Sunday, May 17, 2009

It Pays To Be Late: On Writing and Barbecue

I ran into the SCBWI conference looking for the line. They said there would be long lines if we arrived after 7:45. It was now 8:30 and the registration desk stood empty.

“Wow,” I said, “no line. How lucky is that?”

“It’s because the conference has already started,” replied the teen volunteer, with a touch of reprimand in her voice, mind you.

I shrugged it off, recalling my father’s sage advice, “It pays to be late.” It’s practically his mantra and something my husband, an Army brat, can’t wrap his head around. My dad hates to wait, so his idea of a perfect arrival is to slide right in at the last minute. Things don’t always time out perfectly, though, which means I spent most of my childhood missing the beginning of the movie, the first act of the play, or having to reschedule my doctor’s appointment.

But a few key incidents of tardiness that resulted in reward cemented this notion in my father’s mind. I know it goes against the grain. Being late doesn’t work in many situations...job interviews, your wedding, airplane trips…well actually being late to an airplane once in 1978 was probably the most significant incident from childhood that led to dad's belief that good things come to those who are late.

We were headed to see to see the grandparents and cousins in Alabama. In OJ fashion, back when you could do things like that and when OJ was just an American football star, our family of six sprinted to the gate.

“We gave your seats away,” said the stewardess when we arrived disheveled and out of breath. My father’s face must have fallen, like, 5 floors down, because her next sentence was, “But we can put you in first class.”

First class. As a family of six we had never made it out of the very middle of the center section of coach. You know the place; once you go in, it's dirty looks and complete row upset every time you need to pee. And this was first class in the seventies, on a jumbo jet. We ascended to the second floor, found a swivel seat, and put our feet up on groovy white lounge tables. Sweet. My dad was never on time to a function again.

What does all this have to do with writing or barbecue (the apparent focus of this blog)? I want to give people permission to be late. No matter what the creative endeavor, be it writing a picture book, or smoking a brisket, give yourself enough time. Just like I’ve had a brisket stall out on me for 5 hours (that means it just won’t get past 160 degrees to the ideal tender 190), I’ve had stories stall out on me for years, to be revived and loved later after spending time in the drawer. Some things just need to cook a little longer. It may not be ready when you wanted it, but giving it the time it needs will result in delicious writing or barbecue or whatever it is you create.

I heard this sentiment a lot at the conference. Here are some other nuggets that hold true for writing and barbecue, and what I took away from them:

Author/Illustrator Nina Laden: “If you don’t make mistakes, you won’t make anything.” (just keep working, even if it stinks).

Editor Connie Hsu on working as a red carpet journalist: “Angelina Jolie is like an alien. She just stares at you.” (if you're not following your path, you will feel alienated...or surrounded by aliens that look like Angelina Jolie)

Illustrator Kevin Atteberry: “I never say, ‘Oh shoot, I have to draw today’.” (do what you love and it won't feel like work)

Editor Connie Hsu: “I only like stories with dead animals…There are plenty of other editors who like their animals, you know, breathing." (there are no absolute rules in creative work)

Author Richard Peck video quote: “At some point in a novel, you have to grow- have an epiphany – and then act that out in the novel.” (be open to the aha! moments)

Author Ellen Hopkins: “Write those books that are scratching from the inside.” (feed yourself with the work. In barbecue that can be quite literal!)

And lastly, yet another quote from Ms. Hsu (can you tell I liked her?) when asked how long we could submit work to her: "Forever? I'm not going to give a deadline on creativity. Take the time you need."

Take your time. Be late if necessary. Remember: It pays to be late.


  1. Hey Julie...I'm so glad you stopped by Cuppa and told me you were here (and you're no longer a lurker!). I love this post. Too funny. And I love the quotes from the conference.

  2. Thank you, Jolie. I promise to be lurkless and say howdy publicly on your blog :)!

  3. Martha B., if you ever read this, I know "lurkless" is wrong in so many ways.

  4. Thanks for posting about the conference. Love the airplane story and the quotes - and your encouraging words.

  5. yeah, those quotes from the conference are great. Good to know you're here. I'll be following from now on. And by the way, my husband is obsessed with your BBQ!