How Writers Learn and Grow

June 16, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Aimee Christian

This spring, I attended my first writing conference, and it was almost embarrassingly life-changing.

For a long time, I wondered how people just sit down and write a book and send it off to an agent and then get it published. Where do they find the discipline? How do they know it’s any good? How do they know when it’s done? And then wait, when we study craft, are we saying these writers did these things intentionally? They didn’t just sit down and dash off sheer brilliance? They knew what they were doing?! So many questions!

I am forty-eight and now I finally know. They don’t just sit down and write perfection. They too had to learn it from somewhere.

For the past year I have been taking the class to end all writing classes. A year long memoir incubator. That name should say it all. A year ago, I had little more than a folder full of bits and pieces of creative nonfiction from fits and starts at writing. I applied to the class with 50 not-terrible pages. They were premature, and I had more ideas, all in desperate need of incubating. So for a year, I wrote. Through the pandemic. Through a change of jobs, remote school for a disabled kid (read: no school) and another kid (read: not enough school), getting and surviving COVID, losing my father, and more. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And in the process, I learned more about writing and about myself in this year than ever before.

In this class, we also read. We read each other’s half-baked manuscripts, we read excellent memoirs, we read craft books and essays. We picked pieces apart, we studied craft, we learned to give feedback and make edits both developmental and line by painstaking line.

As the third trimester of the class began to near its end, our brilliant and patient teacher prepared us for the conference. Her process was well thought out. We prepped as though we were querying: writing synopses of our manuscripts, picking out agents we might want to meet with, practicing our pitches.

That I was even able to follow the lingo in the conference: prompt, comps, query, proposals, prologues, revisions, writer vs author, memoir vs autobiography, and more, just shows how much I learned in a year. I didn’t know any of that a year ago.

Overall, the conference was humbling. The content was both about writing and about all the steps that come after it, and because it was virtual, we didn’t have to choose one session over another. They were all recorded, so we were able to see one and then go back and watch the others later. It was a lot of information, all varying degrees of useful, all of them leading me to one (long) conclusion, which is my new mantra:

I am not quite done with my manuscript, I have a community of writers around me, I have lots of resources, I need to avail myself of them, and when I am ready to query I will know it, and I will be successful even if it takes me a very long time and success doesn’t look the way I think it should right now.

But most of all, I WROTE A BOOK. And I know it’s gonna be a good one, too, because now I have help I didn’t have before. My friends and I read each other’s work and we can see easy improvements in each other’s pieces that we can’t see in our own. I can move paragraphs or sentences around in someone else’s essay in minutes but hang on to pages and pages in my own manuscript for dear life that a fellow writer can take a quick red pen to and say “this has to go” and when she does, I know immediately that she’s right. Or she can offer a pointed “Like what?” or “How?” to a sentence which makes the story I’m trying to tell so much clearer.

I know I am late to the party here. You probably know all this. But now I know, too. I won’t go it alone anymore because I don’t have to. This is how writers learn and grow. It makes us better writers, better editors, and overall better members of the writing community. Count me in, for however long it takes.
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Aimee Christian is a Pauline Scheer fellow at GrubStreet, where she is working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Romper.com, PopSugar Family, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @thewriteaimee.

HippoCamp Scholarships

May 29, 2021 § 2 Comments

HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers is happening this year, and they’re offering several full scholarships, including a Writers of Color Scholarship and the Jean Snow Memorial Scholarship for a writer of color who will also be a first-time conference attendee.

Here is a link to the scholarship page for more details: https://hippocamp21.hippocampusmagazine.com/about/scholarships

Be Mused: Memories from a Non-Virtual AWP Conference

March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Stephanie Hunt

“I walk into a large white room,” begins Twyla Tharp in her lithe arabesque of a book, The Creative Habit. In this large white room there are wall-to-wall mirrors, a boom box, skid marks on an otherwise clean white floor, and that’s it. Tharp describes how this vacuous blank space ignites her imaginative muscle, and despite its daunting void, how she begins every day by slowly moving into it, deliberately filling it with physical poetry, her limbs arching into verse, her body a refrain of the music. She enters this space with playful openness and intention, and through some alchemy of mystery and madness (and absurdly limber muscles), creativity emerges into form, shape and energy—a dance.

This spare image, this pristine white-room canvas of space, was on my mind as I walked into the immensely grandiose ballroom of the Chicago Hilton for my inaugural AWP conference. The “room” was more like two city blocks with walls boxed around them, paneled in huge mirrors and heavy velvet curtains, topped with a ridiculously gilded lid. Four chandeliers the size of hot-air balloons descended from mega-ceiling medallions. I fully expected Louis XIV to prance in at any minute. This ballroom was the gaudy antithesis of Tharp’s minimalist studio, and there I was, in obvious pre-pandemic days, crowded in with some 8,000 other writers, all of us seeking the same thing Tharp seeks in her barebones white room: inspiration, imaginative juju, magic.

Gilded ballrooms aside, the massiveness of AWP is something to behold. The conference planners might consider placing a warning label on the registration form: “Agoraphobia Caution” or “Not for the Timid Ego.” I went for a perfectly valid reason—everybody else I knew via my writing and publishing circles was going, and they evidently had been for years. AWP is a right of passage for would-be writers, and I was yet to be initiated. So I bought a cheap airplane ticket, talked my husband into a literary, mid-winter romantic Chicago Tundra getaway, and registered, following the lead of my more experienced colleagues. The ones who knew how to propose panel topics and become a speaker; knew which cocktail parties were not to be missed; which publishing house booth in the vast conference underworld otherwise known as the Bookfair (i.e., miles and miles of table-clothed displays) had the best candy bowl.

And I drank it all in, chugging inspiration like a college freshman at a keg party. The AWP schedule is an invitation to gluttony, filled dawn to dusk with keynote addresses and panel discussions featuring genre giants and more laureates than you can find wreathes for—even amidst the ballrooms’ enormous flower arrangements. It was both affirming to be among such a mass of creative souls and fellow lovers of language, and overwhelming. Especially since the vast majority of those around me were current or recent MFA students, which means I could have easily been their mom. But I squeezed in the rows alongside them nonetheless, pen in hand, notebook at the ready, listening to literary luminaries—those who have won Pulitzers and lesser prizes, those who have been anointed by Kirkus and The New York Times, those who knew what royalties are, in these ballrooms decked out for royalty. And I’m guessing I was far from the only one in this small city of writers in this large metropolis of a hotel dreaming that maybe one day I’ll be discovered, that one day I could be keynoting AWP.

During one particularly long poetry reading, my mind began wandering and wondering how the Muse navigates such a huge, unwieldy affair. Does she get lost in the shuffle between the various ballrooms? Sidetracked by the endless supply of Twix, M&M’s and chapbooks down at the Bookfair? Is she exhausted and frustrated by so many gasping, needy souls dragging her around from panel discussion to panel discussion, desperate for assistance in fortifying blah characters, energizing flailing plots, adding zip to limp verse? If I was the Muse, I’d count the hours until the crowded ballrooms emptied out so I could text Twyla Tharp and say, “now, darling, finally, shall we simply dance.”

This year as AWP shifts to a virtual platform, I wonder what might get lost in transition from an en masse experience to one privatized on our individual screens. And what might be gained? Maybe the Muse will enjoy a break from the crowd-sourced mayhem. Perhaps she’ll be able to zoom exactly where she needs to go, whispering in our earbuds what each of us, thirsty for inspiration and affirmation, needs to hear. Perhaps our computer screens will be less like the overly ornate and vast ballroom and more like Tharp’s pared-down studio—clean, spare, inviting, ready.

Maybe this year, instead of hurrying down hallways of bad hotel carpet between sessions, I can turn on some music and let my imagination sway and twirl. I’ll invite my fingers to an ad-lib pas-de-deux on my keyboard; affirm my own small place in the universe of writers. Maybe the Muse will happily meet me there, and you as well. Shall we dance?
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Stephanie Hunt is a Charleston, SC-based freelancer whose work has been published by The Washington Post, Hippocampus, Veranda, Coastal Living, Orion.org, and Charleston Magazine, where she is editor-at-large, among other outlets. More at www.stephaniehuntwrites.com or @stephhuntwrites. 

Virtual AWP: Dinty W Moore “Signs” His Hellish Book

March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

The AWP Conference is virtual this year, and most current and former members are rather curious what that will look like and how that will go. No hotel bar? No hotel lobby stress-attacks? No book fair chocolates? Nonetheless, U of Nebraska Press has arranged for an author “meet and greet” to mark the release this week of my hellish new memoir To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno, and I hope someone, anyone, shows up.

You have to be registered for the conference already, so if not, you have an easy out here. But those of you who are registered, the event is Friday, from 11 am to noon EST, at this link: Dinty Meet & Greet Hell Book AWP 2021. We can chat. I can sign the air. You only need to stay for a moment or two.

It is a tough year to launch a book, as many of you know. The marketing folks are working from home, pandemic bookselling is a mess, and January itself had a hellish quality. But here we are:

To Hell With It is part memoir/part spiritual essay, asking what would our world be like if eternal damnation was not hanging constantly over our sheepish heads, stoking our self-loathing and making so many of us vaguely miserable? To Hell with It pokes fun at Dante’s ambitious poem, Divine Comedy, and explores the ways in which the poet’s gruesome imagination, helped along by shady theologians, shaped western culture and made us all a little more miserable than we need to be.

The more I read about early religion, the more I came to understand how much of Catholic and Christian theology was clearly man-made, and designed to manipulate rather than to inspire spiritual awakening. Plus, I love poking fun at silliness, and Dante’s long poem is a rather bizarre and ridiculous mix of horror-movie imagery and revenge fantasy.

Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, generously says of the book: “I don’t dare say that Dinty’s Inferno is better than Dante’s. But it is a hell of a lot funnier. It’s so funny that you don’t realize how smart it is until it’s too late: you’ve suffered Deep Thoughts. You realize you’ve been not only entertained but enlightened.”

If you are registered for the AWP, please join me on Friday, for five minutes or so, and we’ll chat. If not, maybe have a moment, check out the book, or ask your local library to order a copy.

Thanks so much, and stay healthy!
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Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity.

Writing Workshops and the Power of Kindness

February 23, 2021 § 17 Comments

By Judith Colp Rubin

Several years ago, I attended a writing workshop in an exotic foreign country co-taught by two well-known female American writers. Billed as a retreat suitable for prose beginners and veterans, it promised to motivate people to write. It turned out to do the opposite.

The first day, when everyone had assembled outside in a circle, the air smelling of orchids and roasted coffee, the main instructor began workshopping the first piece. The instructor’s tone quickly grew negative as she pointed out the flaws in the piece, which certainly needed some work. But for the entire half-hour critique, the instructor didn’t praise a single aspect of the participant’s deeply personal words and suggested a top to bottom rewrite. As the days unfolded, both instructors tore into other participants’ work, including mine. I had written about finding a memoir written by my estranged grandfather, an experience that had affected me deeply. There’s nothing interesting about finding a family memoir, the main instructor said. Afterwards, I cried for a long time in my lovely bungalow, feeling that although I had made a living as a reporter, I was a terrible writer.

To make matters worse, both instructors praised the work of some of the participants. These writers formed a clique of teachers’ pets who, together with the instructors, sat together in the dining room and stayed up late drinking at night. I felt I was revisiting my darkest days of high school. And so it continued throughout the retreat’s 10 days. Those of us who’d been slammed returned home feeling we needed a good hug and another vacation. The first participant to be workshopped decided to give up writing altogether. I strongly considered doing so.

As this was my first adult writing workshop, I had no idea whether such harsh treatment was par for the course. With trepidation, I signed up for an Introduction to Fiction class at my local writers’ center. But the teacher fulsomely praised everyone. He told me that my short story, the first I’d written in over 40 years, reminded him of Tobias Wolfe. I knew he was exaggerating — I mean, really — but the compliment gave me the motivation to continue writing fiction and even eventually to get back to creative non-fiction.

I have since taken about 50 writing classes in person and online and attended other writing retreats. I never again experienced what happened at that first retreat; if I had I probably wouldn’t have written another word. Instead, I received excellent advice on how to rework my pieces, but all within the context of pointing out what I’d done right.

Recently, I participated in an online Flash Fiction class taught by Kathy Fish. It took me four tries to get into this class which always booked up immediately when it was made available on a first come first serve basis. After having her server crash, Kathy switched to a lottery system. When I started the class, I hoped not only to learn about this genre but also to understand why this class was so popular. The teacher was excellent as were the exercises she provided. But there was, I think, another crucial factor. Kathy made clear she would only allow positive feedback to be given about all the pieces. Any piece can be better edited, she explained, but in her experience, positivity brought out the best writing in participants. By the interest in her classes, it seems to be working.

At times I’ve wondered whether the excessive praise was too much. I’ve read pieces whose authors might have benefited from some tough love and total rewrites. But I’ve seen how some positive feedback can give a writer dignity and enable them to focus on their weaknesses.

It’s been almost 50 years since I received my first encouraging words as a writer, but the incident remains clear in my mind. My third-grade teacher had underlined a phrase I had written in a story: “The cat’s eyes were gleaming,” and had written “excellent!” underneath. That one word probably more than anything made a writer out of me.
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Judith Colp Rubin is a writer based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Building Literary Community in Hard Times

September 19, 2020 § 4 Comments

Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams, author of the forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro, discuss the joys and struggles of virtual literary citizenship and how writers can build community, even via webcam and Zoom account.

Tomorrow is the final day for an Early Bird Discount on Rebirth Your Writing: a Publishing and Craft Intensive to be held in mid-October, aimed at helping us keep our writing alive despite the challenges of the current moment. (More details on schedule and registration here.).

~*~

Dinty: There are so many changes in our lives due to this pandemic and the necessity of cancelling events and staying home. For writers, that means we aren’t casually bumping into one another at readings or coffee shops, or attending weekend writing seminars at our local Literary Centers. Writing is a lonely enough activity as it is, but it feels a bit lonelier right now.  Have you noticed writers building community in new ways?

Allison: I have – I’m actually phoning people to talk at length, which I haven’t done in a long time. I’ve done a couple of Zoom events where participants are randomly sent into breakout rooms for 6-7 minutes, and meet a couple of other people. Each time I think, “This will be awful” and each time I end up being grateful for the connection and sustaining contact with at least one of the other people. I’m also seeing more genuine conversations on Twitter, rather than just dropping cleverness bombs and running away, and on Instagram, where people are asking quite soul-searching questions and having sustained interaction in the comments. So it’s a mix of writers reaching out and hoping someone latches on, and facilitated conversations where a host metaphorically says, “Talk to Susie, you’ll love her!” and it turns out I do.

Dinty: I’ve attended a few Zoom webinars as well, but have also been teaching online, and I will add that from the teacher side of the webcam, the experience is more successful than I ever would have guessed. I was skeptical, in other words, that teaching by Zoom would be anything more than ‘sterile’ or ‘robotic,’ but it has turned out to be the exact opposite. It feels, as you say above, “genuine.” And the participants seem happy to be there, and generous with their insights and comments. Maybe one reason is that so many of us are locked down at home, and we crave more connection. Whatever the reason, I’m pleased with how well it has worked.

Allison: What I love as a teacher is what I’m learning about teaching that I’ll one day take back into the live classroom. Because eye contact doesn’t quite line up, I’m remembering to use people’s names more, and to watch for clues they’d like to talk, even if they’re not ready to signal it. We’re all waiting longer after a comment or question to see who’d like to speak next, and I think that lets each others’ words really sink in, before the next person offers their thoughts. There’s a “performative listening” that for me is translating into deeper actual listening. And both you and I want to build on that, which is why we’re including time for writers to talk to each other, both casually and intentionally, in this thing we’re about to do! Turning on the Zoom room early for “cafe time” where people can bring their coffee, leaving it on through the midday break, and having a couple of sessions where we’re facilitating small-group conversations about their work and their goals. I’m hoping writers will leave with sustained connections and a specific plan for their work. When you’ve got someone to check in on your goals with, even if it’s very low-key, it’s like having a little mastermind.

Dinty: I am ready for this pandemic era to be over, ready to push my way into a crowded restaurant, ready for the next big writers conference with a crowded, noisy lobby and maybe a late-at-night gathering in the hotel bar. But I’m guessing we’ll look back with partial fondness even at this difficult time period, because there is always something. Like you, I think the online camaraderie, the enthusiasm people have brought to these Zoom events, will remain in my memory as a small silver lining to a largely difficult time. Stay well, stay safe, and wear you mask.

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More information on the Rebirth Your Writing intensive and the Early Bird Discount can be found at the Rebirth Website.

 

Between Routine and Utopian: Accessibility at Lit Events

September 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

By Amy Berkowitz

A few months ago, a friend told me they were watching a concert on YouTube Live when they were suddenly overwhelmed by grief. They were enjoying the music so much, and then they thought about how temporary the pleasure was: once quarantine was over, they wouldn’t be able to go to shows anymore, as most venues aren’t accessible to them.

The amount of high-quality arts programming that’s been made available online during COVID is dizzying: on any given night, I can check out a poetry reading, an artist talk, a concert, and a comedy show. But while this glut of diverse entertainment is exciting, it’s also bittersweet. For one thing, well, it’s the result of a devastating global pandemic. And on top of that, it’s only being provided now that everybody can’t go to live events. For sick and disabled people, it’s been painful to watch accommodations that have been denied to us—or even framed as impossible—for decades immediately manifest as soon as able-bodied people need them too. All of a sudden, remote work and virtual learning are the norm, and you can go to a reading without getting out of bed.

As a chronically ill writer who wrote a book about chronic illness (Tender Points, rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019), much of my experience navigating accessibility has been around literary events. Right before shelter in place started, I did two readings back to back in New York and DC that have made a lingering impact on how I think about accessibility.

I generally make an effort to read in accessible spaces, and I was particularly committed to finding one for the New York event because I was appearing in conversation with a filmmaker whose work also centers chronic illness. I emailed my disability community friends, my art friends, my publisher—do you know an accessible, large-ish space that we could use for free?

I got a lot of almost-but-not-quites: it’s accessible, but the bathroom isn’t; or it’s accessible but it’s small, so the audience will have to stand. And then my publisher put us in touch with Mara Mills, co-founder and co-director of the NYU Center for Disability Studies, and all of a sudden our event was being hosted by the NYU Center for Disability Studies.

The reading at NYU was the most thoughtfully accessible event I’d ever been part of. It’s not that I hadn’t been around accessible events before; in 2016, I co-organized Sick Fest, a free Oakland event that featured readings and performances by sick and disabled artists and writers. We did our best to make Sick Fest accessible, but we were winging it: we had no budget and none of us had ever organized a large event before, accessible or not, so we had to educate ourselves about what accommodations to provide and then somehow figure out how to provide them for free. While we did manage to find a wheelchair accessible space and arrange for ASL interpretation and other accommodations, some of the logistics weren’t sorted out until the last minute.

But at the Center for Disability Studies, as you’d imagine, accessibility was built in. There was plenty of space for audience members in wheelchairs; a CART captioner typed our words as we spoke and they appeared on a big screen. I’d never seen CART captioning before, and I was a bit distracted by it, in part by the narcissistic pleasure of seeing my speech appear in big green letters and in part by the joy of seeing this accommodation provided for the first time. And it hadn’t even been something I had to ask for or fight for or scrounge up funds for. The Center for Disability Studies provided it because that’s how their events are. For them, it was routine; for me, it was utopian. What if all events were CART captioned? What if accessibility was a thing you didn’t have to wrangle? What if it was always built in, assumed, part of any space?

Three days later, in DC, I appeared in conversation with a memoirist whose publisher had arranged for our reading to be held at an independent bookstore. It was a great venue, except for one thing: the event space was down two flights of stairs. I have a couple of friends in the DC area, a fiction writer and a poet. The fiction writer came to the reading; the poet, who gets around on crutches, did not. As I walked down those stairs to the event, I thought about how they were keeping my friend out and I wondered who else they were keeping out. But once the reading started, the venue’s inaccessibility fell from my thoughts, replaced by nerves and excitement about the memoirist’s book. For the two or so hours we talked and answered questions from the audience, the fact that we were in an inaccessible space didn’t cross my mind.

Remembering my reading at the bookstore helps me understand how easy it is for most people not to think about accessibility. If you’re able bodied and go to events in lots of inaccessible spaces, you might think there’s no need to have your event in an accessible space because you don’t know any wheelchair users who like poetry or film or memoirs.

And thinking about my reading at the Center for Disability Studies helps me envision exactly how beautiful access is, how it brings people together, makes everyone welcome, includes everyone in the conversation. How access is an act of love, as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes.

I don’t know what will happen when the pandemic is over. I can’t say I’m too optimistic about these gains in accessibility lasting any longer than able-bodied people need them, but maybe the future will prove me wrong. I don’t think we’ll have live streams of every reading and show, but I could see some arts organizations rethinking their online offerings. I do think this is a great time for everyone—including and especially (currently) able-bodied people—to be thinking and talking more about disability and access.

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Amy Berkowitz is the author of Tender Points, originally published by Timeless, Infinite Light in 2015 and rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019. Other writing has appeared in publications including Bitch, McSweeney’s, and Jewish Currents. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, where she’s writing a novel.

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Brevity‘s special issue on Experiences of Disability launches on September 15, 2020

 

Gotham Writers Conference: A New Author Meets Agent Model

September 7, 2020 § 2 Comments

By Josh Sippie

Writing conferences can be kind of daunting. I spent about half a decade going to various conferences across the Eastern seaboard as an eager attendee, relishing my 2.5 minutes of facetime with editors and agents, and awkwardly trying to start conversations with writers because we had one thing for sure in common—we were both writers. Whether it was a conference for book-length projects or just slinging essays about tattoos or poor choices made as a teenager, I felt like my success as a writer would be won or lost in the hallowed halls of a generic hotel-turned-conference-space.

But it got to the point when I started to feel like they just weren’t doing it anymore. Those 2.5 minutes didn’t amount to success, and it seemed like they were all blending together into the same experiences. Fortunately, I found myself eventually in a position to make a difference. As the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers, I wanted to make a conference that could make a difference. Only I wasn’t exactly sure how, only that I knew what I wanted from a conference, and assumed others would want the same.

So I reached out to the people that attract writers to conferences—agents and editors. And I asked them what they would want to see from a conference. My logic was if we could make the “talent” happy, we could make the attendees happy as well. After all, you can only see so many panels before they start to repeat. I know I’m not alone when I say that I attended conferences with the hopes of making a connection to further my writing endeavors.

Their response surprised me—they hated conferences. Many saw them as a “rite of passage” for newer agents and editors, to get their feet wet in the industry. They highlighted any number of things that writing conferences did that drove them crazy and begging for the end of the day. So I asked them what would make that different, what would get them excited about a conference.

That got a better response. They didn’t want quick pitches, they wanted to educate. They wanted quality projects. They also wanted a decent lunch break.

Thus, the Gotham Writers Conference was born. A conference for book-length projects of nonfiction and fiction alike. Rather than speed dating 10 agents hoping to strike gold, we’re giving writers the chance to make a genuine connection. And, in turn, that allows us to line up some of the best agents in the business. We divide writers into “pitching roundtables” where they spend four hours with up to eight other writers in their genre, as well as two top agents in that genre. In that four hours, everyone will go over their first few pages and query letter or nonfiction book proposal. If it sparks a connection—great. We had writers land their agent in our first ever conference last year. But the goal here is to put writers in a better place after the conference so that they are better equipped to find an agent on their own.

With the individualized attention, writers leave their table knowing how to move themselves forward with their writing career, because there isn’t always going to be a conference there… as we are unfortunately learning in the times of COVID.
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Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The GuardianThe Writer MagazineMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyHobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.

On Virtual Readings and Accessibility

August 17, 2020 § 10 Comments

Nancy NguyenBy Nancy Nguyen

Recently, I attended a knockout virtual reading highlighting writers with disabilities. Not only was I introduced to work that would otherwise be disregarded under “normal” circumstances (“normal” meaning auditoriums with steep ascending seats or the upstairs of a seedy bar that doesn’t have an elevator), but I found myself paying more attention than usual. Seamlessly, the facilitator handed off hosting privileges to each reader, and the highlighted reader shared their screen while they read aloud. In any other virtual reading circumstance, I would’ve opened my spiral notebook and sketched flowers as I listened, but this reading took accessibility a step further by sharing their manuscripts on the screen to accommodate the hearing impaired. As I read and listened, I was astonished by how easy it was for me to follow along.

Growing up, I was a quirky kid, whimsical with a limitless imagination. I would later learn that these descriptions were euphemisms for my chronic inability to focus. I was a habitual procrastinator, often guilty of overlooking small details, and I would automatically zone out upon hearing the monotonous drone of the priest’s homily during mass. It was only in graduate school, at the age of 28, that I went to see a therapist for the first time. After our second session, she graciously referred me to an ADHD specialist, who said I am textbook inattentive: limited attention span, good at cramming, painfully late diagnosis.

After shelter-in-place, I was lucky to find a job teaching writing to kids online. For the first time in my teaching career, I have been able to create my own work schedule and found a rewards system that works the best for me. For instance, I set up a timer for grading, bracketing fifteen-minute internet-browsing breaks between papers. When I have to buckle down and grade several papers or write up performance evaluations, I put on pants and sit out on my porch, which activates the Pavlovian part of my brain. I have also found more time to read, about half my reading made up of audiobooks I listen to on my walks. And of course, I’ve been spending my free evenings at virtual events.

Attending a virtual reading usually only requires an RSVP and a Zoom account. As the days in quarantine melt together like Jolly Ranchers in the cupholder of a hot car, I have been taking advantage of Zoom’s option to turn off my laptop’s video camera. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter how many days I’ve gone without showering, and I no longer worry about appearing like a well-behaved attendee. When I went to obligatory readings in graduate school, I practiced good attendee manners (left my phone in my backpack, refrained from doodling in the margins of my notes, kept foot-tapping to a minimum), but I usually came away having not retained much information. In the unchecked safety of my own home, however, I’ve been trying out ways to focus my attention. I’ve been sketching objects around my room and folding origami. Lately, I’ve been playing the online board game Ticket to Ride on my phone, which has been the best method thus far.

Unexpectedly, the pandemic has encouraged me to realize the value of my unique perspective, how much it lends to my sense of humor, my ability to problem solve, and of course, my writing.  During lockdown, I’ve discovered virtual readings, writing groups, and discussions. I’ve found organizations that uplift marginalized voices, like Radix Media (which organized the reading highlighting writers with disabilities and aims to spotlight marginalized groups in their monthly virtual readings) and Kweli Journal’s International Literary Festivals (a virtual ten-week long event dedicated to BIPOC writers that will recur annually).

No one really knows how long this pandemic will last. We can only glean the infection numbers and the ways our leadership has failed us in order to make conjectures and prepare. My single hope is that we observe all the ways shelter-in-place has improved our lives, that we remember these improvements when things become “normal,” though maybe we should realize by now that “normal” is a mirage. I hope working from home becomes more widely accepted, that we commute less and find more sustainable ways of living. That virtual readings, workshops, and events strive to become even more accessible and recur even after shelter-in-place is officially lifted. That we realize how many people would be excluded without them.
___

Nancy Nguyen is originally from Orange County, and she now resides in Baltimore. She was a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, and she has received support and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Kweli Journal. A selection of her work can be found in NANO Fiction, Pidgeonholes, and Jellyfish Review. She writes about women, environmentalism, and the ways in which capitalism stands at odds with family bond and loyalty.

A Farewell to the Lowly Exclamation Point

July 6, 2020 § 7 Comments

shavinBy Dana Shavin

A few years ago, I went to a writing conference in Arkansas. It was a thrilling week that put me in the same room as David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, William Whitworth, editor emeritus of the Atlantic, and authors Pico Iyer, Tom Franklin, Kevin Brockmeier, Heidi Julavits, and Wells Tower, to name just a few. My days were structured around 7 a.m. Pilates on a bluff, an hour of culinary demonstrations, two hours of panel discussions with authors and editors, and four hours of writing classes. In those four daily hours we discussed our manuscripts-in-progress: everything from the mechanics to the art of writing.

I went to the conference with a heavy heart: lacking only two chapters to finish my book, I had decided, with the clarity of mind specific to writers in the throes of major depression, that it was a failed enterprise. Ten minutes into our first class, our teacher referenced the “crying fetal position” that writers assume at alternating intervals throughout the writing of their books. We all laughed. And apropos of the kind of comfort you can only get from fellow desolate souls, I felt better.

One of the more mundane discussions we had was about grammar and word choice. “Never use exclamation points in your writing,” our teacher said. We were to use muscular words instead. “And never, ever liken clouds to cotton candy, even if they have a paper cone sticking out of them.”

I am happy to say I do not use exclamation points in my writing, nor was mine the manuscript with the deadly candy reference. I had, however, misused the word “sentinel.” Also, someone helpfully pointed out that, as a memoirist, I might not want to pepper my manuscript with so many allusions to my terrible memory. All excellent suggestions. However it was the “no exclamation points” rule that got me thinking. And not just about writing, but about the aforementioned heaviness of heart.

Our teacher wasn’t advising against excitement, passion, delight, or sorrow; he was making the case for their eloquent expression. Unfortunately, when I look back over the course of my life, including my writing life, what I see is a vast landscape of exclamation points, punctuating—with no eloquence whatsoever—a vast landscape of misery. I have not lived poorly or for want of anything, and yet there is almost nothing but exclamations to the contrary in the fifty-odd journals lining my bookcase that tell the story of my life from age twelve to yesterday. Along with my teacher’s apt visual of the crying fetal position, a line from Joan Didions’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem stayed with me from the conference: “…I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor…”. My sentiments exactly. Misery might love company, but it’s also enthralled with itself.

I am happy to report that, thanks to the generous feedback of students and teacher alike, I left the conference invigorated, and with my book’s heart beating strongly again in my chest. I read back over the pages I’d been struggling with before I left home, and discovered not weak words thrown together by an unstudied mind—what I called them in the departing hours before the conference—but the carefully spun threads of a real story. How grateful I was for that.

And yet I was aware that I had come to no truly altered place. That there is a false and temporary high that is the result of being in the company of others who understand what you’re going through, whether it’s childbirth or book birth. So although I felt better in that moment, I knew I’d merely exited one roller-coaster and leapt aboard another just starting to gather speed.

In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion said someone suggested to her that, as an antidote to crying, she put her head in a paper bag. The bag regulates oxygen intake, Didion explained, which alone exerts a calming influence. But as she also pointed out, it’s difficult to maintain “any kind of swoon” when you are wearing a bag.

Which is exactly the lesson of the exclamation point, I think. Strong emotions aren’t the enemy: injudiciousness of expression is. This is where I would like to grab myself by the shoulders and shake vigorously, and tell myself in no uncertain terms to get a grip. That no life—and especially no writing life—is dismal, no joy compromised, no sorrow unrelieved, except inasmuch as we sound the wail of misery’s monotone siren, and fail to see the nuances of things.
___

Dana Shavin’s essays have appeared in Oxford American, Psychology Today, The Sun, Bark, The Writer, Fourth Genre, Parade.com, and others. She is a national award-winning columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and her memoir, The Body Tourist, about the intersection of her anorexia with her mental health career, was published in 2014. A complete list of publications is at Danashavin.com.

 

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