You Can Do It - UtopYA Keynote Address

This past weekend I was the keynote speaker at a brand new conference held here in Nashville called UtopYA. It was organized by Janet Wallace, and I can't even begin to tell you how wonderful it was. I'm sure posts will go up from the attendees, here's one from DB Graves, and you can check out more about the conference itself here. All I can say is that I smiled from the time I left my house until I got home, and then when I got home and told my husband about all the sweet faces I saw in that crowd, I cried.

You might have seen me put the call out on Twitter last week for help with an encouragement project. It was for this speech, and I spent most of that day crying as well. Over forty authors responded to ask how they could help - in less than six hours.

I love this community. Sure, it's not always shiny perfect, but last week restored a lot of hope for me.

Here's the speech, and you'll find the encouragement project within.

Everyone has their own story.  

Chapter One.

Beginnings are hard.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a starting a life, or starting a story. Moving to a new town, starting a new grade in school, transferring to a new college. Taking a new job. Or, deciding, that after almost thirty years, you’re finally going to do the thing you believe you were born to do.

For me, it all started with the The Wizard of Oz.

I was four the first time I watched it. The flying monkeys absolutely terrified me, but the idea of leaving home, having adventures, beating the big bad – I couldn’t imagine anything better. (And? There was dancing. I’m a dancer from way back.)

Then, it was Star Wars.

I was five, and I made my dad take me to the theater to see it three times. I had no idea what the story was truly about, just that it meant leaving home, having an adventure, and beating the big bad. The rush I got when Dorothy had to steal the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West was the same rush I felt when Luke Skywalker escaped the giant, sewage filled trash compactor. And while I shipped Dorothy and the Scarecrow, this was the first time I was intrigued by the bad boy. Oh, Han Solo. Even at the ripe old age of five, I saw you coming from a mile away. And I liked what I saw.

Second grade was ass, let’s just go ahead and get that out there. I hated math, I hated spelling, I hated sitting still.  I wanted to be on the playground, taking a trip to the Emerald City, or pretending to break up a bar fight in the Star Wars cantina. While my schoolwork was lousy, one truly amazing thing happened that year. I learned to read. Now my imagination could move beyond Oz and the Force. I could do anything. Go anywhere.

My biggest mistake at this point was taking my second grade class to the suburbs of New Jersey via a book report on “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?” I ended up taking myself to the principal’s office, because apparently, some people take issue with a seven year old ending a book report with “and then, she got her period.”

I was really happy when second grade was over.

Because third grade is where the magic happened.

My teacher, Gigi Hillman, had long black hair, tan skin, and an amazing laugh. (My second grade teacher … didn’t laugh at anything.) I’d suffered academically in second grade, so much so that the school had me tested for delayed development. Turned out, I was “gifted.” That really fixed my second grade teacher’s wagon, but it didn’t sway Mrs. Hillman at all. She insisted that I still do my work. I had to finish it if I wanted to go to “gifted” class. I only went once.

Here’s why.

Multiplication tables were the bane of my tiny existence. I hated math. HATED it. And instead of doing it, I would hide my Trixie Belden books under my desk and read. At first Mrs. Hillman tried to stop me. Eventually, as long as I did my math, she’d let me read as long as I wanted. Because she’d figured out, years ahead of any publicized studies on reading and its impact on the brain, that I was learning.

When I wasn’t reading, I was imagining. Mrs. H told my mom, “ I don’t know where she goes, but she has a really good time when she’s there.”

I was inside my brain, with the BobWhites in the Hudson River Valley (Trixie Belden’s gang – they had a club house and a whistle signal and matching jackets, hello). If you’ve ever read the Trixie Belden books, you might remember that one character is a swimming champion. And that another character has violet blue eyes. These books influence the Hourglass books in so many ways, whether it be physical characteristics, setting, or that both include a group of teens with special skill sets that they use to make their world a better place.

All of the aforementioned things shaped me, and all of them occurred before the age of eight. Coincidentally, age eight was when I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

Our hearts know early on what our brains can’t fathom. Sometimes you admit wild and crazy dreams out loud, to parents or teachers, and because they’re all trained to be practical, they suggest something safer. You can’t blame them; they think they’re doing their job.

But then, at some point, our hearts move from wanting to knowing, and whenever in life that happens for you, safe ceases to matter. That’s when we’re at our new beginning. That’s when dreams turns into choices you make on your own, as an adult, and you own them, or you don’t.

When my son was one, and AOL and dial up were still the only options for Internet access, I was on a fan chat with Nora Roberts and about a million other people. I typed in my question and waited an hour or so and they finally, finally got to me.

The question was along the lines of, “How do I write a book when I work full time, from home, and I have a small child (who never ever sleeps)?”

Nora’s answer was, “If you want to? You will.”

It was curt. It was to the point. It was TRUE. And I wasn’t ready to hear it.
Cut to five years later, and the second I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I know exactly where I was standing. In the hall, upstairs, outside my laundry room. I hit my knees, bawling, partly because of what I’d just read, and partly because surrender took hold of me. There was nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. I had to give in, wholly and completely.


I’d told Him I would, so I had to. That was my beginning.

Chapter Two.

Take the first step.

Look around.

There are people here who are fans of young adult books, and people who have written them. There are people who are happy to stay readers, and some who will eventually be compelled to write.

Maybe you’re both. Aren’t you just in a perfect place?

This is your first step. This is your chance to gain wisdom from people who’ve gone before you. To make friends who will be part of your publication road. To encourage and be encouraged. You have a whole weekend ahead of you, and if you open your mind and your heart, who knows what you could learn? I can guarantee this – it won’t be anything you expected.

My first conference was Killer Nashville, way back in 2008. I didn’t want to write thrillers, but it was located close by, it was the cheapest I’d come across that wouldn’t require me to stay in a hotel, and authors and agents and editors would be there, and my husband didn’t freak out too much. I figured I could soak up some knowledge about the craft, at least.

I learned so much that weekend, and I was thrilled to discover that there was a YA panel. It was on Sunday morning. At 8am. And it was attended by all of two people. I’m sure the authors there thought it was a bust, and maybe the organizers, too. But for me, it was a miracle. I had three young adult authors at my disposal for a solid hour and a half. I asked every question I could think of, although most of them were some version of “How do you DO this?” “What does the writing life LOOK like?” (Especially with kids.)

The time with those ladies (Kristin Tubb and Tracey Barrett) is still one of my most precious memories from my early writing life. They were so open and honest, and they made me feel like I could maybe one day be one of them. And it was at that conference that Tracy Barrett told me about the SCBWI conference. It happened right here at Scarritt Bennett.

Writing a book involves you and the page, you and your thoughts, for a long, long time. Other people start to work their way in when you search for critique partners, and then again when you look for an agent or publisher. But as independent as the writing process is, the need for validation always manages to work its way in. If you don’t suffer from this problem, I envy you. As a matter of fact, meet me in the parking lot at four so we can throw down.

You want to feel like you belong to the community, like you have a place that is special, and your own. I have writer friends who say they want to be the next big thing, or make the “fill in the blank” list, or win the “fill in the blank” awards. I think this is all well and fine and good, but I also believe that if that’s what you’re here for? This industry will eat you alive.

Bloggers will sing your praises - until the next big thing comes along. People will be excited about your book deal, your cover reveal, your synopsis, your trailer - for a day or two. If you learn to live and feed off of the attention and affirmation of others, when it comes back to you and the page, you’ll be sorely disappointed. And very, very alone.

That’s what writing is really about. You, and the page.  What you can produce, what you have the imagination to create, and what you have the dedication to perfect.

The way to achieve Zen is to either have friends who are wildly more successful than you, or to pursue the art, the craft, the page, the story over every other thing.

I want to take a second to say something about social media here, too. If you’re on Twitter to promote yourself – even solely to promote other people – you’re going to be disappointed. Retweets, reviews, hashtags, at some point it all becomes noise. Use social media as your water cooler. Go there to encourage people. Go to have conversations, to meet people with common interests, to debate Damon versus Stefan.

I stepped back from the personal aspect of my blog over a year ago, because I was convinced no one wanted to hear about the trials and tribulations of being a writer from someone who was published. I believe this was a mistake. I thought posting contests and other author interviews and fancy updates about my own books was the way I was supposed to go. Again, mistake.

My blog is getting ready to undergo a major overhaul. (After I meet this deadline!) I want to get back to the “in the trenches” part of social media.

It’s hard to be vulnerable and real and authentic sometimes, but when I think back to early days, that’s what I craved from other writers. To know I wasn’t in it alone. I recently asked for help with a project from other author friends, and I got a few emails back from people who were on deadlines. They hadn’t showered in days, they hadn’t eaten in hours, they hadn’t seen sunlight in weeks. One of them had a major stress zit outbreak. Another couldn’t bring herself to wash her hair. All I could think when I read those emails was this:


And that felt so, so good.

My hope for you for the next few days is that you meet some people who are in the same season of life as you. That you can connect and be real, not be intimidated by what they’ve done or haven’t done. Don’t let what you know or don’t know stop you.

I have friends I lean on who are New York Times best sellers. I have friends I lean on who aren’t agented yet.

The important thing? Having friends.

Chapter Three.

Beginnings are endless.

A few quick quotes from Ze Frank, who wrote “An Invocation for Beginnings”:

“Let me think about the people who I care about the most, and how when they fail or disappoint me I still love them, I still give them chances, and I still see the best of them.  Let me extend that generosity to myself.”

“Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else, and if it is, let me become fascinated by the shape of the stone.”

“There is no need to sharpen my pencils anymore.  My pencils are sharp enough.  Even the dull ones will make a mark.
Warts and all.
Let’s start this sh*t up.”


Own it. Boss it. Don’t give in to yourself, don’t give in to anyone else. Ultimately, YOU are responsible for YOU.

My daddy always said, wish in one hand, spit in the other, and see which fills up first.

How about this? Instead, you use both of those hands to fulfill your dreams.

Because YOU. CAN. DO. IT.

Chapter Four

This chapter belongs to you. Are you ready?

Thanks for letting me share, friends! 


  1. I had a similar experience as you. My second grade teacher was a horror who thought i was dumb because of my overactive imagination. My third grade teacher was the total opposite and encouraged me.

    Thanks for posting this. The video made me cry.

  2. Oh my god, Myra, I didn't think I could love you anymore than I already do. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. I NEEDED this after rejections and failed contests and so many other personal things going on.

    Thank you.

    Gods, I love you so much.

  3. Myra, you keep making me tear up, woman. Fantastic speech/video!!!!

  4. Terri (Belcher) Vaughn7/09/2012 09:32:00 AM

    Great speech. So very proud of you. I'm excited to hear that your blog is going to be revamped. Don't get me wrong, I love that you have the contests, but it's just not my thing. Also, I'm not a writer, just a friend and fan. So even though I am not working on the next big project, I am still trying to balance "something" while being a wife and mother of two very energetic and needy children. Reading how you are making time for your dream of writing, while living a home life much like myself, is very encouraging to me. We may have different dreams, but our struggles for self and time are the same. Therefore, how you deal with your obstacles helps me overcome mine, no matter the differences. Thank you.

  5. We played your video again at the closing ceremonies (no tech difficulties this time). Brought me to tears...again. For me, going from "I can do it," to "I did it," in terms of making utopYA happen with an amazing team, was just epic. And having you be a part of that was nothing short of a dream come true. Thank you.

  6. Myra...I don't know you except through Twitter, but thank you, thank you for this post. For the encouragement, for vowing to "keep it real" on your blog. For everything. Thanks so much.

  7. Must be something extra magic about Harry - The day I finished Half Blood Prince was the day I started writing seriously :-)
    This is a lovely post - you speak to my heart Myra!

  8. Please pass me a tissue! This was inspirational! Whether your dream is writing a book, painting the next Mona Lisa, or pouring your heart out into reviews on your blog :), this is the type of encouragement we all need! Thanks Myra! <3

  9. Oh, I really, really loved this. Thank you!

  10. Beautiful, wonderful, awesome. Loved it so hard. Thank you so much for this.

  11. This is fantastic and so much like my own journey in so many ways. Thank you for sharing this, for helping to keep us all connected and to remind us we're not alone. :-)

  12. Myra, thank you for the shout-out! And obviously, that panel WASN'T a bust. The world got HOURGLASS, TIMEPIECE and YOU because of it! xoxo!

  13. Awww, wish I could have been there! Good going, chica!

  14. I'm not sure which gets me all choked up more. This beyond wonderful Keynote (THANK YOU for posting, by the way) that made me cry...again...or that you mentioned ME. A perfect example, for any of you reading this now, of why the writing community is so exceptional. Much (MUCHO GRANDE) love for you Miss Myra! ((HUG)) Now I'm gonna to go cry...again. ;)

  15. How is it possible to blubber & snort laugh at the same time? Cuz I did. Xoxo.

  16. THANK YOU!! I loved this as much as I needed it! Which was a lot. A lot a lot.

  17. Thank you for posting this awesome speech and tear-jerking video. I know it's lifted my spirits exactly when I needed it. ^_^

  18. Thank you for inspiring us and setting the perfect tone for utopYA. So glad I got to be there in person!

  19. This is beautiful, Myra. Thank you!

  20. You already know how I feel about your words and this video *sniffs as mascara runs down face* Thank you for reaching out to other writers so this encouragement project could come to life. (And thank you other authors for responding in such a BIG way!) I hope someday I'll have an opportunity to bring someone as much encouragement as you brought to me this weekend. You rock my face off, Myra!

  21. Oh my! I too loved Trixie Belden. I wanted to be a Bob-White so much it hurt! I can still remember most of the plotlines from those books to this day.

    This is a terrific post!

  22. A) Someone else who remembers Trixie Belden?!?!?!? I love you even more now.
    B)You made me cry. You're awesome.

  23. I love this honest post. (And I'm sooo hoping that one day the school will tell me my son is gifted, rather than just... delayed.)

    Thanks. :)

  24. <3 this so much! Turn the dream into action! What a perfect message for a boost in confidence - Post "YOU CAN DO IT" in a place you'll see often as a wonderful reminder of this fantastic video! Thanks!!!!! :D

  25. "This is your chance to gain wisdom from people who’ve gone before you. To make friends who will be part of your publication road. To encourage and be encouraged. You have a whole weekend ahead of you, and if you open your mind and your heart, who knows what you could learn? I can guarantee this – it won’t be anything you expected."

    This is exactly what I saw happening throughout the weekend. I am so glad you were there to inspire and encourage us all.

  26. This...made me cry. I am sitting here past midnight crying into my cup of cookie dough. Because I'm up this late writing (well, supposed to be writing. I got distracted by this!), and thinking about how hard it is to make time to write when it's not your full time job. And how hard it is to write in general. And how crazy I must be for wanting this. And this...was just perfect in every way. It's nice to know we're not alone, and that those who have "made it" were exactly where we are now. Thank you<3

  27. Just love! Love the video. Love the Keynote. Love the books. Love... love, love, love, LOVE! Thank you for sharing.

  28. This video should be played at all YA book conferences and creating writing classes around the world! Thank you for being so inspirational Myra and generally an all round lovely lady :)

  29. This filled up my well. Thank you.

  30. Oh Myra--LOVED THIS. Totally choked up over the video. So inspiring, and so real.:)

    Thank you for this post. :)

  31. I want to give you one of the biggest hugs ever!!!! And thank you for going to more personal blogging - I just found your blog and look forward to it.

    What your speech means to me - I have had some short stories and other pieces published by papers and e-zines, but no books. I'm a brand new indie self-published author, and am shocked at how aggressive the self-publishing community tends to be. It's a bunch of authors fighting frantically for recognition. It doesn't feel like a place for poets. I feel like Piglet finally finding the Heffalump. So I'm not going to be part of the Heffalump community, but need reminders, like this from what you said:

    "The way to achieve Zen is to either have friends who are wildly more successful than you, or to pursue the art, the craft, the page, the story over every other thing."

    :) :) :) Thanks.

    Oh, I feel I need to say - I do have a rabbit named Heffalump, but he's a sweetie. Not all Heffalumps are mean and scary.

  32. Thank you! I didn't realized I needed this until I watched the video.

    ...and then I bawled through the whole thing :\

  33. Cried. Thank you. So much.

  34. Wow! If I don't do it now, I have no one to blame but myself. That was the most motivational speech (that I've read) on writing ever!

    Thank you!

  35. Myra, you made me tear up during your opening speech, then Janet made me tear up again when she played it during the closing ceremony. I think you were the perfect choice for Keynote. Thanks for offering inspiration to writers at every stage of their careers!

  36. Wonderful, Myra. And so true. Thank you for this.

  37. Myra, you are a rockstar. Thank you so much for sharing this. I've been having that same feeling like, I'm going about this all wrong. I care too much about the writing and really don't give a flying fuck about the promoting the book part. I just want to write more books, and I want people read them but I hate the business side of this business. (I could write a blog post on this later) and so thank you for saying it's just about the page and at the end of the day it really doesn't matter where you go with it, as long as you write. I hope we can stay in touch because you are awesome.

  38. This was an absolutely amazing post for me to read. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing. I have just "awoken" to my writing realization now at nearly 31 years old and I feel how you described with the "how do you do it?". I want to ask you that now. I have incompletes scattered in notebooks and on computer. I'm not very computer or tech savvy and I'm in a financial/job kinda crisis, so things like workshops would be out of the question. I don't go on FB or twitter either....how does one organize oneself? A basic schedule? How do you balance the researching of blogs and writing info with the actual practice of writing? What do you do when you have about 5 different ideas in your head and random scenes playing in your mind while you shower or walk....but you're not sure how to tackle it all down in one story or how to choose among them? Or when you are flailing between MG and YA and discouraged with yourself because you lack any of the school writing degrees/classes and you feel your list of "incompletes" is so long that you tend to overwhelm yourself?
    Sorry, just loved this post and wanted to email you but you're a busy person and my crazy questions screw "new" loud and clear :)


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