RWA Nationals 2018: Yes, I was revitalized and renewed, and it was the best RWA nationals I’ve ever attended.

I wanted to write this post a week ago, but as things go with me, especially this past year, it took a bit of time. So forgive me as I am incredibly late to the RWA national conference recap party.

I had an incredible time.

Quite possibly that is the most understated statement I’ve ever made, but I must begin somewhere, so we’ll start there. I had an incredible time. The theme was rethink, revitalize, renew, and they hit a homerun with me. For anyone to understand what a watershed that is, however, I have to tell you a story.

So here we go.

As many of you know, I’ve had quite a tumultuous past eighteen months. When Samhain Publishing announced it was closing, my career and whole life went into a tailspin from which I’m still recovering. Thirteen books caught in a subrights and release struggle, self-publish titles put on hold because they were tied to Samhain books, income frozen and then dropped off for over a year as I tried to rebuild titles under a rapidly-built self-published arm (which I had to pay for). I did it, with a lot of support from my friends and especially my amazing patrons, but as the worst of the storm subsided, I was left with the gruesome aftermath and all the emotional processing I’d put off, as well as still needing to push forward and write books to try to regenerate the income that still wasn’t where it used to be. All this with a teenager approaching college and a political world that if I paid even the slightest attention to it made me not want to write at all, but if I ignored it made me feel as if I were an entitled monster betraying everything I believed in.

And at my core, I was so tired and wrung-out, and demoralized. My therapist kept trying to get me to take a break, but breaks were simply more opportunity to think about how awful that time was and how much work I still had to do, how difficult it was to do it. At one point I went into hysterics with my editor, who if she’d been anyone else I think would have dropped me, but because we’ve been through hell together and over fifteen books (maybe it’s twenty? I’ve lost count), she patiently talked me out of my tree and told me I had to slow down and breathe or I couldn’t write properly.

Cover image of Heidi Cullinan's novel, Shelter the Sea: White background with a man in silhouette in the center, his image filled in by an ocean sunset, calm with some beach at the bottom. Blue and some brown at the bottom.I wasn’t going to go to nationals. Taking my editor and therapist’s advice, I was going to take a vacation with my family instead of attending the conference, because I felt like all my energy went into work and not them, and I felt bad that I wasn’t connecting with those closest to me as I should. I made a joke to my therapist. “Now watch, I’ll final in the RITAs.”

The next week, I did. I’d completely forgotten when the announcements were. I wasn’t paying any attention. I hadn’t even remembered what books I’d entered. When Damon called me, I thought he wanted to talk about a workshop we were teaching together. He launched into the “you’re a finalist” speech, and I told him to shut up, because I honestly thought he was teasing me.

After talking to my family, particularly my daughter who loves Shelter the Sea, the book that finaled, we decided to go to the convention. We’d make a vacation before the con, and then Dan and Anna would do things together in Denver. Anna was excited to wear a dress she’d worn in a friend’s wedding to the RITAs. Dan had been to a ceremony before, when I finaled for Fever Pitch, and he told Anna maybe there would be chocolate RITAs again. I said even if there weren’t, there would be good desserts. She was all in.

We did the vacation, and it was wonderful. I had a lot of work left undone, and I did a copy edit on the drive through South Dakota, but we had no cell service in the mountains, and it was impossible to work when driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. Plus I’d been dreaming of reading books for so long that I couldn’t resist. I was finally on vacation, and I was supposedto relax. So I read books. I slept in the shade by the hot tub pool in Glenwood Springs. I ate so much ahi tuna and sushi I was surprised I wasn’t a fish. I stared out the car window and thought about nothing except how beautiful Colorado was. I enjoyed how my body feels in high altitude (less pressure on joints, less pain).

When we got to Denver, at first I was anxious and on edge. My brain just associates book world with stress at this point, plus I had a full schedule before I even arrived. For

Heidi and her family standing at a railing before a mountain backdrop. The three are standing close, Heidi and Anna leaning into Dan in the center, everyone smiling. Heidi is wearing a T-shirt that says "Diversity over division." Anna is wearing a green zipper coat (bright green) and Dan is wearing a grey driver cap. It's a cloudy day and the mountains are in silhouette behind us.

My family at Rocky Mountain National Park

someone who wasn’t going to go, I had an amazingly packed convention. Some of it was that when you’re a finalist there are events you go to and things you do, but a lot of it was that I’m on several committees, and being at the convention means you help out and work. Which I was happy to do—but then people I hadn’t seen wanted to catch up, and then I needed to meet with my publisher and some other industry people. So much of being at conventions is “oh good, we can see each other’s faces,” so that’s what you do. But with my days already slammed, my brain became anxious before we began.

Except then I experienced the actualconference, and all my anxieties melted away.

As someone who has been attending RWA national conventions since 2003, I’m here to tell you that I truly love this new schedule, and as someone who has been a RITA finalist under the old schedule and the new one, I so much prefer the new one. I love that the signing is the capstone now, an open event turning the focus back to readers. I love that being a finalist is celebrated more, highlighted all week with events and markers and ways to network with other authors and industry professionals—it’s wonderful to win, and there’s an extra polish for those authors, yes, but I in no way felt that I was less for being “only a finalist,” because I was so celebrated. I also loved that the pressure of that was released at the beginning, not dragged through. Whether or not I won meant so much to otherpeople, but remember, I couldn’t even remember what book I’d entered or when the announcements were. I was honored and happy to be present at all, and that I “lost” to Kristin Higgins, who was so lovely to me before I arrived, welcomed my family and charmed my daughter—my daughter to whom the book of mine that finaled was so important—all this meant so much to me, so much more than a statue and standing on a stage.

I loved the speakers, the award winners, the workshop leaders. Even those I didn’t have a chance to hear speak because my schedule was so packed stood out to me. Yes, I noticed that there was diversity in these lineups, that the people of color and the queer people weren’t only leading diversity panels. Yes, I was one of the first people on her feet during Suzanne Brockmann’s speech. How could I not be? I have felt the same slaps in the face and still feel them. I wept to the point I nearly sobbed during Sonali Dev’s librarian’s luncheon keynote. How could I not? She was asking for a call to action I have been yearning for, asking for in less eloquent and powerful ways. I ached during Robin Covington’s speech and Xio Axelrod’s speech, even as I swelled with pride.

But what stood out the most to me at this convention was not what was overtly said or arranged. It was something organic that takes years to nurture and a community to foster. At this convention I wasn’t simply restored. I was enveloped, and I belongedin a way I have never felt at any other convention. I belonged as a queer author. As a self-published author. As an author published at a small press. As an author from the Midwest. As an author who doesn’t do well with people for too long but had a busy schedule. As a woman with health problems who needs a little extra TLC at times. As someone who can’t drink because of a medication. As someone who can’t remember names well and whose drugs make her foggy and sometimes she can’t remember nouns either. As a very tired author who has had an incredibly rough last year and a half, who is more anxious than she wants to be—I was accepted as that too, and for that especially, I was embraced and healed, particularly by total strangers. By published and pre-published authors. By everyone I met.

What I loved at this convention most was not one time did someone see my badge with the word PAN and the sea of past con pins and cower as if they shouldn’t talk to me (this has happened in the past several times) but instead they smiled and asked questions. What I loved was I never felt like there was a wall between pre and published authors, except at the PAN keynote where I was a door monitor and had to turn people away with an apology as they came to the wrong room or just wanted to hear. I would say I was looking for this kind of convention so this was what I found, except I wasn’t looking for anything. I came completely spent, empty, slightly nervous. I left tired in a different way, filled with hope, energy, and a sense of calm and centering I honestly didn’t know I could find again.

Thank you.

The background is the RITA stage, which is a checkerboard of white and black that at the moment reads purple and black because of the lighting. A screen has the convention logo on it with mountains. Kristin is on the far left wearing a red sleeveless dress and has a tuft of blond bangs in her dark hair. She has a cheeky smile. I'm next to her with dark hair, red glasses, and a navy blue pin-striped suit. Anna is next in a blue lace dress with a bolero. Dan is on the end wearing a pink shirt with a plaid tie. Everyone is holding shoulders and smiling.

The Cullinans and Kristin Higgins at the RITA ceremony

Thank you to the convention and workshop organizers, to the RITA ceremony committee. Thank you to the board of RWA, to the staff of RWA.  Thank you to everyone who attended the convention, whether or not I was able to connect with you, for contributing to that energy. Thank you again to Kristin Higgins, and congratulations on your RITA. I’m so glad this time your husband was able to share your joy in person.

I love being a part of RWA. We have our ups and our downs, our tempests and our trials. I have not always gone to conventions and felt welcomed. I have not always felt this connection. But I have always believed it can be there and that it should be there, and I have always found people and places where it is. Thank you, though, for this time and this moment for embracing me completely as I needed to be embraced. For reminding me that it’s through action and service that I’m renewed, through networking and connection. For nudging me into the knowledge I already had, that being alone with my struggles isn’t good for me or my work. Above all, though, thank you for a week that was simply wonderful. It was exactly what I needed. You have inspired me to look harder for ways I can give that feeling back to others.

Now I have to get back to this book on deadline—with a light heart and renewed spirit, and a determination that I will make more space for connection with my support systems from here on out. Thank you for reminding me I had one around me all along.

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