Conversations and Connections

*Originally posted at Patasola Press.

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This last Saturday, I was in D.C. at the Conversations and Connections: Practical Advice on Writing conference, sponsored by Barrelhouse, Baltimore Review, Potomac Review, and Johns Hopkins University, funded in part by Poets and Writers.

Independent presses, editors, writers, rain, possible tornado, and a lot of books. This conference comes only a few months after the mammoth AWP Conference in February, an overwhelming and necessary and stimulating affair. I have to say, however, that Conversations and Connections had an intimacy I very much prefer. Opening remarks by Dave Housley (Barrelhouse) and Susan Muaddi Darraj (Baltimore Review) set the tone of the conference — practical, professional, accessible, and fun.

In the first breakout session, I presented “Writing Prosetry” to a room filled with prosaists and poets. We talked about the depth and breadth of what prosetry could be and the spectrum of prose to poetry, which provided less a prosetry definition and more a guide. We looked at an excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Kafka’s “A Little Fable,” Rossini’s “The Nitro” (Paris Review), and “Common” by Nicholas YB Wong (Moon Milk Review). We worked with the concept of perspective and how prosetry pieces — microfiction, prose poems, narrative poetry, etc. — often benefit from an immediately close-in perspective on character and subject. An attendee posed an interesting question regarding form and formality in writing classes and workshops. She wanted to exercise her organic voice, something she felt was more experimental, within her developmental experience. This didn’t seem like too much to ask. This same writer expressed an understanding in the importance of learning foundational and universal writing techniques.

My question is why couldn’t this writer find a mixture of experimentation and foundation within her program? Even more concerning was how often I’d heard this concern stated not only by writers early in program but in their last semesters. This all brings me back to the idea of form as guide, not definition, in the context of creative processes. Shouldn’t writers work with their organic voice even while building foundations? I think so. Perhaps I’m more fortunate than I originally thought. At Johns Hopkins, organic voice was a foundational concern at all levels of development. It wasn’t a “learn the basics then gain the right to find your voice” scenario, a teaching approach that has always perplexed me. In my program, I felt supported in my voice from day one, and this support opened my mind to the guidance and foundations, possibilities, within the universal techniques of writing. I was not only open but also able to more efficiently and artistically absorb the suggestions and guidance professors had to offer. Though it does not surprise me, it saddens me each time I hear this model isn’t practiced consistently. Herein lies the necessity of writerly interaction.

For second session, I was asked to sit on a panel, “What Editors Hate/Love,” along with co-panelists Zachary Benavidez (Potomac Review), Mark Drew (Gettysburg Review), Mark Cugini (Big Lucks), and Reb Livingston (No Tell Motel). This was truly a pleasure. As expected, each editor shared commonalities in preferred submission etiquette. We unanimously repeated the no-brainer, READ the magazine before submitting. I think the most interesting and useful pieces were the differences in aesthetics and systems. Most of us are online-focused, where Gettysburg Review keeps its tradition in print with an online presence. Some of us prefer shorter works, experimental works, where others look for lengthier stories. All in all, it was a valuable panel not only for attendees, I think, but also for me. Hearing fellow editors speak so passionately about their aesthetics, their love of finding and publishing beloved content, and their editorial preferences formed something of a community between editors and writers. In such a solitary work, these moments of community are very much welcome.

Editor Speed Dating. What can I say? It was exhilarating, fun, exhausting. This was my first time speed dating, in any capacity, and so I’ll admit, I was a little daunted at the concept but found that it has its own delightful groove. Each “date” was charming and truly interested in finding feedback on his or her work. A good activity all the way around. Particularly enjoyable was finding a few pieces I took with me for further review.

And the pièce de résistance—Steve Almond’s Keynote address. Hilarious, honest, sometimes disheartening in the realities all writers know about our chosen work. What Almond offered as salve made the hard truths fully worthwhile. Almond spoke with a vulnerability and wit that not only made listeners laugh but helped them remember the reason we write. To paraphrase him, writing is not a corporate artistry. We don’t sit down at the desk or curl in our favorite chair with a pen and paper thinking, today I’m going to write the perfect paragraph that will make a marketing team tremble, or I will develop a character that book stores will want to fondle and date and lavish with shelf space (well, okay, maybe we do that a little). Yes, these concerns may be part of the overall end game, but when we sit down to write, during those creative petting sessions, it is purely biological, an innate sense to procreate something beautiful or bastardly, and if it’s really good, both beautiful and bastardly. We desire to give birth to “what sticks in our crawl,” as Almond put it. We want to watch it grow into a fine young hooligan, or maybe that’s just me. I like hooligans.

The Big Hunt after event was a blast. Nothing like a little pool sharking, some beers, hot wings and good writer company. Organizers, and most presenters, including Steve Almond were there. Great fun and conversation.

So, yes, AWP, Book Expo… these are fantastic and necessary conferences for writers and editors, but the conferences that have an eye toward intimacy and community, a pulse of vulnerability and honesty, these are the conferences that inspire at a gut and goodness level. They remind me why I write stories and edit a literary and arts nonprofit magazine that will never make millions of dollars. Okay, caveat. If a movie option comes my way, I will take this all back. If a big Hollywood studio decides to make a feature film of one of my short stories or my novel and they get Adrian Lyne to direct, I will become their corporate writing bitch and forget all this starving artist and beauty stuff. That’s my one out clause. Film. Hypocrisy can be a lovely convenience.

Art and community, though. All in the art and community. Writers who have lost or who have never tapped into this essential truth make me want to hug them or slap them or hug them AND slap them then tell them it will be all right, just have a hot toddy, curl up in a favorite chair with a stack of paper. Write one hundred times with a red ruby pen, “There’s no place like home.”