December 19, 2018 § 14 Comments
by Lesley Heiser
“Now listen to me. This is a love letter…
This is writing whose wage no one wants to pay”
~ Nicole Walker
Not long ago, I made my first appearance at an AWP Conference. Arriving in the gray, I felt cold, tired, excited, amazed at the cost, guilty about flying a thousand miles, and shy.
Like everyone else, I wanted to bump into fabulous writers, introduce myself to strangers, inveigle myself into editors’ lines of sight and converse with them, and sit in marvelous audiences. All of this I did.
On the afternoon of my last day there, I sank into a seat at the back for a panel whose title I think was “Literature and the End of the World.” I sat somewhat fearful. This seemed like a morbid end to three exciting days, yet what could be more compelling?
I somehow expected a deluge of facts. I may have expected a deluge of emotion. But my notes from most of the panel consist only of this: we have to write about the environment extremely well, as well as we write about anything else or better; we have to bring the full range of our emotions to writing about the environment and not our stances of sentimentality, moralism, or didacticism; we can aspire to connect and engage, even to warm and inspire.
If that had been all I learned, it would have been enough.
But the last presenter on the panel—I was also there for him. He happened to be the person I’d fallen for when I was in college. It had been so long ago–more than half our lifetimes. He saw me in the back, approached me, and opened his arms, and all of a sudden I felt as though I remembered all of it. Then he went back and sat behind the table.
As it turned out, his particular topic was a bit more edgy than that of his co-presenters: he talked about the strengths of humor-writing on the environment including on environmental degradation and loss and our possible doom. Twain had been funny about the stuff he wrote about, my friend reminded us. Thoreau was also pretty comical. Humor could precipitate the sympathy of the reader or listener. When it landed, it invited people in.
From that point of mutual openness anything could happen including the good and really good things that we need to have happen like conservation, innovation, reduced consumption, and other forms of caring for the environment—this was my friend’s implicit point. Also funny writing can make for great art, unlike preaching. The audience really responded to his focus on reaching the reader in a humble, intimate, enlivening way. He was talking about something that I hadn’t expected, something that was paradoxical, but it wasn’t cavalier.
Somewhere I’d read something he’d written that was similarly paradoxical and, listening to him, I remembered: it was about the actual and potential beauty of some forms of natural destruction. A desert is beautiful even as it grows larger. A riverbed gives us striking patterns when the water is gone. Pollution makes the sunset more vivid to the human eye and more memorable to the human heart.
These are difficult thoughts or they are difficult truths yet even if they are truths, we can hold them somewhat lightly or we can hold them in different ways at different times.
Sustainability: A Love Story by Nicole Walker
For me, Nicole Walker’s new book takes off from what I learned in 2016 and goes in myriad directions in a coherent, beautiful way. It’s got plenty of humor, yes, but also other modalities from awe to rage to deep commitment to laugh-out-loud moments of admitted craziness to arduous moments of depression and of course to love. I’m pretty sure it’s not a book about the environment or its looming destruction. Rather it’s a beautifully crafted, enter-anywhere, narrative and lyric poetic manifestation of one person’s engagement with the environment and with the all-too-apparent ruination in the right-now.
In terms of art, the book for me is an installation whose spaces I can enter in my own undisciplined way, recalling my own loves and dreams, losses and nightmares.
It’s a diary whose narrator struggles to protect her home and family from worsening fires, considers a family friend’s suicide, raises bright and wonderful children, consumes cheese, meat, oil, clothes, and a lot of other stuff, pollutes and throws out and otherwise gives up, tends her marriage which is also an environment, and finds ways to start over every day.
It’s a map, a normal fallen person’s rendering of her way forward and not the idealized and didactic written tracks of an environmental saint. As such, this book invites me in as no perfect book could do to create my own full and fuller and yet more full way of engagement, my own personal, love-centered, quirky, broken, and therefore sustainable-for-me path of thinking and doing in order to save something, even the world, despite my own depression and enormous imperfection or because of them, as I can, and in my own corner.
Finally, the author says her new book is a love letter written first and foremost to her husband Erik.
Love: A Sustainability Story
Love Is a Battlefield
Love Is All You Need
Coda: First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke, 2018
Synopsis: “The pastor of a small church in upstate New York spirals out of control after a soul-shaking encounter with an unstable environmental activist and his pregnant wife.”
I watched this movie last night. It’s on the Amazon channel and elsewhere. The New York Times just called it one of the ten best movies of the year. It’s grim for a long time on the environment and on the prospect of renewal and on human prospects but it has a very strong, vivid arc. For me the value came from watching it through until the end. Twenty-four hours later, I’m still amazed.
Lesley Heiser is a Maine writer whose work appears in Boulevard, Puerto del Sol, Ms., Taproot, The Rumpus, Stirring, and elsewhere. She has a lot of hope.
December 10, 2018 § 12 Comments
By Ann Weikers
When I left corporate life to embark on an MFA in writing, I decided a style makeover was in order. I wanted to fit in, to look the part.
I cobbled together a winter wardrobe and arrived at my first residency in a snowstorm, decked out in a Mad Bomber hat and giant UGG boots pulled up over leggings, hoping to look a little less like the grandma I could easily be. For the summer residency I sported Birkenstocks and skinny rolled up jean shorts. With the addition of a hefty multi-zippered knapsack, I was set. Though I realized that throughout the country twelve-year-olds were clamoring for the identical wardrobe, I consoled myself with the conviction that all my choices were at least practical.
The bomber hat would keep my head dry and warm. Because it clasped firmly under my chin, it wouldn’t get carried off in a blizzard as I trudged across campus hoping not to die slipping on ice. Toward that end—not falling and breaking a hip—the UGG boots would be life savers. Their wide bottoms and deep treads would stabilize me like pontoons.
My Birkenstocks, which admittedly looked like something a troglodyte would wear if troglodytes wore shoes, with their German engineered cork footbed, had the added feature of preventing my arches from falling. My skinny shorts held in my tummy, the most welcome quality of any of my utilitarian threads.
To help me choose that wardrobe, I’d scrutinized website images of students gathering on campuses. I’d made two columns on a yellow legal pad, one headed “Purchase,” and one headed “Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead In.” I was satisfied I’d made the right, albeit incredibly unattractive, purchases. And I was proud to have eschewed some of the other fads, the items on my “Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead In” list.
First is the modern version of the beret, the floppy beanie. I won’t wear a floppy beanie because I want warm ears. Worn fashionably, these hats must flop to the back or side of the head, leaving the ears exposed to subzero weather. Also, I won’t wear a floppy beanie because it reminds me of the hats atop the heads of the seven dwarves, most particularly Dopey. Dopey is happy, silly, speechless, bald as a baby, and portrayed as an awkward child. I ascribe much of his goofiness to his maladjusted purple cap.
Next on the “no” list: ripped jeans. This trend has been around for a long while, and somehow has not lost its appeal to many. There’s a certain impracticality to wearing holey jeans in single digit weather, but ripped jeans still abound in every season.
In the days when punk rock first came on the scene in the seventies, ripped clothing was just one element of punk’s anti-establishment dress code. Wearing torn clothing paid homage to the genre and was arguably a link to that form of art. Now, though, frayed, holey jeans are worn by everyone from infants to soccer moms, with no link to protest or art. No longer are ripped jeans an apropos cultural statement, especially when they are worn over diapers. The trend has lost its artistic anchor.
Finally, I’ll never wear bobby socks with shorts or skirts. Bobby socks in Mary Jane high heels were an essential part of the “goth” naughty schoolgirl trend years back. While I seldom see the tartan plaid tunics now, the ankle socks feature of the trend is strangely still alive. When I typed into the keyboard “Bobby Socks with mini-skirts,” my screen filled with porn site links. I quickly ended the search and deleted the search history.
On campus for my first Vermont College of Fine Arts Winter MFA Residency, I sat in the stunning high-ceilinged meeting hall called “The Chapel,” where students were being welcomed by the program director. Behind her on the stage rose the floor to ceiling pipes of an immense organ. What a beautiful place to begin.
The garb around me, bundling my fellow students, was the garb of practical people, all just trying to keep warm. Yes, there were one or two floppy beanies, but I saw no ripped jeans, no bobby socks with skirts. UGG boots were not de rigueur here.
I would see both ripped jeans and bobby socks in subsequent residencies, and even an evening gown and a full-on Western suit with bolo tie and cowboy hat at graduation. I would see rompers, revealing laced bodices, floor swishing skirts and miniskirts, pretty ensembles straight out of Talbots, everyday Levis and faded tees. In short, there was no uniform.
The clothes that had mattered to me, but likely to no one else, had served their purpose: to boost my confidence the tiniest notch as I first walked among that busy hive of writers with terror lurking beneath my cozy layers. So many were blessedly as self-conscious as I, equally alarmed at the prospect of the critiques we would face for the next two years. All were equally committed to getting our words on the page and getting it right. Whatever garb adorned the reader, the lecturer, the workshop leader, the fellow student, words quickly became the only important thing.
One of my writing teachers wisely said, “You don’t become a writer by donning a beret.” I get it. My bomber hat will never turn me into the next Joan Didion, but I’ll still wear it at my writing desk on chilly days, earflaps down to muffle distractions.
Ann Weikers is a candidate for an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She received her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law and after decades in law firms and corporations, decided to change her wardrobe and become a writer. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband.
November 4, 2018 § 6 Comments
Having trouble making it to conferences? Finding workshop dates impossible or prices out of reach? Here’s a chance to enjoy a sampler of conference-style sessions you can watch in your yoga pants for free.
Starting November 8th, Village Writing School will present a series of free online lectures and interviews discussing memoir craft, marketing, platform-building and more. The video sessions will remain live until November 12th, and registrants may access them at their leisure over the five days.
Family and Religion—Two Scary Topics
Ruth Wariner’s memoir, The Sound of Gravel, details her escape at fifteen, with her brother and three younger sisters, from a polygamist cult in Mexico of which her father had been the leader. The book was an instant New York Times Best Seller and was called a “bracing, unforgettable story of survival” by Entertainment Weekly. Ruth will join us to discuss the difficulties of writing about these two emotionally-charged topics and why you should.
Telling Your #MeToo Story
It’s vitally important for writers to write and publish #MeToo memoirs. But what are the psychological challenges? What are the technical challenges? What writing techniques can help you portray a #MeToo scene? What should you keep in mind about your audience and about approaching publishers? What can you expect when you publically share your story? Tracy Strauss, who has published essays on writing #MeToo in Poets and Writers Magazine as well as Ms. Magazine, and whose own #MeToo story is forthcoming from Skyhorse Press, will guide you through this difficult topic with her courage and wit. You, too, can write for healing, for change, for empowerment.
It Doesn’t Take as Long as You Think
Rachael Herron, author of Fast Draft Your Memoir in 45 Hours and A Life in Stitches, will prove to you that you DO have time to tell your story. She’ll also show you how to figure out what that story is and how to find the best spine for it. No more excuses!
Thoughts on Your Story, Beginning to End
Marion Roach Smith, who has taught the craft of memoir to thousands of students both in university classes and online will show you what to consider before beginning your story. She will also examine some special challenges of writing about trauma and tell you what to do if you still don’t have a happy ending.
Other Ways to Tell Your Story
Allison K Williams, who teaches workshops on blogging and essays and hosts the Brevity podcast, will show you how to tell your story through live and written short forms. Even if a book is not your thing—or not your thing yet—Allison will show you how to get your voice out there and how to build a readership for your story.
Publishing Your Story—What New York Wants You to Know
Renée Fountain, President of GH Literary, will discuss the potential for memoir, the things to avoid, and what New York is looking for. And as a literary agent seeking memoir, she’ll tell you what she is looking for.
It’s Never Too Soon to Build Your Audience
Beyond a “platform,” you want an authentic connection with readers. What are some ways you can begin to build that relationship long before your book comes out? Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia will show you how such connections can become the most satisfying part of your writing career.
All sessions are hosted by Alison Taylor-Brown, the founder and director of The Village Writing School, a 501c3 nonprofit. The school is an independent creative writing program, located in beautiful northwest Arkansas. Its mission is to help writers tell their stories in a more readable, publishable way. Complete details and speaker bios are here.
Interested? Register here.
The Blue Sweater: Learning the Difference Between the Things I Say Are True and the Things I Just Want To Be True
September 12, 2018 § 37 Comments
By Loree Griffin Burns
I thought I would bring a blue sweater home with me from Ireland. I mentioned the sweater in the final sentence of a short essay I wrote for a workshop during Bay Path University’s 2018 Summer Creative Writing Seminar in Dingle. The sentence read: Then I’ll walk back to my rented bed by way of the Dingle Strand woolen shop, where I’ve promised myself the slate blue wool sweater in the back corner, the one with the hood and the pockets, the one that felt like a hug when I tried it on, the one I am certain would never wrinkle, never, ever, amen.
But interesting things, hard things, happened after I wrote that essay. The workshop instructor told us to look for heartbeat lines in our pieces, and I knew that the blue sweater was not that. The heartbeat of that little essay was my grandmother and our relationship. And an important facet of our relationship was the early death of my mother, her oldest daughter.
Guided by that idea, I wrote a new draft, and then somehow found myself sitting across from Irish novelist Mia Gallagher in the Writer’s Lounge of the Bambury Guest House, watching her read my work. She said lovely things about the images that resonated with her most. She gave me time to ask her some questions. And then she asked me a few questions of her own.
Including this one, “Tell me about forgiveness as it relates to this line: ‘I forgave my grandmother the moment she uttered the words.’”
I told her about anesthesia and its side effects in elderly patients. I told her about doctors and paranoia and how a patient, while under the influence of anesthesia, might say things one might never have said otherwise. I went on telling her about all sorts of things for a very long time.
When I finally stopped, Mia said, “I don’t believe you’ve forgiven your grandmother at all.”
And when she said those words I lost my grip on the things I know and the things I don’t, the things I call true and the things I just want to be true, the things I try to avoid writing and the things I need to write, the stories I’ve always known would or could or should be told and the fist-clenching fear that keeps me from telling them.
I’m beginning to see, thanks to that hour with Mia Gallagher and the hours spent in workshop during the Bay Path MFA seminar in Ireland that I’ve been doing a fine job of setting off small fireworks here and again in my essays, quiet fireworks that I hope will go unnoticed but that, at the very same time, I long for people to see. I’ve worked very hard at not writing the story of my life and how its early challenges shaped everything that came after.
That week in Dingle, I learned that I’m not very good at avoiding these stories. Which begs certain hard questions: Would I be any good at writing them instead? Is it time to start trying?
When I wrote the essay for workshop, I planned to buy the blue sweater. But I passed the store a dozen times, and didn’t go in. I armed myself up with reasons: it was late, too near closing time, raining, I was tired, had to go write, needed to rest, would do it another day. I didn’t even need a sweater. Didn’t need a hug, either.
I didn’t need anything at all, because mostly I was perfectly fine, am perfectly fine, so long as I am not writing about my mother.
Loree Griffin Burns has avoided writing memoir by beachcombing both American coasts, cruising the Pacific in search of plastic, surveying birds in Central Park, stinging herself with honey bees, visiting the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly on horseback, and living for a week on an uninhabited volcanic island in Iceland. She’s turned these adventures into award-winning books for children and teenagers, which you can learn more about at loreeburns.com.
August 31, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Armen Bacon
Maybe you know the symptoms. Long forgotten memories bombard every inch of your being, clog veins, arteries, and leave you breathless. Light bulb moments left and right – the kind that cause sleep deprivation, anxiety, existential crisis. An exceptional few wait till you’re in deep REM sleep, then strike with a vengeance. You stumble from bed hunting down pen and paper. Stub toe(s), walk into walls, jot what seems brilliant (in the moment) onto a wrinkled napkin, grocery receipt, white space from yesterday’s newsprint. Head returns to pillow while prayers beg that you can decipher scribbles in the morning. None of this, by the way, amuses your sleep partner (human or feline).
Recently in recovery from a two-week creative nonfiction workshop, yes, I’m inspired, but now suffer the aches and pains of said affliction: severe withdrawals – missing new friends, guest artists, early morning writer talk, even the anxiety and angst of assignments, final project deadlines, a showcase reading.
And so unfurls the life-altering experience of being sequestered in a room 8-10 hours a day, asked to respond to thought-provoking and sometimes terrifying prompts beginning: “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.” Volunteering to read aloud what you hope is a solid sentence or story line, you welcome criticism, revise essays, remind yourself good writing takes more than passion, desire, and love of the craft. It demands equal parts time, discipline, risk-taking. Madness and grit.
In my case, shadows of ancient ghosts returned to accompany me along this journey. They arrived from every wrong turn I’d taken in life and included old boyfriends, estranged relatives, my own wannabe personas. Trapped in crevices of time and memory, some hid in margins of old journal entries, then negotiated their way onto the page. At one point, internal censurers nearly convinced me I was in way over my head. Drowning in what has been called the “invisible magnetic river.” Following a current leading nowhere. My feet couldn’t touch bottom. Thankfully, a voice inside reminded me that if I kept writing, I’d survive. Trust more. Worry less.
I kept writing. Using words as oxygen.
Gifting myself time and permission to make writing a priority for two non-stop weeks required an announcement to the universe that I’d be occupying sacred space with a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging around my neck. Reluctantly, they obliged. Aside from Mother Nature’s wrath: blazing California fires and a sweltering San Joaquin Valley heat wave, the world did not cease to exist.
The aftermath is, of course, to keep this practice in forward motion now that class is over. The fact I’m sitting at my computer crafting this blog submission is a reminder that, “Yes, I can.”
I learned a few other things during class also worth sharing:
1) Make a pact to be in it with yourself for the long haul. This is your life. If you want to be a writer, write.
2) Regular doses of literary penicillin help – go to readings, find quiet time in a library, stash paper everywhere, have books on your nightstand. Read. I know. It sounds so simple.
3) Find your people. We all need back up singers.
4) Gasp. Write about things that stretch (and scare) you.
5) Practice literary citizenship. Let other writers know they are brilliant. Applaud their efforts. Cheer them on. Embrace the spines of their new books, take a selfie, and post it on social media with a positive comment. There’s room for all of us on the literary stage of life.
6) Learn the rules – then dare to break them.
7) The laundry and dishes can wait.
Armen Bacon is the author of Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship. Her second book, My Name is Armen – A Life in Column Inches, contains a decade’s worth of Fresno Bee columns and other essays on family, friends, love and loss. Her third book, My Name is Armen (Volume II) – Outside the Lines, “takes readers beyond the margins of everyday life – always circling back, returning home – celebrating the resilience of the human spirit.”
July 9, 2018 § 7 Comments
By Donna Talarico
It’s conference season! Wait. I think it’s always conference season. There’s always something happening, from coast to coast—and beyond. The literary and publishing world is filled with events of all shapes and sizes where we can learn, share, network, explore, and grow. And if writing isn’t your only job, your other industry(ies) may also offer some amazing professional development opportunities.
I’ve been attending conferences since 2006 as part of my marketing career, and I fell in love. Hard. I adore conferences so much that I now run one. (It’s called HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers.)
To help you prepare for your next conference as an attendee or speaker, I’m sharing some tips on how to make the most of your event, from how to stay organized to how to stay healthy.
Take Notes…. By Hand
Research shows we often remember things better when we write them down vs. typing. I’m a big fan of hand-writing notes. If you’re a visual learner like me, you can also doodle in the margins or format your pages in a way you like for better recall. (Example: I use a lot of arrows and circles when I take notes.) By all means, jot down your ah-ha moments the best way for YOU, but consider going back to analog. Plus, you’ll have a tangible memory of your time at your conference!
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
One of my favorite conferences each year is called HighEdWeb—or, Higher Education Website Professionals—and I’ve been fortunate enough to be a speaker at this event each year since 2011. My first HEWEB, as we call it, I heard a piece of advice at the conference orientation: to go to a session I’d never think of attending. Now, for a conference like this one, the subject range is really broad, from highly technical to content, so there may be more to choose from, topic-wise, than a niche, writing-related conference. But still, peruse the schedule and find something that gets you out of your comfort zone. You may surprise yourself by what you learn—and what new inspiration you leave with.
As a professional marketer and content writer, at web conferences I’d gravitate toward the “word stuff,” but now I always take in at least one technical session so I can expand my horizons. I may not ever be a die-hard programmer, but at least by exposing myself to content from brilliant folks outside my specialty, I can learn a little more about “how the sausage is made” and meet people I may never have met.
Take Breaks & Unwind
I’ll admit that when I present at a multi-day conference, I often sit out the session before my talk so that I can have a “zen moment” before I go on. (I don’t like missing conference content, so if it’s a one-day event, I might not skip a time slot…) I found that when I’d race from one session to get to mine on time, I’d be flustered, winded even. So, I now take a moment for myself to regroup. If the event is in the same hotel I’m staying in, I’ll go to my room and not exactly meditate, but just spend some quiet time so I can be focused and ready to engage the crowd. Otherwise, I’ll find a quiet place, such as a sitting area in a far-off nook.
Whether or not you are speaking or volunteering at a conference, it can be helpful to take a breather from the action. To decompress. To reflect. At HippoCamp, we realize people may need some downtime, so starting in 2017, we introduced a Relax & Recharge room that has some tables, chairs, couches, and chargers. People can escape to this room to recharge themselves and their devices. Many conferences, in fact, have started creating “introvert corners.” So be involved in the conference as you can—that’s why you’re there!—but take care of yourself.
Participate in the Back Channel
This is my favorite one. I should have put it first, but I wanted it to be a gem in the middle of this post. Twitter, I think, is what made me fall in love with the conference community. Or maybe it was conferences that made me fall in love with Twitter? I’m not sure which came first. But back in 2008 when I worked for an ecommerce company and we were exhibiting at the Internet Retailer conference in Boston, I did my first live-action Twitter contest. To this day, at Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference, I toss out trivia questions as part of the Hippocampus Magazine booth (with prizes.) That’s on the exhibitor side. For the attendee side, the back channel can be a wonderful place, long before the conference even takes place! I’ve seen friendships blossom on the HippoCamp hashtag (this year, it’s #hippocamp18), and then get to witness people meeting each other in real life for the first time at the event. (To help facilitate this, we put Twitter usernames on badges when they’re provided at registration!) It’s even better when I see the conversations continue after the conference.
During the conference, though, you can use the hashtag to share nuggets of wisdom from speakers—we also put speaker Twitter handles on the program to make it easy to quote them. Some people I know even use Twitter as a way to take and save notes.
I do firmly believe you should be present at a talk and pay attention to the speaker, but tweeting a few times during a session is acceptable in my book. After the conference, then, people can look through the hashtag to see what happened in sessions they didn’t attend. An active back channel is an amazing way to bring people together, to show the amazing things happening, as well as get people “watching at home” excited about the event too.
Hydrate & Take Your Vitamins
Self-explanatory and obvious, I know… but especially if you’ve flown into the event from another time zone, you may already have some adjusting to do. I know many people, myself included, who always feel a little off after traveling. (If not a cold, at least a little fatigue!) So, stay hydrated and healthy! Maybe pack some Emergen-C or Airborne.
Be Positive & Cordial
One of my favorite graphic t-shirts says, “Work hard and be nice.” It’s a fitting shirt for how I like to live life and, well, it’s also a nicely fitting shirt because the fabric is so cozy. Along the lines of that t-shirt saying, one thing I hear often about HippoCamp, from in-person feedback or post-conference surveys, is that it’s a warm and welcoming environment. I love that our conference exudes friendliness, and that’s thanks to our attendees! Each conference begins to have its own personality and vibe, and I am so proud of what we’ve cultivated together at ours.
I’ve attended conferences—in various industries, not just writing—where the environment wasn’t as nice. No matter what event you’re attending, you’re bound to find a differing opinion, a session that wasn’t what you expected, a dessert bar that didn’t have something you liked, or something else you weren’t 100 percent sure about. However, to help make whatever conference you’re attending to remain on the “nice side,” I encourage you to save any useful critique for after the event, such as in private post-conference surveys or notes to the organizers, rather than turn to your neighbor or to Twitter to vent in a stream-of-conscious-y kind of way simply because negativity can be infectious. (For example, I’ve seen some hurtful things posted about conference speakers at an event or too, and this negativity bothered me.) Instead, in general conversations and the back channel, try to be positive to one another and keep that uplifting spirit going. I think doing so adds to the energy of any event!
Find Your “One Thing”
Back at my first HighEdWeb, I also heard the line: “find your one thing.” While you will leave a conference with lots of great ideas and new information, it can also be overwhelming to have so much activity in that brain of yours. So find that “one thing” you want to focus on first. What is your number one takeaway? This is not to say you can’t implement various things. Rather, set some short- and long-term goals.
Stay in Touch
Keep the conversations going, online or off. If you exchange cards (yes, many writers still have amazing paper business cards, and I love them!) or emails with someone, follow up. Even if it’s just a quick, “Great to meet you at Conference XYZ! Please stay in touch!” One of the most rewarding things about running a conference is seeing what develops between people after the event. Book ideas. Assignments. Workshops. Just lots of collaboration between people who didn’t know each other yet. And that, my friends, is why conferences are such a good investment. It’s not just about taking in X-mount of hours of classes or meeting ABC instructor. It’s about EACH OTHER. We try to help facilitate this at HippoCamp with a conference Facebook group, at least to get people started before they take conversations offline, where the magic really happens.
Everyone conferences differently. These are just some tips I’ve learned along the way that have helped me make the most of my professional development events, and many of them which I tried to use as a conference organizer to enrich the experience for my own attendees. Feel free to share your own conference tips in the comments!
Donna Talarico is an independent writer and marketing consultant by day, and she also is founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its books and conference divisions (Books by Hippocampus and HippoCamp.) She loves greasy spoon breakfasts and road trips, lives in Lancaster, Pa., and has work in The Writer, mental_floss, LA Review, and others.
June 4, 2018 § 3 Comments
Author Penny Guisinger interviews Beth Ann Fennelly about flash nonfiction, micro-memoir, prose poems, the engine of the sentence, and the upcoming Iota Short Prose Conference:
Guisinger: Your new book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, consists of tidbits that you call micro-memoirs. I feel a kinship to this book because it shares some qualities with my own work, particularly the way it pushes at definitions of words we use to describe different forms of writing. You’re a poet laureate writing short prose pieces that aren’t prose poems; instead they are memoirs which are usually a book-length thing, but there’s this hyphenated modifier “micro” involved. I’d love for you to talk about this line between pieces like these and prose poetry. Does it exist?
Fennelly: I love prose poems and have written a bunch. I like how they look like a paragraph but still move the way a poem moves, which is to say a prose poem is often image-based, and it is held together by syntactical repetition and motif and sonic ligature. In the micro-memoirs, I was more interested in connecting the way fiction connects, through the engine of the sentence, building tension through plot, creating a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps I might simply say poetry has always felt vertical to me, and prose, horizontal. These pieces are heading toward the horizon.
Guisinger: You said in another interview that once you thought of the idea of the micro-memoir, it felt like permission to create these pieces. I’m curious about what came right before that. Was the book already in progress, and you were searching for a form? Or was the idea of the form what allowed you to even get started?
Fennelly: Yes, the book was already in progress, but I didn’t know it, because I was writing these weirdo little things and I didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t look like poems or essays or a novel, they didn’t look like anything I’d written before. Discovering a name for them helped me recognize them and then articulate my project to myself.
Guisinger: I love the boldness of the pieces that are just one sentence. What made you think you could get away with that? You totally do get away with that, but did it make you nervous to try it?
Fennelly: It wasn’t scary, it was fun. One-sentence pieces are so low stakes—if it doesn’t work, so what? Throw it away and start another! My goal was to see how much I could take away and still have a story. Also, the one-sentence pieces could sometimes make use of humor because, like a joke, they’re stripped of exposition and the bones become visible. So that’s another way they were fun to write.
Guisinger: I’d love to hear about the process of revising this book. Was there an urge to keep making all the pieces shorter: to keep tightening the bolts? The title piece is over four pages, and others are much shorter. What drove the decisions to keep the longer pieces long? Was it a conscious decision to have a variety of lengths in the collection or was each piece given the authority to spread out if it wanted to?
Fennelly: I’m attracted to books that have a pleasing uniformity. For example, British author Dan Rhodes has a book called Anthropology: 101 True Love Stories, which has this symmetry not only of form but subject matter, as every one of the 101 stories has 101 words, and every one is a love story about a different girlfriend.
Rhodes’ tidiness is very appealing. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted my book to have a lot of range and tonal variety, and I wanted the pieces to move at various speeds and densities, and to have different physical shapes on the page. I wanted them to be a short as possible, but not shorter, and in one case that means eleven words, and in another case that means four pages.
Guisinger: Was it a challenge to organize the collection?
Fennelly: Yes, very much so, in the way a book of poems requires a careful construction because it has lots of moving parts. The micro-memoirs span my life from birth to adulthood, but I didn’t want to order them chronologically They vary in length, but I didn’t want to group the one-sentence pieces, then the one-paragraph pieces, then the longer ones. And they vary in subject, but I didn’t want to group them according to subject matter, to have, say, pieces about grief in one section, love in one section, motherhood in another. And they vary in tone, but I didn’t want the funny ones separated from the bitchy ones from the wistful ones, etc. So organization was an ongoing challenge—if I ever removed one for some reason, I had to rethink the whole thing.
Guisinger: You brought multiple approaches to using titles in the book. One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes is part of the first sentence of the piece, while I Come from a Long Line of Modest Achievers is the set-up line for a one-sentence piece. Talk about how you approached titling these pieces and how you were able to put titles to work for you.
Fennelly: The shorter a piece is, the more heavy lifting the title has to do. Some of the one-sentence pieces wouldn’t even qualify as “literature” without the title.
Guisinger: Writers often sit down with a thing to say and we either don’t know how to say it or we actually end up saying something completely different. A small kernel of an idea often blows the door open to something enormous, or an enormous idea has to be honed down to a manageable, concrete image. The piece Safety Scissors opens with specific childhood memories and ends with this breath-stealing emotional punch. I just have to ask: which idea came to you first? The haircut memory? The loss? Which opened the door to the other?
Fennelly: The story of my sister cutting off my hair and eyelashes in my infancy is an oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote, one I also told myself, for laughs. But I felt unease when I told this story for a laugh because there was something about the anecdote that was darker, something that got simplified, in quest of a laugh. Revisiting the material in micro-memoir form helped me linger in the moment, and identify how that moment in our childhood explains something about our relationship now.
Guisinger: This book is receiving a lot of attention. It was excerpted on Oprah.com. You were interviewed on PBS. It feels unusual (and heartening!) for a collection of small, literary pieces to hit the big time. (Yay!) So, first of all, congrats! And secondly, since you are clearly a publicity Jedi, when will your seminar “How to Promote your Book” be scheduled? (I’d like to sign up.) Can you share your hottest tip for getting the word out?
Fennelly: Penny, I am astonished at your characterization of me as a “publicity Jedi,” and everyone who knows me would share my astonishment, because I’m kind of a publicist’s worst nightmare. Like, I just got on Facebook last year I met with my editor to discuss the launch of Heating & Cooling, and I said, “What can I do to help the book get out into the world? I don’t do social media, but I love to give readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” And she was like, “You have to do social media.” And I was all, “No, you misheard me, I don’t do social media, but I like to do readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” and she was like, “Oh, I heard you, but you have to do social media.” So, for her, I finally on got on Facebook. But when people talk about their “platforms” and their “product,” I kind of break out in hives. So I’d be the last person to give a book promotion seminar. That being said, I have had a lot of fun in introducing the micro-memoir form to various groups. It’s a teachable form; it’s low pressure. I know a lot of folks who’d like to write their life story, say, but don’t know where to begin, and they feel daunted. But to write a true story in a single paragraph? That seems manageable. My friend, the novelist Joshilyn Jackson, went to a micro-memoir craft class I gave and now teaches the form in a women’s prison in Georgia where she volunteers, because it’s possible to introduce the form and get great results in a one-hour class, even with students who aren’t allow access to computers. I love that.
Guisinger: This August, I get to welcome you as faculty at Iota: Short Prose Conference on the coast of Maine along with Sven Birkerts. It’s a generative, four-day conference on short forms. What does that mean and what can people expect from the experience of studying with you?
Fennelly: Oh yes I’m SUPER excited about the conference. Truly bucolic location. And I admire Sven Birkerts’ work a lot. I teach his craft book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. It’s so smart. I’m excited to give prompts and share examples of short forms that really inspire me—including short form nonfiction pieces that I first read here at Brevity. Three cheers for Brevity! And for Iota!
Want to study with Beth Ann Fennelly and Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.
Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. Her newest prose book is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, published in October 2017 with W.W. Norton, and she published Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother, a collection of essays with Norton in 2006. Beth Ann is the author of three poetry books: Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, all with W. W. Norton. Beth Ann’s poetry has been in over fifty anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1996, 2005, and 2006. A contributing editor to The Oxford American, she also writes freelance on travel, culture, and design for many magazines. Recent nonfiction awards include the Orlando Award in Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own, the Lamar York Prize from The Chattachoochee Review and the Porter Fleming Award for Excellence in the Essay. She’s the first woman honored with the University of Notre Dame’s Distinguished Alumni in the Arts Award.
Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She lives with her wife and kids, two dogs, and a constantly changing number of tropical fish. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.