Wednesday, April 20, 2016

L.A.: My AWP16 Experience, with Food Commentary at the End

Well, it feels already as if AWP16 was a thousand years ago, but all I have to do is open up my little pink notebook to be reminded of all the wisdom I soaked up in the excellent panels I attended. (Note this article that talks about how taking notes by hand is preferable to typing notes on a laptop!) I’ve been trying to follow a self-invented method of panel-selection that has been working well for me:

--One panel that I think will be inspiring
--One panel with friend(s) who will appreciate I’m there (often this overlaps with the others)
--One panel about a topic I know very little/nothing about
--One panel that is a reading by people I don’t know/may not have heard of
--One panel that focuses on a single writer/narrow topic
--One panel that will directly inform my writing in some specific way

I couldn’t get to all of these since I was ON two panels, which took up a certain amount of time and energy (and if I weren’t actively involved in talking/listening/looking attentive, I would have scribbled pages of notes because the other panelists were so smart!). So, given that I had less time for panel-going, I’m really excited about the choices I made, and in an effort to retain information in my brain, here are some of the highlights of my paraphrased, scrawled notes from 3 panels I especially enjoyed.

CRASHING THROUGH: CONFRONTING WRITING BARRIERS AND REBOOTING YOUR WORK, with Robin Black, Dylan Landis, Natalie Braszile, Steven Schwartz.

Natalie gave herself permission to write 1000 bad pages, permission to not understand what was going on for a year as she struggled with a novel.

Dylan went through 6 years of being blocked and offered this advice on how to get through those dark days:
1.     Keep writing
2.     Switch genres
3.     Nurture yourself, and don’t blame yourself
4.     Write in the presence of others [I can attest to how powerful this practice is…when she lived in DC, she and I had “writing dates” in a local coffee shop, which were very fruitful.]
5.     Take notes on other things going on in your life, in case you might write about them; she called this the “decoy project.” [I may be misinterpreting, but I believe that she meant, also, that if there is some specific and large thing going on that is preventing you from writing, to keep notes on that thing.]
6.     Instead of trying to “crash through,” maybe back off.

Steven Schwartz said, “You have to save yourself in this business over and over and over again…mostly, you have to save yourself from yourself.” His advice for re-setting:
1.     No internet [while writing, not FOREVER! That’s my interpretation, anyway!!]
2.     Don’t show drafts until you’re ready.
3.     Write in the AM before you feel 100% conscious…try to catch yourself off-guard.
4.     Give yourself deadlines and get an enforcer.
5.     Forget family. [Hmmm…that is all I wrote, and I don’t think he meant divorce your spouse and abandon your children and never call your mother, but rather to not worry about their opinions about your writing.]
6.     Accept the loneliness…accept that you may feel lonely with the work during this off-kilter patch, but that you would feel equally lonely without writing.
7.     Remember that you’re always writing, even when you’re not.
8.     Stop for the day in the middle of a sentence, so you can jump back in later.
9.     Keep multiple projects going.
10.  Time your time: too much time can be as dangerous as too little time.
11.  Think about why you wanted to write in the first place.

Robin Black spoke about finding a motivator, how writers are often people who felt silenced in their early lives and how wanting to be heard can be an early motivation. On the other hand, once that first book is out there, the writer may lose a bit of that early fire “to be heard” and need to find another motivation—which, in her case, and surprising herself, ended up being a deep desire to impress a particular writer, to create a book that could do that. As she said, “It’s okay to own the part of you that wants to be heard, wants to be admired.”

WRITE ME RIGHT: IDEAS AND RESOURCES FOR WRITING DIVERSITY with Najiyah Maxfield, Yvonne Mesa, Valarie Budayr, Tamara Gray, Brenda Bradshaw.

[Unfortunately, I walked in a little late to this and missed introduction, so I’m very lax on who said what, so I won’t have the comments nicely attributed as I did in the above panel. Sorry!!]

If you are writing about a community that is not your own, you need to:
1.     Remember that we are never objective observers
2.     Ask yourself what you are bringing into the picture consciously and unconsciously.
3.     Ask: Am I the right person to tell this story? (and face the inner tension this question may stir)
4.     What is your intentionality? (the panelists suggested that when you are feeling uncomfortable, then you’re on to something)

They all emphasized the urgency of the stories of multi-cultural people and the dangers of giving such stories a “western worldview” and western problems. To avoid this pitfall, be sure to do a lot of research—but you must move beyond the initial archetype to find the people. You need to move beyond looking to the “consultant” and stretch yourself into researching the culture as a whole, including the group’s experiences and history…and to examine these things from the point of view of this group, NOT from your Western view. (The book A Different Mirror was recommended as a way to gain a base of understanding of the difference between these views.)

Remember that a country by itself is not monolithic, and ask yourself how your character has developed BECAUSE of this history.

We got an amazing list of questions to ponder—a blueprint of developing characters, really—and were left with this thoughtful reminder: Always approach diversity in your characters from this point: “I want to honor and appropriately convey your experience.”

NO FACTS, ONLY INTERPRETATIONS: AN EXAMINATION OF THE MULTIPLE POINT OF VIEW NOVEL with Eric Sasson, Anna North, Rebecca Makkai, Julia Fierro, and a guy named Jay who isn’t listed in the official program I’m copying this info out of, alas!

[This was a moderated Q&A format, so it was hard to keep track of who said what, so, again, sorry that this is mostly a mash of information!]

We were reminded upfront that point of view dictates everything that follows, that there is no such thing as the absolute truth. One advantage of shifting POV within a novel is an added investment by the reader, who enjoys connecting the dots and feeling more deeply involved as information and meaning accumulate. From a writing standpoint, alternating POV sections can mean never getting bored or running out of things to write about.

While multiple POVs may not allow us to find “the truth,” they help us acknowledge that there is no single truth and that perhaps everyone is allowed their own truth and own experience.

There was a fascinating discussion about the challenges and rewards of writing outside your life—i.e. cross-racial, -gender, -sexuality. “I worry too much about writers worrying too much,” said Julia, giving us authority to write those characters who aren’t “us” and telling us to do the work to create that character as a person. Jay reminded us that empathy and imagination in trying to understand the way someone else thinks and lives are tools for all of us. And we were reminded to always read “across” ourselves too—which we should do anyway, but especially if we are working to create characters who are different from us in these key areas.

The panelists talking about experimenting with POV in various ways, and it was noted that a wonderful call to arms is reading a story/book and thinking, “I want to try that, too!”

On a practical level, Julia suggested that if you’re writing multiple POVs to have a different notebook or computer document for each major character, to do some work and keep some background outside the pages of the story. Jay recommended that we populate our world and “sometimes a voice will jump out at you.” And Rebecca said that at a certain point the writer will have to make some hard, cold decisions to get these voices right—for example, who talks in short sentences, who makes jokes (they can’t all be funny). She also suggested that if you need to cut the book, to look for ways to fold characters into one another and combine them.

And they all agreed that we should not worry too much about the publishing biz while we’re writing these big, sprawling novels of multiple points of view. You may get the old “can you cut a couple of characters” from agents and editors, but Jay had the last word, which was along these lines: “Follow the enthusiasm. Look for the agent/editor who loves the book you WROTE, not the book they want you to write.”


And it would not be a full AWP wrap-up without a few comments about food and beverages:

Musso & Frank Grill has been in Hollywood since 1919, and the menu is a little old-fashioned in that great way where you can order a King Alphonse (a drink found in my favorite short story, “Pet Milk”) and a Brandy Alexander. Wonderful steaks, perfect martinis, and so much atmosphere! This is where Fitzgerald and Faulkner hung out…and it looks like the bar hasn’t changed much since those days.

Park’s Barbecue was our introduction to Korean barbecue, and thank you, patient server, who explained what all the lovely pickled things were in the nearly a dozen bowls that accompanied our incredible beef, cooked right at our table.

Having lived in Arizona for three years, I am a total Mexican food snob, so I was excited to get to Guelaguetza, which offered Oaxacan food, including mole the color of the deepest park of midnight, that I would lap up off a plate right this minute if I had some. We also ordered fried grasshoppers! (Not bad, but I wouldn’t lap them up off a plate.) (And look! I just discovered we can order mole online!!

Church & State was in the transitional neighborhood, and driving though these streets lined with old warehouses and observing the (massive) homeless population was a worthy and uncomfortable counterpoint to this lovely French bistro that offered amazing falling-off-the-bone lamb shank and lush chicken liver mousse. As always, I am grateful for the randomness of my good fortune…

…and for the reminder that no matter how lucky I am, I am not a Getty and never will be…and so I can also feel gratitude for being allowed to view the Getty art collection in a building and grounds that are a work of art themselves, at the stunning Getty Center. (Great lunch in the fancy restaurant there, too!)

L.A.: I loved your sunshine; and your smiling people; and the way you made me walk around smiling at everyone, too; and your vast expansiveness, as if there are a million separate and thrilling stories tucked away here, waiting to be uncovered.


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