DATELINE: Sunday, February 15, 2008. I started this post on Sunday but didn’t finish it until Monday. I am too lazy to go back and correct all of the “yesterdays” and so on, so please read it as if I posted it on Sunday.
I spent so much of the last twee days tweeting on Twitter (tworry, it twounds twike I twave a tweech imtweadement) that sitting down to write a longish blog post seems like an impossible task. Like writing a novel. And like writing a novel, the only way to finish is to start (I’m feeling profound tonight). Let’s get to the stats.
On Writing: This week, I did all the things that writers do that aren’t writing. I talked about writing. I listened to other people talk about writing. I talked about talking about writing. I even made some notes about ideas I had for my writing. I did not, however, do any writing, except for 171 words of flash fiction for a contest held during the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2009 Conference, which I attended. I didn’t win the contest (I told the story of a successful bank robbery from the point of view of the robber in the form of a series of Twitter tweets; can’t imagine why I didn’t win).
AWP 2009 was a very interesting experience. Because it isn’t just a conference for writers but also for people who teach writing, there were a lot of academics, and a lot of the panels were directed towards teachers instead of writers. If the conference hadn’t been here in town, I might not have gone.
I’m glad I did, though. First, I was able to hang out with a couple of friends who I haven’t seen since the early 1990s — one a successful author, and the other with her first book coming out soon. I’ll post a link when it comes out. I got to know some of the people in my novelists’ discussion group a little better, which was nice; they’re a fun group. I even managed to overcome my usual shyness and reticence and talk to a few new people at one of the receptions and at the book fair.
I got into a couple of conversations with literary criticism PhDs that I frankly didn’t understand — I wouldn’t be concerned about that, but one of the conversations involved some kind of deconstruction of The Simpsons, and I still didn’t get it. So I walked away and drank with a trio of writers who teach at a community college in Minneapolis — they were a lot more accessible. One of them looked just like Cory Doctorow. In any case, everyone was friendly.
The panels on writing were interesting overall. About 2/3 of the panels were either about teaching writing or literary criticism, and another significant chunk were readings by or tributes to authors I had never heard of, which made it pretty easy to choose what to attend. On Thursday and Friday, I went to interesting discussions about writing first novels, writing about Chicago neighborhoods, mining your experiences for fiction material, writing historical fiction. Two of the panels I wanted to attend (publishing your first book and writing flash fiction) were so popular people were sitting in the hallway hoping to hear some precious, precious wisdom through the open doors. In each case, I decided I wasn’t that desperate for advice and got more coffee or hunted around the exhibitor tables looking for candy (there was a lot of candy). I was sorry I skipped the panel on “Shameless Self-Promotion” — mostly intended to discuss internet and social media strategies — if only for the Q&A period, in which (I am told) every single “questioner” got up and spouted his or her elevator pitch before asking an obviously irrelevant question. Everyone I spoke with who attended thought this was hugely annoying, but who did they expect would attend a panel on shameless self-promotion other than shameless self-promoters?
Friday night I mooched free drinks at the University of Utah reception and went to the “Literary Rock & Roll” readings by Z.Z. Packer, Joe Meno, and Dorothy Allison. I am embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of any of them, because I am ridiculously under-read. Allison, author of Bastard Out of South Carolina, was up last, clearly the headliner. She read a short story called “Frog Fucking.” I’m not going to describe the story — assuming I even could — except to say that I don’t know that I will ever look at baby carrots the same way again. It isn’t about intercourse with amphibians. She said up front that she liked the name of the event because she always wanted to be Janis Joplin, and she read like I imagine Janis would, in a throaty growl with a heavy southern twang. I wanted to bring her a bottle of Jim Beam. Packer and Meno were great, too.
Saturday was the best of the three. I started off with a panel called “Truth or Consequences in Nonrealist Fiction,” which included multiple references to Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, which has already been recommended to me, as well as an extended discussion of the writing of Samuel R. Delaney. I bushwacked my way through The Einstein Intersection when I was 13, hated it, and have avoided his books ever since; I may give them another try.
Next up, I fought my way into an overcrowded panel on “Reading to Write: Top Ten Ways to Read Like a Writer.” I have no idea what this panel was about, because I stopped paying attention when one of the panelists told us to read the last page first.
After lunch and wandering the book fair, looking for free copies of literary journals, I went to “Writing in the Windy City: Local Writers Reflect on Making It in Chicago.” The panel included the director of StoryStudio Chicago, where I go for my novelists’ support discussion group. It was an interesting discussion — I especially enjoyed the professor from an MFA program at an art school railing on MFA programs attached to English departments. Toward the end, during the Q&A, there was a discussion about making room for your creative work; I’m not sure exactly what prompted the comment, but a woman near the back raised her hand, stood up, and said something like, “I was a visual artist, had an idea for a book, wrote the novel. Four million copies sold worldwide. Do whatever you want.” Then she sat down. Later, someone told me that she was Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. So there you go.
Next was “The Steady Gaze: Writing Frankly about Sex and Sexuality in Fiction.” During the Friday night readings, Joe Meno read immediately before Dorothy Allison’s “Frog Fucking.” There was a sex scene in his story, and it went something like this: “She took off her yellow tights, and then we did it. Afterwards…” My immediate reaction was that I would write a sex scene in pretty much the same way, so I went to “The Steady Gaze” to push my writerly boundaries.
Not to listen to people read pr0n for 75 minutes.
Well, mostly not. You will be shocked to learn that the panel, held in a large ballroom, was full. It was interesting, and stretched my boundaries a little, but I suspect that I will still write sex scenes more like Joe Meno than Dorothy Allison.
After that, where else could I go but “Then She Lit a Cigarette: Strategies for Rethinking the Fictional Gesture”? The point of this was that writers have characters light cigarettes when the author can’t think of anything else, and this type of stage business doesn’t advance the story or tell the reader anything interesting about the character. The take-away: When you describe gestures, you should make them count. Richard Bausch was one of the panelists — his readings were terrific, I’m ordering one of his books today — but his off the cuff comments were absolutely hysterical.
That was the end of the conference for me. I do want to mention two interesting conversations I had Friday night, that may help me rethink some of my writing. When I was talking to the writing teachers from Minnesota, I described “Jimmies” to them. One of the Minnesotans said it sounded like what I was writing was “slipstream,” or “the new fabulism.” Since these categories are at the boundary of literary and genre fiction, it’s possible that I should try submitting to some of the literary journals that are interested in slipstream instead of the science fiction and fantasy outlets I’ve tried so far.
Later that night, I had dinner with that college friend with her first book coming out soon (well, I had dinner — it was 10:30, she’d eaten hours earlier and was just keeping me company). I described Project Hometown, the novel I’ve been outlining off and on the last couple of months, and she suggested that it sounded like a young adult novel. I thought there was too much adult material in it for it to be YA, and she said that really anything can be addressed in YA these days. Since she’s a YA writer herself, I took that comment seriously, but also with a grain of salt, until I went to the panel on writing sex scenes and heard one of the authors on the panel read the sex scene from his successful YA novel. So maybe it will be YA; it’s something I have to consider, at least.
On Running: I had one run on the treadmill on Tuesday, and that’s it. Too busy getting out in the mornings during the conference, and Junior (who spent much of the week with a noxious stomach virus) stayed home from church on Sunday morning, so instead of going for a run, we made monsters out of cardboard and went to Starbucks.
On the iPod: I don’t have an iPod anymore. It’s broken. *Sob* I need to get a new one. I have, however, purchased the entire second season of Battlestar Galactica from iTunes to watch on my laptop during my treadmill runs.
That’s all I’ve got. Feel free to follow me on Twitter, although I probably won’t be as active as I was during AWP.
Sounds like you got something out of the conference. I always get a little something out of them – maybe 15% useful information. I would have loved to have heard Dorothy Allison. Loved that book. My conference doesn’t come around again until fall. YA is big – you should try that direction.
I definitely got something out of it, which was good — it was really disruptive, both at work and at home, and I’d have been royally ticked off if it had been a waste of time. But it wasn’t, by a long shot.
Yeah, what ISN’T disruptive when it has to compete with home AND work? But it is nice to be neither place sometimes and be with other writers (though they can be a very strange bunch – though not as weird as cat show people).
True enough (on point one and point two).
Point three – Cat show people? That sounds intriguing. I LMAO at Best in Show, but I don’t know anything about *cat* shows.
Looks like you had a blast. As for the iPod! Oh noes! You need a new one, stat!
OH, and now I am hooked on the Writing Excuses podcast. Thanks a bunch!
Ralph – V. sad about the iPod. It’s a mini from a birthday several years ago. *Sigh*
Not sorry at all about hooking you on Writing Excuses.
“I got into a couple of conversations with literary criticism PhDs that I frankly didn’t understand”
That is just about the funniest thing I ever! I hear you, tho. I would have been lost as well.
I’m also off to sign up for the Writing Execuses podcast.
I currently listen to Writers on Writing.
I’m an English Major and probably would find some of the words out of English PhDs all that intelligible.
After taking a number of litcrit course for my college English major, I came to the conclusion that many if not most litcrit types are trying not to be understood. It is why I am no longer in that particular academic field. Sounds like a great conference. And I thoroughly enjoyed following it vicariously on twitter.
Bastard out of South Carolina is a great book. And not all that heavy on sex from what I recall.
As for YA it seems to be all about the angst and the dilemma. If you have an afternoon to read one or two of the genre’s “best” examples you might check out An Na “A Step From Heaven”, Angela Johnson “The First Part Last” , or Melina Marchetta “Jellico Road”. None is light reading but these would give you a sense of the breadth of YA today. All have won the Michael Printz award in their respective years which is like a newberry for YA books. Happy writing.
Auria – Thanks for the tip about Writers on Writing, I’ll check it out.
Ralph & Harri3t – Can you explain the name of one of the panels at AWP (which I did not attend)? It was called “Quantum Narratology.” I love the idea that there is some irreducible minimum by which a plot or narrative must progress if it’s going to move at all, but I suspect that isn’t it.
Chel – Welcome! I’ve got Bastard on the list of “read sooner rather than later” books I made during the conference. And you’ll be glad to know I had hummus and baby carrots yesterday afternoon, so I’m moving on past the reading. Thanks for the tips on the YA books – I’ll check them out.
Sounds like a lot of information could be crammed in your head in one weekend. Seems like you did a good job finding what was best for you.
Welcome to the world of Twitter. It can be fun.
And I still think slipstream sounds cool.
If I were to hazard a guess, and this is only a guess, it may have to do more with story/lit analysis than actual writing. That is you can not go below a certain threshold of common understanding (i.e. language) or to put into a less snobbish way, you cannot ascribe more meaning to the words on the page beyond a certain point.
This may go to the conundrum of literary analysis, how far can you get from the actual words on the page before you start ascribing meanings/thought patterns/ideas that are not there to begin with.
That is my take, but then again I have been away from the world of academia for awhile and without having heard what was set in the forum I am speculating…wildly I may add.
I had to work the Book fair a lot, and your twitter updates made me feel like I went to many more panels than I actually did, so thanks for Tweeting!
Thanks so much for this post. Very interesting. And you had me cracking up all the way through.
“This week, I did all the things that writers do that aren’t writing. I talked about writing. I listened to other people talk about writing. I talked about talking about writing. “-
That is so true. :)
Mike – I’m developing a Twitter problem. But I’m also getting really good at typing with one thumb while I walk.
Ralph – Is it okay if I use that explanation next time I get into a discussion I’m not qualified to have?
KC – Welcome, and glad I provided something of interest. If I’d known you were working the fair, I’d have stopped by your table. Unless I did. Which table was it?
Gypsy – and to keep it up, I didn’t write anything tonight, either. Except snarky comments on Facebook, which doesn’t really count. Oh well.
How do you think I graduated from college with an English Lit mayor in the first place?
At the very least you will confuse the heck out of them long enough to make your escape. Although I never met a lawyer that will admit that there is such a thing as a discussion they are not qualified to have.
You might be the exception that proves the rule.