There is an anecdote about the late editor Ursula Nordstrom that her posthumously published collection of letters, Dear Genius, has made popular among children’s publishing professionals. Ms. Nordstrom was the editor-in-chief and publisher of Harper & Row’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls for over thirty years, from 1940 until 1973. She worked with such authors as Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, Crockett Johnson, and E. B. White, among many others. She was a fierce advocate for authors, a devoted writer of letters, a defender of challenging subjects and important books, and a brilliant editor. She was, quite simply, a visionary.
The anecdote goes like this: Ms. Nordstrom was at an event when someone questioned her credentials, asking what qualified her—a “nonteacher, nonparent, and noncollege graduate”—to edit and publish books for kids. Ms. Nordstrom, quick on the draw, responded, “Well, I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”
Doubt can come from any direction, at any time. It was true for Ursula Nordstrom, and it’s true for the rest of us, too. In creative endeavors especially it can feel like building paper boats and setting them adrift in vast seas of uncertainty. Is the plotting good enough? Is the voice strong enough? Do I actually have something to say? When striving to make something that is both entirely new and inevitably personal, it’s easy to question the validity of your claims and the credentials that allow you to make them. It is easy to both hear and be the nagging voice asking: what are your qualifications, anyways?
Have faith. You have surely, at one point or another, hesitated to put a period on a sentence, to hit save on a new story idea, to email off a first draft or to tell someone that yes, you are a writer. Doubt is good: it is your ally and your instrument. Anne Lamott, whose collection on writing Bird By Bird is immensely popular, wrote about uncertainty when addressing faith in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith: “I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me—that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” It is not surprising, then, that Ms. Lamott has been so successful at writing about both faith and the creative process. In describing faith’s demand for uncertainty, she could just as easily have been describing the perquisites to write, for it too demands finding darkness and slowly shedding a light on it, sentence-by-sentence—word-by-word.
So what are the credentials that entitle you to attend a conference for writers? What qualifies you to be here is that you are here. Because you don’t just hear the nagging questions—you strive to answer them.
This is the spirit of WriteOnCon.
And when all else fails—when you find yourself facing down the darkest corner of the darkest room—just remember this: you are, in fact, a former child, too.