A Pilot Fish Helped Me to Overcome Jitters During My First Writing Conference

January 3, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Kelsey Cleveland

My finger hovered frozen over the register button for my first writer’s conference as perfectionism, otherwise known as fear, struck. Should I postpone attending until next year, when both my manuscript and book proposal were more polished? Maybe I could focus on craft and skip the agent meetings? I took a deep breath. What if I attended the conference with a playful sense of curiosity about what I could learn and whom I could meet? I clicked purchase and used the conference dates as a milestone to plan the revision schedule of my travel memoir.

Nerves returned in the week leading up to the big event. I fought back by over-preparing, which is a tendency among perfectionists. First, I researched speakers, sessions, tips on attending conferences, pitching, and book proposals. Based on my research, I drafted an overview of my memoir, chapter summaries, and information on comparative titles to prepare for my two pitch sessions with agents.

Months later, my body vibrated with a mixture of excitement and nerves as I entered the room for a pre-conference master class to learn about publishing from an agent. I felt calm and less alone by day’s end after connecting with fifteen other writers. Now, some friendly faces among the crowd would greet me when the conference began tomorrow. Plus, I had already met one agent I planned to pitch.

Instead of going home, a classmate convinced me to stay for the pitch fest that evening. I sat in the back, ready to observe and learn from the panelists’ feedback to other aspiring authors. I found one-on-one agent meetings seemed intimidating. Pitching in front of dozens of people felt next to impossible.

The moderator pulled the first name from the bucket. A woman handed her five dollars, strode to the front of the conference room, and pitched her non-fiction project as if presenting a two-minute dramatic monologue. I assumed she and every other writer taking part needed a complete and polished manuscript ready for submission. The three panelists offered each writer praise and areas of improvement.

I both envied and admired the writers who followed for their bravery. You couldn’t drag me up there. Some nervously clutched notes as they spoke; others presented with confidence about projects in various states of readiness.

The qualities of the pitches and projects varied. Yet, the supportive panel always offered compliments and suggestions because they wanted the writers to succeed. I regretted not putting my name in the hat when I realized they needed us, and we needed them. An aspiring author is like an Egyptian Plover flying into the mouth of a Nile Crocodile to clean its teeth. Or like a pilot fish cleaning parasites from a shark. Yes, both the shark and crocodile could eat the smaller creatures, but they won’t because they have a symbiotic relationship where both parties benefit.

When the moderator pulled the last name, I sighed with disappointment because I’d missed my chance. Wait! Wasn’t there still time left? I put five dollars in the pocket of my skirt and raised my hand high. Could they please squeeze in one more person? I held my breath with nothing to lose. The moderator consulted with the panel, who agreed.

I walked up to the front with my notes clasped in my sweaty hands. Of course, I was nervous, but I tried to lower the stakes by viewing the entire conference, including this pitch fest, as a learning experience. I focused my attention on the panelists instead of the attendees. The two minutes flew by. I survived and now had my first pitch under my belt. For the cost of a cup of high-priced coffee, I received insightful feedback on my memoir pitch, which would also help me revise my manuscript. I had done it, and my one-on-one pitch appointments the next day would seem easy in comparison. 

My conversations with a literary agent and an editor flowed like conversations with helpful mentors offering advice and feedback during the conference. A volunteer handed me a sticker shaped like a baseball after leaving the ballroom where the pitches were held. It stated, “I got 99 problems, but a pitch ain’t one.”

My identity as a writer won’t change whether or not I get published. A speaker confirmed I am a writer because I feel guilty when not writing. The conference cost less than the cost of the therapy I’d need if I denied my desire to write and have my voice heard.


Kelsey Cleveland is a writer, who after studying Japanese at Smith College and Nanzan University, spent eight years living in Kobe, Japan.  Her personal essay “Listen to the Waves” received honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 86th Annual Writing Competition. Several of her tiny truths have won Creative Nonfiction’s micro-essay contests and been published in In Case You Missed It Monthly. Cleveland’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Press Pause, Monologging, Hippocampus Magazine, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, and the Sankei Shimbun (in Japanese). She is currently working on Waving Hello, Bowing Goodbye: A Dual Love Story with Japan and a Man, a travel memoir about navigating conflicting desires to pursue a childhood dream to live in Japan. She lives with her husband and teenage son outside of Portland, Oregon, where her passport is safely stowed for now. Find her at kelseycleveland.com or connect with her on Twitter @kerushi_san.

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