IN NOVEMBER OF 2005 I reserved a space at the San Francisco Writers Conference. I was nervous and edgy when I boarded the plane. My pitch proposal, pitch suit, and pitch necklace, were tucked inside my suitcase. The pitch convinces an agent or publisher, that you know your subject well enough to feel one hundred percent confident. It may sound irrational that a writer could work five years on a book and not know what it is about. As an emerging writer I view my work through a kaleidoscope lens. I see multiple themes, subplots, and messages, and they change with each reading. Then there are loose knots of personal misery, lost versions and rejections ringing in my ears. My pitch has to convince an agent, that at least 5,000 people will buy my book. The pitch suit is the outfit you wear for an interview; only for writers, the guidelines are very loose. Some writers wear their narrative. I brought my tailored, looking successful, pants suit. My pitch necklace is a gold Buddha medallion that my father had designed for my mother. I wear it for good luck and because I know the necklace has survived all the family tragedies. The conference is at the St. Francis Hotel at Union Square. From experience, I have learned that choosing a conference because of its alluring location is meaningless; I never pay attention to past experience.
It was pouring when I arrived. The staff at the front desk greeted me with musical familiarity. Every time I swished by they called out, “Hello, Ms. Smiley.” I imagined them as a chorus singing my name. I arrived one day early to pace the galleries, cafes, museums and Saks. After the first night, I had to switch rooms. I was directly above the street dumpsters, where for hours the chugging of trash kept me awake. I moved frantically, to scoop everything up and not miss a moment of San Francisco. After switching rooms, I dashed over to the Espresso Bar. It faces the corner of Powell and Sutter. Outside, the streetcars clanged by, passengers dangling from the bars like vines on a tree. In between the tracks, workers both blue and white-collar, and some without any collar at all, jammed the sidewalks on foot, bicycle, moped and skateboard. With phones and iPods attached, eyes alert, they buzzed on the vibe of Saturday, moving like musical notes in a symphony.
In the café an elderly woman wearing a SFWC name tag was seated next to me. I noticed she positioned her book on the corner of her table. She looked overwhelmed and frightened. As I introduced myself she smiled courteously, and said she was a neurotic housewife all her life and didn’t have much to write about, so she wrote about her husband’s war stories. I told her she should write about the neurotic housewife. Just as I was leaving, she stopped me and thanked me for speaking to her. “There’s always a guardian angel around.” Her voice lingered in my thoughts all weekend.
At six o’clock that evening, I was gliding around my room dressing for the gala. I reached for my jewelry bag. It was gone. The weekend was ruined! I would never get published, I’m too wired, too reckless, too distracted. I called the front desk. Heather said she would call me back. Bang, bang, bang, went my shoe against the bed frame. Then the phone rang.
“Hello, Ms. Smiley. I’m sending the bellman up with your jewelry.”
I answered the door recoiling with pained joy. The bellman listened attentively. I rushed upstairs to Harry Denton’s Starlight Room. There I began wine tasting with Maggie, Peg and George; three new comrades in a room of hundreds.
I spent the next day among more comrades, writers with unpublished stories, books, and works-in-progress. I listened to panels of writers; agents and editors discussed the fateful downward spin of publishing and upward battle towards reward. We sat in our chairs looking overly anxious, taking copious notes, and waiting for answers to our questions. At the end of the panel discussion we all lined up to meet the agents and editors. While we stood in line we met each other.
“What’s your story about?” the woman behind me asked.
“Growing up with gangsters,” I replied.
“ Oh well! That will get you an agent.”
“ I hope so.”
During the conference, I experienced a lucky throw of the dice. I met one of my mentors; Joyce Maynard. Her book, “At Home in the World,” is on my beside table. Joyce was published in the New York Times when she was sixteen years old. JD Salinger read the piece and invited her to live with him. Joyce’s story will send you back to reading Nine Stories.
As I progressed through the circle holding my pitch stick, the fear and apprehension subsided just a tiny bit. Three agents responded; ‘send me your manuscript.’ Naturally when I returned home, my hands were tied to editing. I rushed through, did not employ someone to copy-edit, and then ran about announcing my almost to be signed contract. Three months later I recovered from the rejections and began another rewrite and another until today, when I am on my fifth manuscript. This one feels right because I am not rushing through it expectant of publication; this time I know it will be published.