EMLA Retreat 2015, or How I Overcame Imposter Syndrome

This is how publishing works: you wait and wait and wait, and then between one breath and the next you have an agent.  Suddenly you are not Wannabe Writer Working in a Vacuum.  You are simply Writer.  Someone believes in you, someone with an actual Publisher’s Marketplace page, someone who knows what they’re talking about.  Not only that, but they’re going to help you sell your book(s)!

I kind of assumed that would be it.  I was now represented by the marvelous Ammi-Joan Paquette (a terrific writer in her own right!) of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency (EMLA for short).  I should keep writing in my little New York cave whenever I could escape from my day job.  Nothing else would really change.  Then, a few days later, I got an email from EMLA.  The agency has a yearly retreat, the email said.  Would I like to come?

Would I ever!

I signed up months before the retreat was scheduled to occur.  As the day drew closer, I became nervous.  I had never actually met anyone at my agency, including Joan.  What if they recognized me for a fraud the moment I arrived?  What if they heard my reading (the opening to a middle grade novel-in-progress that seemed increasingly shabby the more I thought about it) and immediately threw me out on my ear?  By the day before the retreat, I was almost paralyzed by nerves.

Then I got off the plane in Milwaukee to find that the “shuttle” to the Abbey Resort on Lake Geneva in Fontana, Wisconsin, was actually a limousine.  I spent the hour-long ride with three other retreat-goers, who were so warm and friendly I felt my anxiety begin to melt away.

Upon our arrival, I found myself pulled into hugs with many people I had never met before.  (I do not consider myself a hugger, in that I rarely instigate them but do enjoy receiving them.)  I finally got to meet the amazing Joan.  Over the next few days, these same people would become my dear friends, my compatriots, my fellow writers-in-the-trenches.

To my relief, almost a third of the attendees were also there for their first retreat (this was the ninth retreat the agency had held).  I learned quickly that I wasn’t the only one feeling so-called “imposter syndrome.”  In some ways it hardly mattered that we were new; by the end of the first day, newbies and old hands alike were united by a common spirit in a way I’d never seen before.  We ate, we drank, and we were merry.

IMG_6145(Is there anything in the world better than a s’more?)

I crashed early the first night, which is probably a good thing since it was the only night I got more than the bare minimum of sleep.  The next three days were go-go-go, between meals, breakout sessions to discuss various aspects of the writing industry, one-on-ones with our agents, late night friendly poker games, and spontaneous jamming sessions (with yours truly occasionally plunking away on the piano).

I’d been informed earlier in the year that there would be a costume party with the theme “geeks.”  Although this was right up my alley (“Just dress as yourself!” more than one of my traitorous friends suggested), I declared that I was Not a Costume Person and only brought a wand from Harry Potter World and a geeky t-shirt, informing everyone that I was a “geeky wizard on vacation.”  (As punishment from the universe, I was stopped and my bag searched at the airport because they saw my wand on the scanner and thought it was a weapon.  I was then asked several times, rather incredulously, what the wand was.  “A Harry Potter wand?” I replied by the end, no longer sure myself.)

It turned out that the costume party was the biggest event of the entire retreat.  Everyone was dressed to the nines (or at least to the monster heads), and my halfhearted costume stood out as very lame.  Fortunately, the costume contest winners, Nacho Libro and Nacho Library (support their non-profit Never Counted Out!), took me under their wing.

11070500_10153034087267379_4291314150773730434_o(Note to self: Next time, bring a costume to the costume party!)

The readings, meanwhile, turned out to be one of the best parts of the retreat.  I was astonished by everyone’s talent and the wide variety in what was read.  I came close to chickening out, but I’d made a promise that I would read on the second day, and anyway my breakfast table co-opted the microphone and refused to pass it on until everyone had read.

We had plenty of downtime in the afternoons, largely because nearly all of us were introverts and recognized the need to decompress after a morning spent surrounded by people.  (The first full day, we were informed at breakfast that it was completely acceptable to go back to our rooms, lie on the floor, and “introvert” for a while.  This is my new favorite verb.)  In addition to eating cheese curds for the first time (CHEESE CURDS, EVERYONE, TRY THEM!), I stole some hours to myself to write.

IMG_6149(I could write with this view every day.)

I also, because I was at a retreat full of writers, ended up writing quite a lot with my new-found friends.  We did get rather distracted by the overzealous cooing of some mating pigeons, however.

I had never been to Wisconsin before, and I quickly found that it’s a really special place.  (I reiterate, CHEESE CURDS.)  Lake Geneva was beautiful, although I couldn’t quite bring myself to make the 21-mile trek around its circumference.

IMG_6997(Lake Geneva.)

We were also privy to a fantastic lightning storm, which was something I’d never seen before.  I spent almost an hour outside watching the lightning crackle across the sky and doing my best to capture it.  I made a great friend during the storm, and I’m sure I’ll be bragging about her forthcoming book in the upcoming months.

IMG_6645

IMG_6176(Yes, I am the anal retentive person who made videos and then went back and meticulously pulled out screen shots from 30 minutes worth of footage.)

On the second-to-last night, we had the great privilege of viewing a screening of the film At-Risk Summer, a documentary made by EMLA client (and all around awesome chick) e.E. Charlton-Trujillo about at-risk children and the impact artists can make in their lives.  There was not a dry eye in the room when the screening was finished.  If this is a cause that interests you (as it should), go to her organization’s website and check out ways you can help!

On the last night, we were treated to a concert by the ridiculously talented and funny Erin Murphy’s Dog, a band comprised of EMLA clients and one charming guest author/editor.  The concert featured mostly original songs and could have gone on another hour without getting old.  Once again we were all teary-eyed, this time at the thought of parting for a year before the next retreat.

Saying our goodbyes the next morning was difficult.  It felt like the end of summer camp, except that when summer camp ended I hadn’t been trudging back to a day job.  Still, it was such fun taking the limo back to the airport with a bunch of other Gangos (one major topic of conversation being my t-shirt, which when viewed at a certain angle said something inappropriate I’ll tell you about when you’re older) and then getting to grab one last, ridiculous Wisconsin lunch together before parting for our flights.  (On the menu, among other items, was “beer cheese soup.”) (We also had cheese curds.  Because Wisconsin.)

IMG_7045(Pun-tastic! I miss Wisconsin.)

The retreat was one of the best trips I’ve ever had, and for that I’ll always be grateful to everyone involved with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.  I thought I knew what I was in for when I signed with Joan, but in truth I had no idea.  I thought I was getting an agent; it turned out I was getting an entire network of wonderful, talented people to support, encourage, and even cajole me into writing the best novels I can.  It turns out no writer is an island.

Now, is it time for the next retreat yet?