Conference Talk: The Importance of Student Sharing

From The Brevity Blog, August 28 2017

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.

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“Real” Writers Doing “Real” Work

From Hippocampus Magazine’s Writing Life Column, August 2017

For 10 years, I told myself I wasn’t a writer, but almost every single day, I wrote.

What was holding me back? Why couldn’t I say the word?

It felt pretentious – even now that I have publishing credits and bylines and have been employed by a few literary magazines, it still feels a little like I’m five years old and telling people, “I’m going to be president! I’m going to be an astronaut!” I mean, technically it’s possible – but it seems too far away, or large, or unknown to be real.

For the 10 years when I wasn’t a writer but still writing (basically my entire twenties), I did so in order to keep myself sane. During that time, I was struggling with an anxiety disorder and experiencing major depressive episodes, both of which had largely gone unaddressed.

This brings us to the first reason I couldn’t bring myself to call myself a writer – I didn’t like myself. I couldn’t imagine giving myself any credit for anything, especially an activity that felt so pedestrian. I mean, I had been doing it for my whole life. As soon as words started to make sense, my little brain clicked and screamed, “This is how you make sense of the world, girl!”  Writing was like brushing my teeth or going to the bathroom. It was something I did every single day so my body and my life kept working. It was maintenance for a messy, overcrowded, and very dark mind.

The second reason is also related to the anxiety and depression. I couldn’t really “write.” Anytime I tried to do it – that is, anytime I told myself, “I’m going to write!” and then sat down in front of a blank screen with the hopes of creating something cool and beautiful that I would want to share with everyone I knew because damn, how could I not? – I froze. Of course, now I know this approach was similar to saying, “I’m going to compete in a marathon,” without having run a little bit everyday for months beforehand. Funny enough, the big, intentional, this-is-going-to-be-good writing practically never seemed to come, but when it came to the crappy, rambling, couldn’t-make-sense-of-this-shit-if-you-paid-me writing, I couldn’t stop. It never occurred to me that within the hundreds of documents of crap I’d saved, there were tiny little seedlings of essays, just waiting for me to pay attention to them.

This is all to repeat the same message you’ve probably read from countless wise, experienced authors giving advice to younger ones – if you write, you’re a writer. That’s seemingly it. But while it’s easy to say that, I think it’s much harder to walk the walk. To believe it yourself. To call yourself the W-word without flinching. But maybe it’s about changing the way we acknowledge the word, and what it means.

When I was younger, and definitely during my 10-year self-imposed semi-hiatus, I used think Real Writers were people like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. I thought they went somewhere (an office? their attic? a coffee shop?) at 9 a.m. and said, I’m at work now. I’m at writer-work. And then they would spew off brilliance, chapters and chapters of it, until 5 p.m. when they met other Real Writers to discuss narrative structure and 18th century character development over stiff martinis.

This meant that in my mind, practically everyone else who wrote – those just making it work, scribbling down ideas at lunchtime, those who went weeks without even touching a new project, those who made their living some other way, some distant place that had nothing to do with writing whatsoever – weren’t Real Writers. They – and of course, I mean we – were something else. Frauds? Impostors? Playing pretend until we “made it big?”

Thinking about it now, it’s so insulting, not just to myself, but to every writer who wasn’t visible to me (or perhaps just wasn’t visible, period). Those who published books that didn’t make it to Amazon’s front page. Those who did readings in cities I didn’t live in. Those who self-published. Those who hustled and worked and never published at all. Those who went to the coffee shop or office or attic every day and just did the work because they needed to – no fanfare, no book parties, no options or agents or broadsides. Those who wrote because it was how they made sense of the world. Those who might not have the opportunity (or even the desire) to make it to the point where everything else in life disappears because being this thing – A Real Writer – was all they needed.

After those 10 non-writer years, it took getting laid off and falling into a deep depressive episode for me to figure out that no one single thing – not even writing – can save us. The perfect job will do nothing for you if all the other parts of life suffer, or starve, or disappear. When I got laid off, I was devastated, but also confused – why was this so difficult? I didn’t even LIKE the damn job I lost! But losing it made me reach elsewhere in my life for something good, and when I did, I found a writing life that had gone ignored and buried, and friends I had neglected to stay in touch with because I was too busy achieving some impossible picture of success.

While the depression and anxiety didn’t magically disappear once I started to re-balance my life and integrate work and writing and my friendships more thoughtfully, I did learn how to navigate the rocky terrain of my brain much better. Having a lot of different baskets to put my eggs in, as it were, made me feel less panicked about everything working out perfectly. If I got a writing rejection, if I lost another job, if a friend turned their back on me – I’d have another reason to wake up in the morning. Learning to forgive myself for being imperfect, for not achieving Real Writer-dom, for wasting 10 years feeling distinctly not good enough – it opened up the room I needed to do the real work of my life.

I see now that the books and the tours and the notoriety are simply byproducts of that real work, the work that is messy and imperfect and happens at all hours of the night day and that, quite often, feels like scrambling in the dark. That even J.K. Rowling and Stephen King spent hours staring at a blank screen, working random non-writing-related jobs, refusing to call themselves the W-word because it didn’t feel real.

This is not a new idea or an earth-shattering realization, but it’s no less important. Real Writers all look very different, and all manage their writing lives in different and interesting and valuable ways, and all the other things they are heavily inform that identity and practice. This column can be a space for their voices to come to the forefront. For the invisible to become visible. For those who still might not be able to call themselves Real Writers to see that they are not impostors, doomed to languish in the shadows of the literary illuminati until they somehow, someday, make it big. They – and of course, I mean we – are big enough already. We are bigger than we even realize.

As the new editor of this column, I’m looking for fresh perspectives on the writing life. If you have an idea or a piece that might be right for the column, contact me at rpnonfiction (at) gmail.com

Flash Review: Difficult Women

From Literary Mama’s Now Reading, March 2017

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The protagonists in Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women are just that—women who struggle, who go after what they want, who make heartbreaking compromises, who weather storms with grace. Each one of the short stories in this collection hits a distinctly different note: in one sitting, I met two female friends who show their love in a dystopian fight club, a stripper who suffers a very complicated attack from a devoted customer, and sisters running from a hurtful past into the arms of imperfect saviors.

Each woman I’ve met in this book has been complex, flawed, and gritty, determined to make life work no matter what hardships come her way. It can be troublesome to look for strength in characters who make bad decisions, like many of Gay’s do, but that’s the point—female strength comes in many forms, some of them worrying and counter-intuitive. It has been a heart-opening exercise to work my way through this collection and practice empathy towards every woman Gay introduces me to, to confront my internal bias, and to see myself in each imperfect hero.

Flash Review: Real Artists Have Day Jobs

From Literary Mama’s Essential Reading, January 2016

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I’m a huge fan of Sara Benincasa’s essays and fiction, and her latest book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs, will keep me company well into 2017. The premise is exactly what you’d think, but the hilarious, poignant, and honest essays within provide endless surprises and laughs. What’s great about Benincasa is that she is 100% without pretense—her self-deprecating humor and relatable nature make reading this book feel like you’re having a cocktail with that one particularly snarky and witty friend.

But beyond all that, the advice and insights are thorough and spot-on. ‘Real artists have day jobs, and night jobs, and afternoon jobs. Don’t ever let them tell you you’re not a success. No matter how much time you spend at the office, it’s just a side gig. You are an artist, full-time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.’ With chapter titles like #23, ‘Life is Too Short for Shitty Friends,’ #35, ‘Ask for Exactly What You Want,’ and #47, ‘Realize Your Dress Size Doesn’t Matter,’ it’s hard to find a part of this book I DON’T resonate with.

And at a time when so many other aspects of life are competing for the precious energy I need to write, think, edit, and create, and I’m feeling like I’ll never write another half-decent essay again, it’s great to have someone like Sara around to make me laugh and remind me that (at least according to #48) ‘The Darkness is Where the Good Stuff Starts.'”

Flash Review: H is for Hawk

From Literary Mama’s Now Reading, December 2016

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I’m so deeply engrossed in Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk in a way that few nonfiction books have pulled me in before. After the death of her father, MacDonald turns to an old love to find meaning in her life: falconry. It sounds almost bizarre—trying to tame a wild hunting bird in order to grieve, and perhaps heal.

MacDonald is successful with the deft treatment of not only the history and art of falconry, but the tense emotional development that occurs between captor and captive, owner and pet, hunter and prey. It’s these tenuous relationships that evoke her lost patriarch and shed a new light on what it means to navigate loss. The balance of history and research with a truly moving narrative makes me want to fly back to this gorgeous book again and again.

Flash Review: The Art of Memoir

From Literary Mama’s Essential Reading, September 2016

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This summer, I had the good fortune to attend a nonfiction conference called HippoCamp, which boasted many benefits to the avowed memoirist—chief among them, the chance to hear Mary Karr speak. I’ve been dog-earing and memorizing quotes from her latest book, The Art of the Memoir, since it came out. While I’ve read my share of craft books for nonfiction writers, this particular one hits a note that I come back to, time and again.

It is a comprehensive work, exhaustive in its exploration of the genre, and is written very obviously by a voracious reader. Every example, every theory, every gripe is footnoted with a quote or reference from another excellent work (all collected in the back of the book—thanks, Mary). But beyond that, the book is written with Karr’s signature spitfire wit. She sounds, throughout each chapter, like the wise, smart, tough-as-nails aunt who takes you out to a beautiful lunch and sets your fool-ass straight with a smile. It’s a guide written with the kind of care that makes it widely accessible, and the ever-alluring I-don’t-give-a-hoot attitude that makes it uniquely Mary.

For those who have already finished the Karr library, you’ll find something else in this book that not only solidifies the author as an authority on the subject, but also as the beloved, flawed character you know and love. In this work, Karr emerges as a teacher, even a mother at times—a person who has devoted her life to ushering the rest of us into who or what we were meant to be. In all the recaps I’ve read about HippoCamp, one quote from Karr’s speech kept reappearing: ‘Don’t write how you suffered. Write how you survived.’ For my money, you just can’t get better advice. Thanks, Aunt Mary.

Flash Review: Modern Lovers

From Literary Mama’s Now Reading August 2016

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While I’m certainly not the first person to extol the virtues of Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers as a summer reading staple, I happily join the chorus. I recently took Straub’s latest novel with me to a week-long vacation in Mexico. Under the relentless sun, I was introduced to the book’s colorful cast of characters, all with their own intertwining crises. With a focus that rotates every chapter, and major themes including love, marriage, identity, and art, Straub masterfully slips and twists in and out of plot points, disasters, and denouements. I’ve never been what you’d call a “beach-book” person, unwilling to commit my attention and emotions to lighter fare, simpler language, or two-dimensional characters. So for a lit-loving girl like me who wanted to relax and stay engaged, this smart and charming novel, as thoughtful as it was entertaining, was the perfect seaside companion.