Aspirations, Witnesses, Prognosticators: My AWP Experience

This year was my first experience at AWP, although last year I remember everyone asking each other “Are you going? Are you going?” In the halls of your local MFA program, it’s like asking if you’re going to see God appearing at the Hollywood bowl where he’ll be interviewed by Richard Dawkins, who will then receive his just and appropriate punishment.

I went because I’m the editor in chief of a literary magazine, although I haven’t been to a writer’s conference in many years. Even before I started grad school, I knew that I had grown out of the kind of conferences offered in consumer publications like Writer’s Digest. I was tired of the same advice, the same invocations of Joseph Campbell and Anne Lamott, tired of writers of lackluster popular fiction using themselves as shining examples of craft in a thinly-disguised bid to sell a few more books to students eager to learn. There is no one more gullible than the unpublished writer.

I don’t know whether the crowd (11,000 absolutely qualifies as “crowd”) was any different than at those events, but I was. Years of writing, reading, learning, and working in the writing world have taken me out of that crowd and into the smaller, more select group of those for whom the shine has worn off. I walked the book fair floor and talked with other publication editors, commiserating about our editorial woes. I remarked on the disconnect between the perception of the crowd and the perception of the presenters and panelists. For instance, in four different panels, a question from the audience included the presumption that there’s no market for short stories. On the other hand, I’m hearing from publishers that short stories are enjoying a resurgence – e-readers provide a perfect channel for shorter fiction.

I did love the talk about writers promoting themselves. The best thing I heard was in a panel that talked about the need to cultivate relationships with bookstores and libraries, to make good use of social media, to connect with one’s fan base. As an introvert, the thought of having to cultivate a lot of friendships that may be useful but would certainly drain any energy I would need for writing was depressing. Until someone got up and said “Don’t do ALL OF IT!” The biggest thing was to be a nice person. Promote your friends and colleagues. Be genuinely happy for and supportive of their work. Heck – I’m doing that.

There were also a million people talking vaguely and gloomily about the future of publishing, but each sad pronouncement began with the claim that more books are being published than ever before. More books, more independent publishers, more channels through which a writer can reach readers…not sure where the crisis lies.

Actually, I am. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. That is to say, 90% of the writing that would be collectively produced by the people gathered in that room is unreadable. Given the state of submissions to the magazine for which I work, it’s true. But there doesn’t seem to be anything standing in the way of those people who have put in the time and effort to get beyond the crap phase.

I had a good time at AWP. I met some really nice people, I talked to a lot of my peers in publishing and I had a lot of crappy drinks with lovely people. Most importantly for me, though, was that I figured out how to get even more out of next year’s conference.

I’m Ahead of Myself, the Curve, My Time

I just completed my third of five grad school residencies. This one was different in that this time, it was more like getting together with friends that I don’t see often and having the chance to catch up on the brilliant things they’re thinking and doing. In my fantasies, I regularly attend conferences made up exclusively of people I know who are doing fascinating things, and everyone has a turn at talking about the amazing things they’re doing. I should look into hooking that up.

Anyway, in between residencies at grad school we have project periods, and each project period is characterized by a different large objective. In my first project period I had to complete a field study, in my second I wrote a short research paper and completed a 10-week translation class, and this time I’ll be tackling a 25-page research paper. In my final residency I’ll be preparing my final manuscript and putting together the presentation I’ll be giving in my final residency next December.

This means that what I should be thinking about is my 25-page paper, right? I have chosen as my subject “The Future of Narrative,” where I plan to take the reader from our beginnings in oral tradition (think “The Iliad”) and end with a shameless plug for my own new project, Lithomobilus, which will change the way you read books.

Except that all I could think about the entire way home from Los Angeles was how I’m going to do my graduate presentation. My thinking involves a whole lot of technology – basically, me on three screens giving my presentation in an order determined by the audience. When I first came up with the idea, I was out of my mind psyched about it, but the more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to doubt myself. This won’t play well in a big room, I’ll need three laptops (not really a gating factor, but it’ll require a certain amount of infrastructure from the venue), I’m not 100% sure that it’s allowed as a “lecture.”

This kills me every time. I have a great idea, and then I second-guess myself and bargain with myself until I’ve squashed my idea into something mediocre. I need to cut that shit out, seriously.

Still All A-Tingle

I just spent six hours in a car with my husband. I love road trips, but this one comes at the end of my grad school residency. After ten days of six to ten hours of school activities a day, including lectures, workshops and readings, my mind is once again percolating with all the new stuff I’ve learned.

My long-suffering husband, who came out to make sure that I didn’t have a full-scale meltdown, drove my car through the horrible Los Angeles traffic while I jabbered on at length. At about Valencia, I realized that I was verbally processing all the things I had learned, and that my husband was lovely enough to smile and nod, say “yes” in the right places. While I stopped talking, I didn’t stop thinking about all the things I’ve been hearing and seeing and doing.

The last thing I did was to have a little training session/pep talk with the next group of staff for Lunch Ticket. The first issue was a little…experimental. There was a lot of figuring things out, a lot of testing our abilities, figuring out the tools we had. This last issue, we knew a little more. We learned from our mistakes, we drew some conclusions about what we could and couldn’t do. The new issue has garnered tons of praise, and I won’t lie to you – it feels really good.

The new crop of editors is brimming with great ideas about what they want to do with and for the journal. They have connections, energy, optimism that makes me love each and every one of them.  I feel that if I do nothing else in my grad school career, having done this will have been worth it all.

The good news is that this is most assuredly not all I will do in grad school.

Tell Me About Your Novel…

For many, many reasons (not the least of which was Alistair McCartney‘s lecture this morning on the subject), I’ve been thinking about genre.

When I applied to grad programs, everyone wanted to know the same things: what genre are you writing in. At Antioch, the genres are fairly broad: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and writing for young people. And yet, even within that space, there are always those people whose writing is hard to define. What do you say about a story where two historical characters, say, Winston Churchill and Viscountess Astor meet and exchange words? What if we had the scene take place in the Parliament buildings themselves? So far, we’re solidly in nonfiction, but the second we start putting actual words into their mouths, we’ve drifted into fiction. If we describe a scene which might have happened, such as Churchill and Astor exchanging friendly insults, we might call it creative nonfiction. However, if we say that the both of them hated each other because she was secretly in love with The Doctor and was jealous that Churchill got to go up in the TARDIS and she didn’t, we’ve crossed over into fictional territory. And if we present the whole scene in Ogden Nash-style verse, that’s something else entirely.

Part of the problem with these genres is that two of them, fiction and poetry, are descended from Aristotle’s divisions of literature – “epic” became fiction and “lyric” became poetry. But all the others are offshoots of fiction that have to do with subject matter and how it’s presented. I myself am not entirely sure what separates regular fiction from writing for young people, whether it be subject matter or method of presentation.

Even after we’ve figured out that we’re dealing in fiction, one can slice “fiction” so thinly that a new genre is presented for every single book that’s published. Urban fantasy, memoir, historical fiction, prose poem – at this point in history, writers have more freedom than ever before to define themselves as they see fit: to create their own genres and carve out their own niches. Who knew that the first job you’d have as a novelist was to make up a term for your own genre?

Eye to the Keyhole

After the grind of yesterday, I decided to skip the one lecture I was going to attend this morning. I slept in, then showed up for the critique workshop from 1 to 4.

Grant Faulkner of Nanowrimo asked me if I would prepare a pep talk about giving good feedback. I’m excited because I feel like in the last year, between the critique group I belong to in San Francisco, my grad school responsibilities, workshops I’ve taken and working for Lunch Ticket, all I do anymore is give other people feedback on their writing.

I’ve noticed a particular thing about my criticism. I like doing my critiquing face to face, because I like being able to have a conversation – letting the person whose work I’m taking apart ask me questions and get their answers in real time. I make meticulous notes on their paper or electronic copy, but I need to talk to them about it as well.

You see, when I make my notes about a written work, I’m thinking about one thing: you (the writer) want to sell your work, and you’re asking me to tell you what will make it more saleable. I think about what would keep me, as an editor of a fiction publication, from accepting the piece of writing I’m looking at. I normally read something four times. The first time, I make no notes at all. The second time, I make notes on the text itself – big things like pieces of text that should be deleted or moved, to tiny things like misspellings and incorrect punctuation. The third time, I make general notes about the piece as a whole. The fourth time, I make more general notes about things that, after many readings, still bother me.

What that means is that if you only look at my written comments, it’s easy to think that I don’t like what’s been written. That’s why I always want to have the conversation. I think that it’s important to say what did work – things that I especially liked or thought were well-done. I don’t normally mark them on the page, only because I personally use other people’s markups of my work to do corrections, so I like to have only those things I need to fix on the page.

It also happens that every time I start talking about a work, new things come up as I have the conversation. New things I might notice as I’m talking, new thoughts in response to the author’s comments, etc.

For as much as being with people is stressful to me, I have found that for things as important as literature, there’s no other way to do certain things.

Mother’s Little Helper

Today was day two at grad school. At 9am, I showed up for the first lecture, and I stayed in the same room through 5 lectures, 1 debriefing (which I led), 1 orientation (which I also led), and four readings – 10 hours total. Looking back at my posts about my first residency, I know that I was tired, but I also see that I was so tail-waggingly enthusiastic about everything I experienced. During my second residency in June, I was a little more cynical, a little more weary, but still awake and moving through my days effectively.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. The three of you who’ve read my blog for a while know that I’ve been on and off medication for quite some time. I’ve been taking Adderall for a while. At least, I was taking it for my first and second residencies. It allowed me to handle the otherwise-difficult task of interacting over extended periods of time with lots and lots of people.

When I’m not in grad school, my life is quite sheltered. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I literally do not leave the house. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I pick my kid up from school and deliver her to a karate class while I go to a nearby coffee shop, put on headphones, and do work. Most weekends, I either visit my mother or stay home and see no one. Being in the company of a new person stresses me out, but I had no idea how much it stressed me out until I came to residency this time.

About three months ago, I fired my psychiatrist. There are certain professional standards to which I hold people, he failed to meet them, I am no longer his patient. But that meant that I stopped my meds cold turkey. It didn’t make a tremendous difference until I came back to residency.

Adderall is normally used to treat ADD. It allows ADD sufferers to stay still and pay attention for extended periods of time. Coming back this time, I didn’t have a problem paying attention to the lectures, which range from 20 minutes to 2.5 hours. But I have found that the longer I am on campus, interacting with people, the more exhausted and emotional I become. Friday, the first full day of classes, I came back from school at about 6:30 feeling exhausted and weirdly emotional. Today, it was worse. By 3pm, my head was beginning to pound. By 5pm, I was dizzy. But 6pm, I was staring at the back of a man sitting two rows ahead of me. From the back, he looked eerily like my dear friend Cliff Brooks and all I could think about was how much I would rather be in San Francisco hanging out with Cliff. I caught myself starting to cry and hoped nobody noticed me daubing my eyes while a fellow student read his supernatural adventure story. By the time I left, I was shaking, tears streamed down my face and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make the 5-minute drive back to the hotel without passing out.

This is what happens when I hang out with people I like.  

When I got back to my hotel, I called my family. I told my daughter that what would make me feel better would be to smell her and my husband’s smell again – bury my nose in their necks and breathe them in until I felt okay again. We decided that next residency, I’m going to have to bring one of each of their shirts with me, just to get me through. I talked to both of them until I felt that I could move around without weeping.

I may need to get a new therapist when I get home. This can’t be healthy.

Back in the Saddle Again

I’m back in Southern California for the third of what will be five residencies for grad school.

For the first half of the day, I felt like a different person! I was walking down the halls greeting all my old friends and smiling and saying hi to new folks. I got hugs from the faculty and walked around feeling like the grandest tiger in the jungle. At the end of the day came the opening night dinner where the head of the program was going to announce the launch of the second edition of Lunch Ticket, the MFA program’s literary journal (for which I am editor-in-chief), and I wanted to be there for the announcement, since I thought it would look bad if I didn’t show up, especially since I’d been talking the journal up to everyone I talked to all day.

But then came the part where I had to pay for it all. By the time I finished dinner, I was so exhausted I wanted to cry. I drove back to my hotel and talked to my family (always a balm) and just sat in my chair and spaced out for a while. If it weren’t dark and a not-great neighborhood, I would have gone for a long walk somewhere. I feel exhausted. I would love to take tomorrow off, and tomorrow’s only day 2.

I heard an  amazing talk from agent Peter Riva about the state of the publishing industry, where he talked about the fact that in the 30s and 40s, people bought books because they were excited about the author – Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. Then came the days of the big publishers and people bought books because they were excited about things that came from Harper Collins or Knopf. Now we’re back to people following authors, so authors need to take responsibility for getting their names in front of people’s eyes and keeping them there. He talked about what to expect from a good agent, and what to expect from a publisher. I’m looking forward to the second part of his talk tomorrow morning!

Then came the presentation for those of us who will be writing our critical papers this term. It was all about distilling your question into something researchable and how to write it in a way that’s engaging. I decided a month ago that I will be turning my critical paper into a TED talk that I will present after my graduation. I’ve set out a heck of a path for myself.

I’m finished with my paperwork for the day. I’m hitting the hay. I wish I was home.