I led a craft workshop, “Going the Distance,” at the Conversations & Connections Conference yesterday. It was nice being back on campus–I think I actually taught MFA workshops in Buhl 024 back when I taught at Chatham, so both the campus and classroom were familiar.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect: the only literary conference I’ve attended (or presented at) is AWP, which has a fairly predictable rhythm and schedule from year to year. But by the end of the C&C Conference, I felt newly energized and re-focused on both teaching and writing. Still do. In other words, it was just what I needed.
I think part of it was just being around so many other writers and getting caught up in their excitement. I attended two panels: “How to Add Magic to Your Writing” and “Kind of Based on True Events: Using Real Life in Your Fiction,” took copious notes, and have much to mentally unpack, from the way landscapes organically create “magic” to the dividing line between magical realism and fantasy to the power of “hard, true things” from one’s experience and how to incorporate them into fiction.
I stayed on campus a little longer than I’d planned. Also, I broke my own suggestion about compartmentalization and spent longer prepping for my craft workshop than I’d intended, but considering the outcome, it’s been a good example of “strongly spent is synonymous with kept,” as Frost once said.
Anyway, for the students who attended my craft workshop, thank you for your questions and energy–your enthusiasm and openness towards the subject matter was inspiring, especially after a long day. But anyway, here are a few things I’d like to add:
1. In terms of frontloading your prep work: if you’re writing about characters who come from a much different background than yours, start by reading a couple novels & nonfiction books about them first (biographies and memoirs might be a good place to start.)
(I suspect many authors conduct rudimentary research, write the book, and then, shortly before publication, ask a friend to read and report whether the book is “racist.” You can imagine the problems that arise if the answer is “Yes. Racist AF.” If the characters of color matter–and why include them if they don’t?–any number of stressful plot-related revisions might become necessary.)
And don’t get me wrong: I think it’s wonderful when people write about characters different than themselves, but the truth is that stereotypical or inaccurate portrayals–portrayals that deny a group its humanness–make life harder for real people in the real world.
If you’re writing about a Hispanic family living in East Philadelphia and you don’t have a lot of experience with that particular culture, meaningfully interacting with them is probably more helpful than reading about them. There are probably a number of multicultural groups or churches or volunteer organizations in East Philly that would love to close the gap between cultures (and might be happy to contribute to a more realistic portrayal of themselves in literature). Finally, if you’re taking something from a community, give back–mentor someone in a Big Brother Big Sisters program, for example, and everyone wins.
2. Here is a longer explanation of Chuck Palahniuk’s “egg timer” method, from the man himself:
“Two years ago, when I wrote the first of these essays it was about my “egg timer method” of writing. You never saw that essay, but here’s the method: When you don’t want to write, set an egg timer for one hour (or half hour) and sit down to write until the timer rings. If you still hate writing, you’re free in an hour. But usually, by the time that alarm rings, you’ll be so involved in your work, enjoying it so much, you’ll keep going. Instead of an egg timer, you can put a load of clothes in the washer or dryer and use them to time your work. Alternating the thoughtful task of writing with the mindless work of laundry or dish washing will give you the breaks you need for new ideas and insights to occur. If you don’t know what comes next in the story… clean your toilet. Change the bed sheets. For Christ sakes, dust the computer. A better idea will come.”
3. Here is a link to that article by Mindy Kaling about entitlement and confidence.
4. During the workshop, I asked, “What makes a book worthy of being read voluntarily by people who don’t know you?”
Here is a full list of my answers, and please do feel free to add your own in the comments:
The book makes someone feel less alone. That sounds hokey, but I remember being 15 and growing up as basically the only Asian-American person in a 50-mile radius. I read A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee and thought, holy crap, I thought I was the only person who felt this way, who had these experiences. I was awestruck by the way the book was able to articulate my exact feelings (it felt like I’d written the book somehow, if that makes any sense), and it was of immeasurable comfort then to realize that there were other people who had gone through the same stuff. And to know that they’d made it out.
*The book shows someone a place that they’ve never seen, or that they’ve been prevented from seeing
*The book helps the reader understand someone who’s much different, or comes from a different experience
*The book speaks to a silence in our society (Gone Girl exploring the dark side of the female psyche in a way that wasn’t common at the time)
*The book moves the world an inch. I remember really having my worldview shaken after finishing Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and while I didn’t become a vegetarian or start advocating for migrant rights, the way I perceived and valued human life was different, new. There are a number of ways one can spend his or her time, but how many of them have the power to change a stranger’s life?
Other ways to measure worthiness:
*The book has a built-in audience
*The book appeals to a wide & established interest (auctions, child beauty pageants, hoarders)
*It’s entertaining, in the Michael Chabon sense
*The author has significant credentials or blurbs
*The book is current or relevant (Girl at War, You Know When the Men Are Gone)
If you’re struggling to understand why your project is worthy of Mindy Kaling-style confidence, think about books you’ve read that stayed with you long after you finished, or go to a bookstore and see what’s working on the shelves (and what’s notably absent from the shelves). As I mentioned during the talk, make a list if you have to. Post it next to your computer and internalize it.
5. Suggestions for productivity role models: Matt Bell and Amelia Gray for short story writers and novelists, Michelle Lin for poets, and Marissa Landrigan for nonfiction writers. You should find someone roughly the same age as you, from a similar background and genre. This way, you’ll grow with them, and they’ll also serve as writing career role models.
Michelle Lin just earned her MFA; Bell, Gray and Landrigan are more established as writers. At any rate, the trick is finding someone who inspires and intimidates you back into your writing chair. If you have suggestions for role models, please feel free to leave them in the comments as well!
6. I mentioned this near the end, but the packet I handed out contains the full email responses from Sherrie Flick, Aubrey Hirsch, and Sarah Shotland about pre-publication blues and post-publication triumphs. I only had time to read excerpts during the talk.
7. Here’s the Instagram account I mentioned during the talk. Sweet dreams!
8. Lastly, I asked writers to answer two big questions, and I hope all of you return to those exercises and revise them. But I’d also recommend one last piece of practical advice, which I’m saying in a Walter White voice because it’s a Walter White quote: “Respect the chemistry.”
One secret to publishing short stories is to work for a literary journal. When you work for a literary journal, you learn what not to do by seeing awful cover letters and sloppy manuscripts over and over. But you also gain an understanding, and a respect, for the process. And that respect is crucial. A lot of people just want to get published, so they skip steps and half-ass things. It never goes well. The truth is, getting published is all about waiting in line and asking for things. And the only way you’ll truly understand and respect that process is to trade your writer’s hat for a slush-reader or editor’s hat.
If I hadn’t volunteered as a slush-reader for a literary journal, I would have become unreasonably frustrated and upset by the dozens of rejections I was getting for each story I’d written. I spent a lot of time on them, damnit, and I loved them. I might have stopped writing, or even become one of those people who emails editors rejection notes of their rejection notes.
I developed a fairly thick skin by getting rejected so much, and for some reason, I thought my knowledge of literary journal publishing would scale to book publishing. It didn’t. Because in book publishing, capitalism matters.
The best way to respect the chemistry is to work (probably as a volunteer) for a reputable, articulate literary agent who’s interested in teaching you. A number of my students raved about their internships with different agents. If you’re not in college, I’d imagine many agents would welcome an enthusiastic, invested reader. I’ve gone to a number of events where agents discuss their jobs and I’ve read countless interviews with agents, but I really think working for an agent is the best (and quickest) way to learn the process and figure out how to respect it.
Anyway, I hope that helps. If you have some ideas for what makes a book “worthy,” please feel free to leave them in the comments.
Cat photo from http://www.funnyjunk.com/Floating+judgment+box/funny-pictures/5367004/