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2015 September 30

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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?

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