Monday, February 25, 2019

Survival Tips for #AWP19!

It’s baaaa-aaaack! AWP19 is about to descend upon Portland, Oregon…and since I started thinking about restaurants and where I’m going to eat, I guess it’s tip to post my AWP survival tips, honed after (yikes!) 20ish years of attending AWP conferences. I’ve never been to Portland (or even Oregon) and so know nothing worth passing along on that front…beyond the fact that:

1) Elastic waistbands may be in order on the way home since the Portland food scene is legendary, and

2) If it’s not too late for you, do NOT sign up for that cost-cutting redeye flight home. I wish I would have paid the extra $$ to leave at a normal time after my husband reminded me of the redeye hell we went through getting back from L.A. But why do I persist in thinking it sounds glamourous to say, “I’m taking the redeye in from the Coast”? Oh well…one more day to eat, I guess.

Twelve thousand writers is a lot of angst, need, and glory to be packed into one convention center…here are my tried & true & freshly updated tips for success, based on my experience at past conferences:

Wear comfortable shoes, at least most of the day. There’s lots of traipsing around long hallways and the long (sometimes uncarpeted) aisles of the book fair. It’s also inevitable that the one panel you really, really, really want to see will be in a teeny-tiny room and you’ll have to stand in the back…or sit on the floor; see the following tip:

Wear comfortable clothes, preferably taking a layer approach. Wherever you go, you will end up either in A) an incredibly stuffy room that will make you melt, or B) a room with an arctic blast directed at you. Bulk up and strip down as needed. Also, as noted above, despite their best efforts, the AWP conference staff has a knack for consistently misjudging the size of room required for a subject matter/speakers (i.e. Famous Writer in room with 30 chairs; grad student panel on Use of Dashes in Obscure Ancient Greek Poet in room with 300 chairs). I suppose it’s hard to determine who is “famous” and so on…in any event, you don’t want to find yourself scrunched into a 2’x2’ square on the carpet, and so see the following tip:

To avoid being stuck sitting on the floor, arrive early to panels you really, really want to attend. And, in fact, official AWP does not sanction sitting on the floor because it’s a fire hazard and you’ll be creating a barrier to those who have accessibility needs. Not sure how they feel about standing in a herd in the back? The point is, don’t sit on the floor—be mindful of others if there’s a herd of standees, and arrive early.

If a panel is bad, ditch it. Yes, it’s rude. Yes, everyone does it. (Be better than the rest by at least waiting for an appropriate break, but if you must go mid-word, GO.) I can’t tell you the high caliber of presenters that I have walked out on, but think Very High. Remember that there are a thousand other options, and you have choices. The only time you have to stick it out is if A) the dull panel participant is your personal friend or B) the dull panel participant is/was your teacher or C) the dull panel participant is your editor/publisher. Those people will notice (and remember) that you abandoned them mid-drone and punish you accordingly (i.e. your glowing letters of rec will flicker and fade). Undoubtedly this is why I have never been published in Unnamed Very High Caliber Magazine, having walked out on that editor’s panel.

There are zillions of panels: When you pick up your registration badge, you’ll get a massive tome with information about all of them, and also a shorter schedule that’s easy to carry around. Be dutiful and glance through the ads in the tome since these are the funders who subsidize our conference. Then ditch the tome and carry around the smaller master schedule….unless you are an app person (I’m not). Either way, do take time NOW to go to AWP’s website and scroll through the schedule and select EVERY panel that sounds even moderately interesting, and load those into the “my schedule” feature. Keep that stored on your favorite technology (mine is a sheaf of printed paper…which may be smart since I often forget how/where to re-access “my schedule,” which requires logging in and somehow finding “my account”; I assume app people are more adept than I am).  Anyway…no point waking up early on Friday if there’s nothing you want to attend. I checkmark panels I might go to if nothing better is going on and star those that I will make a supreme effort to attend. Give yourself a couple of options at each time slot so that if a room is too crowded, you have an interesting alternative.

I like to choose a variety of panels: people I know, people I’ve heard of, genres I don’t write but am curious about, topics I want to educate myself on. Stretch yourself. I also like to go to a reading in which I don’t know any of the readers, just to have a lovely sense of discovery! And don’t forget the ninety-trillion off-site events! (I suspect you’ll end up depressed if every single panel you attend is How To Get Published…remember, the way to get published, really, is to be an amazing writer. You’ll be better of going to some panels that will help you in that pursuit.)

Someone will always ask a 20-minute question that is not so much a question but a way of showing off their own (imagined) immense knowledge of the subject and an attempt to erase the (endlessly lingering) sting of bitterness about having their panel on the same topic rejected. Don’t be that person. Keep your question succinct and relevant. Also, everyone is groaning inwardly anytime someone says, “I have a question and a comment” or anytime someone starts out by saying, “Well, in my work-in-progress, the main character is….”

Don’t say anything gossipy on the elevator, unless you want the whole (literary) world to know it. Do listen up to the conversations of others on the elevator, and tell your friends absolutely everything you’ve overheard during your offsite dinner.

Same advice above exactly applies to the overpriced hotel bar.  Also, if you happen to get a chair at the bar, or, goodness, EVEN A REAL LIVE TABLE, hang on to it!!  People will join you if they see you’ve got a spot!  Famous people!  I mean it: the only reason to ever give up a table in the hotel bar is because the bar has shut down, you’ve consumed every bit of liquid in the clutter of glasses, and a beefy bouncer is headed your way. (Also, here’s a fun fact: AWP alcohol consumption often breaks sales records at hotels.)

Speaking of famous people or former teachers or friends…do not say something like this in one long breathless opening sentence right after hugging hello: “Great-to-see-you-can-you-write-a-blurb-letter-of-rec-piece-for-my-anthology?” Ask for favors AFTER the conference! I mean, unless you enjoy that uncomfortable moment and awkward triumph of trapping someone into saying yes.

Support the publications at the bookfair. Set a budget for yourself in advance, and spend some money on literary journals and books and subscriptions, being sure to break your budget. Do this, and then you won’t feel bad picking up the stuff that’s been heavily discounted or being given away free on the last day of the conference. But, please, definitely do spend some money! These journals and presses rely on OUR support.

Just because something is free, you don’t have to take it. Unless you drove, you’ll have to find a way to bring home all those heavy books/journals on an airplane. Or you’ll have to wait in line at the hotel’s business center or the UPS store at the convention center to ship them home. So, be as discerning as you can when you see that magic markered “free” sign on top of a pile of sad-looking journals, abandoned by the grad students with hangovers who didn’t feel like dealing with their university's bookfair table.

Try not to approach the table of each journal at the bookfair with this question: “How can I get published in your journal?” Also, I recommend avoiding this one: “How come you didn’t publish my poem/story/essay/screed?”  Try instead: “What a beautiful journal. Please tell me more about it.” Even better: “I’m thinking about subscribing.”

It may be too late for some of you, but it’s inevitable that you will see every writer you’ve ever met in the aisle of the bookfair at one AWP or another…so I hope you were nice to all of them and never screwed anyone over. Because, yes, they will remember, and it’s not fun reliving all that drama as the editors of The Georgia Review gaze on.

Pre-arrange some get-togethers with friends/teachers/grad student buddies, but don’t over-schedule. You’ll run into people, or meet people, or be invited to a party, or find an amazing off-the-beaten-track bar.  Save some time for spontaneity! (Yes, I realize that I’m saying “plan” for spontaneity.)

Don’t laugh at this, but bring along Purell and USE IT often.  For weeks after, post-AWP Facebook status updates are filled with writers bemoaning the deathly cold/sore throat/lingering and mysterious illness they picked up at AWP.  We’re a sniffly, sneezy, wheezy, germy bunch, and the thought of 12,000 of us packed together breathing on each other, shaking hands, and giving fake hugs of glee gives what’s left of the CDC nightmares.

Along the lines of healthcare, don’t forget to drink a lot of water and pop an Advil before going to sleep if (haha…if!) you’ve been drinking a little more than usual. (Also note that AWP offers a daily 12-step meeting open to all in recovery. Please take care of yourself.)

Escape! Whether it’s offsite dinners/drinks/museums/walks through park/mindless shopping or whatever, do leave at some point. You will implode if you don’t. Also, the food on the convention floor is consistently overpriced and icky…you will starve if this is your entire diet.

Bring your cellphone charger and maybe even a portable charger. Or maybe you like huddling around electrical outlets?

I can’t believe I’m writing this: the Dance Party is FUN! I mean it! You don’t even have to go with anyone or be a great dancer (call me Exhibit A). It’s how to work off stress and reenergize after a long, sometimes daunting day after too many snubs, imagined and real. I mean, I’m sure there are all kinds of interesting undercurrents and nuances out there in the depths of that packed dance floor…but also, on the surface, it can just be FUN.

This is a super-secret tip that I never share, but I’ll share it as a reward for those who have read this far:  there will be a bathroom that’s off the beaten track and therefore is never crowded. Scope out this bathroom early on. Don’t tell anyone except your closest friends the location of this bathroom.

Finally, take a deep breath.  You’re just as much of a writer as the other 11,999 people around you.  Don’t let them get to you.


If you're interested, I will be reading from THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST at this off-site event:

Thursday, March 28
5:30  to 7:00
Hosted by University of Pittsburgh Press
Reading with Brad Felver
Mother Foucault’s Bookshop

Monday, February 11, 2019

TBR: How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship by Eva Hagberg Fisher

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

This book is, at its heart, about intimacy. With our work, with our most beloved friends, our families, our chosen families, our doctors, our colleagues, ourselves. It is about how I was loved so much that I was transformed from being a very lonely person into a less lonely person.

What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir? Where does that sort of courage come from?

I wasn’t aware of boundaries while I was writing, though now that it’s coming out I wonder what kind of covenants of secrecy I’ve broken with my family, my friends, etc. I did break one formal boundary, which was about time and foreshadowing: I kept foreshadowing the character Allison’s death, in increasingly present ways, which I did in order to mirror my experiential sense of her dying - which is that I kept knowing that she was going to die, and was still absolutely floored with grief when she did.

I love that your question indicates the presence of courage, but I’m not aware of being particularly courageous. I mostly feel scared a lot. But I wrote this book because I felt driven to, and I wanted to try to solve certain structural and creative issues that I had thought about a lot in terms of memoir as a genre, and I wanted people to get to meet, in some sense, my friend who had died, and so I didn’t really have a lot of analytical self-reflection about how brave or not the writing was while I was doing it. 

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Ahhhhh so many highs, which are never high enough. A starred Publisher’s Weekly review. Being on various lists - Entertainment Weekly and Nylon’s top 50 2019 books list. Tremendously beautiful blurbs. Knowing that I accomplished my lifelong dream. And then lows - the only lows that I’ve felt have been entirely self-inflicted, and all about envy and ego and self-confidence. For instance, yesterday I got the February issue of O Magazine, and wasn’t in it (I hadn’t expected to be, but hope lights the heart forever), and I felt an acute sense of rejection and loss. I had to reach out and ask a friend with experience to remind me that I don’t need to be in charge of my book. I did my job, which was writing it. The rest is out of my hands.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

It really helps if you need to write to live - I became a working journalist fifteen years ago and knew that if I didn’t land a pitch or file a story, I couldn’t afford rent. It compressed any creative fear that I might have had, and gave me a really pragmatic approach to writing. So when I sold my book, I just very pragmatically did my job and met my deadlines. I like a very clear exchange of work and money, and I like to need to write in order to afford my life.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

How linear I was able to make extremely non-linear experiences. I have pages and pages of attempted structural outlines, and notes of conversations with my editor, and it felt like it was totally impossible to get a clear narrative out of the events that had occurred and the way that I felt about them, but here we are, with a story that goes from A to B to C, that has a beginning and an ending. 

How do you approach revision?

I wrote about 47 drafts - so I love revision. I approach it with a lot of enthusiasm - something I learned from working with editors for years. A good editor can feel like a miracle worker; my book editor is truly the best. With this, I went over and over and over the text until I felt like I had the basic map, and then I started doing chapter-level revisions, then got more and more granular. I would often email sections to myself and purposefully read them while I was distracted - on the BART or walking around - to see how it felt. For the last few months, I read it out loud to myself every night before I went to sleep to feel which sections dragged or felt boring/obvious. I wrote the book in many parts over a period of a few years, and I think that the last few months of reading it through / out loud smoothed out so many of the potentially rough edges.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes to share?)

The famous Milk Bar birthday cake cake makes two appearances!!!! When I was slipping into a coma, the last thing I thought to myself I wanted to do was - finally make that cake. Two years later, I did. It took three days but I did it! The recipe is here:

[EDITOR’S NOTE: You must click over and look at the picture of this cake!]





Monday, February 4, 2019

TBR: Learning To See by Elise Hooper

TBR [to be read] is a new feature on my blog, a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

LEARNING TO SEE is historical fiction based on the life of pioneering artist Dorothea Lange. This novel tells the story of her transformation from San Francisco’s most successful society portraitist in the 1920s to a documentary photographer determined to show the truth of what was happening to America’s poor and disenfranchised in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

Dorothea captivated me from the beginning because of the idealism that inspired her work, but she was a complicated woman who had to make difficult choices that placed many stresses on her personal life. I wanted to provide context for her work and life’s decisions so readers could draw their own conclusions.

I also enjoyed fleshing out painter Maynard Dixon, Dorothea’s first husband, because he cut a colorful figure, romantic and talented, but he was not necessarily what you would call a great husband.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

An important source for me when learning about Dorothea Lange was an oral history she had done for the University of California. I had downloaded the  more than 300-page transcript from the online library and used it often. When I visited Lange’s archives at the Museum of California in Oakland, I realized the interview that I had been relying upon was abridged and the original was spread out over nine binders. I experienced momentary panic that I’d missed important information, but once I started reading through the binders, I saw that the unabridged version contained every word that was said. Every word, all the ummms, the nonsequiters, everything. So, whew, I realized everything was okay!

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Write what you would want to read.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

As I wrote this novel between 2015 – 2017, the political climate of our country shifted in a way that felt very relevant to Dorothea Lange. She was a figure who experienced a major awakening during the 1930s and her work reflected her activism.

As I took part in the Women’s March in 2016, I couldn’t help but think that Dorothea would have loved to have seen so many women taking to the streets and raising their voices to support marginalized Americans. I also found myself surprised (and disheartened) that so many of our current day issues are similar to what was happening in the 1930s and ‘40s, but Dorothea’s belief in the power of helping people through storytelling inspired me and kept me uplifted. Her storytelling took the form of creating images, but storytelling can come through many different creative forms and it’s more important now than ever to keep talking and learning from each other.

How did you find the title of your book?
The working title of this book was LANGE for a long time, but I came across an interview with one of Dorothea’s grandchildren in which the she described how Dorothea always told the kids that “seeing” was a learned skill and that it was important to “learn to see.” My editor and I thought this idea captured the book so we went with it.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
Ha, I think Depression-Era food is best left alone. 





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