By MELISSA D. SULLIVAN
For Montclair Local
“All Write Now” reflects the writing life. Melissa D. Sullivan is an attorney by day, writer by night, mother of two and a 2019 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Melissa’s writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Nightingale & Sparrow, Sum Journal and elsewhere. She splits her time between Montclair and Bucks County, PA. You can learn more at melissadsullivan.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @MelDSullivan.
It was a perfect fall Sunday afternoon, and the parking lot behind the Doylestown Bookstore teemed with writers, illustrators and readers from all over Bucks County. It was the second day of the annual Bucks County Book Festival, and I was there in two capacities.
First, I was there to attend a few panels, where writers spoke on panels about subjects near and dear to writers’ and readers’ hearts. Because of my recent obsession with writing about kickass women of the past, I had my eye on the Historical Fiction panel.
In a distant second, I was there to help promote a new anthology of short stories I was working on with one of my writing groups. We were still in the midst of writing second drafts, but the festival gave us the opportunity for some shameless self-promotion prior to our Spring 2020 publishing date. Our leader, Lindsey, had been at the festival since early in the morning, handing out bookmarks teasing the anthology.
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When I arrived, rather late into the afternoon, she handed me some of the bookmarks. They did look sharp, featuring a single, leaf-barren tree and professional glossy finish.
“Just hand them out,” she said.
“Sure,” I replied and then slipped them in my purse, already planning to forget them there. I could just see how awkward I would be, just walking up to an innocent festival bystander and thrusting an unwanted bookmark at them, while blurting something humiliating like, “I’m a writer! Buy my book!”
After 30 minutes of lurking around the tent, I was able to make my escape into the Historical Fiction panel. It featured three women writers, including Carrie Callaghan, whose latest novel, “A Light of Her Own,” is the fictionalization of another kickass woman, Judith Leyster, a 17th century Dutch artist. I had picked the book up a few months back and was curious to hear the writer speak, and maybe become fast and forever friends.
During the panel, the writers were asked how much research goes into their work. In Callaghan’s case, she struggled with the fact that there wasn’t much known about Judith. Faced with gaps, Carrie had to make up some details. For example, we know that Judith was one of the first women admitted to the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke, a trade collective for painters and silversmiths. But there was no way of knowing which work she submitted when she put herself up for consideration.
So Callaghan had to reconstruct the scene.
“She was a strong personality,” Callaghan said. “And she has this self portrait. She’s looking directly at the viewer with her mouth open, as if she were speaking. It’s a very strong piece. So I decided she was going to present that.” Later, historians confirmed that they now believe Judith used her self portrait in her application to the guild.
And why wouldn’t she? Even now, it’s a great picture. Judith is looking right at you as she leans back nonchalantly in her chair in a classic, “Oh, I didn’t see you there” pose. Her dress is on point by 17th century Dutch standards, featuring a wide ruffled collar and finely wrought lace cuffs. In her hand, she grasps her artist’s palette. She looks happy and successful doing her chosen profession.
Obviously, I could take a few pointers from Judith on self-promotion.
Because often self-promotion can be the hardest part of our job as an artist. We are used to working by ourselves, doubting if what we are doing is any good. And then, when we are finally successful and have our work out there in the world, we have to start telling people about it, in the hopes that maybe they might want to read it.
This can all be excruciatingly painful if you are bent towards introversion, as many artists are. But even if you are an extrovert, as I am under normal non-writer circumstances, this need to self-promote can still feel like you are swimming through molasses, dragging yourself to the ultimate point of pushing your work on some stranger.
After the panel, I avoided going back to Lindsey a little longer and wandered around the rest of the festival, checking in on the other tables. At one table, I spotted a writer/illustrator who I met the previous night at the festival’s pub crawl. She was a graphic designer, self-publishing a series of children’s books on different art movements. “I’m so uncomfortable at these sort of things,” she had confessed over an IPA. “But I’m making myself. I am forcing myself to do uncomfortable things.”
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“It’s fine,” she said, smiling a smile that was almost a grimace. “It’s hard, but it’s fine.”
I was proud of her. She looked a little uncomfortable, but with her pile of books and beautifully designed art pins that the crowd was snatching up with glee, she looked like what she was: an artist, promoting her work.
Suddenly, I knew what I had to do.
“Speaking of shameless self-promotion,” I said. “Can I interest you in a bookmark?”
And you know what? I could.