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Notes from #AWP18, Part C: “The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got,” plus book fair porn (e.g. the requisite book haul on a hotel bed shot)

17 Mar

bookhaulIn my last post I promised blood. Well, I’ll just say I slid my boot off Friday night and it was like I was one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. I’m still limping. On to day 3!

What is a better breakfast than a leftover Cuban sandwich? Leftover fried oysters. Just kidding! The Cuban sandwich was much better. Day 3 was the best because Michael got a one-day pass and we got to roam the book fair together.

“The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got” is an irresistible title, so of course we wrenched ourselves away from the book fair for it. Here, without narrative, a fun grab-bag of quotes:

  • “Creative writing aphorisms are as useful as Dr. Phil.” –Chris Abani
  • “Your book won’t save you. It’s just something you’re going to do because you’re nuts.” –Min Jin Lee
  • “How do I handle writer’s block? I don’t write.” –Ada Limón

I appreciated Limón’s story of navigating two groups of people: those who roll their eyes at “abuelita poems” and those who say, “where’s your abuelita poem?” And Melissa Stein‘s remark that dread may be a sign that advice you’ve been given may not be for you, anxiety might mean it’s worth exploring the challenge, and excitement is obviously a good sign. Abani noted that “Craft advice is only important if you’re asking questions. What are you trying to do?”

We stuck around for a reading and conversation between Min Jin Lee and Sigrid Nunez. Nunez on writing about sex: “The vocabulary is not there. It’s either coy, clinical, or filthy, none of which do justice to human sexuality.” At the book signing, Lee called Michael and me adorable. So that happened.

My attention span went out the door by mid-afternoon, so it was off to the hotel bar for wine and fried calamari! Naturally, someone in panda suit wandered in. panda

Next year in Portland! Maybe Seattleites can get some party buses organized…

Notes From #AWP18, Part 2: “Sound Makes Sense: Reading the Lyric Sentence” and Various & Sundries (Gonzo Links Edition)

16 Mar
Sunrise view from my hotel room

Sunrise from our hotel room

The Friday of AWP is always the best day. The nervous energy of Thursday has dissipated, and the inevitable Saturday flu epidemic has not yet emerged. I woke early to respond to student stories and breakfasted on a leftover Cuban sandwich, wondering if it would make me barf later. Reader, it did not! A fortifying start.

Alan Sincic, the fantastic Orlando-based writer who was The Furnace’s Writer-in-Residence, was on a 9 am panel on the lyric sentence. I’m a fan of Sincic’s prose *and* mad presentation skills, so the early start was well worth it. The moderator, Pearl Abraham, kicked off the discussion with this advice: “If the voice doesn’t work, write better sentences.” 

Then Sincic woke up the crowd with a call-and-response activity, that gradually built up to us chanting together: “I am an individual and will not surrender my voice to the crowd.” He said, “A sentence is less like the beam of a house and more like the branch of a tree,” that a sentence has ghost limbs lost in the editing process. He proceeded to take apart this Mark Twain sentence, examining each word choice and its placement as a way of generating suspense and delight: “Is a tail absolutely necessary to the comfort and convenience of a dog?”

Baylea Jones analyzed a sentence from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, graphing sounds and letters, including patterns of consonant use, and internal rhymes: “Black walnut trees dropped their green-black fuzzy bulbs on Aunt Ruth’s matted lawn, past where their knotty roots rose up out of the ground like the elbows and knees of dirty children suntanned dark and covered with scars.” Wow! I had fun retyping that.

AuthorSigningI ducked out early to get to my book signing at the Lanternfish Press table, where I got to hang out with my editor Christine Neulieb and publisher Amanda Thomas,  and connect with new readers and old friends, including Julia Mascoli, who was in my Tin House workshop in 2013 and who is Deputy Director of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop doing great work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in Washington, D.C. (Seattle-area folks, you can donate books to prisons and other under-served communities via Seattle7Writers Pocket Libraries program.)

Later, I chilled at the Cambridge Writer’s Workshop table, celebrating the release of CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing, which includes my “Summer-Inspired Writing Prompts.” Co-editor Rita Banerjee was there with her mythic poetry collection Echo in Four Beats, as was Maya Sonenberg, whose new chapbook After the Death of Shostakovich Père is out from PANK Books.

That night, the celebration continued at the Helen Gordon Davis Center for Women, a beautiful old mansion a mile away from the convention center. There were many, many readings. One was from Women in the Literary Landscape; crowds whooped in appreciation for Anne Bradstreet, Virginia Kirkus, and the biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt. (I am a rube for not remember which biographer was mentioned, so here are five of them!)  Nell Painter, author of A History of White People, read from her forthcoming memoir Old in Art School, Diana Norma Szokolayi read her poem “Sarajevo,” Sonenberg read an anti-plot manifesto, and I read an excerpt from Daughters of the Air in which Pluta has committed arson in Brooklyn and found refuge in an abandoned Times Square theater. Fun! There is so much more to write…! I’ll wrap things up in one more post. Sneak preview: there will be blood.

5StarDiveBar

Reading at Strange Theater: A Menagerie of Fabulists. Photo courtesy of Daniel A. Hoyt. I swear, there were more people here. We agreed the line up was so good we’ll do it again in Portland, but weirder!

Notes from #AWP18, Part I: “Difficult History,” a panel on Jewish fiction

15 Mar
Flowers in Delray Beach

Flowers in Delray Beach

I’m back home after a whirlwind book tour that ended with AWP in Tampa. Michael and I drove up from Delray Beach through the Everglades, hoping to spot alligators, and though there were none, pelicans abounded.

We arrived in time for me to catch one panel Thursday afternoon, “Difficult History: Jewish Fiction in the Alt-Right World,” which began with brief readings from each panelist. Emily Barton read from The Book of Esther, an alternate history in which a Turkic Jewish warrior state that disappeared in the Middle Ages existed into August 1942. Simone Zelitch read from her novel Judenstaat, another alternate history, this one set in 1980 in the Jewish sovereign state established in the province of Saxony in 1948. Amy Brill read from Hotel Havana, about Jewish refugees in Havana in the 1930s and ’40s, highlighting the fresh pain German Jews felt compared to Polish Jews, since Polish Jews had always been considered Jewish rather than Polish, whereas German Jews had thought of themselves as German. And Irina Reyn read from a work-in-progress ending on this note: “A Russian woman doesn’t wait. A Russian woman acts.”

On the question of what is Jewish fiction, Zelitch quoted a character of hers: “We don’t bow down. We cross borders. We remember.” Reyn recalled her unhappy Jewish day school experience as a Russian immigrant who never felt she belonged (I totally related to this, being neither a “real” American or Israeli at my elementary school); she said, “Jewish fiction is constant negotiation: where do you belong?”

Brill remarked that as a reform Jew who went to Sunday school and never really understood her bat mitzvah asked: how do you handle writing a character that is either less than or more than your own religiosity? Barton said that for The Book of Esther she generated 90 questions and found a rabbi willing to discuss them all with her; then she showed the finished manuscript to another rabbi. She said that after revision and publication she still got things weirdly wrong. Oy! On the question of how much to explicate for the reader, Barton said she wants Christian Americans to know what’s like to be a religious minority: “I looked up pentecost; you can look up havdallah.”

Barton also made a point I feel strongly about (and have written about in Salon and Jewish in Seattle): it is important to revisit history and re-enliven it. Alternate history, she suggested, is one way to get around Holocaust fatigue. Zelitch added, “Judaism has to be more than the Holocaust and Israel,” that we should look to the international Jewish experience and the refugee crisis. Reyn then touched on “diasporic anxiety,” the need to be more Jewish than you really are in order to connect with Jews in a new place (again, something I totally relate to since moving to Seattle from New York, and touched on in an essay for The Rumpus). Zelitch added that today dystopian fiction seems like a cop out and the challenge is to write engaging utopian fiction, that we need to see powerless people taking power and people need to lose themselves in this kind of story. Before opening up the discussion to audience questions, Brill said: “The arc of justice is not necessarily moving on its own. We need to push it.”

It was certainly an invigorating panel! One or two more posts to come…

Notes from #AWP15 in Minneapolis

13 Apr
Milwaukie Ave

Historic Milwaukie Avenue in Seward, Minneapolis. The first row houses outside of NYC, built by the railroads as worker housing.

This year, AWP has been schmoozier, in a pleasant way, as I spent more time with readings, receptions, and lunch/coffee/dinner dates and less time with panels and the book fair. We took a break from the conference Friday night to see Mr. Burns at the Gutherie Theater, an apocalyptic play spanning from the near future to 75 years into the future, in which the surviving population tries to retell and recreate episodes from The Simpsons (particularly the “Cape Fear” episode) as a way of coping. Over time, The Simpsons evolves into totally weird, wonderful, and scary mythology. I highly recommend it!

The two panels I attended were excellent, and I’m posting my notes right over here:

Small is the New Big: Working with Independent Presses to Build a Literary Career

Moderator: Michelle Brower, agent at Folio Literary Management

Panelists: Molly Fuller, Production Editor of Coffee House Press; Ethan Nosowsky, Editorial Director of Graywolf Press; Erin Harris, agent at Folio Literary Management; and Cal Morgan, Executive Editor of Harper and Editorial Director of Harper Perennial.

  • Access to early and frequent publication (such as online) has allowed an enormous amount of creativity. Adventurous small presses are publishing successful works, and big houses are discovering writers earlier as a result.   -Cal Morgan
  • Small presses take on books that might not seem readily marketable from a big publisher’s perspective, but can maximize those books’ audiences.                    -Ethan Nosowsky
  • Small presses can facilitate reviews that build the writer’s readership.     -Erin Harris
  • The reputation and backlist of a small press have cultural capital.                           -Molly Fuller
  • Small presses are also an opportunity for seasoned authors to try something new. -Michelle Brower
  • Many authors who work with both small and big presses are big supporters of new writers and facilitate connections.                               -Cal Morgan
  • It was a relief to hear all the panelists are avid readers of small press books!

Examples of successes:

  • Eiomear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, published by Coffee House after the author spent 10 years trying to get it published and being told the publishers loved it but thought readers wouldn’t enjoy it. You may already know the book is enormously successful. 
  • Erin Harris found short story writer Stacy Tintocalis after reading her collection The Tiki King, published by Swallow Press, an imprint of Ohio University Press, and discovered Brian Furuness, author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson (Dzanc) after reading two of his stories in literary magazines.
  • Graywolf Press published a 20-year retrospective of Geoff Dyer’s essays and was able to do so  successfully based on its backlist of essay collections.
  • Cal Morgan discovered Blake Butler after publishing his short stories in the blog Fifty-Two Stories; he went on to publish three books from Butler, and Butler connected him to more authors.

It’s a Crime to Skip this Panel: Approaches to Crime Fiction

(Nb. The authors on this panel have multiple books out–see the link above for a more expansive list.)

Moderator: Michael Kardos, author of Before He Finds Her.

Panelists: Joy Castro, author of Hell or High Water; Chris Abani, author of Secret History of Las Vegas; Christopher Coake, author of You Came Back; Lori Rader-Day, author of The Black Hour.

  • Much of great literature (Beloved, The Great Gatsby) spins around a crime. -Michael Kardos
  • Joy Castro explores the chasm between the ideal of legal justice and its reality. She asks: whose law? To control whose bodies is the law written? Who is permitted to get away with crime? Who isn’t? How does the aftermath manifest?
  • The best suspense comes from characters: embed them with contradictions and set them loose. Don’t choose a main character who knows everything.    -Joy Castro
  • Misdirections and clues should all arise from point of view: different characters will pick up on different things. -Lori Rader-Day
  • Think of pacing as interval training, alternating between intense, fast-paced, action-packed scenes and more quiet, emotional scenes. -Joy Castro
  • Every story is a riddle. Stories trace an outline for the riddle of living. We don’t care about characters who are not fucked up.       -Chris Abani
  • Good art sets out to do something and does it. That’s all there is. There are no genres. -Chris Abani
  • Finding the voice of the novel is key to finding the novel. -Joy Castro
  • Structure is the skeleton of a book. Voice is its soul, its reason for existence. -Chris Abani
  • If you’re a surgeon and remove the wrong kidney, that’s bad. You have so many opportunities to get your book right.                             -Michael Kardos

On research:

  • Read two books then close your eyes. -Christopher Coake
  • Write the book before you do research, then research what you need to know. -Lori Rader-Day
  • Research a lot then forget it. Don’t write with your notes open; the divine details will come to you. -Joy Castro (My preferred approach…I love research and tend to pick stories that require it.)
  • The only question you need is “Why?” -Chris Abani

Book Fair Loot!

I sprinted through the book fair in the last 45 minutes on Saturday. I managed to get something from every genre, as well something from every “genre” of book fair stuff: freebies, cheapies, full price-ys, a notepad, bookmarks, and even an adorable pinwheel from Pacifica Literary Review, fashioned from pages of poetry.

I’m also happy to discover that Twitter *can* work for authors. Shulem Deem, author of the memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (Graywolf Press) followed me on Twitter several months ago; I was intrigued by the premise of his memoir, which is about leaving the Hasidic Jewish community; and his was the first book I bought at the fair. Can’t wait to read it.

See you in L.A. in 2016!

bookfairloot

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