Life Gets in the Way

Last week was a slow writing week. I didn’t even get a chance to sit down and compose until Friday morning. Some spring clean-up, some things I’d been putting off around the house, babysitting, and other obligations intervened. That’s life, but by the time Friday rolled around I not only missed writing, I kicked myself for not making the time to write.

And the weekend of April 5-6 was certainly inspiring. I attended the Tom Wolfe Seminar at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. Wolfe, a 1951 W&L graduate, is so admired by his classmates that they endowed an annual seminar in his name, which pairs Wolfe and another author for a weekend of panel discussions of the author’s work. W&L faculty also present a scholarly address on a particular work of the featured author.

This year the featured author was Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer winner for A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’d read “Goon Squad” right before the Pulitzer announcement because I’d heard it was a novel in stories, something I was interested in exploring. Some of the stories intrigued me, though the PowerPoint story gave me a flashback to working days and countless, bad PowerPoint presentations. I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of the book as a whole, though the writing was excellent.

Turns out Egan never intended that book to be a novel, in stories or otherwise. She knew she had this cast of interrelated characters, and she had decided to write a story for each character; but she wasn’t calling it a “novel” in her own head. Nor did she call it a collection of short stories, though that’s what she intended it to be. It wasn’t until the paperback edition came out that the words “A Novel” appeared on the cover, but that, Egan stated, was likely at the publisher’s instigation–as if “Pulitzer Prize Winner” wouldn’t boost sales.

In truth, I read the book over a period of several weeks, and I think it’s a work you need to finish in a single sitting or not over a protracted amount of time. Otherwise, you tend to forget the connections and the fact that a minor or barely mentioned character in one story is featured in another. So, this seminar, then, along with the two scholarly explorations by W&L professors Christopher Gavaler (“Goon Squad as Pulp Fiction”) and Jasmin Darznik (“The Art of Discontinuity: Time and Memory in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad“), brought the characters back to mind. And the connections clicked. “Goon Squad” is a book I recommend.

Egan’s speech–“Journalist as Novelist; Novelist as Journalist”–was thought-provoking as well. She admits she’s an “accidental journalist” and took advantage of a job offer from The New York Times Magazine to conduct research for her novel Look at Me. The emphasis on research as a journalist improved her lot as a novelist, Egan stated, and she lauded the recent trend in writing non-fiction along the lines of fiction and vice-versa. In all, a very inspiring talk, and Egan was self-deprecating; no swelled-head Pulitzer diva in the house.

This past weekend I attended a two-day workshop on Speculative Fiction by Edward M. Lerner and hosted by WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. It wasn’t so much a craft workshop as an in-depth explanation of what speculative fiction is, the elements of speculative fiction, its place in the current publishing market, and its related fandom. Lerner, who has co-authored with Larry Niven in addition to publishing several “hard” sci-fi novels on his own, is very knowledgeable of the topic and gave an excellent presentation with plenty of opportunity to ask questions. In truth, it was more of a refresher for me because I’ve read spec fic since I was a teen, but it did inspire me to give writing sci-fi a second (or third or twentieth) chance.

Why? Well, Lerner himself is a physicist, but he has written sci-fi books on nanotechnology, medical thrillers, and other non-physics topics through research and contacting subject matter experts. That approach doesn’t put it out of my wheelhouse, even though I’ve always thought I didn’t have the science chops to pull off writing sci-fi. However, the first story I had published in eFiction Magazine was sci-fi–“Without Form or Substance.” It was about time travel, but, unbeknownst to me until Lerner’s workshop, I used time travel as a trope. It was there and central to the plot, but the details of how it worked were unnecessary.

So, a great workshop for inspiration or, rather, renewing inspiration. If you live near Charlottesville, VA, give WriterHouse a look. In addition to providing space for actual writing, its workshops are always top-notch.

After all that, here’s hoping this week is more productive. I’d cross my fingers, but I need them to type.

AWP13 – Day Three

I didn’t read the description for the first session I chose for Saturday, “A Room of Their Own: How to Make the Most of (or Create) a Writer’s Workspace.” I thought it would be about how to organize your home office or writing area, but it was far more interesting than that. The unfortunate part about it was half the panel didn’t show up and hadn’t advised the moderator. She didn’t say it outright, but she hinted they were at AWP and just hadn’t bothered to show up. She was embarrassed and apologetic, but she filled in quite ably. I’m omitting the names of all the panel so I don’t further anyone’s embarrassment, but really?

The session was about establishing a space for writers to come have a place to write in peace. The two panelists discussed the virtues of doing this as a business (profit or non-profit), as a profession, or just as a community offering. One thing is for sure, I’ll never question my $52/year membership in Charlottesville’s WriterHouse again. Writer spaces in Boston and New York rent for $300 or more per quarter. Wow!

The “Women in Crime” panel was raucous and entertaining. Moderated by St. Martin’s Press editor Toni Margarita Plummer, the panel of Sophie Littlefield, Linda Rodriguez, and Nicole Peeler explained how they each came up with their unique, “kick-ass” female protagonists. For Littlefield it was divorce and the issue of how aging women are ignored by a society fixated on youth; for Rodriguez it was to highlight the issues of mixed-race native Americans fitting in the caucasian world; and for Peeler urban fantasy was a way to write powerful statements about gender inequality and sexuality using fiction. Very thought-provoking, and the Q&A about gender equality issues in publishing topped off a good session.

Again, I needed to read the session descriptions better because a few minutes into “Career Suicide,” I realized it was about switching teaching jobs, tenure vs. non-tenure, so I opted for lunch instead.

The week before the AWP Conference, VIDA–Women in Literary Arts–had released their analysis of work published in major literary and news magazines, an analysis which showed not only were the numbers worse for women this year than last year. Then, there was buzz at the conference that twenty-three of nearly 500 panels focused on women’s literary issues, while only one focused on men’s. One man tweeted, “Don’t we have issues, too?” (Yeah, don’t get me started.)

The VIDA panel offered a detailed breakdown of the statistics from its news release. For example, the numbers of men and women submitting are almost equal, with men having a one-percent advantage. The panel members were from two literary journals and a well-known, left-leaning political magazine that also has a literary section, mostly reviews and poetry. This is another situation where I’m not listing the names of the panel because one of the literary journal editors–a man–stood up and tried to justify that it was all right to pick more men than women because of quality. That got a bit of an uproar, and the gentleman opted to sit down without finishing. He proceeded to sit at the table and not participate in any further discussion. I rest my case.

However, VIDA showed that where the disparity is minor statistically and as an amalgam, specific publications have significant problems with gender equity in submissions and acceptances. One panel member told the women in the audience, “When an editor calls an wants an op-ed piece, don’t make an excuse, e.g., kids, making dinner, etc.; find a way to do it.”

“Master of None: Surviving and Thriving Without an MFA” featured a moderator and a panel of four successful, young authors (Rebecca Makkai, Samuel Park, Ru Freeman, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, and Ida Hattermer-Higgins, respectively) who had not gone the MFA route. In truth, though, all accept one did have a higher degree, usually in English or literature, but not writing. Because I’ve been going back and forth on whether to get an MFA–I’m pretty certain I don’t want to teach Freshman Comp–I opted to attend this session. All five on the panel had leveraged attendance at writer conferences and workshops, and the networking done there, into procuring agents and traditional publishing contracts.

A good panel, a practical discussion, but it didn’t really help me with my decision. That is all up to me.

I decided to skip the panel on Ray Bradbury, mainly because it was another situation where the convention center security had to control how many people could be in the room. That gave me time for a final walk-through of the Bookfair, where deals could be had.

And then it was over. The Bookfair closed, people started saying goodbye, and the convention center grew quiet. A few people began to speak of AWP14 in Seattle, WA. Yes, it’s that positive an experience–you start talking about next year as this year’s conference draws to a close.

Later this week, an interview with me about my AWP experience will appear on writer Jan Bowman’s blog. I’ll post a link to it under the About Me tab at the top of the page.