Words for Writers: Keynote Address – JET P-Dot 2011

I have the great honour of being the keynote speaker for the Japanese Exchange Teachers 2011 Toronto Pre-Departure Orientation this weekend. I was very flattered to be asked.  I was a JET myself from 2005-2007 in Dazaifu-shi & Kasuga-shi, Fukuoka-ken.

I wanted to grab video of the address, but since plans have fallen through, I thought I would share my inteneded speech with everyone, as I feel that it can just as inspiring for non-JETS.

I hope you enjoy it!

“What If?”
Keynote Speech
J.M. Frey

June 26th, 2011

In February 2005, I was almost finished my JET interview when the people on the other side of the table from me gave each other a knowing glance. Fear quelled in my stomach, because I’d seen that kind of knowing glance pass between people on the other side of a table before, and it was usually the kind of glance that I saw most often at auditions for which I didn’t get the gig.

“We like you,” one of the men said. “Very much. We think you’d make a great ALT. But we’re worried. You’re just so… sweet. So modest. What if you can’t handle it?”

Up until that point I had been on my very best behaviour. I realized suddenly that my very best behaviour isn’t what the JET Programme wanted. They wanted bold, and ready to gobble up every experience, they wanted self confident.

So I stood up. Then I stepped up onto the chair. And then I stepped onto the table. And then, in the business suit I had borrowed from my mother… I tap danced.

So, there’s my first bit of advice to you – do whatever it takes to get what you want, because the only person who can get what you want for yourself is you. Even if that means tap dancing on the table in the business suit you borrowed from your mother.

See, the thing is, when I was sitting where you were, I was scared.  While I was trying to write this keynote, I kept thinking back to my own experience. I couldn’t remember what our keynote speaker talked about, or even who they were. All I could recall was the insufferable heat, the irony of the fact that for the first time in my life I was actually in Toronto for  thePride Parade and I couldn’t go, and wondering how miserable I would be if I just ‘fessed up and chickened out. Surely there would be someone on the waiting list who would be thrilled to go to Fukuoka in my place.

It’s one thing, you see, to really really want something, and quite another to get it.

The getting part, that can be frightening. You wonder: Now that I’m here, do I really deserve to be? Will I do a good job? Will I scar a child’s psyche? Will I cause a massive international incident? Will I just get lost every time I try to find the grocery store?

To paraphrase a certain Disney princess with too much hair, what if it’s not as wonderful as you dreamed it would be? Worse still, what if it is?

“What If” is the stock and trade of the creative individual.  “What If” is where every story starts, and every idea jumps off.

So, when I was sitting where you are sitting, scared out of my skin, thinking, “No, let’s get out of here,”  the next thing I thought was, “What if…?”  And if there was one thing that scared me more than the thought of going overseas to be a JET, it was regretting not going overseas to be a JET.

“What if I went to Japan and ended up in a fantastic school and inspired one of my students on to great, marvellous things? What if I went to Japan and made a difference in a kid’s life? What if I met the kind of friends that people keep for the rest of their lives? What if I got to go to the kabuki every month (something I was very keen on) and was lucky enough to see Bando Tsamaburo himself perform (Spoiler Alert – I was, I did). What if my life there is filled with a hundred thousand wonderful little moments that fill me with nostalgic warmth for years after I get back? What if I discover something fantastic about the culture and people? What if I find inspiration for my next book?

What if I discover something fantastic about myself?”

See, the man at the interview was right – you can’t be sweet, and you can’t be modest. You have to see every moment of every day for the opportunity that it is.  Every weekend is time when you can travel, every evening is a chance to go for dinner with JETs from a dozen different cultures and talk about where they come from. Every moment of downtime in the staff room is a chance to study Japanese, to read that massive stack of books you’ve been meaning to get around to, to talk to your fellow teachers and learn about their lives and dreams, or, in my case, write a book.

I often wonder if I would be where I am today if things hadn’t happened the way they did. “What If” I hadn’t gone to Japan? What if I hadn’t decided to bring my laptop to school to occupy my downtime? What if I hadn’t gone up to the onsen that night?

Triptych began with an interesting thought in a strange place. I firmly believe that the natural habitat of the common plot bunny is the bathroom –that’s why so many people get their Eureka moments in the bath.

My Triptych Eureka moment happened on January 21st. I know this because it was my mother’s 50th birthday, but I wasn’t at her party. I was on the far side of the planet, enjoying a soak in the historic public baths in Futsukaichi, Japan.

Like many of you rural and semi-rural JETs will learn, my apartment had no hot running water and no central air.  Many people who live in older buildings in Japan, to warm up in the chilly January, head to the baths and make an evening of it. There was a buffet (“Viking Style Dining”, they call it, because you just take what you want), robotic massage chairs, beer vending machines, and the famous onsen.

I was soaking, pointedly not thinking about the novel I had just spent the last year’s worth of downtime at school completing. It is titled Dsr, and it’s still unsold to this day. Neither my editors or my publisher have actually seen it. It’s my secret shame. Mostly because it’s about 900 pages long and big fat mess.

While pointedly not thinking about Dsr, I ended up wondering what my Mom’s birthday party was like. I started to think about 50, and what I might be like when I reached that age.

Then I realized that I was exactly half my mother’s age. I began to wonder, what was 25-year-old mom like?

And here it is, the magical “What If”…  what if I had the ability to travel back in time and meet her, would we like one another? Would she approve of the choices I had made? Because already at half her age, my choices had been significantly different. In the end, I concluded that 25-year-old me and 25-year-old Mom would get along fine.  But then that “What If” reared its head again. “What if we didn’t get along?”

When I got home, I pulled out the laptop and proceeded to find out what would happen when a mother met her grown-up daughter from the future… and didn’t like the life choices her daughter had made.

This became a novella titled (Back), focused on this Mother and Daughter’s relationship and the tensions between them. I finished it in about a month, and spent the next few months polishing it.

I liked the story, and wondered, “What if I tried to sell it?”

So lemmie put it out there right now: Rejection sucks.  You probably already know that. You’ve applied to universities and jobs, and probably had even hazarded a pick up line or two in an overcrowded bar.

Story rejections doubly suck because they are turning down something that you have worked very hard to polish, something that you’ve invested a great deal of yourself in. There’s loads of advice out there for writers about learning to grow a thick skin and taking nothing personally, but the truth is that despite the fact that it’s not personal, that the editor or publisher or agent is rejecting the manuscript and not you, it still feels personal.

And it sucks.

This is the hardest part of being a writer. This is the hardest part of being an actor. And this is the hardest part of being a JET. Sometimes, you’re going be rejected. It might be something as small as having your request denied to help teach a sport in gym, to having the school turn down your request to take vacation days when you want them, to having forty very blank faces not engaging at all with that amazing, wonderful awesome lesson plan of awesomeness that you spent days making awesome.

It still sucks.

I don’t have a lot of very pithy advice about this part. Except this: it’s not you they’re rejecting. Back when I was auditioning a lot, I had developed a mantra and a ritual for when I didn’t get a gig. I would look at myself in the mirror and say, “It’s not that they don’t like you. It’s that they don’t like you for that role.” And then I would go and get a really fancy ice cream, the kind that you have to actually put on pants and leave the house to buy.

(This might have been a mistake, because I’ve trained myself to have a pavlovian response to failure of any sort now – my waist line does not appreciate it. On the up side – mochi covered matcha flavoured ice cream balls. Trust me.)

(Back) was rejected about twenty times before I made my very first sale for all of ten dollars to Silverthought Press. When I expanded the story into a full novel, what eventually became Triptych, it was rejected over thirty times by publishers, editors and agents alike. And that? That’s nothing.  Harry Potter was rejected by over a dozen publishers, and I don’t know how many agents. The Diary of Anne Frank? Fifteen. Lord of the Flies? Twenty. John Grisham’s first book was rejected by twenty eight people. Mark Twain had to self publish, and it took Jane Austen ten years to get Pride and Prejudice in print.

Writing is not for the faint of heart or the thin of skin. And neither is being a JET.  Like it or not, you are going to stand out. Perhaps because of your skin colour, perhaps because of your accent, or your height, or your habits. And because you are noticeable, people are going to make judgements.

But remember, it’s not you they’re judging. It’s just that you’re something different; it’s up to you to turn that into a teachable opportunity. Students sometimes just don’t engage. Don’t take it personally and try something different next time.

Ask yourself, “What if…” and go from there.

In early 2007, I learned I would need some minor surgery on my knee, and made the difficult choice not to renew my JET contract. I could have had the surgery in Japan, but I was ready to move on to the next stage of my education. I applied to Masters of Arts programs back home, and the rejection letters for my writing kept coming in. I neeeearly got into the M.I.T. (the last slot was between me and someone else, and they picked the someone else because his research topic was more applicable).

So, I went to my second choice, the joint Ryerson and York universities program for a Master of Communication’s Culture.  I fast-tracked the program only because I could read a lot while I was laid up from the surgery. Just before I graduated, I wondered… “what if before my 30th birthday, I could either publish my first novel, or get a PhD?”

I was 26 at the time. PhD programs are generally about 4 years long, and the applications were fast becoming due. I had to make the decision immediately. Then Ryerson very temptingly dangled a free ride in front of my nose. But I wasn’t certain that I had a research topic that I wanted to live with for the half a decade.

What did know, though, was that I was passionate about Triptych. There wasn’t day that I wasn’t tweaking a scene or revising the plot as per the advice in those rejection letters.

Most logical people, I think, would have gone for free ride and the PhD.  I had always fought to get what I wanted – from my thesis topic in undergrad to my chance to be on the JET program, to getting a space in a competitive MA, nothing had ever come easy to me. Being handed the chance to do my PhD seemed easy. Sort of wrong.

So I decided to be a monumental dreamer and a bit of an idiot, and go after publication. Little would I know that the same month I graduated, the recession would absolutely decimate all of the jobs in my field.  All I could find was a crappy part time telemarketing position. But I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of my dream.

In April of 2009, I agreed to appear as an academic speaker at the Ad Astra Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Convention. Being surrounded by so many successful authors was hard. Frustrated beyond belief, I went to a room party to talk with my published author friends about the last few rejections I had received and somewhat drunkely declared Triptych the “unpublishable manuscript!”

Let me tell you a little bit about Gabrielle Harbowy. Gabrielle Harbowy is an acquisitions editor for Dragon Moon Press, one of the largest independent sci fi/fantasy publishers in Canada.  Gabrielle Harbowy was an advocate of very intellectual, thoughtful, issue-driven science fiction, which is not very common in the market.

Gabrielle Harbowy was also standing right behind me.

And when she heard me declare Triptych the “unpublishible manuscript”, she thought, “What if?”

We spoke, and before I knew it, she had a copy of the book. She read it.

She said no. Rejection sucks.

There was a lot right with the manuscript, she said… but also too much wrong.

At this point, most sane people would have given it up and gone back to the PhD program with their hands out and their tails tucked between their legs.

But I thought, if I could tap dance on a table in my mother’s business suit, if I could live alone in Japan for two years and NOT cause an international incident, I could sure as heck revise my manuscript and make it so good that there was no way Gabrielle would say no.

It took me six months, but the second time I sent Gabrielle the manuscript, she asked me what I would do if I couldn’t work on the manuscript any more. I told her I’d probably sleep. She told me to go to bed, because Dragon Moon Press was going to publish it.

Triptych was announced officially at Ad Astra 2010, and launched this year at Ad Astra 2011. I had just squeaked in under my 30-years-old challenge.

So these are the lessons I learned in two years on JET, and during myself imposed challenge to become a published author:

Make a fool of yourself: it’s only after you decide to throw away your inhibitions and shyness that you can throw yourself into something completely out of your range of experience.  What if I hadn’t tap danced on that table, dressed up in silly costumes at school on Halloween, or had the wherewithal to pitch my novel to Gabrielle right there at the party?

Look beyond fellow JETs to form friendships. There are lots of non-JET foreigners in Japan, and lots of really awesome, funky and fun Japanese people who are more than happy to show you how to love their culture. Especially make friends with the owner of your favourite restaurant. (If anyone is going to Fukuoka, say hi to the folks at the Son House Café for me, and try the poutine. I was the one who petitioned for it to be added to the menu.)

Take your vacation days, all of them. Travel to visit the friends that you’ll make this weekend, or to tour Tokyo, or so check out Universal Studios Osaka or climb a mountain in the middle of Shikoku to stay at a four hundred year old farm house. The “What Ifs” are waiting for you there.

Say yes to everything and try everything at least once.  Experience everything you can – festivals, sporting events, movies, walking tours, trips. Eat anything they put in front of you. Well, except the live baby octopus. I never did eat that. He was waving at me! I didn’t really want to go to the room party where I met Gabrielle. I wanted to sleep. But I am so glad I did.

Be pleasant and be patient.  There’s no point is being angry or hasty, and burning bridges only singes you.  Listen attentively to advice, suggestions, and stories. People are usually giving you advice because they actually do know better, which is something that I must repeat to myself quite often when I get my editing notes back on my new book.  Good things come to those who wait, and taking a deep breath and sitting back and really thinking about what people are saying as they say it, being an active listener, is going to be the most important skill in your new job.

Work hard. Revise your novel sixty four times, if that’s what it takes. Stay late to mark exams. Volunteer your time. Do everything to your fullest capacity, because your students will do the same when they see you doing it.

In the end, remember that you are there as an ambassador of Canada. You are the gatekeepers of Canada’s reputation on the world stage. Don’t be a jerk.

Take vicious advantage of downtime (yes, this includes any sick time). Study Japanese. Take taiko. Go to the Kabuki. Visit Disney world. Have a barbeque. Go to the onsen. Because in ten years, the last thing you want to do is look back and think, “what if I hadn’t just sat around watching TV every weekend…?” Grab every opportunity.  When Gabrielle asked about my book, I plunged in and gave her the verbal pitch, probably to the amusement and astonishment of the other partygoers around us. But it worked.

Embrace your uniqueness. “The hammer that sticks out gets nailed down,” they say over there, and it’s a good think to keep in mind when the situation calls for the ALT or CIR to be part of a team or to represent their country or the JET program. But on the weekends, in the classroom, and especially during the after school activates, be a sticky-outy nail, and be proud of it.

Remember, you are there to teach them about our cultures, our vast mosaic of wonderfully different traditions and activities, as much as you are there to learn about theirs.

Triptych is weird and sticky-outy book. It was too literary for the sci-fi publishers, and too sci-fi for the literary publishers. Nobody wanted it because it was too hard to define as a single genre. There was pressure to change it, to make it more one way than the other, to make it conform. Luckily, the person who eventually bought it loved it BECAUSE of its very sticky-outy-ness and not only defended me to her publisher, but celebrated the uniqueness of the novel in all of the forums she could find. Where some professionals wanted to nail Triptych down, Gabrielle and Dragon Moon Press held it up. And I was brave enough to stand up with it.

If there is something you want, ask for it. And work to get it. This is something that carried over to being a Master’s Candidate.  If I hadn’t lived in Japan, I probably would not have had the guts to march into the office of Doctor Brayton in October of 2007 and put the outline of the thesis I had prepared down on her desk and say, “I want you to be my thesis advisor. You don’t know me, but I’ve read up on you and we’ll get along swell, trust me.” I also handle all of the marketing for Tritpych, and thanks to a well-timed blog post about how I still didn’t have an agent and wanted one, I attracted the attention of not one agent, but four. I am now please to say that I am represented by the same agency that covers some of my own personal author heroes.

And lastly;

Set goals, and surround yourself with people who will help you achieve them, or at least support you. Find a club, or a group. TELL people about your dreams, because they will guilt, persuade, shame, and cheer you into achieving them. Surround yourself with encouraging friends. Of course, the other thing encouraging friends do is sometimes break into your house, lift you bodily from your chair, and drag you away from your computer out for some face time. They tell me it’s good for me, so I don’t fight too hard any more.

I am happy to be able to report that I have returned from Japan with very few regrets. The surgery was an eighty percent success, and most days I have no problems walking. I managed to visit all of the historic locations I wanted to, participated in the festivals I had read so much about, and did the things that I had put on my list to do, and wrote two books while I was there. I returned to Canada content.

If you take nothing else from my talk today, if, like me in six years you don’t even remember who I am, at least remember this: never ever take “What if” for granted.

If, on that February day in 2005 I had not thought, “what if I tap danced on the table?” I would never have learned that “what ifs” could be the start of something amazing, and could be the fuel that pushes you down the road of adventure, and self discovery. I would never have learned how to turn a “what if” into “I want to. I will. I am. I did.”


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Keynote Address – JET P-Dot 2011