August 28, 2017 § 8 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
Earlier this summer, I attended an exceptional writing conference, hosted by a highly respected literary magazine. The week-long event was scheduled meticulously, with several hours of in-class time each day, afternoon craft discussions, and nightly readings from our critically acclaimed faculty members. From 8 AM to 8 PM, we were on the move and engaged pretty much non-stop. Upon reviewing our daily schedule, I noticed that towards the end of the week, there was a special session carved out so that those who had received scholarships to attend could publicly read their work for the rest of the students and faculty. While I thought it was wonderful that the scholarship recipients had a chance to share their work, it made me wonder – what about us, the students who had paid to attend?
During lunches and dinners, classes and talks, I had come to very quickly bond with my fellow participants. They were smart, engaging, welcoming, and so diverse – people from all over the country, with such different styles of writing and vastly different lives. On the bus on the way to class and over coffee in the mornings, we hungrily asked each other, “What kind of stuff do you write? What’s your process? Where can I read your writing?”
I realized that if I didn’t make myself very annoying to the organizers, we wouldn’t have the chance to share our work with each other, and we would leave the conference without something I specifically go to conferences to gain – a writing community. I knew that while it was invaluable to spend several hours each day with a prolific, brilliant, and widely published author, after the conference was over, that author and I wouldn’t become best friends or long-distance writing pals. (I mean, a girl can dream, but let’s be real.) The greatest long-term benefit I would derive from this event would be from my peers – the people that I would keep in touch with, send rough drafts to, visit when I end up in their cities randomly. We were all learning, growing, hungry to improve our craft, and working to build our own networks of writers and creatives who, as we progressed in our journeys, would help and support us in very unique and intimate ways. I became a persistently buzzing fly in the ears of the organizers until I was granted unofficial use of a vacant room for a couple of hours.
Out of 30 conference participants, 20 signed up to share their work. We went so far over time, an employee of the building actually asked us to leave (citing that we hadn’t actually booked the room – details, details), and we were forced to continue the rogue reading in another un-booked room the next day. In the end, all 20 readers got 7 minutes to share their work – and boy, did they share.
I knew for sure that I would be blown away at the nightly readings from our faculty members – after all, they were highly successful authors. It was a sheer delight to hear them read their work, but again – I was not surprised at how delighted I was. Similarly, I knew that each class session and craft talk would leave me with pearls of wisdom, incredible insights, and advice that I could apply to my writing and my life. On those two counts, I was pleasantly affirmed each and every day of the conference. However, the sheer brilliance and emotional fortune of the student reading surpassed every expectation I had. I knew I was arguing for something important and worthwhile, but after I got a sneak peek into those 20 writers’ souls, I suddenly felt like I had stumbled into a new family, a group of people that I grew to know impossibly well after only four short days.
Each person read work that truly represented who they were and what they cared about. I was moved to tears by a short story about a young man struggling with poverty and incarceration; I was doubled over laughing at the missive exploring robot fashion accessories; I was swept away by lilting and verdant meditations on nature and beauty. Political poems, essays good enough to grace the pages of Rolling Stone, fictional worlds I couldn’t invent if I tried – my colleagues delivered one hit after another, and by the end of our two-day marathon, we were hugging, and crying (OK fine, I was crying), and complimenting, and celebrating. To cement the long-term effects of this love-fest, I collected every single reader’s email address and created an unofficial conference mailing list, so we could keep in touch moving forward.
Up until the close of the conference, my fellow writers thanked me for organizing the reading, and even though I said “you’re welcome” about a hundred times, I wish I had said “thank you” back even more – if they were not willing to show up and read their work, and if they did not place a high value on student sharing, I would have been bugging our very busy conference organizers for nothing. I was grateful to get a public shout-out from the organizers during one of our evening events as well. I want to be clear – the absence of a student reading did not sour the incredible benefits I gained from this conference. When I relay my experience to others, I beam with pride and excitement that I was even considered to attend. The week I spent there was truly a unique (and perhaps once in a lifetime) experience, and regardless of what was missing, I am unendingly grateful I had the chance to attend.
But I hope that next year, when it comes time to plan this wonderful conference once more, the organizers remember that while gaining insight and feedback from accomplished, brilliant authors is incredibly important and inestimable, allowing students to share their work – whether they paid to attend or were granted scholarships – sends the message that we are held to the same standards of excellence, that we are similarly valued for our contributions and opinions, and that no matter where we are in our journeys, we are seen and recognized as writers, one and all.
Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae is the Writing Life Column Editor at Hippocampus Magazine, and works as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.
August 8, 2017 § 10 Comments
So, you’re going to a writing conference! Workshops! Readings! Panels! Networking! Networking! Lots of networking! Mingling! Socializing! Bonding! Casual chatting through which lifelong writer friendships are forged! INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION AUGHLH JHJKGJKFGHFDGHAKJ–
Hang on, let me just breathe for a minute, and get off this ledge.
Perhaps, like me, you are a mewling, soft-skinned introvert hiding in a shiny I-talk-to-people-professionally-and-I’m-great-at-it shell. But somehow, our work has been found adequate, our check has been cashed, and we are at a writing conference. With group meals. Receptions. Post-reading cocktail hours. Casual gatherings. Late-night lounge time. A few days or a week full of priceless opportunities to open our mouths only to alternate feet.
Fear not. Brevity is here for you. Simply print this handy list of conference conversation openers, tuck it in the back of your name tag, and you’re ready for any writing-related exchange between humans. Just approach any writer or writers, and begin.
- “Wow…that reading…what did you think?”
- “Gosh, isn’t (insert name of workshop leader) just fantastic?”
- “Whose workshop are you in? Oh, they’re great! Tell me all about it!”
- “What are you working on? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
- “Is it me or are all these rooms freezing/boiling/too dark/blindingly bright?”
- “How about that box wine!”
- “Where did you come in from? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
- “Is it me or is your dorm room mattress horrible, too? Tell me all about your back problems!”
- “Have you seen the book sale yet? I have no idea how I’m going to get them all in my bag.”
- “Box wine! Look, there’s box wine!”
Please note that #6, 9 and 10 can also be used for exiting conversations as needed.
Enjoy your new writing friends, and remember, soon you’ll be home again and can return to communicating with them only through keyboards.
Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams is at conferences the next few weeks. Please come talk to her about box wine, lumbar issues and your writing.
August 23, 2016 § 3 Comments
Gentle Readers, I come to you from Amsterdam Schipol, my second-favorite airport, where I can get a haircut and some tulip bulbs and eat hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) on toast.
It’s the little things.
At Hippocamp 2016, it was also the little moments that made the conference so worthwhile. The creative nonfiction conference is in its second year, and attendance was up to just over 200 writers. Large enough to meet a lot of new people, small enough to meet them more than once. Big enough to have memoir rock stars and small enough to personally interact with rising stars.
I always think I’ll write at a conference, and I mostly don’t. That’s not really the point. While there were a few generative sessions, and the opening day workshops involved creating or editing, conferences are mostly about information sharing–connecting with other writers, sharing tips and tricks and hopes and fears. Being around other people who, when I whine about having great ideas and not sitting down to write them, know exactly what I mean.
There were some amazing sessions–Joanne Lazar Glenn talked about setting up and running a writing retreat, and I promptly thought, “I’ve been meaning to take some women writers to India.” Agent Veronica Park used the “In a World” structure I love to use, in her talk about the difference between a great concept and a great plot, and how to make sure the first one leads to the second. Amy Fish and Christoph Paul talked about using humor in nonfiction, to a standing-room-only crowd. And Andrew M. Seaman traced the code of ethics of narrative journalism from their first conception to the most recent made-up-story scandals.
But it was also the little things. Worrying my editing workshop would be “mean” and running across to the farmers’ market to buy some flowers for the projector, somehow thinking this would “soften” the room. Getting swept up in a group of writers going to dinner and hauling along whoever I was in conversation with at the time. Long walks from my Airbnb to the convention center and back (it was hot; I packed wipes). Seeing the happiness on conference organizer and Hippocampus editor Donna Talarico-Beeman’s face as she unveiled their newest baby, an upcoming anthology of work featured in the magazine’s first five years. I sold some books–but more fun still was being asked to sign them.
After Mary Karr’s Saturday night keynote address, a writer prefaced their question with “this is going to be very personal…” and Mary responded, “I’m not gonna show you my titties.”
We all got personal. It was nowhere near as terrifying as showing our titties. We shared work in readings and in snippets in workshops. We commiserated. We wished each other luck on the way into agent pitches. We felt–or convincingly faked–true happiness when someone burst back out of the agent room, glowing with the pride of a requested full.
There’s an official conference recap page, with links to blog posts attendees wrote about the conference; the twitter feed for #hippocamp16 is also pretty great. Great quotes, great advice, and a great many little things.
Next year’s Hippocamp will be in September, and again held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s a gentle conference, perfect for first-time conference attendees and writers who want to be remembered by the agents and editors they meet. Big enough that you’ll find something that moves you; small enough not to get lost. I hope to find you there.
February 1, 2016 § 55 Comments
I have a love-hate relationship with readings. On the up side, it’s awesome to get an audience response to work in progress, and it’s great to hear fellow students read at a conference, because we all bust out our best writing and often bring pieces outside our workshop genre.
But we’ve all heard That Person read. You know—the one who burns eleven minutes in a five-minute slot, or the one with the graphic sex scene that has everyone squirming in their seats (the bad kind of squirming), or the whispery reader no-one can hear.
Even with good material, some writers struggle. They may lack experience reading their own work aloud, they’re nervous, or they chose a piece that doesn’t make sense without a larger context. Sometimes a writer just got stuck being #26 on a list of 30 readers.
You don’t have to be That Person. Or even That Writer Who Was Probably Good, What I Could Hear Of It. There are Seven Deadly Sins of public readings, and every single one of them is avoidable.
SLOTH: Do your work, and do it in advance.
Have a specific, timed, chosen piece in a format you can see. If you’re reading from your phone, put it in airplane mode because your mother will call in the middle of your first sentence. If you need reading glasses, have them on your face. Try not to read from your laptop—on most podiums, the lid blocks your upper body, and it’s an old theatre trick that when the audience can see your chest, they feel more emotionally connected to you. Knowing in advance what you’re going to read goes double for workshop leaders—I’ve seen a fair number of teaching writers arrive at the podium with a book full of bookmarks and spend time leafing around. Really? You didn’t respect your students enough to carefully choose the pieces you wanted to read and in what order?
GLUTTONY: Don’t be greedy with your listeners’ time.
Know your time. Come up short. Nothing is more inconsiderate than taking longer than the allotted time—you’re saying “My work is more important than everyone else’s,” and you’re part of a domino effect that ends up screwing the last five readers. Most conferences are tightly scheduled, and even if people are polite enough to stay past the official end to hear the last readers, their brains are already at the bar. If you don’t know what the time limit is (or if there is one), ASK. If there’s no limit, assume it’s five minutes and be the saint who stops at four. This also means you must know how long it takes to read your piece out loud, so do that, with a stopwatch, OUT LOUD. It’s much longer than to read it silently, even mouthing the words.
LECHERY: Just don’t.
The sin of Lechery is often called “Lust.” But it’s possible to lust joyfully, to lust for one’s spouse, even to spend your springtime morris-dancing if that’s what you’re into. Lechery, on the other hand, is lust foisted on the unwilling. And believe me, your audience is unwilling. No explicit sex. No pedophilia. No rape. Detailed violence falls into this category, too. You don’t know who in your audience got raped last week, molested as a child, or is just plain squeamish. Reading graphic content changes the emotional feeling of the room in a way your audience didn’t ask for, and that penalizes the next reader, who now has to start from that mood. (God bless the reader at my most recent conference who cleared the air with a limerick after a particularly gruesome piece, and took that out of his own time.)
GREED: Read one thing, and only one thing.
Don’t think “oh my piece is so short and I get five minutes so I’ll read two.” If your flash fiction is one minute long, revel in the joy of your fellow readers that you’ve made the night run faster (and make the piece a knockout). Poets, you may read two poems if they are short. If so, announce at the beginning that you will be reading two so the audience isn’t surprised when you start up again. It’s better to start with the shorter one, as an appetizer. Keep the transition tight, so you end up with only one round of applause.
Revel in your envy of other writers’ pieces. Admire those who read well and make mental notes about their delivery—what can you copy? What makes their piece good? Use your admiration as a chance to start conversations by telling another writer you loved their reading (great for shy conference attendees). Clap enthusiastically for every writer as they walk up (if format allows), and again when they finish. It’s scary and hard to read your work in front of a group, and just standing up and doing it is worthy of praise.
Pick a piece you love, that you enjoy reading and are proud to share. If you’re feeling like the writer struggling the most in your workshop (and we all are), this is a chance to show your already-polished work. If you’re choosing between two pieces, pick the shorter one. If you have an option to read something funny, go funny.
WRATH: Contain it.
1) This is not the time for paybacks. At one conference, the workshop leaders stopped attending the student readings after one too many “Well, Distinguished Writer hated this in class, but I’m reading it anyway.” You are showing your public face, so make it one people respect and want to spend time around.
2) Wrath will one day bubble up inside you, the listener. You will be at a reading where someone reads porn. Or violence. Or pedophilia. For eleven minutes. If looks could kill they would be eye-murdered by fifty restless listeners. It’s still your job to maintain a supportive and attentive expression, and yes, to clap when they are (finally!) finished. You may downgrade your clapping from “enthusiastic” to “polite.” You may mentally revise your own work; you may assume an earnest expression and write kill me now in your own journal as if you are taking notes; you may daydream with your eyes open and startle into applause as if you were lost in the world the writer has created. You may even (as I did last week) stand up at an un-hosted reading and volunteer to keep time and make gentle ding sounds to signal each writer’s last fifteen seconds. But you may not eye-roll or mutter. Just note the deadly sins, and resolve never to inflict them on an innocent audience yourself.