Mark My Words or, Something Funny Happened on the Way to a Writer’s Conference

My daughter and I recently attended a writing conference hosted by the American Society of Journalists and Authors in New York City. Or rather, we crashed it. Though the ASJA does invite the general public, the majority of attendees are ASJA members, folks who have met rigorous membership standards and can therefore call themselves professional writers. One can’t help but feel like an interloper when the presentation chair asks “how many here have published books?” and fully three-quarters of the hands go up. Ours not included. Yet.

In any case, we learned a lot about writing at the conference but the most important lesson wasn’t to be found in that crowd of professionals in New York City. No, it was one that hit me full-on while standing at an airport bookstore in Toronto waiting for our flight.

I love airport bookstores. The books seemingly shimmer on the shelves. The pages seem fresher, the prose shinier and more compelling than they appear in an ordinary bookstore. Maybe it has to do with the setting itself, standing among all those people, everyone on their way somewhere. Or, maybe it’s knowing that I will soon cross the threshold into reading bliss, strap myself into my seat and step out of time and place for as long as the flight lasts, reading uninterrupted, no matter what is going on in the world below. The phone can’t ring. The laundry can’t call. It’s just me and my book.

It was that magical spirit of anticipation that carried me down the airport hallway and stationed me in front of the wooden bookshelves. A bright red-white-and yellow cover caught my attention right away. A Spiritual Renegade’s Guide to the Good Life, it was called, and below the title there was the black silhouette of motorcycle, with a little flame motif on the gas tank.  Maybe this was a Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance for the new millennium? I flipped to the back cover and found a picture of the author, Lama Marut, a Buddhist monk whose work I haven’t read before.  I leafed forward to the opening pages, began reading midway through the preface, and not two paragraphs in, I was stopped dead by the following lines:

“This is a book for warriors. It’s for people ready to take the bull by the horns and stop coddling their depression, anger, endless desires, jealousy and pride…It’s for those who are weary of feeling victimized and powerless. It’s for those who know that half-assed efforts bring half-assed results-and who are prepared to go full-assed.”

I smiled and stared at the page. I re-read the last line, once, twice, three times. Prepared to go full-assed! I shook my head. Full-assed!  I laughed and nodded, and then the lady next to me looked up from the novel she was holding, and took a small step side-ways. I read a little further then flipped to the Table of Contents, finding pretty much what I would expect to find in a book of Buddhist inspired wisdom. Been here, read this (note: that is not the same as living it). But never mind, I flipped back to the Preface and re-reread that line: half-assed efforts bring half-assed results! Surely any book that lights such a flash of recognition is worth the purchase. I closed the cover and strode toward the cash register, then stopped just as fast when a voice in my head rose up and began shouting at me.

You already have three books – THREE! – packed into your suitcase. This is a weekend conference – two days! – with a jam-packed schedule. You are NOT going to have time to read all the other books your brought let alone this one.

I looked down at the book in my hand, gripped its cover a little tighter.

Your bag is already stuffed to bursting. You need to turn around and put that book back on the display.

I hesitated.

Lisa, step away from the cashier. Just. Step. Away.

I heaved a sigh, turned around and trudged back to the shelves. The longing in my heart was huge.

Now, put it down. Just put the book down.

I looked at the empty spot where the book had been sitting, bit my lip.

I said PUT IT DOWN!

I returned the book to its place on the shelf, then stared at it for a long while before slumping back to my gate. With every step, I commited the new title to memory. In the airport lounge, I sat fidgeting beside my daughter and watched over her shoulder as she worked intently on a new animation program. Finally, I pulled out the books I’d packed, one-by-one, absently flipping through their pages before stuffing them back in my bag.

Not ten minutes later, I strode back to the bookstore, grabbed the book and re-read the full-assed line one more time, then I jotted the title and author’s name in the notes on my phone. Soon enough, our flight was called, and we took off for New York City, me with no new book in my hands, but that one line burned into my consciousness.

I carried that line with me all weekend… prepared to be full-assed. It kept floating across my consciousness as I listened to the presentation on self-publishing, as I watched the short story author grinding her hands into the sides of her face as she talked about her process, as I listened to the New York Times Modern Love column editor sharing his career trajectory. And in my spare time over the weekend? Instead of reading, I mostly wrote. I wrote in every spare moment I could find.

And that, I realized, is what full-assed looks like.

I knew the moment I read the line in that book, and in the knowing, I felt myself cross over a boundary that I’d stared at for years, an invisible line that divides writers from people who wish they could. It means writing every day, no matter what else needs to be done. Not the laundry, or the dishes, or getting into real clothes. It means dropping “goals” that weren’t mine in the first place (sorry, fellow Warrior Dashers, but I might just bail on you this year). It means that I am adding a new line to my daily vocabulary: “I’m sorry, but I have an important project I’m working on that needs my attention right now. So, uh, the answer is no.”

And now, as I sit writing this post, I notice a series of fortune cookie messages housed under the glass top of my desk. “One thought driven home is better than three left on base”. “Only you can change your life. No one can do it for you.” Oh, and this: “The universe isn’t short on wake-up calls. We’re just quick to hit the snooze button. ” Get full-assed in other words. Cross over. Remember all those questions I was struggling with a few weeks back? How to fix all this and all that? I just figured it out. You just dump it. You dump the cruise ship, as I called it, and you step on a jet plane. You sit down and write because it’s what you need to do. No questions asked. No explanation needed.  And next time I’m at a Writer’s Conference? I’ll have a book done. Mark my words.

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