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.
April 11, 2018 § 30 Comments
By Laura Gilkey
These are the first words I am typing on my brand new laptop computer. I bought the laptop, I told myself, so I can write when I need to write, where I need to write. An investment, I said.
My husband went to the techy store with me, wholeheartedly supporting my investment. He believes in me, the poor guy. We chose a middle-of-the-road laptop, no bells or whistles, not a huge amount of memory and a three-digit price tag, not four. I just need it to be fast, I said. I need it to keep up with me. With all of this writing I’m going to do.
This investment came just two weeks after I invested in attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Tampa, an hour’s drive north of where I live. I was so proud of myself for committing to it, despite a near-crippling case of Imposter Syndrome. I catered the conference to my own particular palette these days: memoir, grief, research, trauma. I was riveted by three full days of panel discussions with incredible voices who tell incredible stories. I filled a legal pad with emphatic notes. My mind was brimming with words like intersectional and liminal and narrative arc. I couldn’t wait to get home and write. Of course, first, I made a list of more than twenty books referenced during the conference, books I clearly must read before attempting to properly tell my story.
Three months before the conference, I invested in a writing coach. She is someone whose work I greatly admire and whose opinion I value implicitly. I chose her because six months ago I invested in her online workshop for mothers who write, and it was exceptional. I produced good work during those ten weeks, and I learned a lot from her, and from the other mothers taking the class. So I hired her. Which is so great. Except that I’m not giving her anything to work with. Since our agreement, I have sent her fewer than twenty-five pages of manuscript. And that was two months ago.
But hey, I haven’t been procrastinating, I tell myself. I’ve been doing field work. I’ve been studying the barred owls that will play so indelibly into this story. I’ve been keeping a detailed journal of their behavior and of my experience observing them. And I’ve been writing the letters to my son. I have to write those. More than a hundred now.
I am completely procrastinating. Jesus. The laptop, the conference, the owls. This essay. As much as his story burns in my chest, as much as I know I cannot live with myself if I do not write it, I don’t want to. What is my problem? I wrote for 772 consecutive days when Benjamin was sick. I shared my writing with a blog audience that grew to several hundred per evening. I didn’t edit myself, and I certainly didn’t care who was reading what I wrote. I wrote because I had to. I wrote to survive.
I know I need to write now. There is something so big at stake here. But I don’t want to recount the chronology of my son’s death last February. I don’t want to go deeply into the pain Benjamin felt when his liver and his spleen grew to twice their normal size. I don’t want to smell that occult blood again or feel the unwelcome shift in the alternating pressure mattress or watch him try to push away the inevitable. He was nine years old.
I do want to convey the joy he brought to our family, though. To the world. That was a big fat note I wrote on my legal pad at the conference, and starred: to capture the magnitude of the loss, you must capture the magnitude of the joy. And I need—need—to delve into the unmistakably divine events that have happened since his death. I have no idea what will come out of those pages. That’s why I need to write them.
One of the AWP Conference panelists I saw—twice, actually—offered readings of her “craft essays” as accompaniments to each literary piece she read. These were breakdowns of her observations, not about the subject matter, but about the process of writing it. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand why she felt the need to write them, let alone share them with other writers, but now I do. This procrastination of mine, this series of investments, this anguish is just another layer of the storytelling experience. It helps me understand the importance of the knowledge I hold, because of Benjamin. It tells me to be brave, like he was. To go into the pain. I will tell his story and I will do it right here on this laptop, so help me God, and I’ll do the best job I possibly can.
Laura Gilkey is the mother of two sons: Banyan, a healthy, rugby-playing adolescent, and Benjamin, who died of leukemia in February 2017. Laura’s writing through Benjamin’s cancer treatment is archived at BenjamintheBrave.com. Additional work has been published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Mommy Magazine, and Pulse Voices for Medicine. Laura co-produced Maternally Yours, a weekly community radio program, for five years. Guests included CNN Hero Robin Lim, Right Livelihood Laureate Ina May Gaskin, and Dr. Maya Angelou.
March 29, 2018 § 6 Comments
Tuesday, I wrote about planning an upcoming retreat. After deciding to focus on full-manuscript revisions, making a website and budgeting, I needed to plan the retreat itself. How would I schedule the time? What would the writers expect? I turned to some experts for advice.
What surprised you when you first started planning/leading/speaking at retreats?
Ryder Ziebarth, founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series: The special requests were a bit of a revelation—can you offer more fruit next time? It’s too cold in here; it’s too hot in here; can you possibly rent more comfortable chairs next time? I forgot my coat (notebook, lipstick, power-cord) can you mail it to me? All quite reasonable requests, but I had to learn that I am now not just a writer, but a writer in the hospitality business.
Lisa Romeo, retreat leader and author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss: Regardless of whether an event is labeled as “generative” or not, if there’s scheduled quiet writing time or not, if there’s an option for sharing work or not, if it’s called a workshop or retreat or seminar or intensive—it’s not unusual for those registering to expect some or all of that, or none of that! So it’s enormously important for organizers to publish a very clear description, and follow up with a fuller description and instructions for registrants, so when folks arrive they’re prepared and know what to expect.
Joanne Lozar Glenn, leader of Write Time Write Place Write Now local and destination retreats: The panic that hit me a few days before I had to get on the road for the retreat. As an educator I was comfortable leading writing activities, I knew most of the people who’d be attending, and yet, in those last few days before my first retreat, I was absolutely terrified.
What’s important to consider in the retreat schedule and your own leadership?
Hananah Zaheer, partner in Mind The Gap travelling retreat collective: I have attended retreats that are fairly isolated from the world (VCCA and Rivendell) and were great for working on projects I had started. While the completely open-schedule retreat means one can work any time one chooses, I found that some structure to the day was helpful to me. When my partner and I planned the first collective trip to London, we created a loose schedule with writing time, optional visits to museums and plays, and two readings to be able to share whatever we were creating. This provides a nice, inspirational break to get back to writing.
Ryder: Gauging attention spans. You have to interpret body language to know when your participants need a break. Plan at least one five-minute break for a stretch and some water, etc. at the end of every hour.
Hananah: I think it’s a nice bonus to have a retreat where food is included…such an unexpected little freedom.
Joanne: Participants are excited about having dedicated time to write. They’re also scared. You’re asking them to risk. In a sense you’re asking them to show up naked on the page. So I recommend figuring out a signature way of making them feel welcome and safe.
I find a card with an image/message that resonates with the activities, whether that’s to have a sense of “play” about the writing, or to stand strong in your truth and write with power, for example. One of my last tasks before leaving for a retreat I’m leading is to write a welcoming letter that builds on that theme, tuck it inside the card, and have one waiting for each writer when they check in.
Lisa: Stay on track and deliver what you promised; yet be alert to topics attendees introduce. They may provide great teaching moments and if they seem to capture the writers’ attention or imagination, a spontaneous digression can be an exciting addition to the agenda.
Ryder: It was important to me the Cedar Ridge Writers participants were heard, that everyone’s work was heard if they wanted to share it—even if it cuts into the next exercise.
Joanne: Find a way to match the risk your participants are taking. I used to think my job was to “hold the space,” and that I couldn’t both hold the space and write. But gifted workshop leader Pat Schneider (who founded Amherst Writers and Artists) set me straight. “You won’t write your best work when you’re also responsible for leading a retreat,” she said, “but it’s important to show you’re willing to take the same risk you’re asking your workshop participants to take.” She was right. So I started writing (and sharing what I wrote) during our sessions.
Maybe a year or so later, a retreat participant and I were talking about that idea of risk-taking when sharing work. She told me, “When you didn’t write and share with us, I always wondered whether it was because you didn’t trust us.” That shocked me. No matter your intention or reason for doing one thing or another, it’s going to come across differently to everyone who’s there. The only thing you can do is be as clear as you can when communicating, and then let go of the rest because it’s out of your control. That’s hard, and something I have to really work at.
What did you expect to matter that wasn’t a big deal after all?
Lisa: That everyone in the room be at the same skill level. I’ve actually found it’s much more interesting for everyone when you have a mix of experience represented.
Ryder: I’d never taught before presenting my first workshop. Once I got over my nervousness, I found I was actually comfortable in the role, and I’m pretty sure no-one guessed I was scared to death.
Joanne: Being 100% prepared and scripted. Being prepared is important, of course—the less you have to worry about the more you can be available and present. But I find the Buddhist concept of ‘not too tight, not too loose’ helpful to remember. And getting lots of sleep. If you’re 80-90% prepared and well-rested (and fed), it’s a lot easier to respond in a creative, authentic way to what is happening, and to make the most of a teachable moment.
What are you planning next?
Hananah: I started finding local groups to connect with, to participate in readings and hear what the local writing scene is like. When I plan the Mind the Gap retreats, my biggest concern is finding a location where participants can benefit not just from the travel but also from the local literary scene, museums, bookstores, etc. The next Mind the Gap retreat is coming up in October.
Lisa: My first book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss will be published by University of Nevada Press on May 1, 2018. I’ll be speaking about the writing process at the Cedar Ridge workshop June 10th, and other events listed on my website.
Joanne: Upcoming “Get Away and Get Writing” retreats will be in the USA and abroad.
Ryder: I decided to “GO BIG” and move the fourth Cedar Ridge workshop to our local public library, which holds four times the amount of people I can host at my house. Creating Memoir From Memory will be June 10th in Bedminster, New Jersey.
And from Allison: Armed with the information these retreat leaders generously shared, I feel a lot better about my own Rebirth Your Book manuscript-work week in India in June. I’ll also be leading Creating Memoir From Memory at Cedar Ridge.
Do you lead a retreat? Do you want to? Please tell us about your retreat—or ask a question for your own planning—in the comments!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
March 27, 2018 § 10 Comments
From a one-day workshop in your hometown to a three-week residency in a distant artists’ colony, there’s magic in sharing time and space with other writers. But maybe you’re tired of waiting for the right time, location and price. What about organizing your own retreat? How hard can it be to pick a place, decide whether someone’s teaching or you’re just sharing workspace, round up a few friends and go?
That said, you might want to do it anyway.
Back in 2015, I attended Joanne Lozar Glenn’s session on retreat-planning at Hippocamp. I studied her handouts, thinking this could be fun? Maybe?
I looked around. Writer friend Hananah Zaheer holds a biannual retreat with a collective of writing pals, taking turns teaching craft elements, meeting in different cool cities. Ryder S. Ziebarth hosts one-day workshops on her farm in rural New Jersey, inviting guest speakers like memoirist Lisa Romeo. Joanne herself leads single-day and multi-day workshops year-round. I googled ‘writing retreats.’ Writing for Caregivers. For Ministers. Jumpstart Your Memoir/Novel/Nonfiction Proposal. Writing in Ireland, in Mexico, in Hamlet’s castle. A smörgåsbord of residencies and workshops. I thought, I’ll just sit with this idea for a while.
Flash-forward to December 2017. I knew I wanted a retreat in India, in June. I’d led plenty of small-group immersion tours. I got good reviews when I taught. But I had three editing-client manuscripts due in January, my ideas hadn’t solidified…maybe it just wasn’t going to happen.
Then my husband made me a website. Surprise!
Suddenly I had to write copy. Pick the right boutique hotel. Choose a focus for the week. Make decisions. I checked out an expensive learn-to-plan-a-retreat course online. I could take the class or keep paying rent. But their free intro videos made two major points:
- A “destination” retreat isn’t just a workshop in a pretty place. The location should complement and inspire the work.
- Narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone with money and pages who has a week off and wants to go to that place,” specifically define an immediate, pressing problem and how you can help them solve it. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, the problem should be solved.
I’d already picked India so I had to reverse-engineer the connection between work and place. Preferably without appropriating Indian religious beliefs or spiritual practices outside my culture. Colonial Fort Kochi had been Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British, and ruled by other Indian kingdoms before independence, so what about tapping into rebirth/regeneration from a historical perspective?
What writer-problem could I solve? What’s been missing from previous otherwise-terrific workshops I’ve gone to? Well, I often don’t make much progress on my own work. It takes hours to thoughtfully critique 25 pages each for as many as 10 classmates, then discuss them in class, and maybe half the notes I get back are useful. I want the teacher’s attention and I want to work on my own pages. I want a goddamn Oompa-Loompa, and I want it now. There had to be other writers who felt like this…I hoped.
My husband—a numbers guy—suggested a “break-even” spreadsheet: list every expense, including planning and teaching hours. Hotel rooms. Workspace. Meals. Local guides—don’t forget the tips! I researched other retreats’ offerings; the list got longer. Insurance. Welcome baskets. A reading night—wine? How much wine? How many hours to read everyone’s full manuscript in advance? Add profit on top, divide by number of participants, and that’s what tuition costs. I figured a low profit for the first year—a small bonus on top of hours worked. Get it off the ground, make money later if it’s a success.
Now I had numbers and a website. I knew the retreat would focus on major revisions of existing manuscripts (rebirth!), working only on one’s own pages, and ideally, each participant finishing their current draft. But what if I totally sucked at this and everyone had a terrible time and hated me forever?
I turned to some experts for advice.
March 5, 2018 § 4 Comments
As AWP draws near, first-time conference attendees and veterans alike stand over half-filled suitcases, frantically scrolling weather apps while trying to pack for the snowstorm on the way to the airport, the tropical humidity in which they will land, and the convention-center air-conditioning (setting: Meat Locker) in which they’ll spend most of their time.
The questions are endless: What do I wear to the Dance Party? How many minutes per room must I spend for two simultaneous panels, one containing three friends and a recent ex, and the other two mentors and a dream agent? What’s the proper conversational opening to a group of editors, 3/5 of whom have previously rejected my work?*
The Brevity Editors are here to help! Pooling our years of experience (25 years, 8 years, 6 years, and 1 ½ days), we present the Definitive AWP 2018 Packing/Preparation Guide:
- Cute summer dress because Tampa! Fleece blanket to use as shawl in over-air-conditioned conference hotel. (May substitute manpris and higher basal body temperature)
- Brand new sandals/mandals for walking shoes with cute summer dress/manpris. Band-aids. Iodine. Antibiotic ointment. Last year’s sneakers.
- SPF 188.
- Bathing suit for the Marriott hot tub. T-shirt to wear over bathing suit. Additional t-shirt to wear over t-shirt. Water shorts.
- Notes on elevator pitches to hone on the plane.
- Hormone replacement regimen because perimenopause! And Tampa!
- Virginia Woolf tote bag. No, F. Scott Fitzgerald finger puppet. No, both. None. OK, just the finger puppet. Pageboy wig. Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Vintage lunchbox.
- Airplane reading: Friend’s manuscript you owe feedback on. Student papers to grade. Six oldest New Yorkers from the pile. Entire lit mag slush pile. Lincoln in the Bardo. Infinite Jest.
- Business cards with your old email on them. Call Office Depot to determine if new cards can be a) fast b) cheap and c) attractive. Begin penciling in new email on each card. Call department secretary to see if you can have your old email back.
- Ten copies of your book. No, eleven. No, three. No, none. No, twelve. Bring one and forget it (and student papers) on the plane.
- VGA to HDMI to VHS to BluRay to hamster wheel to clean coal adapters for panel. Post-it notes, index cards, and six colors of dry-erase markers for other panel.
- Power Point of key panel slides on your phone in case of laptop failure. Power Point of your WIP on your phone in case of literary agent in elevator.
- Hand-held folding fan steeped in cannabinoid oil and lavender. Look chic and mysterious as you fend off imposter syndrome, panic attacks and neurological disaster.
- White-noise app. Noise-canceling headphones. Earplugs. Note from last year reminding yourself “[Roommate] SNORES.”
- Flash cards with photos of keynote speakers so you can recognize them at cocktail party. Self-ejecting jet pack in case emergency party escape is needed. Portable smoke machine because go big or go home.
- Novelty hand buzzer.
- That Starbucks gift card you got four months ago from a student you thought hated you but didn’t after all, and that you’ve saved for “a special occasion.” Please note: lobby Starbucks closes at 2PM.
- Nine pens.
- Color-coded, strategically-plotted, much-folded-and-re-folded printout of schedule, including personal plans A, B, and C, with pop-up 3-D flowchart and Venn diagrams. Leave on table in lobby Starbucks at 1:58 PM.
- Xanax. Pepto Bismol. Extra-strength Tylenol. Tylenol PM. Tylenol with codeine. Nyquil. Advil. Advil PM. Benadryl. Calamine lotion. Quaaludes.
- Printout of Sober AWP meeting list. Downloaded version of Big Book. Sponsor’s cell number. Therapists’ cell numbers. Pocket guide to 12 steps. Mindfulness meditations. Blindfold. Cigarette.
- Wine. IT’S A PRESENT.
- Chapbook from your favorite poet, so you can “casually” bump into them and “just happen” to have their book on you and they’ll be so delighted they get your deconstructed villanelle fast-tracked at Poetry.
- Updated CV. Just in case.
- Entire choreography to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” (memorized and practiced obsessively instead of panel prep) for the dance party or just making people uncomfortable in elevators.
- List of key points for MFA or no-MFA debate because that never gets old.
- Emotional support pack mule.
*(Answers: Orange; 26/32+17 minutes navigating from Ballroom A to Grand Salon C; “How ‘bout those liminal spaces?!”)
February 6, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Lisa Romeo
During several periods in my writing life I attended no conferences, and other times I could get to just a few, dictated by a confluence of budget, geography, travel logistics, day-job demands, family obligations. When I could attend, I had to be picky.
I came to understand that a conference will not make me a better writer or a more published writer by itself. But the right conference can help to make me into a writer who better knows how to identify, create, pursue, participate in, and evaluate the writing life, career, projects, and submission/publication plan that will work best for me, and make me happy.
So, I thought I’d offer this list, and hope it has some value for others. All these things lined up for me last year when I attended HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, and I hope my list might be helpful to others attempting to choose the right conference:
What makes a writing conference right:
It directly, seriously, fully, and openly addresses, embraces, and celebrates the genre or category of writing most important to you. If you can find it, specialization rocks! One big reason I love Hippocamp is that it’s focused on CNF writing. Yes, I learn a lot at conferences that aren’t so specialized, but a hyper-focused event means you are with your tribe. Everything that happens, each break-out session, panel, reading, or other element is for folks who write what you write.
Enough of what’s on offer is for writers at your skill and/or experience level. Yes, it’s good when some sessions push you to extend your reach; that’s good for learning what to aspire to. But do you want to spend all day, or most of many days, feeling either completely overwhelmed because you have no idea what the speakers are talking about, or bored and antsy because you already know and have mastered what’s being covered.
The mix, intent, and focus of material jives with what you want and need now. Only craft-related sessions? Hands-on (“generative”) sessions? Lecture style only? Workshops (with feedback)? Presentations with opportunities for Q-and-A? Marketing/submission/querying skills?
The size fits. I love a mid-sized conference best so I can make personal connections. Small to mid-sized events usually also foster casual, follow-up interactions with speakers and presenters at meals, breaks, and just wandering about the venue—another thing I like. (I do occasionally like a huge conference, but for very different reasons.)
The conference organizers respect every attendee, and don’t play favorites. This is one of those intangibles that, for me, can make or break a conference experience. At Hippocamp for example, I’ve heard attendees describe the organizers in ways you might reserve for your favorite teacher, coach, or BFF: they listen, help, and care. Every person on the grounds is IN THE CLUB. (I’ve attended way too many conferences where some writers are made to feel inadequate and lesser-than because they don’t “have a book,” are not sufficiently well-connected, and find themselves feeling left out in an us-and-them kind of way.) At Hippocamp, the club is everyone in the room. Look for that.
The fees make sense. Who wants to be someplace where you feel the conference is mostly interested in your wallet? I happen to like conference fees that also include meals, coffee, snacks and parking; offer hotel room discounts; and small goodies that make me feel welcome. If I can get that, and it also lines up with reasonable travel costs, I’m in. (Don’t go broke attending conferences.)
Everything’s included, but there’s also an a-la-carte add-on menu. One year at Hippocamp, I paid for agent pitch sessions, other years not. Twice I took a pre-conference workshop. Choices like that can add value to your time away from home, and (for someone like me who likes to cram every hour with something useful), make the conference a more robust writerly experience.
There’s a little bit of fun built right in. Door prizes? A casual open mic? Fun snacks? Optional, casual meal meet-ups for when it seems everyone else has made dining plans? We’re writers, not robots, and only some find it easy to organize themselves socially.
The conference encourages, and facilitates, continued learning beyond the time limit of each program element. I like to leave a session with something that I’ll consult later (besides my own notes) — handouts, recommended links, the speaker’s email address or resource website, maybe something I’ve been urged to generate during the session. Even better if (as is the case with Hippocamp), I can find some speakers’ entire slide presentations on the conference website later.
There’s a balance between too much and just enough. One day? Four days? Five break-out sessions running concurrently? Or 25 to choose from simultaneously? A crammed daily schedule or one with breaks and free (writing?) time built in? Each is likable for different reasons, by different writers. What do you like at a conference?
The organizers want your feedback. Whether it’s a matter of listening sincerely to an in-person complaint or suggestion during the conference, or providing and urging attendees to fill out post-event surveys, I like it when speaking up about what didn’t go quite right, what was stellar, and what might be a good future addition (or deletion), feels welcomed.
I’m sure I’ve left something out. What do you love about, and look for in the conferences you attend?
A slightly altered version of this post ran previously on Lisa Romeo Writes. Reprinted with Lisa’s kind permission.
You can get more information on the next HippoCamp Conference here.
Lisa Romeo is the author Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss(forthcoming from University of Nevada Press, May 2018). She teaches in the Bay Path University MFA program, serves as CNF editor of Compose Journal, and nonfiction craft essays editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her work is listed in Notables in Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in Brevity, Under the Sun, New York Times, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, O The Oprah Magazine, and many other places. At HippoCamp 2018, she will be leading a workshop on “Transforming Essays Into a Narrative Memoir Manuscript.”
January 22, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Melissa Fast
I noticed the moseying around the quiet little town of Gambier, Ohio—stop by the Amish basket maker, peek in the bookstore one more time, grab a bite to eat at the Village Inn (Ohhh, the tater tots). Suitcases were already packed and most of the writing workshop participants had boarded shuttles to the airport or loaded up the car and left. The few of us who remained didn’t want to leave. The spell would be broken.
I know I’m not the only one who thought it. Once home, I scrolled through Facebook and Twitter feeds and saw the same kind of sentiment—magical, fantastic, unbelievable. Status updates tried to encase the week-long experience of The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, perhaps to hang on just a bit longer.
I more than willingly entered this other world. For an entire week, I was spellbound in words. I dis-remembered contrary business partners and less-than-desirable job duties, while I also dreamed about what transition may await in the real world if only I could collect enough courage to leap upon return.
Last summer I imagined going home with containers full of new seedlings that I would nurture and trim and watch grow. Perhaps, one would rise so sturdy, I would climb to the top to reach great riches. The generative workshop was especially important last year. Having nearly finished a project that has haunted me for more years than I care to admit, I was afraid if left alone, I might stop writing.
During the week, my writing sprouts surprised me. I’d expected certain themes to surface that I’d been stamping down for years, but all it took was a supportive community (and a few nights of sleep deprivation) to start thinking on the page about dusty secrets.
When I wasn’t hunched over a composition book or my laptop, I was sitting with my kindred talking about favorite mechanical pencils and the pros and cons of ballpoint pens versus fountain pens. And is writing with an old-school, quill pen charming or pricey (new definition thanks to one of my classmates)?
Conversations with people from around the world or just around the state, newbies or those I’ve idolized, revealed not only that we are all serious about the craft of writing, but that in most cases we’re full-on nut jobs—all worrying if we are good enough, smart enough or have enough cheek to get words on a page in a way that others may read.
As I meandered through the bookstore one last time Saturday morning, I ran into one of the fellows from another class. We were talking about which souvenirs we should take home, and I said something like, “Well, we gotta get back to the real world sometime.”
She smiled and said she had said something like this to her instructor, to which the sage replied, “What if this is the real world?”
I felt the heat of renegade tears coming and excused myself. Standing outside in the sun, I tried to convince myself I was simply tired from one long, exhausting week, and goodbyes were always hard.
Admittedly, it was great to be back in my own bed after a week of sleeping on a dorm mattress that felt like it was stuffed with plastic coat hangers. Nonetheless, my dreams fitful—part of me here and part of me still at Kenyon.
Tears were still with me when I awoke.
I expected re-entry to be tough. This was not my first journey to never-never land. From pencils to syntax to craft, I have always loved the complete immersion into all things writing, and yet, I knew my day-job woes would still be there when I returned.
The only difference is that I think my people at Kenyon helped me see that my two worlds may need to be one, and once upon a time may be now.
Melissa Fast is a nonfiction writer from the Midwest. She spins words during the day as a public relations professional in the nonprofit world. In her free time, she slugs large quantities of French-press coffee as she plays with words in hopes of making sense of the world around her. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, and was selected as one of the winners in the 2017 Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Awards from the South Carolina Writers Association. Her work has also appeared in Minerva’s Rising and Bluestem Magazine.
** Registration is open for the 2018 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop.