Wednesday, April 14, 2010

AWP Wrap-Up II: The Writing Side of It

After attending the AWP conference, I have a head stuffed with ideas/observations, and a notebook filled with scribbles about writing wisdom. I also have several new literary journals and subscriptions to peruse courtesy of the fabulous bookfair. I can’t possibly cover everything, but here are a few of the highlights that stand out:

[Note: Even when I use quotation marks, all quotations are paraphrased and probably misappropriated (if I even try to decipher who said what), and I’m sure I’ll spell someone’s name wrong, so I’m sorry in advance.]

The Long Short Story Panel appalled me because I didn’t realize that a 25-page story is considered “long” these days--!! One thing that stuck with me is the idea that a longer short story is “writing towards something” vs. a shorter piece, which is “coming from something.” Some of the longer story masters named were Alice Munro, William Trevor, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor, Bret Anthony Johnson. In the end, it was generally agreed that “the material chooses the length.”

I dragged myself out of bed early for a great panel on writing from a child’s point of view and was reminded (by the panelists) of the cruelty inherent in the world of children and what rich material that can be. (High school, anyone?) Another important point that Eric Pulchner made was that there’s a misperception that children “are incapable of complex emotions—in reality, they may simply be unable to articulate those emotions.” Elizabeth Stuckey-French noted that “first-person, present tense can only go so far—the third person or retrospective can add more” and described children as “outsiders, looking into the world of adults.” Dan Chaon piggybacked onto that when he noted that “childhood takes place in an alternate universe.” Joy Williams was cited several times as a masterful writer from the child/adolescent point of view, and Dan Chaon read from an amazing story called “Dead on Arrival” from Fake House, a collection by Linh Dinh.

“Plot as Ritual” was another smart panel in which the panelists reminded us that “plot” is not a dirty word in our “character-driven” MFA worlds. As John Dufresne noted, “characters have to have something meaningful to do—readers need to know it’s not a cruise to nowhere” and suggested that “plots are coaxed into being; a plot begins to form when the writer asks central questions: what does the character want? Why is s/he not getting it? How does s/he overcome these obstacles?” On the other hand, Antonya Nelson asked: “How large of a role does ‘plot’ play in your own life?” She thinks in terms of a story’s “shape” instead, suggesting that the shape needs to grow organically from the story and is found in revision; to add shape, she suggests putting characters on journeys or putting them into an institutional ritual, such as a wedding.

“The Bitch Panel”—the catchy AWP name for a panel about writing about unsympathetic female characters—was thought-provoking and funny. Most interesting to me was the panel’s suggestion that female readers might be called to task for (as a collective whole) choosing “safe” stories about “nice” women instead of embracing the more complicated, difficult female characters who may act without remorse and/or not even learn a lesson or get punished in the end. I was also intrigued by moderator Rose Bunch’s remark that as a workshop student she was constantly told that her female characters were unbelievable (“no woman would do that”) but that when she changed them to male characters, everyone was fine with those difficult, unsympathetic, flawed men. In the end, Pam Houston wondered what the role of art is, and concluded that the “job of the writer is not to look away from the darkness, not to make it nice, but to refuse to look away: and there is hopefulness in that.”

I also attended two wonderful readings, one sponsored by the Sun magazine, and one a tribute to David Hamilton, the now-retired editor of the Iowa Review. There, I heard an incredibly mesmerizing reading, a brief excerpt of a novel about a teen runaway called Miles from Nowhere. Author Nami Mun had us all squirming in our seats as we were dying to know what happened next even as we most definitely didn’t want to hear it.

Journals/Books I Couldn’t Resist in Spite of Evil Airline Luggage Restrictions*:
The Paris Review (subscription)
Poet Lore (subscription)
The Georgia Review (subscription)
Creative Nonfiction (subscription; great new redesign!)
American Book Review (The Great Gatsby is on the cover as a “bad book”--!!)
Steve Abbott, Greatest Hits 1981-2003 (poetry chapbook)
Poe Ballantine, Things I Like about America (personal essays by one of my favorite Sun authors)
Poe Ballantine, 501 Minutes to Christ (personal essays by one of my favorite Sun authors)

Speaking of Witness, in a weakish moment I posed for a photo for their paparazzi issue and you can vote for me to win a camcorder (which I’m sure I wouldn’t even know how to use) by going here: and going to page 4. There I am, in a fake fox fur with a toy Chihuahua peeking out of my purse.

Not enough? Poet Eduardo C. Corral has posted several great AWP wrap-ups on his blog. Scroll down, and keep scrolling, to get them all.

Whew…this is long. I hereby give myself permission not to post again until next week. I guess the social aspect and the gossip will have to stay in Vegas, as they say....

*Wait until next year when AWP will be in DC and I can totally load up the car with journals!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.