Monday, April 18, 2011

Conversations and Connections: Wrap-Up

Saturday’s Conversations and Connections conference was as wonderful as ever. Here are a few highlights, from my observations and from my wanderings around. (Direct quotations are gleaned from my sloppily scribbled notes, and I’m not a stenographer [look it up, kids!], so I apologize in advance if there are any errors.)

I attended a panel discussion about social media, and I liked Deborah Ager’s comparison to a cocktail party, as in, you wouldn’t walk into a cocktail party and loudly announce, “Buy my book!” Nor would you spend the whole party talking only about yourself (well…I may have met that person once or twice). The point is, social media should be used to build relationships, not just yammer on about yourself and your new book. Matt Bell talked about growing a literary life and using his Facebook community as the office “water cooler.”

Someone asked if blogs are dying off, and the panel talked about how a blog is a different form that can add seriousness and substance to the conversation. The life span of a tweet is about “two seconds,” whereas a blog post can exist in the world for pretty much all eternity. (Whew….)  Do what works for you, too: if you enjoy Facebook, do that.  If you want to blog, do that.  You don't have to do something you don't enjoy or aren't good at.

In the end, my takeaway was this: Those hours on Facebook are actually HARD WORK and USEFUL, not wasted time.

I moderated the panel of debut writers, and each of them—Dylan Landis, Robin Black, Eric D. Goodman, and Janice Shapiro—had many smart and inspiring things to say about the journey that led them to that first published book. Robin Black—whose story collection if I loved you, I would tell you this, was published by Random House, when the standard take is that no big publishing houses want to publish short story collections—made an excellent point about not letting editors and agents reject you because you assume they will and so you don’t send them your work. Let them decide, not you. Robin Black also talked about how her standard for knowing when her work is complete is when “I can point to any page, and to any word and piece of punctuation and can say exactly why it’s there.” There were humbling tales of years spent writing, of false starts, of dashed expectations…as well as the simple agreement that one of the most surprising things about having this first book out was, well, how absolutely GREAT it felt! I sort of wished I were in the audience for this one so I could have scribbled more notes for myself.

Keynote speaker Steve Almond was also inspiring and honest and hilarious. The theme of his speech was “set the bar lower,” by which he meant that writers need to be flexible in this changing world and flexible to the ways of the muse. Don’t lower your standards, but as he noted, “most of writing resides in outlasting your own self-doubt.”

He advocated writing about the stuff that “gets stuck in your craw” and advised trusting your subconscious. He riffed on the personality of the writer, who is forced to face unbearable truths in the act of creating the story…yet is drawn to that act, and compared writers to “sperm donors” in the way they go about their business alone in a quiet little room and then send their work out into the world, never knowing where it may take root. And, perhaps my favorite phrase of all, he described writers as each living in our own “little opera of self-doubt.” (My husband laughed knowingly at that one!)

Then I went to an interesting craft lecture by Matt Bell on the power of repetition. Awesome handouts (not that I would ever, ever use someone else’s handouts in a future class myself!), and a great exercise that for sure I will steal: we wrote for a few moments about a remembered experience, and then we took one tiny—tiny!—moment from that, and stayed writing for eight minutes with that tiny moment, using repetition for effect. I was dubious (i.e. nervous) because what I had to work with was the bow on a little girl’s party dress—!!—but I was pleased with what I got to and the effect of the repeating words and images…and I found my way to something I never would have found otherwise.

So, next year when I say that this is one of DC’s best one-day conferences and that you really should go…well, I really, really, REALLY mean it.


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