New Jersey Writer Stacey Gill on the Thrills & Chills of Pitching @ Pitchapalooza

Panting and sweating, I walked through the doors of the 86th Street Barnes & Noble not knowing what to expect. I only knew I was supposed to be there.

I had never gone to a Pitchapalooza before mostly because there had never been a Pitchapalooza before, but now that there was one, I would have been a fool to miss it. I wasn’t a fool. But I was chronically late, which is why uncertain I was in any way prepared for what I was about to do, I abruptly stopped pacing and practicing and packed up my pitch.

It’s not like I didn’t try to create the most dramatic, phenomenal, awe-inspiring pitch Pitchapalooza participants had ever heard, but it’s hard when you’re writing about yourself and you’re not Lady Gaga or Charlie Sheen. I’m not saying I’m completely boring or anything, but making your life sound riveting takes some doing, and I didn’t know if I had done it. Even after my multi-day, non-stop pitching bender, I wasn’t convinced.

Still, bleary eyed and a little disoriented after 48 hours straight writing and rewriting, editing and revising, questioning and lamenting I was taking my pitch to the professionals. There I would get my answer. There I would find out if my writing held up in the publishing Mecca of the world.

But I had another problem. The pitch I had worked on up until the moment of the event vanished from my brain whenever I went to recite it. I simply couldn’t retain any of it. And it was about me. I just couldn’t seem to remember a single thing about my own life.

Whether I managed to keep a thought in my head or not, I was going. With some luck, a little talent, and a bit of humor the secrets I had lived with and scribbled down until that night might win some notice. Soon after setting out for city, though, found myself ensnared in traffic. As I inched up the highway, praying I’d reach the Lincoln Tunnel sometime before the next millennium, my stage fright faded as I started to worry I might not make it to the event at all. At last I spiraled down into the tunnel and with 20 minutes left I cut across town and shot up the east side. At precisely 6:59 p.m. I careened onto 86th Street. With one minute left I navigated the four-lane commercial strip at mach speed while simultaneously trying to locate the Barnes & Noble among a florescent sea of storefronts.

Although it was a brisk November night, I arrived at the Barnes & Noble with streams of sweat running down my face. Red-faced and disheveled, I raced though the aisles of books in search of the event. I stopped short when I came to a row of plate-glass windows. Before me was a crowd spilling over into every corner and inch of available space. The Palooza was packed and already in progress. Silently, I slipped in, tip toed along the back wall and braced myself. The real drama of the night was about to begin.

Waiting for my number to be called from the pitching lottery, I simultaneously prayed to get picked and to not get picked. In the end my prayers were answered. I didn’t get picked, but the experience that night was a valuable one. I had heard some incredible stories, and I had learned what a good pitch sounded like: smooth and effortless. I also got a free education from industry insiders, and, most importantly, I became a groupie.

Later when Pitchapalooza rolled into my part of town, I went again. This time I did get picked. Unfortunately, I bombed. I had considered the tips and pointers pitch-masters David Henry Sterry, Arielle Eckstut and their expert panelists gave in revising my pitch, but like writing itself, pitches are a process, one that requires time and reflection, edits and revisions and sometimes a wholesale overhaul. I bungled it, but I learned what I did wrong, which would help to make it right.

The real magic for me, though, occurred just before and right after the event. As I sat in the audience nervously looking around the room, my palms dampening the note cards I would later read off of verbatim like an auctioneer in an endless, barely decipherable stream, I spotted a person who looked remarkably like my next-door neighbor sitting in the seat behind mine. She had her head down reviewing her notes so she didn’t notice me.

“Herron?” I asked, unable to comprehend what my quiet, blond neighbor who fit into one category of my life was doing at the book-pitching event, which fit into a completely separate category.

She looked up and smiled. “Hey, what are you doing here?”

“That’s what I was going to ask you,” I replied.

“I asked first.”

“Well, I can’t tell you. You’ll just have to see if I get called.” Although this was my second Pitchapalooza, and twice I had prepared to reveal my biggest secret to a roomful of strangers, I wasn’t about to reveal it to someone who actually knew me. The thing was, I was crazy. I was crazy and I knew it, which is why I spent the better part of three decades trying to hide it from everyone I met. Unfortunately for me, if you want your writing on mental illness published, you are most likely going to have to tell someone. I was working on publicly admitting I was crazy, but when Herron asked me I wasn’t ready to blurt it out – not unless I was doing it into a microphone at a podium in front of an entire audience.

“I didn’t know you were a writer,” I said. “Do you have a pitch?” For the past 10 years Herron and I had lived a few feet apart, our houses directly facing each other, and the whole time neither one of us ever knew the other was just across the street laboring in solitude on writing she hoped would one day take the shape of a memoir.

“I don’t know. I’ve had all these poems piling up for years. I thought I should do something with them.”

“Good for you. Good luck.” I spun back around as Master of Ceremonies David Henry Sterry stormed the podium. Then it was show time. I was called up, and after bumbling my way through, I scurried back to my seat, both pleased I had the nerve to do it and disappointed I repulsed everyone in the room with my dirty thoughts (not dirty kinky but dirty dirty. I had obsessive compulsive disorder with a concentration in germ phobia). But the incisive critiques by Arielle Eckstut and her panelists were dead-on and without that feedback I might have been lost in pitch writing madness forever, never picking up my game and improving my pitch.

The kind woman with short salt and pepper hair sitting next to me whispered, “You did good.” Then she was called up. She spoke of her novel about the transformative powers of yoga for a teacher struggling to maintain her sanity while instructing former high school drop-outs turned inner-city adult students. Herron went next. She pitched her novel idea for a memoir told in poems. Then the tall, slender woman next to her went. She was a parenting expert whose book called for parents to stop listening to the advice of parenting experts (except her) because after years of providing child-rearing guidance she found the best advice is a parent’s own wisdom.

None of us won that night, but possibly something even greater happened. The four of us formed a writing group. Although I knew almost nothing of these women, I recognized I was in the presence of three talented, intelligent, serious writers. These were the people I’d been searching for my whole adult life, but had failed to find: funny, honest, real women who had something meaningful to say and were struggling to say it.

At the time I had no idea how our writing group would turn out. Would the arrangement be awkward? Would we connect? Did we really have anything in common aside from attendance at Pitchapalooza and an interest in writing? But all my concerns were assuaged at our first marathon meeting, and it was reinforced with every subsequent one. These women weren’t just the writing buddies I had hoped for – people to trade information with or look to for a thoughtful critique – they were the most supportive, encouraging, genuine group of people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet.

In between our monthly sessions we traded emails rooting each other on, cheering each other’s progress and expressing our gratitude for the generosity of the group. We became, in essence, each other’s fan club.

Pitchapalooza, of course, attracts members of the writing community, but what the four of us found there was more than that. Ylonda, Mary Ann, Herron and I discovered we were not just a writing group. We were kindred spirits. We connected in a way rarely experienced – instantly and intimately. We also soon discovered several similarities that link us together in unexpected ways.

Herron and I not only lived on the same block, but also we were born on the same day. And while the two of us practically shared the same street address, Mary Ann lived on a street of the same name but in a different town. Two of us were teachers and three of the four had written professionally. Both teachers were single and without children of their own while the other two members were married with kids close in age. We were all Pitchapalooza groupies.

Together we attended another Pitchapalooza, where Ylonda actually won, and Herron was approached by a panelist interested in her book idea who was an editor at Simon and Schuster. We weren’t published yet, but we were on our way. At one meeting Ylonda summed up how we all came to see David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut: They were our Fairy Godparents. That cold night in February Sterry and Eckstut’s Pitchapalooza drew four virtual strangers together, and by pure luck a powerful, lifelong bond was forged.

But then again, as David Henry Sterry said 98% of success is just showing up.