Where I’ll be at AWP

Fellow writers! By any chance will you be at the AWP conference in Seattle later this week? If so, here is where you can find me (if, in fact, you’d like to find me):

I fly in to Seattle Wednesday night and will likely be starving after the long flight, hoping against hope that I make it to the hotel before the lobby restaurant and room service closes for the night, but that’s not your problem.

My panel is the first day, Thursday morning, and if you’re interested writing YA or children’s books, I hope you’ll join us:

Thursday, Feb. 27: 10:30 am to 11:45 am

Room 618/619/620, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6 R151. Commercial Literary Fiction (Not an Oxymoron): The Place of Craft in Writing and Teaching Children’s and Young Adult Literature. (Micol Ostow,  Stephanie Kuehnert,  Laurel Snyder,  Sara Zarr,  Nova Ren Suma) Young Adult and Children’s literature are exciting, increasingly popular markets that many writers want to break into. How do you make your manuscript—or help make your students’ manuscripts—stand out… and sell? How does being commercial mean respecting the reader, not something crass? Five published YA and Children’s authors will present exercises they employ in their own writing, and in workshops they teach, to develop authentic voice, characters, and story worlds that editors will snap up.

If you can’t make that, I have a whole list of panels I’m trying to hit during the conference, most of which I’ll keep to myself, but here are a few panels I am trying not to miss. If you happen to be there, and see me, say hi! I can be shy in crowds.

Thursday, Feb. 27: 4:30 pm to 5:45 pm

Room 604, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6 R263. How to Write About a Murderer. (Madge McKeithen,  Jessica Handler,  Arlene Kim,  Kate Sweeney,  Nick Twemlow) Can a writer adopt an alternate persona or innovative style to explore disturbing subjects? How does altered identity or medium affect a writer’s process and a reader’s experience? Five writers who work in prose, poetry, film, audio, and visual art discuss examples of their adopted personae and structural choices and give examples of ways these applications break boundaries and add perspective in articulating story. Participants discuss one another’s work and choices that have inspired theirs.

Friday, Feb. 28: 10:30 am to 11:45 am

Room 3B, Washington State Convention Center, Level 3 F140. Magic and the Intellect(Lucy Corin,  Rikki Ducornet,  Kate Bernheimer,  Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum,  Anna Joy Springer) In her essay “The Deep Zoo” Rikki Ducornet writes: “the work of the writer is to move beyond the simple definitions or descriptions of things… and to bring a dream to life through the alchemy of language; to move from the street—the place of received ideas—into the forest—the place of the unknown.” On this panel five fiction writers intend to describe, depict, illustrate, and otherwise expose this movement from known to unknown in order to ask: what do we mean when we say “magic”?

Friday, Feb. 28: 3:00 pm to 4:15 pm

Room 101, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 1 F261. The (She) Devil Inside: Unlikable Women in Fiction. (Rebecca Johns,  Julia Fierro,  Samantha Chang,  Marie Myung-ok Lee) “Bad men get to be king. Bad women get to swallow poison and die,” wrote Lisa Santoro in the Huffington Post. But why should we settle for such a fate for our female characters, as readers and especially as writers? Do fictional women always have to be sympathetic to be worth reading? Using examples from multiple genres, this panel will examine how bad women can make for good storytelling.

Saturday, March 1: 3:00 pm to 4:15 pm

Room 612, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6 S245. Small Town Girls. (Caroline Patterson,  Leslee Becker,  Beverly Lowry,  Tami Haaland) Small towns are places where life is lived up close. Four writers of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction from across the United States will explore their lives as girls in small towns—the restrictiveness versus the freedom, censure versus the subterrannean social life, and the freedom of the natural world versus the restrictiveness of the social world.

Saturday, March 1: 4:30 pm to 5:45 pm

Aspen Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor S257. How Far Do You Go: Sex in YA Fiction. (Sarah Mlynowski,  Robin Wasserman,  Adele Griffin,  E. Lockhart) The only thing more awkward than adolescent sex is writing about it. These writers have published an extensive, wide-ranging variety of books for teenagers that touch on themes of early sexual experience and all its attendant issues. From the question of age-appropriate content to technical points of writing a thrilling kiss to the challenges of exploring the implications of a sexual awakening, the panel is sure to engender lively, candid conversation.

And on Friday night, I very well may be stopping through here to meet up with my fellow YA people in town for the conference:

AWP with a dash of YA
Friday, February 28 at 6:30 pm
POLAR BAR  (it’s in the Arctic Club, Seattle)
700 3rd Avenue
*This YA drinks night isn’t an AWP event—and is open to the public!

Otherwise, I’ll be around—hope to see some friendly faces!

A Barely There Summary of AWP Day 3

To anyone who hasn’t attended this conference before: if you decide to stop reading now so I don’t exhaust you with the summary of my last day—I’m exhausted enough, no use passing it on to anybody else—just know this conference is most definitely worth it. Not only am I glad I went, I would do it again. As in next year. Seriously: I liked it so much, I’m already thinking ahead to how I can go again.

My third and last day at the conference tired me out, though, to the point where I couldn’t even stay for a reading I’d planned to see, and when I got home I was even too tired to write this post.

My first panel of the day, called “Mystery at the Heart of Story” had me taking down feverish notes about invented rituals in stories, how the visible thing in a story can reveal the invisible thing (the mystery), how stories can come at their essential mysteries sideways, and stories as prose puzzles. At some point in there I got an idea for how to work through one of my especially stubborn stories and was sneaking notes on that in my own margins. This was a very, very good panel, and, as I remember, most of the panelists taught in the Warren Wilson MFA program. I get the sense that the students who go there are in a good spot.

All I will say about the next panel I went to is… not much. I don’t want to be mean. The Panel That Shall Not Be Named was so very bad that if I had been a prospective student for the program that had sponsored it and heard this from its instructors and students, I would have run away screaming. I’ll stop talking about it now.

Other panels were “Saying Goodbye to Sweet Valley High: The New Young Adult Literature”—and Margo Rabb’s presentation about how she thought she was writing a literary novel that happened to be told from a teenager’s perspective but that sold as YA was especially fascinating for me. (When she had originally told a fellow writer how it had sold, the response was “what a shame.”) And the panel “Memoir and Memory,” which, though I’m not a memoirist, gave me ideas. All you can ask from all of this is ideas.

I had planned to hear a reading at 4:30, but I was flat-out exhausted. We made one last pass through the bookfair, where we saw an old college acquaintance and had some awkward moments saying-and-not-saying what we’ve since done with our lives, picked up some books, and then we were on the subway home.

I think the conference would have been better had I had a hotel room so I could nap, or drop off heavy books, or just take a moment from the swirling crowds. Ideally the hotel room would be in the conference hotel itself, if that’s not too expensive.

Next year’s conference is in February 2009, in Chicago. I’d like to go. (Plus, I have an incredible friend there… maybe she’ll be around and maybe, just maybe, want to go with me?)

AWP Day 2

I am too worn out to come up with a better title for this post, that’s how much happened today.

The AWP conference this morning started early, too early for many, I imagine, seeing as how my first panel was sparsely attended for such a huge room. This was “On Adapting and Being Adapted”—about novels being turned into screenplays, and I’d meant to go with e, who beyond being my other half owns, or could own, the options to every single story and novel manuscript I’ve ever written or will write. I tell him this all the time, but I don’t think he believes me. I’d sell him anything he wanted for one dollar, okay no dollar, okay fine it’s all his if he wants it. He’s my own personal director and someday he’ll make a movie of something I wrote, I know it. But 9am in Midtown was crazy-early for e, who is a night owl, so I went there, one of the few conference-goers who made it, and learned the following:

Seeing your novel adapted is hard to describe. One novelist said it was like watching your spouse make love to someone else, or no like watching your child make love to someone, or no… like watching your spouse make love to your child? She wasn’t sure how to put it to words, just that it makes your bowels shiver.

Another writer brought up what Ken Kesey supposedly said when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was being made. The filmmakers invited him to the set to see a scene being filmed and he said, “That would be like saying your daughter’s being raped on a street corner, want to come watch?” (Is this true? Did he really say that?)

But all horror stories aside, hey, I’m not scared! Having my fiction adapted by the person I love is like giving him a present—like something I baked maybe, if I baked, let’s pretend my kitchen is bigger and has a countertop and I actually do—and watching him eat it. Once he swallows it, I let go—it’s all his.

(I’ve given him a couple of things and he says he’s adapting one now… I told him to turn it into whatever he wants it to be, change whatever he wants, really. Maybe it’s so easy for me to say that without any bowels shivering or horrifying analogies because I trust his vision. Maybe I just love him a whole lot.)

I have a lot more notes from the adaptation panel, but I’ll move on.

The panel “From Stories to Novels: Crossing the Great Divide” had me feeling, in parts: exhilarated, inspired, deeply depressed, frustrated at my slow progress, annoyed at how I got myself crammed into the middle of a row and I really should have chosen a better seat, excited about returning to my novel, excited about novels in general, a clear sense of how to tackle it, or a clearer sense. Either way, lots to think about there, and in a good way.

Then there was an incredible panel about “Writers Revealing Family”—the full title of the panel inspired by this quote from William Faulkner:

“If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

I was intensely impressed by the papers the writers of this panel read—about the denial of what consequences there might be in writing about your own family (in my head this big red screen and the flashing words *WARNING* *WARNING* *WARNING* which I pushed down and promptly ignored, clearly in a bit of denial still myself). And Susan of ReadingWritingLiving blew me away by her essay. I was so impressed I went up after to introduce myself and tell her how much I liked what she wrote, but she was surrounded by people who wanted to do the same and I got shy and slipped out of there. Don’t worry, I got to meet her later and apologize for my sudden bout of shyness! (Susan, your panel was truly fantastic.)

Which brings me to the highlight of my day: my first meeting with a blog friend in real life—I have actually never done this before!—Jade Park. We met up and went to lunch and then spent the rest of the afternoon going to panels together. I have to tell you guys, she is hysterical. Both e and I adored her. The weirdest part was how not-weird it was to meet and hang out with her. It felt like I’ve known her for years, like we just hadn’t seen each other for a while and were having lunch to catch up, not like we just met five minutes before. How cool is that?

The day did have some gray spots. Some rain, sure, also some periods in some of the panels where, let’s just say I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. But a certain person was cracking me up so I can’t even say that with a straight face.

As for tomorrow, I have high hopes, a bunch of stuff planned out without even a break for lunch, maybe I’ll run into some people I know, maybe not, and then the conference is over.

Sunday is back to real life: a looming deadline I am now officially behind on, but let’s pretend we don’t know anything about that. Tomorrow will be better that way.

A Day of Books, Stories, More Books, More Stories, and Long Lines (AWP Day 1)

I’ve been at the AWP conference all day. So many writers. So many choices. Such narrow escalators. Book-fair tables for miles. Only three stalls in each women’s bathroom, talk about lines! Let’s just say it’s been a jam-packed day.

The first panel I attended was “Shaping a Short Story Collection”—first thing in the morning, in a giant ballroom lit by golden chandeliers. Choice quote: “There’s one profitable short-story collection published a year, and Jhumpa Lahiri already wrote it.” —Steve Almond

Speaking of Steve Almond, I love that guy’s writing. His first collection is on my list of favorite collections, but what I remember of him mostly was a reading he had at the Sewanee Writers Conference, before that book had officially come out. The story he read, the power with which he read it, damn, it just blew me away. He was just as engaging at this early-morning panel, showing what he really thought of agents and—cringe—marketing, cracking everyone up. Of course, I’m biased, and I’ll admit that while at Sewanee I also happened to be in a workshop with Steve Almond and he said some super-nice things about my piece, even going so far as to read the paragraph aloud because he liked the way it sounded—compliments apparently go a long way with me.

But you don’t want to hear about my unfinished pieces that sound nice but turn out to have no plot, so back to AWP. Everyone at that first panel was good, and coincidentally next on my pile of library books is The Last Chicken in America, by Ellen Litman, the very organizer of the panel—which I am now dying to read, thanks to hearing what she had to say about short stories, my first love, xoxo.

Of course it came up at this panel how agents will look at your story collections, sure, but what they really want you to write is a novel. Editors want novels. Big behemoth corporations like the one that pays my rent (just barely) want novels. Consumers want novels, admit it. So the question short story writers hear is: Where’s your novel? This just happened to me, and I guess it’ll keep happening. I just love short stories so much—why don’t more people read them?

I’m off-track. That panel was only the first hour-and-a-half.

What came next was me, in a room full of literary journals, swooning. Can you picture it? The book fair was on three separate floors. I was joking to E that I could have brought a suitcase to lug all the journals home I wanted to take. As it stood, my bag, and E’s bag, were so full they could barely zipper shut. I guess I can always bring the suitcase tomorrow.

While at the book fair, I paused near the Tin House table (Tin House is quite possibly, okay, most definitely my favorite literary magazine) and E said I looked like I was staring at a puppy dog in the window. With such longing. (Yes, I was.)

Anyway, a cool moment came when we passed by the table for Gulf Coast, the literary journal that published my first-ever short story. The two editors behind the table asked if we’d ever heard of Gulf Coast and here I confessed, yes, I have, some years ago you published my first story! The new editors weren’t on staff then, but they seemed just as pleased to meet me as I was to meet them. I remembered getting that first acceptance letter, stuffed in my own SASE. I opened it on the subway platform, expecting a rejection. Gulf Coast was the first door that opened to me; I will always love Gulf Coast.

There were a few other panels that day. Joyce Carol Oates was worth seeing. I had planned to go to a panel called “Real or Imagined: The Line Between Young Adult, Crossover & Adult Fiction” when I had a sudden intense desire to ditch it and head over to “Off the Page: Writers Talk About the American Landscape”—and it was the right decision. As someone who writes about place so often, a very specific place, what was discussed in that panel really resonated with me. Besides, Margot Livesey was there. Her novel Eva Moves the Furniture is a personal favorite.

It’s funny—I’d been so excited about that YA panel, but then in the last second I changed my mind and wanted to be somewhere else. Maybe, sitting in that seat while the panel was just getting started, maybe I saw a bit of life flash before my eyes—like I knew who I was, and where I wanted to be, maybe. Like I see enough YA fiction at work and it was time to think about something else, the something else I always meant to be thinking about all along? I’m not sure. I just booked it for the other ballroom.

I love thinking about the imagined landscape, the landscape of memory, the landscape in my memories, which sometimes feel like dreams. This place is there, in me, though I haven’t lived there in forever and never again will, thank god. “You don’t have to love a landscape to write well about it. You can put a curse on it.” —Charles Baxter said, while talking about “The Minneapolis Poem” by James Wright, the best poem ever written about Minneapolis, he said, though it’s not very nice. (Read it here.)

And now final quote of the day, passed on from Grace Paley, during a panel called “Writing the Unspeakable: The Truth Behind Fiction, Fiction as Truth,” about the inevitable advice writers get to write what you know, which I was just talking about with one of my writing friends: “Write about what you don’t know about what you know.” Good advice.

Three Days Off, Lots to Do

Tomorrow morning I will be getting up early, as usual, taking the F train uptown, as usual, sneak-reading some pages of my book while hanging one-handed on a pole, as usual, getting out at my usual stop, just a few blocks away from the office and…

Not going to the office.

Instead I’m going to the annual writing and publishing conference held by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). Most people I’ve mentioned it to haven’t heard of it. I’ve tried to explain it a couple of times, but really I have no idea what it will be like—I’ve never been to one. But to answer some of the questions I’ve gotten, no I am not going somewhere to write for three days—it’s not a workshop—and no I am not going there to market a book or try to snag an agent—no interest in that, not now. I haven’t been an MFA student in a long time, so I don’t even have that excuse. I’m just going. Because I want to. I’m going to just think about writing, to let writing take up a very large space in my brain for the next three days.

So I picked up my pass today during lunch and also came away with an astoundingly thick book that contains the schedule of events and other information—it’s too heavy to carry around but I guess I have to. It came in a shoulder bag that smells like toxic plastic, but I’m not complaining.

Tomorrow I have plans to check out the book fair and attend panels about short stories, what is or what is not young adult fiction, and readings, of course, readings. And e’s coming with me.

Also my plan is to not go to work*, even though I’ll be right there. I’ll leave my swipe card at home so I won’t even be able to get in the building if I wanted to.

* You might be thinking: WHY would she even consider going to work, even for five minutes? I just like to keep on top of things and I hate leaving work for other people. But it doesn’t matter, because I don’t think anyone in the office would let me in!

So, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. Hope e is too.