By dint of being a student in an MFA Creative Writing Program, I am a member of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.  It was their Annual Conference and Bookfair this past week, and it was held in DC this year.  (Next year it is scheduled for Chicago and I wish them luck with the weather if it’s anything like this year.)  I went down to the conference yesterday, and it was overwhelming!  I heard the number 7,000 bandied about and, although I don’t think there were that many people at any one time, it still felt like a zoo.  They needed two hotels to accommodate it all.

My first stop was the bookfair, where they had set up in the inter-linking ballrooms with row upon row of tables and booths for publishers, printers, magazines, university programs.  Although some of the names rang a bell, much of it was a blur of information-overload, and after about an hour of that I felt quite saturated.  I took a breather to go over the catalogue and get a bite to eat, and then headed off to the first session I had selected.  The conference was from Wednesday to Saturday and there were four sessions a day, with more than twenty to choose from during each time lot.  That gives a sense of the overwhelming nature of it all.  My first session was:

The Intimate Detail.  The importance of the telling detail in depicting a character, place, or situation is a given, and yet, how does it work? How does a small, insignificant detail encapsulate the so much larger, more ephemeral whole that writers are trying to bring to life? We will look at several types of details—details used to depict appearance or place, to create scenes, and to evoke a character’s memories—and try to pull apart how the intimate detail reveals so much.

The opening speaker was novelist, Mary Kay Zuravleff, who has taught at American University, George Mason University, and Johns Hopkins University.  She spoke entertainingly about “having it three ways”, the first being revealing intimate detail (showing flashes of oneself or a character), the second establishing an intimate bond (like a secret), and the third introducing something dissonant or surprising.

Alice McDermott spoke next.   Her novels include Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award; At Weddings and Wakes, which was on the New York Times bestseller list; and After This, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  She also teaches as Johns Hopkins.  She read, twice, a passage by Nabokov – not from Lolita (!) but from his 1951 memoir, Speak, Memory.  She described the delicate and inexorable build up to the intimate detail of a boy’s kiss on his mother’s cheek.  It was beautiful, and her passion was contagious.

Carole Burns is the editor of Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between.  She’s American, but heads up an MFA Creative Writing program in the UK.  She spoke about subtext, using examples from Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Alice McDermott’s After This, and the minimalist short story writer, Mary Robison.

So, that was the first session.  So far so good.  The next one was:

The Road Less Traveled: How to be a Writer Without a Full-time Academic Gig. (Cheryl Strayed, Steve Almond, Amy Holman, Ru Freeman, Christian TeBordo, Kerry Cohen) The path to solvency and security for most writers is to pair writing with full-time jobs in academia. On this panel, six authors will talk about their lives as writers without the de facto college teaching gig. Panelists will discuss the range of ways they’ve supported themselves, the reasons they’ve chosen the paths they have, and also the liberations and constraints they’ve experienced as writers outside the writer-faculty track that’s so deeply embedded in what it means to be a writer today.

I wanted to go to this session because you just never know when your life might turn around. I wondered what else might be out there if, for whatever reason, I no longer have an income from being a classical music DJ.  The novelist and essayist, Cheryl Strayed, moderated this session, and she talked about good years and bad years, running up credit card debt and patching together a living by publishing essays in magazines, leading workshops and conferences, writing book reviews, getting book advances and royalties. 

Steve Almond spoke next, articulately (and profanely!), about the need to take stock of yourself temperamentally, to try to judge how much instability you can manage.  This was useful to me because I know that the instability of a free-lance acting career depressed me.  I would have to be sure that I had something steady as the foundation for any writing I might be lucky enough to do down the road.

Amy Holman is a poet.  She went the route of creating her own career, and she supports herself largely through her business as a literary consultant, advising people how to network and how to get published.  So, she sets aside time to write each day and, for the rest, is acting as a consultant.

Kerry Cohen is the author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, about which the Amazon Editorial Review says, “Despite the rather prurient title, Cohen’s memoir is a deeply poignant, desperately sad account of a confused, directionless adolescent girl’s free fall into self-abnegation.”  She is also a psychologist, so that provides her with another income apart from her writing.  Despite her rather depressing sounding book she was very amusing and ebullient during the session.

Ru Freeman was originally from Sri Lanka and she described how her free-floating non-capitalist background helps her with the unstructured business of being a free-lance writer.  She was quite tongue in cheek about much of it, but did offer a piece of advice that I found valuable: write about things that interest you and that you are passionate about, and create a niche for yourself, then you can build a public speaking portfolio out of it that would create an income.

The last person on the panel was Christian TeBordo, who was the only one who had a regularly paying job, as a copywriter – the other alternative to having that full-time academic gig.  He implied that the plus of having an income like that is that it frees him to write as he likes; he is not reliant on pleasing someone in order to get paid.  (Rather like Charles Ives as a composer, I suppose, who worked as an insurance agent and could write experimental music exactly as he pleased.)

I would have to take Steve Almond’s advice, I think, and ensure that, like Amy Holman, Kerry Cohen and Christian TeBordo, I had the stability of some kind of income before I could take the plunge of trying to make a go of it as a writer.  As an interesting aside, Cheryl Strayed told us in her introduction that she had been speaking with Marion Winik before the session.  (Marion leads the Nonfiction Workshop I am taking.)  She told Cheryl Strayed that her (Marion’s) parents were accountants, and she has been keeping a tally of all her income as a writer from the beginning in the 1980’s.  She has just passed the $1,000,000 mark!  As well as being on the faculty of the Creative Writing Program at UB, Marion has published a number of poetry and nonfiction books, and is also a reviewer, so she is certainly someone who has been able to make a go of it.

The third session I went to was:

Shaping a Life: Voice, Structure, and Craft in Memoir. (Janice Gary, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ben Yagoda, Dustin Beall Smith, Michael Downs) While fiction writers create entire worlds from scratch, those working in the nonfiction genre of memoir must struggle with the bulky material of an existing life. Like a sculptor working with a block of stone, the memoirist’s task is to shape and reveal, fashioning a well-formed text out of a lifetime of experiences. In this session, writers of memoir will discuss the challenges of the form including where to begin, structure and voice, material selection, and other craft considerations.

I knew of Ben Yagoda because a couple of his books are on the list of suggested reading for my Editing Style course.  One of them delights in the title, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse.  He also wrote MEMOIR, A History and used that as the basis for his talk, the point being that it is valuable to look back to inform what is happening now.  He started with a reading from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which was, to all intents and purposes, a memoir, even though the term hadn’t been invented then.  He also touched on writers like Salinger, Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life: A Memoir), and Frank McCourt, whose Angela’s Ashes launched the current style of memoir that is in vogue.

The panel was moderated by Janice Gary, who said that her idea for a panel of this nature grew out of her irritation about people writing off memoir as a viable writing form based on a few dubious memoirs.  The point she was making is that a poor novel will be written off as just that, without suggesting that the novel form is bad because there are poor books written in that genre, whereas the whole genre of memoir will be dismissed on the basis of one self-indulgent or poorly written example.  This whole debate came up again in light of the scathing review by Neil Genzlinger in the January 30th New York Times Book Review, Me.moir – so mean!  Here’s the link…

Genzlinger-t.html?_r=1&sq=neil genzlinger&st=cse&scp=2&pagewanted=print

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