Fonda Lee on Winning a 2015 Annual Award

I’ve often heard the adage, “Writing is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Fonda LeeI believe this deeply; even a few years into a writing career it’s apparent to me, from looking at how far I’ve come already and how very far I still have to go, that like the running of a marathon, this calling is often a long and somewhat lonely test of endurance. Yet along the way, as one travels through valleys and crests hills, there are signposts that guide the way. There are checkpoints where supporters line the ropes and cheer you on, where people hand you water and tell you that you can do it.

Willamette Writers has played that role for me.

In August of 2013, I attended the Willamette Writers annual conference with both hope and doubt sitting at the forefront of my mind. Though I’d been writing for much of my life, I’d begun seriously aiming for publication two years prior. I had one complete manuscript that was busy collecting rejections, and in the meantime, I’d finished another manuscript, a young adult science fiction novel that I was about to start querying. Not really daring to hope for much, I signed up for a professional consultation and several agent pitches that weekend.

The response to my novel Zeroboxer was so positive that I remember being almost unable to sleep that entire weekend. I felt amped up on something writers often find in short supply: optimism. The belief that this crazy dream of being a writer might not be crazy after all.

I received four agent offers within a few weeks of the conference. Zeroboxer sold four months later and was published in April 2015. It’s been named an Oregon Book Award finalist, an Andre Norton Award nominee, a Jr. Library Guild Selection and an ALA Top 10 Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. My second novel comes out next January and I’m currently working on my fourth.

It’s not all smooth sailing, not remotely. There are days when publishing is frustrating, and days when the writing is slow and hard. While I was writing this post, an email showed up in my inbox: yet another rejection for a short story that seems destined to die on my hard drive.

Two years after the Willamette Writers Conference kick-started my career, I was back at the conference as a faculty member and as the recipient of the Up and Coming Award. At the reception, I remember feeling both incredibly honored, but also worried: how could I live up to a title like “Up-and-Coming?” I’m still so unproven, still in the first leg of the marathon.

But like a well-timed pacer urging me forward, Willamette Writers gave me what I needed right when I needed it. Not just the early boost of the conference, not just the resounding vote of confidence with the Up-and-Coming Award, but a new sense of perspective and motivation.

See, I want a fair shot at Lifetime Achievement Award at the Willamette Writers Conference of 2050. Better get writing.

By Fonda Lee