I spoke at the Conversations & Connections conference at Johns Hopkins in Washington, DC, on Saturday. This may be my favorite local conference, because it’s definitely always a fun time and a good deal for participants (who get a new book and a journal subscription along with their registration fee).
My main purpose was to hang out, so I didn’t take a lot of notes, but there were a lot of good questions at the first panel I sat in on, about common mistakes made in fiction. We were warned not to overuse food when writing about other cultures (or, really, to go deeper than just throwing around exotic dishes) and to think hard about that “wise grandmother figure” who often shows up in such stories. (Hmm…see Pears on a Willow Tree?) A quote from Zadie Smith also resonated with the crowd: “When building a novel you will use a lot of scaffolding. Some of this is necessary to hold the thing up, but most isn’t. The majority of it is only there to make you feel secure, and in fact the building will stand without it.” The point is, panelist Susan Muaddi-Darraj said, is to take the scaffolding down after the building is up; you needed it to write the story, but the story may not need it.
(Side note: I found that exact quote in a link to a lecture Zadie Smith gave about writing novels that is quite brilliant…go read that, then hurry back here!)
Then I went to a non-fiction oriented panel called “The Art of the Interview.” No, I’m not becoming a journalist, but it seemed like it might be interesting to learn about something new that I know little about, and I was right. Great stories about interviewing subjects, and we were left to ponder whether interviewing a tough subject was more akin to a negotiation or a date, or if, in fact, those are the same thing. Frankly, I also left the room grateful for all the hard work journalists do in service of getting to the Truth.
After a chatty lunch with some Hopkins fiction students, I had no plans for the break before the keynote address, and in one of those fluke moments during which I learn (yet again!) that having no concrete plans can often be the best plan of all, I met another conference speaker, writer Josip Novakovich, and we had a fabulous conversation over a glass of wine while watching Real Madrid and Barcelona battle it out.
I bought his new book of essays, Shopping For a Better Country; based on the first essay I dipped into, this is for sure going to leapfrog to the top of my To Be Read heap. He’s also known as a fiction writer, and here’s an interesting interview with The Rumpus in which he discusses working in those two different genres:
“Some topics, if they are important, I work in one form and rework in another. Poe, if he had a good theme, would usually write three stories on it with different twists and I think that just writing it (the theme) out once, in one permutation, is not enough. I never quite get it right so I could actually keep going with more permutations, and in some cases, such as death stories and culture clashes I keep going beyond three, in both fiction and nonfiction. And sometimes I don’t know whether the story will remain an essay when I start it as one—if I see I am making shifts, exaggerating, embellishing, I know I have crossed the boundary into the free West.” (Read the rest.)
My panel went well—everyone offered some interesting thoughts about how to find/create/maintain a literary community in Washington, DC—I’m sure I’ll post more about this later. And then on home, sorry to miss the after-party at The Big Hunt…as I said, always a FUN conference, and I’m already looking forward to next year! (Although, maybe I don’t have to wait? They’re gearing up for the first-ever Philadelphia Conversations & Connections, so be sure to check that out, Philadelphians!)