During the weekend of September 12-13, I went to Brooklyn for the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference. Back in the spring, I’d seen a tweet or something advertising the conference, during which Leslie Jamison and Nicole Krauss would be giving a talk. That was enough to sell me because after reading The Empathy Exams, I am a big Leslie Jamison fan. Nicole’s okay too.
Then I took a look at the panels and was impressed with the speakers and the topics. I talked to my Brooklyn writer friend Kim and she was on board too, and let me crash on her couch, so I bought my bus tickets and paid my conference fee.
It felt like something a “real writer” would do–pay money to attend a conference, in another city, to meet with agents and editors and other writers just to talk about writing. I’ve done it before, but not since I was a grad student at Emerson, attending AWP. This felt different, more like a conscious choice.
The conference was great–it was small enough that it felt intimate, but had enough talented, recognizable names that it felt like a big deal. I felt a little bit intimidated because many of the panels and workshops were geared toward writers who are more advanced in their writing–as in, have completed a book manuscript or two and are at the stage where they’re looking for agents or exploring avenues of publishing. Though I’m far from that stage, I still felt like I had at least some skin in the game, and there’s no downside to being proactive and learning about the querying process.
So I arrived at St. Francis College in downtown Brooklyn and drank bad coffee and put on my name tag and milled around the labyrinth-like halls with other confused writers. I attended panels like “A Day in the Life of an Agent” and “Where They’re Looking for You,” and the “Arc of Nonfiction Narrative.” I learned about new writers I can’t wait to read (Mira Ptacin, Helen Phillips, Cecily Wong) and heard writers I’ve long admired (Dani Shapiro, Leslie Jamison, Elissa Schappell, Heidi Julavits). I introduced myself to Heidi Julavits and since she’s a lovely human being, she said she remembered my name from being a Women in Clothes contributor. Bless her heart.
I know we’re not all lucky enough to have the chance or means or time to attend writing conferences, so here are some of my main takeaways and quotes from the weekend:
- Agents and editors are on your side. Even though writers constantly contend with rejection from them, they WANT to like us and help us and build a career for us. It just takes an incredible amount of time and patience and luck to find the right fit. Kind of like dating.
- It’s important to use social media to champion other writers’ work, not just your own. People will get bored with you.
- Writing should always be more about the process than the end product. If you hate the process, you’re probably doing it wrong.
- Finding an agent:
- Look at the acknowledgments pages in books of writers you admire;
- Attend conferences;
- Do your research–check out Publisher’s Marketplace (subscription based) and AAR (Association of Author Representatives) which has a vetted database of agents;
- Always, always, always follow query guidelines.
- Agents look for writers as well–usually via literary journals with good reputations and writers who’ve won literary awards.
- When submitting to lit magazines, cover letters aren’t that important. “Less is more.” The work is the most important part of the submission.
- Even when you’re part of the slush, you’re getting read, usually by more than one reader. This is why it takes so long to hear from lit mags. Be patient, and only send your best work.
- Reading nonfiction is often about searching for a companion, to “inhabit a consciousness.” (Dani Shapiro)
- One of the key differences between fiction and nonfiction is that nf progresses ideas, not just plot. (Kristen Radke)
- When sharing your work with others, it’s important to have readers who aren’t writers–they can be more objective and honest about what they like and don’t like about your work.
- It can sometimes be easier to write fiction when there’s an “institution” with its own rules (think Hogwarts or Narnia).
- Lev Grossman talked about “grit” as the sand that gets your tires out of a snowbank (he’s from Boston, obvi)–in writing, those details that upset the action or throw doubt into the story.
- Helen Phillips says you can find this grit easily by just “peeling back reality” a tiny bit.
- Writing a book is mostly “maniacal determination.” (Cecily Wong)
- When writing fiction, “relish the feeling of being emperor of your world.” (Helen Phillips)
- “There’s value in all the pages you throw away.” (Cecily Wong)
I also signed up for a nonfiction writing workshop called “Do It Your Way” about playing with form and structure. Erika Anderson led the workshop, which was only me and three other women writers. It was great–I wish it had been longer than an hour and fifteen minutes. During that time, Erika had us examine Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (which I then borrowed from Kim and read on the train home). She gave us each a page and told us to try and fit her writing in a more traditional box. We took ten minutes and then read our work aloud. We’d killed Maggie’s writing. Then, Erika had us take a paragraph from our own work and blow it up–rework it so that it wasn’t following the standard writing conventions. This was a really fun exercise and it’s made me think a lot about my writing and all the ways I can subvert it and shape it and make it something more interesting, more investigative.
So, I learned a lot, met some fun people, and got to spend time in Brooklyn and see some good friends. What’s not to like?
Earlier this week, Slate published a piece by Laura Bennett titled “The First Person Industrial Complex.” In it, Bennett chronicles a controversial story that appeared on Jezebel in February. That story, Bennett argues, is indicative of a disturbing trend in which young writers share their traumatic stories with the Internet for paltry (or more often no) pay, cruel comments, and Internet infamy. She writes,
“First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting. And first-person essays have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention, as the bar for provocation has risen higher and higher. For writers looking to break in, offering up grim, personal dispatches may be the surest ways to get your pitches read.”
As both an avid essay reader and aspiring essayist myself, this article caught my attention and held it. Of course, some young writers are being exploited by this model. The juicier the story, the higher the Internet’s interest will be. Obviously, editors want their stories to go viral. They want as many eyes on their respective publications as possible. And in this age of voyeurism, that often means personal tragedies.
However, the piece also rankled me in that it seems to be disparaging these pieces as somehow lesser because they are so personal:
“Take a safari through these sections and the main impression—aside from despair at the exhibit of dire human experience on display—is that all the headlines tend to blur together.”
Bennett smashes together sites like BuzzFeed, Vox, Rookie, xoJane, and Jezebel, arguing that they’re all jostling for the same readers with the same salacious content. While it’s true that many of the headlines of these stories DO tend to follow a click bait template (I changed the title of my essay from “Any Other Name” to “After My Husband Left, I Kept His Name” after all), that dismisses the often heart wrenching, interesting, funny, and smart stories behind those attention-grabbing heads. There are so many beautiful stories to tell. And yes, many of them are sad or horrific or rage-inducing. That’s just what life is.
I also felt the piece characterized editors as blood-thirsty word poachers, just waiting to harp on the unsuspecting victim by profiting from their stories. This has not been my experience. While I acknowledge that perhaps there is some exploitation of inexperienced writers taking place, these writers are also adults, and if they’ve seen the Internet, they’re aware that it can be an incredibly harsh, judgmental place. These editors are giving writers a voice, in many ways, and that voice is going to attract attention. Isn’t that why we write?
My editor at BuzzFeed gave me very thoughtful and respectful feedback. She didn’t try to shape the piece into something more salacious or “buzzy” than it was. In fact, she recommended that I cut out a portion of the essay that went into more detail about my husband’s affair–a suggestion that I took and am glad that I did. I’m thankful for all the work she did with me on the essay.
Luckily, these editors were given a chance to respond, and make some very good points about the nature of first person writing on the Internet. Perhaps most strikingly is the fact that many of these essays being viewed as “TMI”-type writing are being written by women. I was in Brooklyn this past weekend for the Slice Writing Conference (more on that to come) and during my time there, I took a nonfiction writing workshop with Erika Anderson. Titled, “Do It Your Way,” the workshop was structured to show us how to play with the traditional essay structure a bit. It was enormously helpful. The workshop was intimate–just four women. When Erika asked us what we felt our biggest challenges were in writing nonfiction, we all talked about the feeling that our voices are not adequate, that our lives are not important enough to write about. This is something I think many essayists struggle with. “Well, what makes my story worth reading? I’m just a white woman from Brooklyn/ Black woman from the suburbs/ Asian woman from the west coast/ etc. ” I received several comments on my BuzzFeed piece saying it was boring, that I should find something else to “write” about (“write” was in quotes–I think that was one of my favorite comments). But why should I? It’s not self-centered to reflect on your experiences and impart them to others. It’s an attempt to reach out and make connections, to share and try to make sense of why we’re all here. Many, many people have reached out to me and said they went through a similar experience that I did, or that they knew someone who had, or that they appreciated the story. That more than cancels out the skeptics who don’t think our personal experiences are valid enough.
In response to our fears at the workshop, Erika reminded us that though many people may have written about divorce or disease or loss or love or race or sexuality or whatever, but no one has told our story the way we tell it. And I think that’s a really important reminder, especially when we just want to give up because it feels like there’s nothing new to say, that no one cares, that why would anyone want to read about my stupid, boring life? Because your stupid, boring life is yours. Own it. Write it. Share it. (Or not! That’s also your choice!).
A trip to Orchard House, the house where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, has been on my to-do list for years. After reading a post on the Ploughshares blog last week, the book was on my mind. Labor Day was coming up, and with it, a three-day weekend, so my friend Rachel and I got in my car on Monday morning and drove the half-hour from Jamaica Plain to Concord, MA.
In her post, Clare Beams wonders why, after so many years, do women continue to read, and love, Little Women, a book for young girls published in 1868-1869. Even Alcott herself wrote it under suggestion from her editor, saying that writing about young girls would be boring, but she’d do it for a paycheck. It’s a good question–one I’d never really thought about before. In an old Fashion Book post, I posited that people keep reading it because the characters are “vibrant” and we’ve all met an Amy or a Jo.
Maybe Little Women was the original “Which Sex and the City Character Are You?” personality quiz: Four women, four archetypal personality types. Meg was Carrie (lover of material goods and love, relatively stable and grounded); Jo was Miranda (short hair, no time for shenanigans); Beth was Charlotte (innocent and sweet); and Amy was Samantha (boy-crazed, selfish blonde). Of course, this is a completely reductionist reading of the book, but how many tv shows and movies have followed this trope of the woman who fits neatly into a box–the responsible one, the artsy one, the sexy one, the smart one, the shy one, the funny one, etc.
Beams argues that these neat personality archetypes are a large part of the appeal of the book. While we, real people, are messy and unknowable, the four sisters always acted the way they were supposed to. This reliability is comforting.
Orchard House is where the Alcott family lived for twenty years–the longest the family had been settled in any one place, due to patriarch Bronson Alcott’s inability to hold down a steady job. While many of the writer’s “homes” tourists visit today are just replicas of the originals, Orchard House is surprisingly well-preserved. No doubt, this is in large part due to the fact that the home has been a museum since 1911. All of the art hanging on the walls is original to the house, most of it painted by Louisa’s younger sister May–the inspiration for Amy. Bronson’s study is full of antique books on education, with a shelf devoted to Louisa’s books. Louisa’s writing helped support her family, something of which she was very proud. Of course, this was Jo’s aspiration as well, but in the book, Jo ends up with Professor Baehr, running a school for young boys and mothering her own children. In real life, though she did adopt her niece after her sister May died in Europe, Louisa never married, and suffered an early death due to mercury poisoning (very 19th century).
Even if you haven’t read Little Women (in which case, what are you even doing here at this blog? Are you lost?), I would recommend checking out Orchard House. It’s a super interesting look into 19th century living and into a fascinating family of immense talent and intellect. And when you’re done, you can go visit the other literary sights of Concord: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Walden Pond, and The Old Manse. There’s also some really fun shopping in town (but bring your wallet)!
Do you love Little Women? Why?
Friendship, specifically female friendship, is having a bit of a moment in the book world. Between Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (which I read while I was in Scotland earlier this summer), Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, it seems that the complexity and love in friendship is finally being recognized. All of these novels feature complicated and nuanced relationships between women–relationships that endure more dramatic ups and downs than any romantic dalliance. In a couples-centric culture, it can sometimes be easy to forget just how valuable and essential our friendships can be. I’m glad that we’re finally giving friendship the attention it deserves.
When I was younger, I had a hard time making friends. But, turns out, there’s nothing like memories of sitting alone on the playground at recess or being made fun of by the “cool kids” to make you appreciate your friends when you finally make them. It’s common knowledge that as we get older, the number of friends we have tends to dwindle. There are, of course, a multitude of reasons for this: distance, marriage and kids, the stresses of everyday adult life, and the inevitable evolving and growing apart from one another that happens as we age. Even though I, personally, had a lot of problems making friends growing up, it’s generally easier when you’re young–your friends live on your street, or sit next to you in school, or later, live with you in your dorm. Free from the responsibilities of adulthood, you revel in your friendships–spending hours on the phone with friends you see every day, talking about nothing; driving around aimlessly, listening to the radio; gathering in one another’s backyards every summer day.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have not only maintained many of those friends I finally made in high school and college, but also to actually make NEW friends as I’ve gotten older. At 33, I have friends from graduate school, previous jobs, my current job, friends of friends, writing friends, blogging friends, and friends of my ex. I’ve found that as you get older, the ways in which you know people grow more fluid. It’s no longer as easy as saying, “Oh, we met in homeroom.” Just this past weekend, I attended a wedding in Chicago where I knew many of the people who also knew the bride, but had a hard time explaining to those I didn’t know who I was or why I was there. It was just complicated, but there were others there with equally convoluted stories. And you know what? It was one of the best weddings I’ve ever been to. However, just as the ways in which we know each other grows more complex, so does the work involved in maintaining those bonds.
After my weekend in Chicago, I spent a week in Minneapolis, visiting one of my college roommates, Abbie, with another of my college roommates, Nancy (and her fiance). We talked one night over pre-bowling dinner about how friendship requires effort. With my college roommates for instance (the three of us, plus our friend Meghan who was unable to visit because she’s about to have a baby!), we schedule a monthly Skype call to catch up. We’ve missed a month here and there, and sometimes there are last-minute cancellations, but for the most part, we show up. And we show up because we care about each other.
Not every friendship is like that, of course. I have other friends who I only talk to every few months, and then usually only through email, but I know they care about me, and I hope they know I care about them, because, even if it’s not as often, we still show up.
On Friday morning, Abbie and Nancy decided it was time for me to learn how to ride a bike. That’s right–I don’t know how. So I strapped on a helmet and tried to pretend I wasn’t terrified as I climbed onto one of Abbie’s bikes. And then we worked on pedaling and balancing for at least an hour, up and down the sidewalk, and then to the park a few blocks down the street. And I had to laugh as I pedaled, slowly, with Abbie running alongside me, holding on to the handlebars, and Nancy running behind, playing Taylor Swift on her phone. We looked absolutely ridiculous, and I still need to learn, but all I could think about was , “Who are these people, trying so hard to help a stubborn scaredy-cat like me learn to ride a bike just because they know it will be good for me? How did I get so lucky to have these people in my life?”
I may be single (I am single), but that doesn’t mean I don’t have loving relationships in my life, I guess is what I’m saying. And I hope that we can keep up this work and keep showing up, despite the partners and babies and careers and classes and temptation to veg out in front of Netflix. Because at the end of the day, friendship is just as important, if not more so, than romance.
Chances are, if you read this blog, you already know this, but I got published in Buzzfeed earlier this week, and it’s kind of a big deal. For me. And it might be uncool to admit that, but I think we’ve established that I’m not super cool.
So, what happens after a very popular website publishes something really personal about your life?
Well, maybe I’ll start with what happens before, since a lot of people have asked. I’ve been writing as a hobby for a long time. It’s a way to make sense of my thoughts. I’ve dabbled in fiction here and there, but it’s not something I’ve ever really gotten the hang of. But the idea of writing about myself always seemed narcissistic and weird. I’m a middle-class white woman from the suburbs–what could I possibly contribute to the world? But after years of blogging and writing in notebooks, I took an essay-writing class at Grub Street and started to think, hey, maybe I could write some essays!
So, I did. And then I started researching. The nonfiction market is a VERY different market than fiction, turns out. When you’re a beginning fiction writer, you send your work to dozens of literary journals and then wait. And wait. And wait some more. And then start getting rejections. And then do it all again! With nonfiction, the response time is quicker, and though rejection is still very much a part of the process, at least it happens faster. Also, the venues are different. While many lit journals do publish essays, popular websites and magazines ALSO publish essays, so it’s a little easier (in my opinion) to find a home for your piece.
It took me a long time to write the essay that got published. It went through many drafts, several workshops with my writing group, and lots of index cards and scrap paper. It was hard to write about. In many ways, the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Which is maybe why it was successful.
When I was finally satisfied with what I had, I sent it out. And got rejected. 3 times. But the fourth time was a charm, and it was really great to work with Buzzfeed. My editor there was responsive and savvy. She gave me general ideas of how to improve the piece, then worked with me on further edits. It was definitely a very positive first publication experience. And it was super interesting to be on the other side of the desk, so to speak, since I’m usually the one doing the editing.
I got so caught up in the writing and the submitting that I became a little divorced (ha) from the subject matter. But after it got accepted, I started to worry. Was this okay? Was it okay to put my life on display like this? I tried to make it as vague as possible, with respect to the other people involved, but of course, since the subject was my name, it couldn’t be entirely anonymous. Luckily, it’s a really common name.
But at the end of the day, I wrote it because I wanted people to read it. I wanted to be transparent and honest. I wanted other people who’ve gone through this experience to read it and feel like someone understood where they were coming from, because I really haven’t felt that way myself.
The response has been amazingly humbling and crazy. People I haven’t spoken to in years, people I’ve never met, family, friends–they’ve all been so incredibly kind and supportive. I don’t even know how to respond because nothing seems adequate. Honestly, the whole experience, while awesome, has been emotionally draining, too. It hasn’t been all champagne and sparkles. I’ve wanted, for as long as I can remember, to be published. And now I am. And that’s huge! But it doesn’t mean I’m fixed. I’ve come a long way and I’ve accomplished things, but I’m still sad. I’m sad every day. But it helps to know that I have so many people behind me, and that maybe I can hack it at this writing thing after all.
So thank you for reading and for commenting and for being my friend.
And if you’re a writer, keep writing. Keep writing what you need to write, especially if it’s really, really hard and scary and discouraging. Because it’s worth it, and no one can tell your story but you.