Sunday 30 January 2011

NYC 2011: Sara Zarr gives the speech that she wanted to hear

By Candy Gourlay

Reports from the 2011 Winter Conference of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
I didn't manage to get a good shot of
Sara so here's a nice portrait I found
on several blogs
Note: This post has been abridged extensively since it was first posted. I'm afraid my detailed notes threw up some copyright issues and I have had to scale back my piece. Apologies to all.

The best books I've read are the ones that make me go, "OMG that was me. That book is totally who I am."

That's what I felt about YA author Sara Zarr's keynote speech on the last day of the SCBWI conference.

Sara attended her first New York conference in 2001, after five years of being serious about writing. She was frustrated - even angry.

"I wanted something to happen ... seriously, how much longer did I have to wait? I had an agent, I had finished my book ... I came in part to figure out the system and work out an angle; network the hell out of it ..." She was straining to hear that "magic piece of information" that would finally open the door.

But no. Nothing happened. To make things worse, a year later, she had lost her agent and was back to square one.

She returned to the conference in 2005. If she was frustrated in 2001, she was fit to burst four years later, with no agent and no prospects. But it was a bad conference, mainly because she lost her purse with all her money and credit cards in it. "It just felt like a symbol of something  - that nothing was ever going to go right for me."

So today was an emotional homecoming for Sara, returning to the conference not as a delegate but as a keynote and critically acclaimed author of three successful books.

Unlike some of the other keynotes, the rejection and frustration she experienced as an author-in-waiting is still fresh - and with that in mind, she was determined to bring a message of hope to the conference.

"They say write the book you want to read. I am going to give the speech that I needed to hear," Sara told the 1200 strong audience.

After the 2005 conference, she found herself close to tears when an agent she had arranged to meet asked the innocuous question how are you. She got as far as saying that it was hard - that she just wasn't finding the key. Afraid to break down in front of the agent, she had to stop talking.

The agent finally broke into the awkward silence. "The time between when you are no longer a beginner but you are not yet in the business is the hardest ... and one of the biggest frustrations is: no one can tell you how long this phase will last.

The time between when you are no longer a beginner but you are not yet in the business is the hardest and no one can tell you how long this phase will last.

"There’s going to be a lot of waiting and you are going to have to decide what you are going to do while you are waiting."

And this was Sara's message to the throng of writers, illustrators and other children's book people in the audience: it's not just about a book deal, a good review, a big advance. It's about a life.

It's not about a book deal, a good review, a big advance. It's about a life.

"The life that you create for you as an artist and the love for that life maybe the only thing that is totally  yours," she told us."Just as no one can tell you how to craft a great book, I cannot tell you how to create a fulfilling creative life."

Instead, she offered a list of elements that constitute a creative life - these are my notes:

1 A creative life is sustainable

2  A creative life is engaging
"Your creative work expands your world. It does not reduce you down to your screens and word counts."

3 A creative life invites company
"Seek mentors. Be a mentor ... at the same time don’t mistake hundreds of people you don’t know as your trusted colleagues."

4 If you live a creative life you will know when to send company away
"When it comes to getting your work done nobody but you can do it."

5 A creative life is faith based
She wasn't talking about religious faith. "It takes a tremendous amount of faith to live a creative life - especially before you are published because there is no tangible evidence of its worth."

But it's not easy because obstacles litter the road to a creative life. Here are the obstacles Sara listed ("it was sad how many I could list" candy adds: but thanks for the wake up call!):

1 Unsustainable habits
"Set up the content of your life so that it allows you to experience it with JOY and not with dread."

2 Obsession with process over craft
Avoid a "life with all the accessories of being a writer – but not really doing it."

3 Commodification of our creativity
"Commodification happens if you begin to see the value of your creative work only in the context of the marketplace. The marketplace has its reasons that have nothing to do with you or your book."

The marketplace has its reasons that have nothing to do with your or your book

4 Being in the wrong company
"An agent that is not right for you. A crit group that doesn’t get your work. A writing buddy who lets you off the hook. A romantic partner who feels threatened by your efforts ...Guard yourself."

5. Self-obsession
"We can calcify into our alone life which is not necessarily good for our creativity and our imaginations."

6 Lack of faith
"You start to believe in your rejections more than your ability to learn and grow and change."

7 The Mother of all Obstacles: Disenchantment
"I miss my passion so much. Did I ever have it? Or is that just a passion for success? I miss the freedom I used to have to get carried away with my work."

I miss the freedom I used to have to get carried away with writing

Sara's parting shot: "Let ‘s all encourage each other to cultivate our creative lives."

I was not surprised when the room rose in a standing ovation.

Sara Zarr's first novel, Story of a Girl, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her second book is the award winning Sweethearts. Her latest is Once Was Lost. There's another report on Sara Zarr's presentation on the official SCBWI conference blog


  1. Hi Candy

    One day, I'm going to get up there and give a keynote like this!

  2. This is a wonderful report of an extraordinary speech. So much wisdom. Going to share this..and also think about it a lot..

  3. I needed to read this post. So timely (for me) and much appreciated.

  4. That was an amazing speech! Especially the part about the time btwn when you're no longer a beginner but not yet in the business being the worst waiting time - that is so true. Amazing advice - thanks for sharing.

  5. This is briliant, Candy, and so very true - and, as you say, ties in uncannily with the blog post I wrote on the weekend about being a glass half-full kind of person and keeping a positive outlook on the road to being published!

  6. OMG - This is me. Gave me a lump in my throat -t hank you for choosing this to blog about, I know you know how it feels xxx

  7. of all the 10 years I've been a member of SCBWI - this has to be the best speech I haven't heard. Thanks Candy for taking the time to share it - hope you had a great time at the conference.

  8. thanks for this - it's such a true speech, I'm printing it out

  9. I'm with Sue! It is the best speech I've never heard too. It's a good job I wasn't there, I'd have needed a hanky!
    Thanks for sharing, we all needed to hear that.

  10. Fantastic speech! Thank you so much for sharing it. So many things to identify with and so much wisdom in her words.
    Thanks again :)

  11. It's strange how the world seems to be waving a magic wand and bringing me the things I really need to hear at the moment. Or maybe, just maybe, I've started opening my mind enough to hear them again.

    It occurred to me last night as I promised to give myself a treat for writing the next hundred words, how topsy-turvy my life has become. I didn't used to have to reward myself for writing at the end of a long day - writing was my reward! And I'm going to fight to get that back.

  12. Thanks for doing this so the rest of us could be inspired, Candy. She really nails the feelings I have to deal with - and from the other comments it sounds like i'm not the only one who thinks that. It's so heartening when someone like this gives back and tries to help those of us still trying to get there. I'm in awe.


  13. Thanks so much for sharing this, Candy. Very inspirational.

  14. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I was inspired yesterday by reading tweets of this speech, but hankering for more.

  15. Excellent speech (and article), thanks for sharing! Can't get on FB right now, but have you submitted your book for the Amazon prize (deadline is Feb.6), here's the link:
    So good to see you, will message you on FB as soon as I get out of work. Have a safe trip!

  16. I would've LOVED to be there for this speech, so thank you SO MUCH for posting these notes! :)

  17. Thank-you so much for sharing this, Candy. It's brilliant timing for me, too.

  18. This is fabulous! Thanks so much for posting your notes.

  19. Thanks for posting about this! I was so interested to hear her talk but I'm not a writer just a reader so I wasnt there to witness the fun! Great recap.

  20. This was great! Thank you for sharing.

  21. Wow. A ridiculous amount of wise words. Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  22. Thanks for posting this recap! Sara Zarr is so inspiring.

  23. This was fantastic. I'm so glad Kiersten linked to this- I've caught some blogs about SCBWI but hadn't run across this. Beautiful, and perfect as I'm in the middle of querying.

    Today, my part of trying to support others was to open my blog comments to people looking for crit partners/beta readers. So if you're wishing you could find some writers to share with, leave a comment:) Thanks!

  24. Wonderful! Thank you so much for this, absolutely beneficial.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  25. Sometimes it's so easy to get bogged down in the details that it feels like your creative life is going nowhere. This was a wonderful post, very inspirational.

  26. Great advice--not just for writers either. I wish I could have gone to NY this year! Thanks for taking the time to write that up and share, Candy.

  27. Encouraging stuff, but what was obstacle #7?

  28. it's lump in the throat stuff ... we have all been there and are still there. thank you sarah zarr!

    @notacat oops! i had to rush this out so i could catch my plane back to london! fixed the numbering now!

  29. Excellent post. Thank you so much for sharing. Very inspirational.

  30. This is the speech I needed to hear; thank you so much for sharing!

  31. Thanks. I am definitely in that in-between place; not a beginner and not published. It's hard to keep going sometimes, but this was certainly an inspiration.

  32. This comment has been removed by the author.

  33. Candy, I was there, and I have to say that you really captured the essence of this heartfelt and moving speech. Thanks for investing your time and talent so that so many others can benefit from Sara's important messages to those of us who are creative.

  34. Thank you so much for sharing these notes of Sara Zarr's speech, Candy. I wandered over here from Kiersten White's blog, and it was an inspiring read.

    I especially loved what the agent said at the beginning, what was the jumping-off point for Sara's talk. Makes me wonder who the agent was so I can query him/her:)

  35. What an amazing speech. Thanks Sara, for delivering it. Thanks, Candy for sharing with those of us who were not there.

  36. OMG Lisa Yee! Welcome and forgive me while I drool. I am such a fan!

  37. That was an amazing speech - reading it, it loses none of its power but I would have loved to have been there to share, with others, the power of hearing it.

  38. Elaine, these are just my notes ... Sara was so funny with many witty asides.

  39. Candy, thank you for sharing this - it makes me wish I'd been able to be there. Very inspiring!

  40. What generosity writers show to each other.

  41. Thank you so much for sharing this. I wish I could have been there to hear the full empowering speech.
    I think it is relevant to all kinds of creativity, not just writing. I personally could relate parts to moments as an illustrator too.

  42. Thanks so much for sharing this! Very inspirational, and so, SO true!

  43. Wow! Thank you!!!

  44. this was wonderful to read... doing what you love to do IS hard work and lots of preparation and care. No way around it. And finding the YOU in the work is the key... then it sounds/looks like 'real,' and others SEE/HEAR that and respond. Kudos for daring to tell about the HARD part!

  45. I am snowed in today with my thoughts and this was exactly what I needed. I have been writing a friend now for a year and a half. Today I have decided it isn't that my writing is not valuable-I have just chosen the wrong audience. Not everyone reads the same stuff. I always worry about who my audience is when I write. I guess I should just write and let those that want to read it later -read it.

  46. Sorry all, I've had to abridge it because of copyright issues.

  47. I am one who has respect for copyright, but it is such a shame you had to abridge your conference report, as with sharing the speech in context of the event, Sara's message was reaching out to an even wider audience.
    Without your notes shared on this blog I wouldn't have looked her up on the web, or even known about her journey from unpublished to published.
    I am glad I got to read the full version as it allowed me to recognise some of my own issues, and see a way to work through them. I hope others can still find inspiration in the abridged version.

  48. thanks june. i guess my note taking was too copious and too close to the bone. i got carried away with sharing something that wasn't mine to share. will be more careful next time.

  49. This is so wonderful, thank you very much for sharing it with all of us.

  50. Thanks so much for sharing this. Even though I only read the edited version it's still wonderful and inspiring and I think must capture the spirit of what she was saying.

  51. Thanks for sharing some great ideas from the speech. Inspired.

  52. Thanks for posting this! I'm in that in-between time she mentioned, and it is the hardest.

  53. Wonderful, smart & encouraging post. What a great speech - thank you for sharing.

  54. This is such a solid, encouraging speech (and post). Thank you very much for sharing it!


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