A Tale Of Two Writer's Conferences

I just returned from two back-to-back conferences and am reeling a bit from what I’ve seen as I begin to peddle my novel after quietly writing it for the past 12 years.

Association of Writers and Writing Programs—I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot

I’ve been to the formidable AWP Conference several times in the past, but always hung to the sides, picking up what craft or marketing information I could, but not feeling quite “legitimate” without a finished manuscript. I’d found my first AWP pretty frosty. Twice, someone I’d sat next to at a lecture responded to my “hello” with a quick look at my name tag and, apparently seeing nothing useful, turned full-body to the evidently more credentialed person on their other side. I’d been taken aback at such a PR faux pas. How do they know I won’t be the next Donna Tartt? So, this is the world we’re in, I thought, as I was repeatedly mowed down again and again until I figured out a system—leave the current session before the Q&A and you’d have a prayer at being able to get into the next, even though you’d probably still end up sitting on the floor.

It was at bit warmer this time. I knew a few people: the poet Parneshia Jones, who I’d met at Ragdale and author Paul Lisicky, who’d led a workshop I’d taken at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute a few years back.  I felt like a celebrity at Four Way Books when they recognized my name as the host of a salon this fall for Christina Pugh to introduce her new book, Perception. When I somehow qualified for a free copy of Elizabeth Strout’s new book I thought I was in like Flynn.

Still, there were 550 events. And, 12,000 writers vying for attention, queuing up like mad for every agent/publisher, asking multi-part “questions” of speakers hoping they’d register as so brilliant that surely they’d be begged for their manuscripts.  It was an ambitious and aggressive space, and everyone seemed to take that for granted.   The attendees were fashion funky, pretty evenly gender split, and primarily in, or on the cusp of either end of their third decade. Many were lost the first day, but more sure footed by the second as they sprinted around the massive Washington DC Convention Center in the ten minutes between crowded sessions, hoping to score a quick granola bar in one of the long concession lines. A choice for sustenance did inevitably mean you’d end up sitting on the floor.

Speakers were universally provocative and political—the daunting reality of the Trump-drenched atmosphere. We all wanted to throw our arms around Jennifer Egan who confessed she’d been right at the end of the final draft of her current novel on Inauguration Day, then stymied with depression. I mean, we actually all wanted to BE her, with her Pulitzer-winning Goon Squad talent, but would settle for offering comfort. Maybe she’d be grateful and recommend our manuscript?

The pace was insane and it was easy to feel out of it. So many events were happening that sounded off book—even a massive protest march, they said. You apparently had to be in the “know” to be aware of all that was going on. Just before a panel on Susan Sontag which featured incredible speakers but no overall “point,” I dipped into a “Over 50” session filled with festive grey hair, tipped with what Katherine Hepburn would have called “colors not found in nature”—purple, green and teal. They were earnest and eager, desperate for reassurance. I backed out early, sympathetic but unable--or unwilling--to self identify.

I left with a raging cold, a legacy of freezing conference rooms and a missed turn back to my hotel where I circled the block three times, teary from the wind, too cold to take off my gloves to work Google maps.

San Miguel Writer’s Conference—I’m Not Going to Give Up My Seat

After a quick strep test I was off to the Writer’s Conference in beautiful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which was warmer in every sense of the word. Here, age-wise I was firmly in the middle of the primarily female and very friendly and curious audience--a mix of readers and writers, most working on memoir. It moved slower. No one would think of sitting on the floor, but some were enjoying lolling about on blankets and pillows in the sun on the beautiful grounds of the Hotel Real de Minas. The wardrobe was Mexican fiesta with bright colors, beach hats and the essential San Miguel sandals so you wouldn’t break an ankle on the cobblestones. Food was important—and everywhere--and I may never eat guacamole and taco chips again (something I never thought I’d say). 

 Mary Karr with Rita Dragonette

Mary Karr with Rita Dragonette

The speakers were there to be entertaining, with only occasional smart-ass remarks about Trump. Memoirist Mary Karr was side splitting. Her definition of narcissism was her mother staggering out of a bar in her stiletto’s looking up at the moon and saying “I have an earring like that.” Karr told a story about the Chanel-clad agent who’d encouraged her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, and I realized I’d seen the agent on an AWP panel earlier in the week. She’d shared a funny story about, as a cub, having to cut 100 pages out of a Simone De Beauvoir book. Her client roster is platinum but I wondered, fleetingly, if she’d give my debut novel a chance if I let her know it includes a running gag about Simone. Too much?

I held my coughing and nose blowing to after each of Billy Collins’ very funny and deceptively simple poems. By David Ebershoff’s lecture I was able to hear the fascinating 20-year journey from idea to book to movie of The Danish Girl on a single cough drop. The editor I pitched (despite what was on her web site) was not interested in fiction.  Had I considered my story as a memoir? she asked, bringing up a dilemma I’d settled long ago.

There was a curious insistence on etiquette. There were “rules” about noise (frequent shouts of “Sound” or “Volume”), timing ( rhythmic clapping would begin on the stroke of the start time and accelerate until the speaker began), and the avoidance of cardinal sins (standing or sitting in another person’s sight line, attempting to save a seat too long or, god forbid, cutting in line). Again, hard to self identify, particularly after the athletic techniques I’d just employed to get into AWP sessions.

In all, I was motivated but sick, and longed to settle in to a blanket in the back of the lecture hall, and listen with my eyes closed. I was pretty sure at the AWP I’d have been walked over, if not on. At San Miguel they would have covered me, but gone on to turn out the lights and lock the door.

What I learned

Despite challenging "cultures," there was information galore at both conferences. I learned I need a great idea (check—at least in my own mind), excellent craft (which is “assumed” by an MFA--is my Certificate from the University of Chicago close enough for a check?), to be a good literary citizen (those salons I hold, yeah!..check), and an ability to market (multiple checks).  How does it add up? Do my 30 years in marketing trump (sorry, there’s just no other word) the fact that I have the wrong degree?

Above all I wonder about velocity. The pace to succeed is thunderous, the need to capture attention instantaneous. Marketing and profile-wise I'm pretty certain I can pull this off. But I worry if there will be patience for the slow-build development of my novel’s teenage protagonist into her political dilemma. Should I change it now or wait until the inevitable rewrites? In other words, do I pull it off the market to remodel the kitchen, or trust that a buyer will either love it as is or see its potential? My inner perfectionist gnaws. Maybe I’ll decide by the time this cough is absolutely gone…

Getting my shot is going to be tough indeed. However, these conference experiences have convinced me more than ever that I do want my seat at the table. At this stage of the game, I’ll be happy to sit anywhere, even on the floor—as long as there are pillows.