You can have a writing life or you can have a clean house

The 2019 conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, held March 27-30 in Portland, Oregon, was fattening. There were more than 800 exhibitors in the conference expo – indie publishers, small literary zines, editorial services, and a guy who was selling concept-coded dice to help kids write poetry – and most were handing out lollipops, bite-size candies, or chocolates. Except The Paris Review, which had croissants. The expo space, large enough to hold half a dozen defective Boeing airliners, was full of good things to read and bad things to eat.

AWP offered hundreds of panels and workshops over three days exploring every aspect of gender, race, identity, mainstream voices, marginalized voices, writing, publishing, and teaching. There were also more than a hundred off-site events. “This reading will eat you alive,” a smorgasbord of 16 writers promised, while The Cincinnati Review and two other litmags from the heartland billed themselves as a clash of the “Monster Mags of the Midwest.” The off-sites popped up in bars, restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, bookstores, Mar-a-Lago, and on the International Space Station.

This was not just a writing conference. This was an event.

The only day I had was Saturday, and the only time I had covered 0.75 expos, three panels, and one reading (female science fiction writers of the Northwest). What follows is my report, with tips on writing. But first: Merch!

Secret expo missions

I entered the expo with two goals: stripping the place like a one-man plague of locusts and getting my photo taken with every editor of every litmag that has rejected my stories. There were plenty of candidates: Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, Paris Review, The Sun, etc.

The latter plan proved to be unworkable. Either there were no editors present, or the editors were busy, or the editors were 10 feet tall with lightning bolts idling around their heads (cf. Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, Paris Review, The Sun).

Or I scared them. At the table for The Bellingham Review and the MFA program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, I jauntily said to the two 20something women running the place, “I have so many rejections from The Bellingham Review!” I probably don’t have more than three, but I’m a big tipper. One woman was a student, the other was recently a student, neither was an editor, and both looked stricken, as if I had declared, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Fortunately, I’ve made enough verbal gaffes since I first learned to talk that I know how to put the helm over and tack toward safety. I’m familiar with Bellingham, and soon the three of us were safely chatting about Western’s campus, Village Books, and Lake Padden. They gave me a copy of The Bellingham Review. Maybe if I actually read this issue, I’ll write something the editors like for a change.

My other expo mission was a success. This being the last day of the conference, no one wanted to lug all those magazines, books, and other paraphernalia home. Everything was on sale or, failing that, they’d just give it to you. Although now that I’ve been woked by AWP, I wonder if the gross tonnage of stuff I received was directly proportional to me being a clean-shaven, middle-aged white male in a sport coat.

Beats the crap out of the Associated Press lip balm they were handing out that weekend in Providence, Rhode Island, at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

I had to make an extra trip to the parking lot to stash everything in my car. There were no AWP off-site events going on in the back seat.

Now you – yes, you – can become a famous writer just like me

I went to three panels:

  • “You’ve Got This: Finding and Sustaining Self-Reliance While Writing a Novel”
  • “Surviving the Writing Life: Whither, Life Balance?”
  • “Listening to the Art: Committing to Your Book No Matter How Long It Takes”

The panelists and moderators had all come from academia and MFA programs. Reading their credentials in the program book made me feel as if I had come from a mall. However, no one demanded my passport or asked me to explicate a canto, and I learned a lot. I was particularly impressed by the moderator of “Listening to the Art,” Cara Benson, who kept things moving. And hopping. She is exactly the kind of person who can commit to her book no matter how long it takes.

Here are some notes I jotted down while juggling merch and, during one panel, my sandwich.

How to get shit done

A young father said that sometimes you have to neglect your family to advance your writing. “I tell myself, this week I’m going to be a bad dad,” he confessed. “I’ll make it up to them next week.”

One panelist told us about a woman who works on one novel in the morning and another novel in the afternoon. Eventually, one project pulls ahead of the other, and that novel becomes the woman’s focus. (There was no explanation of how she makes a living. Morning novel, afternoon novel, evening shift driving a bus?)

Plan your week. Buy the biggest white board you can find.

Hold yourself to a weekly word or page goal. Colson Whitehead, the conference’s guest of honor, said in his keynote speech that his writing goal is eight pages per week. There’s no magic number, a panelist said. Just pick a number. Any system that works for you, that results in you getting words on a page, “even shitty words,” is the system for you.

Everyone agreed: Don’t waste time rewriting first chapters. One of my toughest challenges. Everyone also agreed: Don’t waste time with writing software. Just write.

Crash Davis to Nuke LaLoosh: “You have to play this game with fear and arrogance.”

Be ruthless. If something isn’t working, throw it away.

Corollary: Once you’ve written 50,000 words, even if you throw them away, writing a novel won’t ever intimidate you again.

Addendum: Do you have a novel fragment hanging around? Throw it out – or finish it by any means necessary. “Dragging things out results in poor writing,” one panelist said, while another adjured us to “show up for the page.”

What kind of beast are you writing?

How can you tell if the story you’ve begun is a story or a novel? Stories close. If your story won’t close, it’s probably a novel.

You never come out the way you came in

A quiet but forceful woman, speaking from lengthy novel-writing experience, said that every project needs something different from you. By the time you finish your novel, you are the writer you needed to be on page one to write the novel. Then you start the next novel and you’re starting all over again. But you finished a novel and that knowledge will keep you going.

Fail whale

A 60-year-old mom of grown children said, “It is what it is. I don’t write fast and I get rejected a lot. My novel took 30 years to write because I got it wrong so often.”

“You have to fail so hard and so often,” another writer said. Her first three books failed, but books 2 and 3 failed faster because she gave up sooner.

Carve out the time. Pick out a project you can commit to for years, knowing that you might fail.

Listen to what calls you, but don’t be wedded to an outcome. “You’ll get to your next set of obsessions.”

My new mentor

The youngest panelist on all three panels was 25. She works at Powell’s City of Books. In fact, she was working at Powell’s that day. With her supervisor’s blessing, she jumped on a bus to the Convention Center to get to this panel. After the panel, she was heading back to work. Until her next panel.

Despite her up-talking and and the way she filled every sentence with like like like like, she was a great writing coach:

“Just write a shitty first draft. At least then it’s done. Five words or 500, you’re doing it. Those five words weren’t there yesterday,” she said. “As long as you’re writing something you care about, that’s the best thing you can do.”

Can’t touch this

One of the panelists told us that he’d been in recovery for alcohol and heroin addiction. In response to a question from the audience about writing after recovery from addiction, he told us, “Recovery is not for the people who want it or need it or deserve it. Recovery is for the people who do it.”

I didn’t buy a white board, but if they had been giving them out in the expo, I would’ve grabbed one. Writing is for the people who do it. It’s time to show up for the page and fail. Or to get shit done.

They don’t make reading like they used to

I love a fat book of short stories. A book big enough to block a dump truck. My major summer memories of boyhood are playing baseball until it was too dark to see the ball that was threatening to decapitate me and drifting lazily in all those stories, all those lives and times and places.

When I unearthed A Treasury of Short Stories at a used book store in Seattle, I was pumped. 849 pages in double columns. 77 stories. A hardcover with heft that had survived the journey from 1947 intact, including the dust jacket.

I don’t know much about the editor, Bernardine Kielty. She was born in 1890, maybe. She died in 1973, definitely. She wrote non-fiction and book reviews. The final page of the Treasury includes a brief biography with this sentence:

“As one of the first editors of Story magazine she participated in the discovery of many a fledgling writer since become famous, and as a fiction editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal she dealt with the stories of authors already arrived.”

Her publisher, Simon and Schuster, must’ve thought Bernardine was a goddess, because they not only paid her to assemble this juggernaut, they reprinted it 12 times, right through the 1950s. (I have the 12th printing.)

But when I finally plunged in, I almost climbed right back out.

Kielty made her first selections from the Jurassic era of the short story. The Treasury begins in Russia, and the Russians of the 1840s and 1850s had no idea what “brevity” meant. Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is not a short story, it’s a marathon.

The French who follow the Russians in this lineup grasp the brevity concept, but like the Russians, their characters are caught in a rolling boil of ridiculous personalities, out-of-proportion reactions, and competing monologs instead of dialogs. Can’t anybody here play this game?

What saved me, and this book, was running into Robert Louis Stevenson’s first published story, “A Lodging for the Night,” on page 142. Stevenson wrote about the French poet François Villon (Anglicized as Francis) on a winter’s night in 1456 when it was so cold that starving wolves roamed the streets of medieval Paris. The story doesn’t end well, but Stevenson’s evocation of that frigid night is so persuasive that I almost put on a sweater.

I decided to stay. Two months later, I finished. Not every story was worthwhile, but the stories that were gave me plenty to think about:

Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” might’ve seemed daring, even otherworldly, to its first readers in 1910, but today it can’t outrun a sexual subtext that Conrad never intended.

Or did he?

Ambrose Bierce’s “A Horseman in the Sky” has been anthologized many times, with good reason. It’s not sentimental, racist, inaccurate, or like any of the other drivel written about the Civil War. Its ending is similar to another much-anthologized story that’s not in the Treasury, “The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty, which is set during the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s.

Jack London can also work wonders with snow, as he shows in one of his most famous stories, “To Build a Fire.” The ending is inevitable and so seamlessly done that I wanted to applaud even though I’ve read this story more than once.

Frank O’Connor’s “The Storyteller” holds more sadness in a few thousand words about a little girl and her grandfather than in most novels. Roald Dahl’s “Beware of the Dog” makes an excellent start, putting you in the mind of a wounded British pilot trying to fly his plane home. Unfortunately, it soon turns into the kind of fake-identity spy story that was popular on 1960s TV.

Katharine Brush’s “Night Club” takes place in a ladies’ room. It was published in 1927 and might’ve been the inspiration for the all-female cast of the 1939 movie The Women. Brush is mostly forgotten today, though she was a best-selling author in the early 1930s and had movies made from two of her books.

(Yes, there are women in this book. Six women, 71 men. If Kielty had been a man, would this ratio have been even worse? Only one writer here is not a North American or European Caucasian: Richard Wright.)

These were my favorites:

Dorothy Canfield, like Brush, like most of us someday, is largely forgotten. Her story “Sex Education” gives us a single event retold and reinterpreted by one woman at three different ages. It’s an astonishing story told in everyday conversation while two women knit or visit. Canfield doesn’t break a sweat turning everything inside-out.

I don’t have to say anything about Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” beyond “Ernest Hemingway.”

The crowning story in the Treasury, for me, was Erskine Caldwell’s “Saturday Afternoon.” This is the single most chilling thing I’ve ever read, seen, or heard about the lynching of black men in the former Confederacy, and the black man here only appears in two paragraphs. It’s just another day. Caldwell wrote with great honesty about the poor, which is why schoolkids are given James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to read and not “Saturday Afternoon.” (“Walter Mitty” is in the Treasury.)

I can’t imagine any publisher unleashing a book like this one on the reading public. 849 pages in double columns? Did people read more in the 1950s? My copy of the Treasury is unmarked and, before I got my hands on it, untouched. God knows what people in 50 years will think of what we publish today. I hope to be around then with a fat book of stories to read.


Recommended reading #1

Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us: A (Sort Of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected
Jessica Page Morrell

There are more books on how to play chess than there are books on how to play all the other games ever invented. The first book that William Caxton ran off his printing press was the Word of God. The second book was several thousand words on chess.

I can’t make the same authoritative statement about books on how to write, but I’m willing to wager there are more writing books than there are painting books, sculpting books, sewing books, etc. Plenty of people think they know how to write and plenty of them are convinced that they should pass on that knowledge. Most of these people are wrong.

Not Jessica Page Morrell. Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us is a no-illusions guide to writing fiction (and, to a lesser extent, memoir). If you’ve been writing long enough to really get bloodied by uncooperative characters, plot holes you can’t plug, stacks of rejections, and bare-knuckle writing workshops, you’ll know most of what Morrell presents here. But you might not have stated it with her punch and pith.

“Fiction is about interesting people in a mess of trouble” is the most economical definition I’ve read, but just as William Strunk balanced his verbal frugality by repeating everything, Morrell reminds us later that “fiction is messy, a smackdown or battleground.”

Stop arguing with yourself
Morrell was inspiring for me because I’ve been slowed to a zombie-like stagger in the first draft of my novel by my need to perfect every scene. Instead of writing new chapters I keep revisiting old ones. Morrell basically told me to shut UP. “Your inner editor is clear-eyed, helpful, and sane. Your inner critic is sneaky, undermining, and nutty,” she writes, then advises us that, rather than passively listening to our inner critic, we should “engage it in a dialog.” Instead of always noticing your mistakes, focus on what you’re doing right.

Remember: “…the purpose of your first draft is to cling pitifully to life until you have the time, stamina, and insight to revise (or revive) it into a respectful rendition of itself.”

Morrell’s idea of what works in a novel can be formulaic. She doesn’t account for the success of unconventional writers such as Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, William Faulkner, etc. But like any good chess player, Morrell is playing a larger game. She wants you to learn the rules before you break the rules.

Calm down
She also wants you to take it easy on yourself and have fun. After all the advice about plot, conflict, suspense, and overarching structural issues such as the importance of basing your story on a question that must be answered, she tells us that writing is like “opening the door to friends arriving for a dinner party.” We should stop beating ourselves up because “writing is a lifelong and sometimes lonely apprenticeship.”

“Writing starts from creativity, not anxiety – it is a great joy, so splash around and don’t worry about making a mess….write smart and know what you’re doing in your story and why, but also take risks and try to create with trust and abandon. Think grade-school science experiments. Stay loose and enjoy the writer’s equivalent of mud and finger paints and clown hats.”

I took a half-day class from Morrell some years ago and it was a half-day foot-plant in the posterior. I recommend Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us to all beginners and to anyone in need of what Bruce Springsteen once called “a shot of redemption.”