July 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
By 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.
May 15, 2020 § 20 Comments
By Jan Priddy
Twenty years ago this June, I attended The Flight of the Mind, a generative writing retreat for women. Two of the founders, poet and memoirist Judith Barrington and publisher Ruth Gundle were the driving force behind two week-long summer workshops, small groups of about twelve to fourteen women who were privileged to work with genuinely famous writers. I was fortunate to be accepted for five summers in a row. Dorianne Laux, Gish Jen, Allison Joseph, Grace Paley, Judith Barrington, Helena Maria Viramontes, Marjorie Sandor, Barbara Wilson, and Alienda Rodriguez led groups in poetry, memoir, and fiction during one of the two weeks in 2000. Every morning we met in our groups, and in the afternoon we wrote or hiked, ran or watched the river flow by. There were evening readings by each of the mentor-teachers, and also readings by students. For a solid week, eighty women talked of nothing but writing. It was glorious.
The workshops were wonderful, but so was everything about those weeks. The site was a “Dominican Order’s rustic retreat center on the McKenzie River.” Simple rooms with a desk. Incredible food—various and freshly made on site. No cell service (if we’d had cellphones), no television or internet, only one phone with a single short call allowed only once a day, and the newspaper available down the road. Communal showers blasted us clean. Hikes led to a massive waterfall and pool of glacial water too pure to support fish, a hot spring, and mature forest all around.
The pace was focused, refreshing, and wildly productive. Everything was impeccably run because planning continued nearly year around: find writers to lead workshops, review student applications, seek funding for scholarships, hire cooks and bakers, arrange for transportation and menus and supplies. Work for the next year began immediately after the summer session, and it seemed like full time work when I talked to Ruth Gundle. She had cooked meals to order for the first year’s small group, seventeen years earlier. By the time I first attended, talented bakers and chefs took vacation time in order to feed eighty women and bask in the rich creative atmosphere.
It was a nonprofit, it was divine, and it benefited hundreds of women writers. I was fortunate to have five years at Flight, including the last.
The 2000 application packet announced there would be a break after that seventeenth summer. The eighteenth year would be a “Jubilee year” and Flight would return in 2002. “Rest assured, we will continue, just as before, or perhaps with greater energy, in 2002.” I immediately feared this was a promise they could not keep, and this was part of the reason I sat down in my garage with my acceptance packet in my hand and cried. Once they had a year off, I felt sure it would be impossible to face the task again. And so it was.
Recently journals and writing events have begun moving online. Like The Flight of the Mind, I have no faith that after a year we will return “back to normal.” Publications are quicker, simpler, cheaper online. Massive conventions that always were intimidating to some of us may begin to look foolish if not downright dangerous to many. We will adjust for the time of our necessary isolation, and at the end of it, what we accepted as inevitable just last year will have been proven otherwise.
The last meeting of The Flight of the Mind week always concluded with a gentle warning from Judith Barrington. Flight existed as a sort of writers’ paradise, she’d say in a voice both powerful and soft, and reentering world beyond we should be kind and patient with ourselves. Take the time, breathe and remember who we are.
I drove alone several hours to get home, and I did take my time, pulling over now and again to think of what I’d left behind at Flight and what I had to look forward to at home.
I think we will be okay because ideas and imagination and experience remain. Much will change and refuse to change back, but we will write. We will read. We will re-balance our lives and recreate our world, because creation is what we do best.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and numerous publications. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she shelters in place in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, writes, weaves, walks, and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE.
April 1, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Kim MacQueen
I’m home because we’re all home. I’m sitting on my couch, looking out the window, because we’re all sitting on our couches, looking out our windows. We’re all watching our neighbors walk their dogs, or take out their trash, then go back inside and shut the door. It feels like we’ve been here forever.
But it was only two weeks ago that I was lugging two heavy bags 2,000 miles through five different airports to the writer’s conference, trying not to freak out. When I made my rushed and distracted travel arrangements, I’d bought two different flights at two different times from two different airlines. I sort of decided, in this annoying way I sometimes have, that both flights would connect at JFK. They did not.
There was nothing to do but admit my mistake and fork over another $300 for a new trip involving three trains and five airports, that would start 18 hours earlier than planned and end 7 hours later. My trip lasted 16 hours and felt like it had been planned by a monkey.
At first I wasn’t even going to tell my husband about the travel snafu. Then I gave in because I needed to let him know that, even as he planned to drop me off at the airport at 8 am, I wasn’t going to be able to send him a “Landed safely!” text until after midnight, as my trip to Texas was now set to last longer than a recent trip that took him from New York to South Korea. He just shook his head as I fled the bedroom with my head down so I wouldn’t have to continue the conversation. If I was my own personal assistant, I would totally fire me.
So I set off on this ridiculous trip. I brought a magazine and two audiobooks and six hours of editing work and one online mindfulness course I signed up for on a whim. I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I jumped full-on into pretending this had been my idea the whole time. If you’d stopped me in any of the above-mentioned airports and asked me why I looked so tired, which luckily nobody did, I would have told you I’d actually wanted to fly this circuitous route from Vermont to New York to Chicago to San Antonio in the same day. I would have claimed I was excited to see whether I could get from JFK to Newark Airport (route: Airtrain to Long Island Railroad to Penn Station to New Jersey Transit) before passing out for lack of food.
And it kind of worked. After a couple of hours of pretending I was enjoying running through five different airports, I found I did kind of dig it. I started talking to myself in that way you do when you’re traveling alone. I watched a show on the plane where a young blonde woman who really needed a haircut, or a blowout, or something, talked about all the different wines you can pair with tater tots.
I should write something clever about this given the amount of time I’ve spent consuming tater tots and the money I’ve spent learning about wine, I told myself. You’re the one who needs a haircut, my self said back.
I did not pass out from lack of food. I had an egg salad sandwich in Newark that was more than serviceable after I pulled off the disgusting wilted lettuce, and a martini and sushi in Chicago that was perfectly fine if I ignored the glare of the awful Gate C lighting and the fact there were a few specks of somebody else’s food on my menu. The more I pretended to be interested in experiencing the people and food of five different airports, the more fun it was.
And I learned some things. I learned that most of the transit apps on my phone don’t work to actually get me anywhere. “Those apps are a pain in my you-know-what,” said a friendly Long Island Railroad guy, who then told me the train I’d been trying to get on for the last 20 minutes would take me not to Penn Station but to the site of the movie The Amityville Horror on the other end of Long Island.
I eventually got to Texas, where I did what I’m doing now in Vermont: sit on the couch and look out the window. Then my friend Anne got there from Massachusetts. She sat in the chair, because I had commandeered the couch. The next day we went to Association of Writing and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference for the few sessions we were interested in that hadn’t been cancelled by COVID19. Most of the programming we’d traveled 2,000 miles for was moved online. So.
So we had nachos and margaritas by the river at a restaurant that had been there since 1946 that is — unthinkably, horribly — closed now. We had cocktails at the longest wooden bar in Texas, watched over by a bison head the size of a Volkswagen, and the egg-and-potato tacos we had for breakfast the next morning at Patti’s Taco House II helped me deal with my hangover. We sat under a tree with fragrant purple-pink flowers in the front yard of our Airbnb and ate grocery store pizza I’d thought would be good (it wasn’t). But Anne was nice about it.
At the time I thought, this trip is totally worthwhile, just for this. Maybe not the pizza, but all the good things around the pizza. A chance to connect with people I love and admire, some for the first time in person. Time with Anne to sit in the sun; time to hang out if just for a minute with all the people who served me at those airports and restaurants. I got to see them and talk with them and eat their food. I so hope they’re okay.
Now I’m back on the couch in Vermont. Enough time has passed that I now feel lucky I didn’t become infected or infect anyone else. A trip like the one I just took is unthinkable now. And good, because the way I set it up was super dumb. And not good at all, because without that trip I would have missed all that life-sustaining connection through writing and food and just knocking around Texas together, buying bad pizza and trying to figure out where to park the rental car. In the end, I still have my window and my couch. And I can talk to my friends online. I’m grateful for them.
Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University and has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on kimmacqueen.com.
Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on kimmacqueen.com.
February 24, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
- Pace Yourself. Put together a schedule of things you want to attend, but don’t try to go to a panel in every time slot. Shoot for no more than two panels a day, and try to hit the keynote readings. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I got to see people like W.S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Grace Paley, and Dereck Walcott read now that they are gone. Seeing these luminaries was more memorable than those times I went to a 26-person marathon reading in a crowded bar with bad free beer.
- Break up your visits to the book fair. If you spend too much time in the din of the flickering lights in the windowless book fair, you will, more than likely, lose your mind. I recommend visits to the book fair on the first day when everyone is fresh and giddy with jetlag, and they all want to talk to you and foist their free things on you (like candy and pencils). And go on the last day, when everyone has been glued to her table for three days and has turned into a zombie. These people will be staring into their phones to keep themselves from eating your brains. But it’s Saturday, and your voice is gone, and you won’t have to talk to them. And the cheap books and journals that no one wants to cart home will make up for braving the zombie apocalypse.
- Hydrate and bring your own food. Bring a bottle to fill with water and have it with you at all times. Also pack some energy bars, nuts, and other healthy snacks. Otherwise, you will live off book fair chocolate, hotel coffee, and cheap well drinks, and by Saturday, you will be a shaking sallow version of yourself, and won’t be able to remember your own name. You might have even joined the zombie apocalypse. Three days doesn’t seem like a long time, but in AWP-time, it might as well be forever, plus a few years. And if you can, schedule a recovery day. I am writing this the Monday after the Portland AWP. I slept 12 hours last night. It is now 4:30 PM, and I am still in my pajamas. I might take a shower and put on clean pajamas. Then again, I might not.
- Be like Cinderella. This one took me about 15 years of AWP to learn. If you go to the lobby bar after midnight, you are likely to say or do something you will later regret, although arguably, the person you say this in front of will be too busy worrying about her own post-midnight transgressions the next day to think about you. When you get home from dinner or that off-site event, repeat this mantra as you walk to the elevators: Nothing good comes of going to the lobby bar after midnight. I repeat this mantra to myself (it mostly doesn’t work for me, but it might work for you). And if you do end up at the lobby bar after midnight (or the VIP Party, which you would have to sneak into), here’s some advice: How to Make a Fool of Yourself at AWP. (Though be forewarned, in Portland, the VIP party was switched to a one-time event, so by the time you find out when and where it is, it will be over. It’s a secret now. Like Fight Club. This might be because of me.)
- A word about FOMO. You are going to miss about 99% of what is going on at AWP. That’s okay. Be present where you are. Enjoy the people you are with. Look at the people you are talking to in the eye, rather than scanning the room for someone else to talk to. If you keep looking around for someone more important to talk to, the people you are in conversation with will correctly assume you are an asshole, and never want to talk to you ever again. This is not the way to make new friends.
- Think twice before taking on an AWP boyfriend or girlfriend. I am too old and too married to know if hooking up is still a thing at AWP, but I’m going to assume it’s still very much A THING. But remember, you and that funny way you scream during orgasm may very well end up in a poem or essay, or worse yet, a best-selling memoir. And this can prove to be problematic if you are married or otherwise committed. Remember where you are. And with whom. These are people who believe, like you probably do, that the story is more important than you are. And just so you know, sleeping with a famous poet will not magically help your verse, nor will it help you become a famous poet. You have never heard of me? See. It didn’t work.
- Think of network as a noun and not a verb. There are people who always complain about AWP. They say they hate AWP. This might be because they use the word network as a verb. Instead, think of network as a noun. You are part of a huge 15,000-person network of writers. AWP is a place where you can connect with your friends and hopefully make new ones. It’s not a place to meet someone who will want to publish your book. I have seen too many graduate students wandering around the book fair, desperately gripping onto their master’s thesis, hoping that the editor of Penguin/Random House will see them, rip said manuscript from their hands, and declare it a masterpiece. This is not how things work (you know that already, right?). The people at the book fair tables are likely graduate students themselves, and in the 15 years I have been to AWP, I have never seen a bona fide representative from Penguin/Random House there looking for the next great American novel. Yet, I have met many of my dearest friends at AWP, for which I will be forever grateful. These friendships have sustained me and have made my writerly life less lonely and way more fun; these connections have enriched my life in ways a book deal never would. So, if you see me at AWP, please say hello.
Suzanne Roberts’ books include the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award) and the travel essay collection, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press, 2020). Her work has appeared recently in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She teaches for the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada University, serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate, and lives in South Lake Tahoe. For more information, check out her website: www.suzanneroberts.net or follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.
February 6, 2020 § 33 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
“I miss the joy of words,” I said to my coworker through a mouthful of potato chips while trying to ignore the ping of my inbox. “I miss synonyms and antonyms and the thrill of reworking a sentence until it sounds like music.” I had been trying to write on my lunch break, and everything felt wrong. Nothing I wrote sounded like me. Well – not like the old me, anyway.
After years of writing for joy and pleasure and occasionally, publication, for the last 10 months, writing has meant one single, terrible thing – dealing with my grief.
My father – arguably the most (positively and negatively) influential person in my entire life – died unexpectedly in his sleep last May. He was only 65, so it was a shock. He was also recently retired, happier than he’d ever been, and finally getting used to sobriety, which had been a pretty bumpy ride for the first 9 years he had been doing it. He was, for all intents and purposes, the best he had ever been. And then he was gone.
Since then, when I write, it feels like this: I am a jug overflowing with shitty feelings, confusion, and pain. When my pen hits paper (or more often, my fingers hit keyboard), the little faucet on the jug is turned, and suddenly, all of the grief comes spilling out. It gets everywhere. There’s very little I can do to control the flow. The only thing I can do to regain a sense of control is to stop writing. Which I hate doing. Because I’m a writer.
When the mess comes out of me, it’s self-indulgent and disorganized and weird and full of convoluted allusions and references to things no one would understand. It’s basically a few steps below what my journal looked like in the 7th grade.
When I try to revise what I’ve written, dreaming perhaps of placing my poignant, heart-wrenching piece in a top-tier publication, and later, being asked to give a talk on grief at some exclusive writing retreat (hey, it could happen), it feels impossible. Like trying to put a person with no bones into a prom dress. (Wow. I can’t even come up with a good simile anymore.)
So now I’m left with these pages and pages of brain-dump. These floppy, uncooperative words that do no one any good, least of all me. Because I want them, more than anything, to serve a purpose. I want them to reach people, maybe even help people. I miss the craft. I miss the hunt for the perfect phrase. I miss the art of writing, and the pay-off when it’s really, really good.
I sit in coffee shops and stare at the blank screen of my laptop, the cursor blinking at me in Morse code – Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t sit here and whine about things you can’t change. Don’t feel a million feelings instead of finding meaning. Don’t forget what it feels like to create something good. Don’t let this grief last too much longer. Don’t let this year go by without a byline. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
For whatever reason, even though it’s only been 10 short months since this huge, life-changing loss, writing just to get the grief out of me – just to keep emptying that big, way-too-full jug over and over again – isn’t good enough. Perhaps what I need more than anything is a way to forgive myself for being full to the brim with this strange new sadness.
It’s not really an acute sadness, the kind that feels like a needle prick or a sharp pain. It’s dull, and it’s everywhere, and yes – it does leave room for other feelings, moments of happiness and enjoyment and delight. But underneath it all is this huge wave of – ugh. When I’m working, I rarely feel it. When I’m hanging out with my friends, I rarely feel it. I have moments of distraction, moments when I’m not just functioning, I’m doing really, really well. But the second I try to write – it’s all that exists. There is nothing else inside me.
I feel productive and useful when I write – specifically, when that writing is fit for public consumption. I assign a lot of personal value to that; meaning, the better my writing is, and the better received it is, the better I feel as a person. I know that I only became a good, useful writer because for years, I filled journal after journal with mindless immature dramatic drivel, the unvarnished messiness of my adolescent brain spilling out uncontrollably – so why now, when I have something legitimately difficult and complicated to work through, can I not give myself a break and just let it flow?
I don’t have an answer, unfortunately, but that’s okay. Through writing, I ask myself hard questions, and sometimes I don’t get to a satisfying end. Sometimes it’s just a way to scream out to the Universe, “Hey – what the hell is going on?!” I know that the Universe is not going to answer me. I do know, however, that the jug of grief inside of me will change shape and become more or less full with every passing day, and the only thing I can do at this point is keep turning the tap and hope for something beautiful to come.
Rae Pagliarulo is the flash nonfiction editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living in the fundraising and resource development sector. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.
January 30, 2020 § 2 Comments
Wondering what conference is best for you as a writer, your book and your career? Trying to figure out if pitching agents in person will get more return for your efforts, or hoping to build some speaking credits with your writing-related expertise? The comprehensive guide is here!
Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer and publisher of industry newsletter The Hot Sheet, has one of the most valuable websites in the business. With posts on querying, book proposals, writing craft and professional practices, it’s worth your time to browse the archives and keep up with her daily posts, both from Jane herself and a series of guest experts. Now, Jane’s Guide to Getting the Most Out of a Writing Conference gives a terrific overview of just about everything you need to know before choosing, attending, and spending money on a conference.
Key points include:
- Determining the conference size and focus best for you
- Connecting with other attendees on social media, even before you arrive
- Planning your time onsite
- Why panels are such a crapshoot for sharing expertise, and how moderators and conference organizers can do panels well
…and much more. I especially love Jane’s tips for socializing, even if you’re shy (top tip – carry a paper book, it’s a great conversation starter) and how to follow up socially with writers you want to keep knowing. And of course the number-one thing for presenters to remember: use the microphone. No matter how small the room or how terrific your theatrical training, there’s going to be at least one person with a hearing disability or who becomes a victim of weird acoustics. I’d add, from experience, using the mic means not having to yell everything you say (find those levels!).
Whether you’re packing for AWP or trying to decide if Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference is part of your summer, check this guide first—and enjoy browsing the rest of www.janefriedman.com.
November 29, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Marilyn Kriete
I’m still coming down from When Words Collide—a three day affair held in Calgary each summer. This year, over 800 literary souls converged to share their love of writing, books, and storytelling. I crawled out of my BC writing cave and flew to Alberta to meet my tribe
An electric buzz awaited me: these were my people! Knowing I could approach any of these 800 strangers and dive into a conversation about writing—without preamble or small talk —was mindboggling. This alone was worth the admission price, already ridiculously low. The founder’s decision to run a yearly conference where everyone donates their time, including the top presenters, keeps fees affordable for even the poorest scribbler. And the universal spirit of volunteerism adds another layer of magic to this electric event.
I dived in, moving without breaks from class to conversation to coffee grabs to private sessions. Every hour featured a difficult choice between ten diverse classes; dinner breaks were swallowed up in spontaneous connections with newfound sympaticos. The buzz kept me awake each night, thrilled by the creative energy I’d absorbed. How I needed to swim in this sea of like-minded fish!
Less than 30 of us made it to the final event, the “Dead Dog Social,” on Sunday night. Near midnight, at the hotel’s urging, we reluctantly said goodbye. The next day I boarded a plane and wrote a list of tips (and notes to self) for newbie conference attenders.
Here it is:
- Read the Program. Caffeine was in high demand, but I didn’t learn till the Dead Dog Social that free coffee and snacks were available throughout in the building I’d dubbed the “No coffee” tower—a five-minute sprint away. This info was included in the 75-page handout we received at registration… but I hadn’t read through most of it. I’d been needlessly running back to the “Coffee Tower” for refills and spending four dollars a cup.
- Plan Ahead. I perused the presenters and classes posted on the website weeks before the conference. I’d even written my choices down… somewhere. But once the whirlwind started, I was a pantser, choosing sessions based on proximity, titles, and random suggestions by strangers. This wasn’t terrible; most classes were good, and I regretted only two. But when I read the program later, I saw more relevant choices I’d missed by poor planning. We didn’t get complete maps and schedules till the conference started. But I could’ve planned better, perhaps by skipping a session to read the program and get oriented before diving in.
- Mark your special appointments in red. The conference offered pre-booked sessions with editors and agents to pitch and analyse first pages, manuscripts, and query letters. I booked four sessions and came prepared…but made a huge gaffe. In my nervousness over my first pitch session, I spaced on my second appointment that day. Fortunately, I was able to track down the editor I’d missed and reschedule a ten-minute session in the lobby. Not all editors would be so kind. I’m still cringing.
- Carry a big bag and wear a big smile. I did both. You’ll be picking up stuff as you move from class to class—books and handouts. You’ll want snacks to cover skipped lunches, and probably a sweater. A smile connects you with more people, much faster. I noticed lots of sad-faced writers sitting near the back with closed body posture. Open up! I had great fun engaging with others and making new friends.
- Attend at least one slush-pile session. Slush pile sessions are like Gong Shows, as writers anonymously submit the first page of their manuscripts for a panel critique. Even if you aren’t ready to submit, you’ll learn a lot: what agents look for, why they stop reading, and why your first page is so critical. Plus, these sessions are wildly entertaining!
- Sit near the front. Grab the best seat you can, and come ready to ask questions, comment, and encourage the presenters. If you have a question, it’s likely others have the same one: speak up! I got to meet lots of the guest authors and agents this way, and to chat with them throughout the conference by showing appreciation and making an impression.
- Don’t judge a class by its size. Some classes were standing room only, while others were sparse. But the packed classes weren’t always the best—for me. One of my favorite sessions had one presenter and less than ten participants. Her class was intimate, interactive, hilarious, and calming. She read us a brilliant short story and shared her writing journey. That class, at this point in the hectic schedule, was exactly what I needed. It felt like a lullaby.
- Initiate, initiate. Talk to the person next to you. Set up lunch or coffee dates. Exchange cards and tips. You never know when you’ll meet your next new friend or valuable writing connection.
- Pray to meet the right people. Lots of writers go to conferences to find an agent, editor, or publisher. I thought I was seeking an agent (for my two completed manuscripts); turns out what I need first is a brilliant structural editor. And I found her! I gleaned this insight from a discussion where all five panelists— extremely experienced writers and journalists—mentioned they’d sent their polished, mature work for a professional edit before Be open to fresh direction.
- Pace yourself. Or not. Some participants skipped classes and withdrew a while to re-energize (as writers, we’re mostly introverts). I did the opposite and filled each hour. Everyone got their time and money’s worth. My recovery probably took longer, but I don’t regret diving in and swimming hard till the end.
When I got home, I immediately signed up for next year’s conference, plus a smaller, more intimate conference in Kamloops, just two hours away. What joy to be with other writers! Find yourself a conference, and go.
After an unpredictable life in four continents and 16 cities, Marilyn Kriete now lives sedately in Kelowna, British Columbia, where she fights for writing space with three cats who own her office. She has two completed memoirs (seeking publication), a third on the way, and several published poems and articles (The Lyric, Storyteller, The Eastern Iowa Review). Check out her blog at purplesplashofglory.com.
November 25, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Marian Rogers
Everything packed, I cut the last peonies in bloom that my father had planted in the garden years ago after our wedding, and put them in a Mason jar to take with me, knowing that in a week they too would be gone.
On the eight-hour drive west to Ohio, I began to write the first workshop assignment in my head, reading my mind aloud alone in the car, replacing words in midsentence, midvoice, midair, tossing it all out, starting again, and over again.
I stressed about who in the coming week I should tell about my father’s death, if anyone, and why, then whether that was or should be the most important thing or anything I had to say about myself.
I cried for miles, across three states, on the interstate that circles the Cleveland suburbs where I grew into a teen, and south through Medina where my father’s parents once lived on the public square, and as a boy my father had his first job, sweeping floors and stocking shelves in his grandfather’s small grocery.
Once off the highway I gave myself over to the embrace of farm homesteads, sweet pasture and corn standing sentinel, the hamlet with silent bandstand, the insect rub and zither of the early summer night, finally slipping into town at dusk, moon ascendant, sun now nowhere on the horizon.
I wondered at my foresight in arranging months before to arrive a day early and stay overnight in town to get my bearings after what was always a long drive, not knowing then what kind of lost I would be.
Weary but wanting some sort of company, I took the innkeeper’s suggestion to hurry to the village restaurant for a hot meal before it closed for the night, in the half light of the back dining room settling into the servers’ conversation as they filled ketchup bottles for the next day.
I drafted the first piece for workshop later, on the edge of the bed, laptop on knees, can of hard cider on the floor, homemade cookie from the house kitchen on the pillow.
At the coffee shop the next morning, in a chair by a window, I read and revised, watching as the buzz picked up and other writers began to materialize, friends and some familiar faces, and others I must know from somewhere, in that gathering feeling myself returning, becoming visible—remembering after all why I had come.
That afternoon in the dorm that would be my home for the week I found my key opened a room meant for two, with two beds, two dressers, and two desks, one at a window that looked across to a vacant house by a dark wood, where I would see myself reflected every night until I pulled the shade, the other a place for the peonies until their petals finally fell.
In the closet I hung the dress I had worn two months earlier to take my father out to lunch for what I did not know was the last time—the black summer dress garlanded with flowers that I would smooth absently, then press to myself as I stood three nights later, stepped toward the audience for my reading, and began, In memory of my mother and father . . .
Marian Rogers lives in Ithaca, NY, and writes about place, the natural world, travel, myth, family, and identity. She has been a participant in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Literary Nonfiction. She is a freelance editor of scholarly nonfiction and holds a PhD in classics from Brown University. Find her at www.bibliogenesis.com and on Twitter @Rogers_Marian.
October 15, 2019 § 20 Comments
I’m leading a writing retreat in Tuscany right now. It’s glorious—good coffee, leisurely multi-course lunches, candlelit dinners. Oh, and we’re writing, too. Each morning after breakfast, everyone checks in with what we’re working on that day, and what, specifically, we’d like to finish before lunch. At the end of writing time, we check back in: did we accomplish what we set out to do? What’s next?
If only we could write with this much focus all the time. Do we have to spend money and fly long distances? How can someone with kids and pets and a full-time professional life find mental space for their deep, committed work at home?
Yesterday, writer Cary Tennis, a Salon columnist and co-author of Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done came to lunch, and took us all through a Finishing-School style workshop. It was pretty simple. We went around the table:
Round One: What we’re working on, the title, and our ultimate goal for the manuscript
Round Two: A specific time we’re going to be able to write when we get home, written into our calendar
Round Three: What we will work on related to our project in that specific time
It was astonishing how challenging it was for six driven, committed, regular writers to pick a specific time and name a specific task. We have partners and children and jobs, meals to cook, other trips to take, weddings and school events to attend. We have side hustles and on-call time and ten-hour shifts we know will stretch to twelve hours. Cary encouraged us to pick a time anyway, saying it’s better to reschedule a specific time to another specific time than make a general commitment to possibly have time…sometime. Task-wise, some of us had an idea of where we’d be in our manuscripts next week or next month; others said they’d wait until the end of the retreat to pick a goal for the at-home session. We were all well aware that our best-laid plans would be subject to the vagaries of our personal and professional lives.
At the end, we paired up and committed to text our writing buddy when we started our scheduled work and when we finished. No evaluation or page-swapping or critique, just “I’m going to do this” and “I did this.”
A retreat is accountability on steroids. Here and now, we’re in a tiny medieval town with historic buildings and great views and nothing else. As former resident Boccaccio said, “In Certaldo, you can hear an ass bray from one end of town to the other.” Each morning, we’re surrounded by positive peer pressure to name a step in our project and carry it out at a scheduled time, and that time is now. An editor (me) is there to give immediate feedback on new work. Huge amounts of mental energy and physical time are freed up by not shopping for, preparing, serving, or cleaning up after meals (plus every course is a delightful surprise!). Can we take this feeling into our work at home?
But the primary value of a retreat is feeling like we have enough time, and what we can do at home is change how we approach our creative projects. Most of us have big ambitions, and in the long run, that’s good. But Cary pointed out that in the first week of his Finishing School workshops, writers often set lofty goals for the number of hours they’ll work or words they’ll generate, goals most of them won’t meet. He doesn’t discourage them, because attempting and failing gives visceral insight into what we’re actually capable of accomplishing. Once we’ve adjusted our expectations, we can make smaller goals that give us satisfaction to achieve, and create momentum.
We can’t change the laws of physics or the behavior of our family and colleagues, but we can limit the writing tasks we set ourselves to fit the time we have. Wanting to write for three hours and stopping after fifteen minutes to settle a fight about who has to clean up cat barf is frustrating and discouraging. But the feeling of “Hey, I set out to edit two pages and I did” makes us want to do it again tomorrow—in the time we have.
We can’t all dash off to a stunning location to be cosseted with meals and editorial support, but we can allow ourselves the grace of small steps. Pick a time. Write it in the calendar. Pick a task. Make it small. And revel in the glorious feeling of I wrote today in the time I had.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow Rebirth Your Book on Instagram, and writers Cathy Gatto Brennan, Casey Mulligan Walsh, Karen Fine, Jenny Currier and Tawnya L. Bragg to enjoy more inspirational writing-in-Tuscany photos.