt, who is one of the few agents working today willing to represent self-published authors.

Within the first few minutes of the session, I realized that Kristen and I had a lot to talk about, as her debut novel The Vintner’s Daughter featured a French female winemaker working in California at the turn of the 20th century. Many of my friends and readers know that every year I disappear from the internet as I get sucked into the vortex that is the grape harvest – that all-important time of year when we turn grapes into wine. (Which is coming up, in case you were wondering. See you all in November!) As a female winemaker who has worked in both France and California, and also as an ardent lover of history, I knew I was going to love her novel. Kristen did a book signing immediately after her session, and of course, the first thing I did was run down, buy her book, and strike up a conversation at the signing table. I had to wait until my Wednesday flight out of the city to crack the book open, but let me tell you: it was worth the wait.

Vintner's Daughter

The Vintner’s Daughter is the story of Sara Thibault, the youngest daughter of a prominent winemaker in the Loire Valley in France. But when her father dies in a tragic accident and the fate of the family winery falls outside Sara’s control, she and her sister Lydia are forced to seek other means of survival. A devastating incident with one of their creditors forces both girls to flee their home and country – and where else to run but to America?

Across the pond in New York City, Sara once again finds herself inevitably drawn back to the world of wine. Haunted by her dreams of becoming a master winemaker in the Loire, she follows the wine trail (much as this young writer/winemaker once did…) out to Napa Valley, where several Frenchmen are just beginning to discover California’s potential as a grape-growing region. There, Sara finds solace in reclaiming her heritage and true calling. And in the figure of handsome, ambitious Philippe Lemieux, she might finally find someone who understands and matches her passion for the craft.

In Sara I saw so much of myself. She is a headstrong young woman determined to do something – and do it excellently – that women are often told is out of our reach. Sara’s struggles mimicked my own: the desire to be taken seriously, the need to perform feats of physical strength often considered to be the reserve of men, the desire to work independently and be considered an equal in a field that is largely male-dominated. Of course, Sara’s struggle – and mine – is by no means restricted to the wine profession. It’s a microcosm of the war that women around the globe have been waging for centuries.

Harnisch references this large- and small-scale struggle, documenting the ways historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony influenced women in the Bay area, and featuring a character who is an activist in the campaign for suffrage. In the backdrop of Sara Thibault’s story is the fight for women’s suffrage, the right of a woman to protect herself against domestic violence, and the rights of women to care for their own children even in cases of divorce or physical abuse. Sara’s fight for autonomy over her winemaking is emblematic of the fight for women’s liberation on a grand scale, and Harnisch toggles back and forth between the two effortlessly.

In the historical details, the book was beautifully done. From rural France to industrial New York City out to the golden hills of California wine country, the setting of time and place was impeccable. I even learned something about historical winemaking methods. It turns out that, although I know quite a bit about wine production in the 21st century, I didn’t really know all that much about how it was made in the late 19th. Transported via carriage, boat, and train from France to California, I felt as though I was riding along with Sara through every step of her – often heartbreaking – journey to reclaim her identity.

Readers of my blog will know I’m no great fan of romance, but I can say assuredly that in no place does the love story here venture into the trite or the cliche, nor does Harnisch compromise Sara’s independence. From start to finish she is an admirable protagonist, both in her strengths and in her flaws, and I’ll freely admit I fell a little bit in love with Philippe Lemieux as well. I can’t wait to read the next installment in Sara’s winemaking journey.

Whether you like wine, historical fiction, romance, or just well-told stories, you’ll find a wonderful companion in The Vintner’s Daughter. Highly recommended. Thank you, Kristen, for such a wonderful read!

Writer’s Digest Conference 2015: A Reflection

This past weekend I attended the 2015 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. It was only the second writing conference I’ve ever attended, and far larger in size and scale than the first. There were maybe four times as many agents and editors as there were at the first one I went to (the Missouri Writer’s Guild Conference in 2013) and the info sessions and keynote speeches were jam packed with helpful information, great speakers, and conference attendees with smart and revealing questions.cropped-old-letters-436501_1280.jpg

Here, I wanted to reflect on a few things I learned at the conference, and a few points I think will be valuable for any writer who aspires to make a living writing books.

First and foremost, writing conferences are invaluable for the networking opportunities alone. I think every aspiring writer should go to at least one per year, and more if you can afford it. Every time I go to a conference I am amazed at the quality of people I meet. At my first conference, I met Daryl Rothman, who has turned into one of my most trusted writer friends and allies in my three-year authorial journey. I networked with an agent who requested a partial of our manuscript, and I was given the chance to pitch my novel for the first time. This most recent time around, I met multiple agents who not only answered my questions helpfully but also offered their services and assistance going forward (I cannot say enough good things about agent April Eberhardt) and I met several authors and aspiring authors who have connections, in their own ways, to my story, and together we will be able to collaborate on writing better stories and promoting each other’s work. The people you meet will justify your decision to attend thrice over.

There is a code of conduct at writer’s conferences, though it’s very much unspoken. Here are some quick and dirty rules I learned about attending a conference:

1. Don’t talk to everyone.
This might seem strange, but upon further examination, it’s not. Are you utterly disinterested in writing for magazines? Then don’t go socializing with magazine editors and writers, taking up their valuable time, because believe me, there are plenty of other conference attendees who can use that person’s time in a more productive way. The same holds true across genres.

2. Don’t ask for personalized advice about your specific projects during a general session, unless you can make your question relevant to many people.
It’s selfish of you and demoralizing to others to waste speakers’ time with questions that are pertinent to only one person. A general session attended by dozens, if not hundreds, of people, is not the place to ask questions particular to your problems and ideas. If you can make your problem broadly relevant, ask away. If not, save it for when you urgently corner the speaker after the session.

3. DO talk to everyone who might be helpful or valuable to you.
At first glance, agent April Eberhardt (previously mentioned) wouldn’t have seemed like she’d be much help in my cause. She doesn’t represent science fiction, which is the genre I write in. However, April is open to working with self-published authors, and when I learned that I didn’t hesitate to approach her (tastefully, after the session ended) for advice in how K. Makansi might go about seeking agent representation or moving forward with sales. April, it turned out, was extremely excited about the work we’ve done so far, and wanted to help however she could. I left with several valuable pointers and April offered to do me a few extremely generous favors, including introducing me to a crowded panel at a session later on that afternoon. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t been bold enough to talk to her and solicit her advice.

4. DO remember that EVERYONE is a human being and that agents, editors, and famous authors are generally perfectly normal, nice, and down to earth human beings. And don’t be afraid of them.
I think it’s easy to get caught up in the fear of agents and editors as though they’re evil aliens from outer space who will never understand the true genius of your project. But by and large, this is totally wrong. Every time I meet authors getting ready to pitch, they look like balls of tense, terrorized energy, frantically rehearsing their memorized pitches, hunched over their computers and crying tears of despair before the pitch has even happened. Without fail, every single published author/agent/editor I met this weekend was down to earth, enthusiastic about meeting aspiring writers, and welcoming of questions, suggestions, or input. I’m sure those evil aliens exist, somewhere, but with luck, you will never meet them.

One of the things every single conference speaker or presenter hammered home, over and over again, at the sessions and keynotes I went to, was the idea that writing is more than just an art: it is also a business. If you want to succeed as a writer, you have to be business-savvy as well. The ‘tortured artist’ mentality only carries you so far – basically, through the finished draft. Beyond that, you are responsible for your own business and your own book sales, and those who are most successful are those who understand that. In addition to being a writer, you are also a salesman, a marketer, a PR firm, a strategist, and an ad-man. Don’t ever forget that from the moment you decide you want to be published as an author, you are responsible for the sales of your book.

Finally, the single biggest takeaway from the conference, for me, was the idea that we are all in it together. Jonathan Maberry gleefully hammered this point home in his Friday night keynote address, and I want to reiterate it here. When I first started writing, my core group of Twitter friends – Jessica West, Rachael Spellman, Peter Samet, Jonathan Paul, Nillu Steltzer, Graham Milne, Drew Chial, Imran Siddiq, and many more – became my biggest advocates and allies. Not only did they help me edit and proofread my novels before they came out, they were instrumental in the marketing and promotion of the books prior to release. From the beginning, I knew that as writers, we could only grow in each others’ presence. Jonathan Maberry echoed this sentiment in his speech (and I paraphrase very loosely here): “When we help each other out, we all write better books. When we write better books, more readers read our stories. When more readers read our stories, we all succeed.”

With that in mind, go forth, dear writers, learn and profit from those around you, spread the gospel of writing, and sow the seeds of stories far and wide.

 

This Is How To Love Her: A Poem

This is how to love her:
Tell her about that summer you spent every night staring at the stars.
Ask her which is her favorite constellation–
Orion, Gemini, Scorpio?
Listen.

This is how to love her:
Play her the CD you listened to for two months straight when you were seventeen.
She might laugh at you, but that won’t matter.
She’ll want to play you hers.
Let her. You can laugh at her, too.

This is how to love her.
Take her to the movies.
Not the AMC or Galaxy in the suburban complex next to Chipotle and Panera.
Not the newest superhero flick, not the summer blockbuster.
Take her to that cash-only theater with a hole in the sign and a neon tube that hasn’t worked in years.
You know the one I’m talking about.
Maybe you’ve never heard of any of the features, but that won’t matter.

This is how to love her:
Teach her to shoot pool, throw a frisbee, shoot a gun, surf.
Don’t laugh at her.
No, seriously.
Play tennis with her.
Let her win.
Or maybe she’s better than you. That’s okay, too.

This is how to love her:
Take her to an art museum.
Stay for hours.
Tell her which piece is your favorite.
She’ll want to know why–the real reason.
Tell her.

This is how to love her:
Take her to a bookstore.
It can be a strange one–used books, art books, comic books, science books–in fact, the stranger the better, maybe.
Browse. Get lost. Lose track of her in a different room and let her float away for the moment. Get comfortable with that.
Find a book of poetry.
Buy it.
(Who cares who wrote it? That won’t matter.)
Spend the afternoon reading poems to each other.

This is how to love her:
Name every place in the world you want to see with her.
Every city, every ocean, every river, every desert.

This is how to love her:
Argue.
Shout.
Cry.
Fight.
Don’t worry, these things will happen whether you try or not.

This is how to love her:
Kiss her cheek.
Kiss her eyelids.
Kiss her collarbones.
Kiss her palms.
Kiss the scars that dot her body, the stitches holding her together.
Let her do the same for you
Let her map you.

This is how to love her:
Take her to a park.
Bring your camera.
Take pictures.
You can sneak a few of her.
Hand it over to her; she’ll do the same for you.

This is how to love her:
Be honest.
If you don’t love her anymore, tell her.

This is how to love her:
Let her love you.

This is how to love her:
Don’t be afraid.
And if you are,
Tell her.

Gaylord Ho - We TwoSculpture: Gaylord Ho, “We Two.”