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I'd been writing for thirteen years, received over 260 rejections, andhad just gotten -- thank God -- my first book published! The year was1973. I was thirty-three years old, in Long Beach, California, at a CATEconference, meaning California Association of Teachers of English. Iwas in the back room along with five other writers. All of the other authorshad previous works published. We were waiting for the mainspeaker to show up. This writer wasn't only published, like the rest ofus; no, he'd had a best seller, was a nationally recognized speaker, andwas going to show up any minute and give the keynote address to theluncheon of the whole CATE convention.
Karen, our publisher's publicist, was nervous as hell, pacing theroom and trying to figure out what to do. The national best-selling authorshould've arrived at least thirty minutes ago. He was supposed tohave flown in from the East Coast the night before on the red-eye.
Myself, I was pretty nervous, too. I'd never been in a room with somany writers before. In fact, I'd never even met a published authoruntil about six months back, and that was when I'd been in the LosAngeles office of my New York publisher and I'd finally found out thatyes, yes, yes, I was really going to be published! I immediately calledmy mother and father, screaming to the high heavens -- I'd been soexcited. Bantam from New York was going to publish my book Macho!
The room we were in was small, but felt much larger because of allthe excitement. I had no idea what was expected of me, so I stood in acorner by myself, playing it safe and just watching everything. Hell, theonly reason I was even here was because our publicist Karen Black -- who was actually white -- had called me up out of the blue yesterday afternoon, I guess, as an afterthought, and said, "Don't you live justsouth of Long Beach?"
"Yes, I do," I'd said.
"Good. I hope you're not too busy or will take offense that I'm callingyou so late, but you see, we're going to have several of our authorsgiving workshops at a CATE conference in Long Beach this weekend,so why don't you drive up the coast and join us?"
"Cat? What's that?" I'd asked.
"No. CATE, California Association of Teachers of English. They buya lot of books. This conference is very important for us, and could befor you, too."
"Oh, I see. Yeah, sure, I'll come," I said, taking a deep breath. "Will Ibe attending one of the workshops?"
"We thought you might present a workshop."
"Yes, of course. You are a published author."
My heart began pounding. "What would I give a workshop on to Englishteachers?"
"On your experiences in writing. On that special English teacherwho inspired you to become an author," she said full of honey. " 'Byenow. We'll see you there. Don't worry. You have a creative mind. You'llcome up with something."
She gave me the address, and then this morning, I drove in mywhite van up from Oceanside, where I still lived on the ranch on whichI was raised, to Long Beach. I'd never heard of CATE in all my life,much less did I know what it meant to "present" a workshop. All I knewwas that I'd flunked the third grade twice because I couldn't learn toread, had a terrible time all through grammar school and high school.Then after ten years of writing, I was finally able to sell my first bookto a leading mass-market paperback publisher in New York.
And now, standing in a corner, I felt pretty green. After all, theseother writers in the room had been published before and they weretalking to one another like they were all best friends, swapping publishingstories, laughing happily, eating cookies and drinking coffee. I was drinking water. One sip of coffee would have shot me throughthe roof. Listening to the conversation around the snack table, I wasbeginning to understand that these other writers had not only alreadyhad several books published, but that most of their books hadfirst come out in hardback, then had come out in mass-market paperback.
I was quickly learning that it was not very prestigious for me to havefirst been published in paperback. Because paperback books didn't getreviewed, and reviews were what got an author attention, respect, andsold books. Hell, I was still so wet behind the ears that I hadn't evenrealized what a review was until a few weeks back. So I said nothingand just kept listening closely, trying to learn all I could without showingmy ignorance. Also, I could now see that these other writers weredressed more like city people. I guess that it had been a mistake for meto come in Levi's, cowboy boots, a big belt buckle, a Western shirt, andmy old blue blazer.
Behind the closed doors of the next room, we could hear the low,rumbling noise of all the people at the conference eating lunch. Ifigured that it had to be a good-size crowd of people by the sound ofthe ruckus of plates and conversation. Our publisher's publicist wasnow chain-smoking as she paced the room. Checking her watch forthe umpteenth time, Karen now sent her assistant, Sandy, to check forany messages at the lobby, then told her to also go out to the parking lotand glance around. Boy, it was all like a movie. Here I was in the backroom with a bunch of real writers, and any second now a nationally recognizedauthor was going to come rushing down the hallway and leadus through the two closed doors where a whole convention of teacherswas waiting to meet us ...Burro Genius
A Memoir. Copyright © by Victor Villasenor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Burro Genius: A Memoir by Victor Villaseņor
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