MWW16: Learning to Lead, Learning to Chill Out

Bear with me here, because this is going to be a long one. My Facebook memories are full of MWWs past and I’m gonna get emotional and nostalgic.

2016 was my fourth year at the Midwest Writers Workshop. I started out in 2013 as a little baby agent assistant intern all excited and nervous and no idea how to talk to anyone, much less my agent, Victoria Marini, so mostly I hung out with my fellow interns and hovered awkwardly. It was amazing. It’s where I met and became friends with Summer Heacock and Roxane Gay. It’s where I solidified my friendships with Jackson Eflin and Brittany Means, who are two of my best friends, and have been with me at every MWW since.

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2014. Jackson and I are the only returning interns, so we start calling ourselves Katniss and Peeta. Brittany moves from attendee to fellow intern. I assist Bridget Smith, and delight in telling one man that he was the first and one of two full manuscripts she asked for the whole weekend. Daniel José Older is there, and to this day, if you mention his name around us, we’ll all sigh dreamily and talk excitedly about how his keynote speech kept everyone on the edge of their seats. I’m more confident. People recognize me. People are excited to see me! I’m excited to see them! This internship is quickly becoming about the community almost more than the professional experience.

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In 2015, I don’t apply for the internship – I get asked to return, and to lead. I take the agent assistant interns, and Jackson takes the social media counselors. We get to go to a few committee meetings, we get to train our crew, we basically run that shit. The interns are a tight-knit group of nerds. I assist Janet Reid and have a damn good time doing it. Between that and leading I don’t have much time for rest but tbh that’s how I like it. I do the after-partying, I’m comfortable talking to faculty and agents, and I don’t know how I’d survive any of it without Summer as one of my best friends.

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You’d think, after all that experience, that I’d go into 2016 all smooth and carefree and ready to take on the day.

Uh, no.

This year, I wasn’t assisting an agent. I was just in charge of a group of interns who were trained in a class taught by MWW’s awesome leader, Jama Kehoe Bigger. I went in thinking I’ll have nothing to do and my interns barely know me at all, what will they think of me? I know how to be a leader, but I felt like now I was seen not as a leader and friend, but a leader and adult and boss and I didn’t know how to be that.

I didn’t know any of the agents. I was nervous as hell to meet Julie Murphy. Brittany and Jackson were going to be there, but for the first time none of us were working in the same area. Summer was going to be there but MWW moved to a much larger space, and I didn’t know how much I’d see her. There was a mix-up with the T-shirt place, and I didn’t get an intern T-shirt – the largest they carried was a 2X and there’s no way that’s fitting me.

My anxiety basically ruled me that first Thursday of MWW16. I didn’t feel in control at all. I didn’t feel like I belonged like I had every other year. The first night, my friends and the 2015 agent assistant interns all get the same frantic message: I think my interns hate me.

To everyone else I probably seemed a-okay, if a little manic. But oh man, I was a mess that first day. 13692626_10157132830700697_5023136383583059040_n

Don’t worry. This isn’t a tragic story. It didn’t stay that way.

It helped, definitely, that while I didn’t have an intern shirt, I did have a tank top that Jackson screensprinted for me. I can’t pretend that having “QUEEN” printed on my back didn’t help the confidence.

Sure, I didn’t see Jackson and Brittany and Summer as much as I wanted – I kind of want to be around them like all the dang time – but I did see them. Any time we all had breaks, we found an empty space and talked and decompressed and had fun.

Maybe, occasionally, too much fun.

I talked to Julie Murphy on multiple occasions and didn’t die at all. I also probably didn’t embarrass myself THAT much! I eventually just calmed down and put the fangirling aside and learned to be a person.

Mostly.

It also didn’t hurt that there was a Pokestop in the Student Center and that, along with Summer, intern Kara Harris, and agent Molly Jaffa, we kept it in lures for most of the weekend. I caught a Scyther on Thursday night and it definitely wasn’t during a time when I should have been paying attention to something else, shut up, it was a SCYTHER, what would YOU have done???

And the interns? They were smart and funny and WAY prepared for their jobs. They handled me emailing them a dozen times each day with pitch requests and schedule changes from attendees, they got to know their agents, they bonded with each other. A few of them have already put up blog posts about their time at MWW and their desire to return.

And I guess it didn’t turn out they hated me after all.

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Cool Thing Roundup: TEDx, Publications, and Midwest Writers

I kind of thought that after I graduated, the writing and reading slumps I’d been in would magically dissolve. I’d have loads of free time since I was taking a break before the big job search. I wouldn’t have classes or homework to exhaust my energy before I could get around to writing or pleasure reading. The summer was gonna be magic.

Well. Uhm. Yeah. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

I’ve been feeling pretty shitty about this, to be honest, like I’m defective and I should be ashamed that I’ve only read four books this month and that my word totals leave something to be desired.

Weird how shaming myself into a spiral doesn’t help my productivity much.

This week, I realized that the past few months I’ve been apart of several really cool things that I didn’t celebrate on the blog. Right now, I kind of need a confidence boost, so allow me to be just super, super self-indulgent and tell you about all this cool stuff.

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TEDxBallStateUniversity

I got a really cool chance to speak at a TEDx talk at my school. It’s actually a reading of my “Fat Revolution” essay – a version of which I’ve posted before. This one is revised and, in my opinion, way improved. Here’s the video:

Side B Magazine: Attacking Our Assault

For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Side B Magazine did a special online issue. I was asked to contribute, and they published my short essay, “Not the Men You Know”. One of my best friends, Brittany Means, is also in the issue, and quite frankly her talent consistently blows me away.

It is probably self-evident but I’m still gonna say that reading our essays and the other essays in the issue comes with a pretty hefty trigger warning on sexual assault and abuse.

You Are Here: Finding Yourself in Middletown

My last semester at Ball State, I had the great luck of taking the first English senior seminar taught by a creative writing professor – the wonderful Cathy Day. The class was based around how to do research while writing fiction.

Ball State is in Muncie, Indiana, which was the basis for the Middletown study in the 1920s. Using research from the original study, subsequent studies, and dozens of other sources, my classmates and I created our own version of Middletown and wrote a linked short story collection set there.

The collection is called You Are Here: Finding Yourself in Middletown can read it here. My story is the last in the collection, titled “Between the Beams”.

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indexAlong with working on You Are Here, I was also taking a class called Creative Writing in the Community with Lyn Jones, who is possibly the most organized professor I’ve ever had and makes impossible projects (like putting together a book in a few weeks) totally possible.

In this class, Ball State English students get together with elementary school kids in the Muncie and surrounding communities and write. I worked with two amazing sixth grade girls, Sara and Marisa.

At the end of the semester, we sorted through the mass of material we’d gathered from these kids and put together a book.

You can buy Stomping Ground on Amazon, and perhaps I am biased but you should seriously consider doing so. The range of talent and emotion and depth presented by these kids was stunning. I was incredibly lucky to work with them and proud of the book we produced.

#MWW15

Last but DEFINITELY not least is the fact that I will be interning at the Midwest Writers Workshop for the THIRD TIME (read about my first two years here and here) as an agent assistant.

Oh, and this time, I’m also the lead intern. They actually just made me in charge of these people.

tumblr_miadpnO4iR1rgz9z1o1_500Okay, it really will be fine. The other interns are amazing, smart people and I’m only one of two interns who even has two years of experience to back me up. (This is me convincing myself that I’ve got it.)

I think that’s all I’ve got for the cool things round up, although if my calculations are correct there should be another publication post coming up in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime – I love all of you, you’re beautiful, and here’s a truly amazing reminder that my dear friend Katy made for me:

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What I Learned Interning at the Midwest Writers Workshop

This year for the second time, I interned at the Midwest Writers Workshop as an assistant to literary agent Bridget Smith. It was an amazing weekend. I met really cool people, I got to see some great friends that I’d made last year, I met the guy at Midwest that looked like John Green (seriously), and, of course, I bonded with my fellow agent assistants and we all joined Starfleet.

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we regretted this when we realized we were all wearing red shirts

As the workshop drew to a close, there was one question I started getting over and over: “Do you feel like you learned anything?”

I never knew quite how to answer. I certainly felt like I’d learned something, but I didn’t know how to quantify that into a list of facts. I spent two days sitting in as Bridget took pitches and critiqued query letters, and somehow I felt like this should have given me a unique insight into the publishing world and I should have been able to come up with clever answers and guidelines for other writers preparing to pitch. I wanted to be able to show the more experienced, published writers asking me these questions that yes, I had learned quite a bit, and now I was closer to being One of Them.

Except that I didn’t have clever answers or guidelines or proof of my legitimacy. Anytime I was asked, “What did you learn?” I floundered.

But I’ve been thinking about it, because I knew I’d learned something and that I’d keep getting asked and I wanted to be able to have that conversation and blog about it.

So here’s my answer.

I learned the importance of preparation.

One of the questions that Bridget kept asking in the pitches – if they weren’t answered in the pitch itself – was, “Do you have any comp titles?” This question tripped a lot of people up. Some didn’t know what comp titles were (they’re books that your book can be compared to) and many others just said they weren’t very good at comp titles. I’d be the latter. I think it can be hard for writers to come up with comp titles in part because you don’t want to think that your novel can be easily compared to something else. You want to be unique.

Doing something new is great, but having comp titles ready in your pitch or query letter does more than just telling an agent what your book is like. It tells them that you’re reading the other books in your genre. You know what’s out there, you know why yours is different and new. You can say, “Here’s where my book belongs.”

Of course, sometimes you don’t know what to be prepared for, and you totally mess up, and that’s just going to teach you what to be prepared for next time.

This is also the section where I value someone else’s preparation. Last year at Midwest, I discovered that the majority of the chairs in the alumni center are not exactly fat-person-friendly. They’re narrow and painful to sit in. This year, it was my #1 anxiety, especially since I had a brand-new tattoo on my thigh that wouldn’t appreciate the bruising pressure of sitting in too-small chairs for two and a half days.

When I arrived for my first day, fellow intern Jackson Eflin greeted me with, “Oh, and I found a folding chair for you. It’s by the piano.”

tumblr_m29qy29eYO1qj1lh8This simple, thoughtful act of preparation completely changed my conference experience and made me a happier intern.

I learned that it’s worth it to get over my fear. 

Before I started researching the writers that would be at Midwest, I hadn’t heard of Daniel José Older. I found him on Twitter, and followed him, and looked into what kind of stuff he writes. I realized pretty quickly that he was really cool and someone I needed to be listening to and reading (and you should, too). I was thrilled when I got the chance to interview him for the Midwest Writers e-pistle.

I’d actually kind of built that to fangirl proportions by the time Midwest rolled around, and I knew that this was my chance to meet him and talk to him but I was terrified. So terrified, in fact, that I was going to be thrilled if I could just introduce myself to him without sounding like a dumbass. I wasn’t going to get to see any of his sessions because I was too busy being an agent assistant (though I did get to see one and it was amazing) so I figured, okay, an introduction is as much as I’ll get.

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dreams do come true

By the time the workshop and after parties were over, I’d gotten a selfie with him, MFA advice, and pointed him to my much-beloved Alpha workshop.

Meeting Bridget for the first time was also pretty freaking scary. I wasn’t pitching her. I don’t have a completed manuscript. But she’s still a literary agent and she’s still an amazing connection that I could make. What if she didn’t like me? What if she thought I was annoying or had bad taste? What if she found me more annoying than helpful?

Striking up conversations with her was hard, but I did it, and I learned a lot through that. She talked about the frustrations of not being able to place a brilliant book just because it was part of a trend that editors were sick of, about books she really loved, about what she wished she saw more of in books. We had a lot in common and a similar sense of humor, and I, at least, had a great time spending the weekend with her.

I learned not to doubt my contributions in the literary world, however small they may be.

I’m an undergrad college student with one story published in my college’s lit mag. I do this blog, but I don’t really update it enough. I’m working on being someone in the literary world, but right now I barely make a blip.

But those blips still mean something.

When my friends want YA recommendations, they come to me. They trust me to point them towards something good. The agent I assisted at Midwest last year, Victoria Marini, trusted my taste enough that she hired me as a remote reader for the manuscripts she receives. I don’t read loads, but I read what she sends me, and I give her my opinions, and sometimes those opinions make a difference.

This weekend at Midwest, I had writers telling me how much I helped them when I didn’t even realize I was helping. They told me that I provided a positive and supportive atmosphere going into their pitches. Pitching an agent can be seriously scary, and I helped some of those writers feel a little more at ease.

Maybe in the big scheme of things, that’s not a lot. I didn’t get anyone signed. I didn’t get signed myself. I don’t have a book out. But I’m still immensely proud of the small things I’ve done and I need to stop underestimating myself.

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This was my second year at Midwest Writers. Last year, it convinced me that the literary community is where I belong. This year, it convinced me that not only is this where I belong, but I can make a difference here, if I can work past the anxiety and self-doubt and the fear.

Here’s hoping they let me do it again next year.

#mww13

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

It has taken me a week to figure out how to blog about the Midwest Writers Workshop. I just didn’t know where to start. Do I talk about my awesome fellow interns/ninjas/redshirts? Or a few of the really awesome people who put it together? Or the visiting literary agents and faculty, with a clear bias on the one I was assisting?

Real talk time: I still have no idea where to start or what to concentrate on.

Maybe there just isn’t a single bead of awesome for me to focus on. Because here’s the thing – there was just too much that was unbelievably beautiful. I met too many amazing people – faculty and guests alike – and was too immersed in too many freaking crazy opportunities.

I got to assist Victoria Marini, a kickass literary agent that made my potentially stressful job really fun. I met Roxane Gay, who I also interviewed before MWW and did a (fingerling) presentation on in my literary citizenship class. I convinced her to join OkCupid. She convinced me that I belong at the University of Alabama creative writing grad program. I got to hang out with a lot of really cool writers and agents. Yeah, the chairs were crazy uncomfortable for fat people but I took some advice from body positivity goddess Ragen Chastain and said, “Hey, maybe we should change that.”

And then I broke down and had a panic attack but even that led me to meeting a beautiful and amazing woman who worked me through it and then ranted with me about how much Moffat sucks.

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Also, I touched Brooks Sherman’s hair.

Like you don't want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

Like you don’t want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

There was a lot about #mww13 that was the coolest ever. I believe the faculty and agents who say that it’s one of the best writing conferences in the country. If you ever get a chance to register and come, DO IT.

In the meantime, there have been many blog posts about the conference, some of which are linked in this sentence. The super cool Cathy Day also made a Storify for each day of the conference, featuring tweets that exemplified each day. If you want even more, you can still check out the #mww13 hashtag on Twitter. A lot of people were way more informative and less gushy than I was in this post. Go check them out. If you were there, share your experiences!

Because here’s what I took away from #mww13: I am meant to be in this community. I’m working to be a writer and maybe that’s what I’ll be or maybe I’ll be an agent or editor or just an eternal conference attendee. I can’t tell the future. What I can tell you is that last weekend left me feeling the way Alpha always left me feeling – so exhausted and energized and at peace.

It felt like home.

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