#mww13

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

It has taken me a week to figure out how to blog about the Midwest Writers Workshop. I just didn’t know where to start. Do I talk about my awesome fellow interns/ninjas/redshirts? Or a few of the really awesome people who put it together? Or the visiting literary agents and faculty, with a clear bias on the one I was assisting?

Real talk time: I still have no idea where to start or what to concentrate on.

Maybe there just isn’t a single bead of awesome for me to focus on. Because here’s the thing – there was just too much that was unbelievably beautiful. I met too many amazing people – faculty and guests alike – and was too immersed in too many freaking crazy opportunities.

I got to assist Victoria Marini, a kickass literary agent that made my potentially stressful job really fun. I met Roxane Gay, who I also interviewed before MWW and did a (fingerling) presentation on in my literary citizenship class. I convinced her to join OkCupid. She convinced me that I belong at the University of Alabama creative writing grad program. I got to hang out with a lot of really cool writers and agents. Yeah, the chairs were crazy uncomfortable for fat people but I took some advice from body positivity goddess Ragen Chastain and said, “Hey, maybe we should change that.”

And then I broke down and had a panic attack but even that led me to meeting a beautiful and amazing woman who worked me through it and then ranted with me about how much Moffat sucks.

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Also, I touched Brooks Sherman’s hair.

Like you don't want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

Like you don’t want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

There was a lot about #mww13 that was the coolest ever. I believe the faculty and agents who say that it’s one of the best writing conferences in the country. If you ever get a chance to register and come, DO IT.

In the meantime, there have been many blog posts about the conference, some of which are linked in this sentence. The super cool Cathy Day also made a Storify for each day of the conference, featuring tweets that exemplified each day. If you want even more, you can still check out the #mww13 hashtag on Twitter. A lot of people were way more informative and less gushy than I was in this post. Go check them out. If you were there, share your experiences!

Because here’s what I took away from #mww13: I am meant to be in this community. I’m working to be a writer and maybe that’s what I’ll be or maybe I’ll be an agent or editor or just an eternal conference attendee. I can’t tell the future. What I can tell you is that last weekend left me feeling the way Alpha always left me feeling – so exhausted and energized and at peace.

It felt like home.

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Yeah, That’s Not How You Do Literary Citizenship

getting real tired of your shit“I’m a professional writer of forty years! Can any of you stand up and say the same?”

The microphone hijacker is drunk. His shouts crash out of the speakers and drown the awkward silence.

A group of (really quite talented) writers in their twenties had gathered at the bar to read poetry and prose, to listen, appreciate, and celebrate each other. I came thinking, “Maybe I’ll read next time.”

The drunk does not approve. He repeats: “I’ve been a professional writer for forty years!” He reads clumsily from his partner’s book of poetry. He commands us to purchase it when it goes on sale next month on Amazon. To the relief of the crowd, he only reads one poem before retreating to his table.

I’ve been, for the most part, quite lucky in my meetings with other writers, so this man’s rude interruption last night came as a nasty surprise. I’ve had writers judge me for writing and enjoying genre fiction and young adult, but I’ve never personally come up against someone so bitter. It’s a part of the writing world that I’ve been vaguely aware existed, but have not encountered.

What causes an older, more experienced writer to shame someone for their youth and relative inexperience? These writers came wanting to build a sense of community, wanting to support each other and perhaps attract more to the fold, and they were shouted down by a bitter old man.

You could hypothesize that it has to do with age. The landscape of writing is changing. More people than ever before can be published writers. Is he resentful? Is that why he reminded us multiple times that he’s a “professional” writer, despite acting just the opposite? But my experience with older writers has always, on the whole, been incredibly positive. They’re often willing and eager to share their experience and help younger writers through the many stumbling blocks of the profession. Or, when they’re older but new to writing, I’ve been treated as a fellow student of the craft, someone else who’s still really learning.

Perhaps this comes back to luck. I hope not. I want writers like last night’s drunk to be a minority. I want the kind, encouraging writers like Cathy Day and Linda Taylor to outnumber him.

The readings continued despite him. Writers and those who had come to listen fought back against him. I imagine he was too drunk and angry to care about our words the time, but I hope he woke up this morning regretting his actions. I hope he thought over what he’d said and done and realized how toxic such behavior is to the writing community.

I have never done a reading in nearly so public a place as a bar. I’ve read in classrooms and at a bookstore surrounded by my fellow Alphans, who outnumbered the unknowns. Those were safe spaces. A bar has the potential for, well, people like that drunk. Even when he wasn’t interrupting us to give the worst possible publicity for his partner’s poetry, his table was rude and loud. Readers at a microphone surrounded by several speakers could hear that table over their own voices. That wouldn’t happen in the kind of secure environment I’m used to. That honestly scares me. I don’t know how I’d react in that situation, and I hate that I’m so intimidated.

The thing that really sucks is that I’m probably not the only one. What if one of the readers last night had that experience and is frightened off from doing it again? What if someone came, like me, thinking that they might join in and now, like me, are kind of freaked out by the idea, all because some drunk writer decided to take his frustrations out on us?

I am incredibly proud of anyone who puts themselves out there and does a reading like that, even moreso if you can survive an experience like that and do it again. We need more of those people spreading confidence and support, getting the bitter poison out of our collective systems. Maybe those of us who have a little less courage can take strength from them. I hope I can.

What about you? What’s the worst (or best!) experience you’ve ever had with a reading? Can you empathize with this dude more than I can? Have you seen more of this dark side? Hit up the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What About Publishing?

book slothLast week, I told you about some lessons I learned about writing. Now, let’s talk about publishing.

For my literary citizenship class this week, Cathy Day assigned us roughly ten million things to read about publishing. I’m not complaining, mind you, not at all. I will take any trusted sources on publishing that I can get. You can get links to about half of the material we had to read on the sidebar of the literary citizenship blog, but I’m going to give you a summary of the 7 Big Lessons I took away from the reading.

1) Publishing is a business.

You might be thinking, “Duh. It’s called the publishing industry. Of course it’s a business.”

The problem is that, as a writer, you might think that you can completely divorce yourself from that and just be the creative artist. You can’t. It’s not just that you’ll have to do some self-promotion. If you go the route of traditional publishing, you’ll lose a lot of creative control over things like the cover and title. You might have to make edits you don’t want to make. You’ll have to realize that, yes, this is a business, and you need to act professionally.

2) If you want a place for your book to go, you’re going to have to buy some books.

Amazon didn’t kill bookstores. We did. We “decided that convenience was more important than community“. We are entirely responsible for keeping the literary world aloft. If you want to be a writer and you want people to buy your books, then you have to buy books first. You have to keep the presses and publishers and bookstores in business.

(Not that buying books on Amazon is bad. It’s not. But still. You can’t blame them for being successful.)

3) Self-publishing isn’t bad.

Confession: I struggle with a bias against self-publishing. A lot of this has to do with what I’ll talk about in lesson #4. It’s hard not to think of people who self-publish as vain, but self-publishing and vanity presses are not the same thing. There are loads of reasons to self-publish. Maybe they want more control. Maybe they want a bigger share of the profits. Maybe they don’t want to wait the years it can take a book to be published the traditional route.

Why should writers be judged for that? Here’s my big resolution to myself: be more open to the self-published.

4) But it does have some drawbacks.

Yeah, there are still problems. While there are certainly high quality self-published books out there, there are also an awful lot of unvetted books. There are books that have been edited maybe a few times, and maybe not even by another person. There are poorly designed covers and bad copy editing, if any at all.

If you want to avoid self-publishing pitfalls, there are people out there who can help you. Take advantage of their services.

5) Then again, so does traditional publishing.

So, you go the traditional publishing route. Let’s assume that you’re okay letting go of some measure of control. What are the other bad parts?

In Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See gives us a look behind the scenes. It’s pretty nervous-making.

When you go the traditional publishing route, the company to a pretty large extent decides the fate of your book before it even comes out. They choose when to release it – some times of the year are much better than others – and how many copies to print. They decide your place in line. Just how much are they willing to spend on you? Just how much are they going to push your book? They decide how to present the book. They send it out for pre-reviews, and those pre-reviews really seal your fate. You don’t have control over any of this. For the most part, you won’t even be told about any of these decisions.

And publicity? Yeah. For the most part, you’re going to have to rely on yourself.

6) No matter which way you go, you’re going to have to do some work.

That’s right. You know that with self-publishing, you have to promote yourself. But the same is true for traditional publishing! No one cares as much about your book as you do. You have to be out there telling people about it. Build up your internet presence, go to bookstores, libraries, book clubs. Have contests and giveaways. There are loads of ways to get the word out, so get to work!

7) You need to really want it.

You might notice that this whole publishing thing is sounding really difficult. There’s no magic spell to getting noticed or published. There is, however, a lot of hard work to be done, and that’s on top of the writing of the book itself!

Publishing takes time. You’re going to get rejected, a lot. You’re going to have people that don’t like your book. And you’re just going to have to keep going.

So. Do you want it badly enough?

I know I do.

7 Writing Revelations

sloth_student_by_funnysloth-d4xmd5hIn the past week, I’ve gone to a panel on grad school for creative writers, a Q&A with essayist Elena Passarello, the In Print reading with authors of recently released first books, and a panel on writing and publishing. If I managed to go to all that and not learn anything, there would be something seriously wrong with me.

I talked yesterday about the experience of helping to promote In Print and the importance of participating in literary events. Today, I’m going to tell you seven things I’ve learned in the last week and hopefully further convince you to go get involved.

1) Ask questions. Answer them. Push farther.

This is something that I did semi-unconsciously already. I don’t know if you can write anything without asking questions of yourself. But in the Q&A with Elena Passarello, she talked about how her essays often come about because she starts asking questions. More importantly, she keeps asking them. She said that her first questions are usually pretty dumb, and it’s not until she keeps pushing for answers and more questions that she gets to the heart of her essay.

It reminded me of a small exercise we did at Alpha, where they gave us a prompt – just a short phrase – and said, “Got your first idea? Okay, now throw it out. Your first idea is the one that everyone else will think of. Keep going. Keep pushing.” I don’t push myself nearly enough sometimes.

2) If you go to grad school for creative writing, don’t take the shortest path. Savor the time.

The panel on grad school for creative writers included five BSU professors that all had at least an MFA in creative writing and, in one case, a PhD. The big lesson that really struck me was that just because there are two-year low residency programs to get your MFA doesn’t mean they’re the best choice. For some people they might be, but the panel made a good point. It’s a time in your life when you’re really getting to just concentrate on your writing and nothing else. That’s not something that exists in the real world. It should be savored. Get a three-year program, or a four-year if you can.

Also, two-year programs don’t generally give out a lot of money to attend them. So that’s something to think about.

3) Stop thinking of your book as a book. Just write it.

The panel at In Print got on the topic of this fantasy that writers get into about their first books. We think about how beautiful it’s going to be and clearly everyone will love us. We conduct interviews with ourselves in our heads. We put ourselves on a schedule – “Have to get published by 25, then this by 30, this by 35…”

Problem is, that can really hinder your writing. You’re seeing your book as this glorious object sitting on the shelves at Barnes & Noble or nestled into an Amazon box. You’re putting a lot of pressure on it, and you’re not really writing. Across the panel, all of the authors said that once they stopped seeing their book as this idea, it was much easier to write. This is a lesson I really need to learn.

4) If you’re always drawn to the same topic, stop fighting it.

At the Q&A, Elena Passarello said that she went into grad school thinking, “I’m going to write about trucker’s wives!” Eugene Cross wanted to write about anything but his hometown of Erie, PA.

That didn’t really work for either of them. Elena kept drifting towards other topics and had to force herself to stay on trucker’s wives. Eugene wrote about other towns, but they all sounded like Erie. Eventually, they stopped fighting it and ended up much happier for it. Sometimes you just have to write about something. Let it happen.

5) Stay in touch with your professors.

This qualifies both for grad school and for writing in general. If you go to grad school five years after you get your undergrad and you need letters of recommendation, will your professors remember you? Did you talk to them at all after graduation?

Professors of creative writing tend to be published and active writers. That means that they aren’t just teaching you about lyric essays and Freitag’s pyramid – they’re a connection. They know the writing world. They’ve been where you are, and they might help you get your foot in if you keep in touch with them.

6) Go to readings, panels, everything.

I talked about this yesterday, but seriously. Go to all of them. Go meet writers that you would never have heard about if you weren’t at a reading in an indie bookstore. Go to panels and learn something new, or go, “I can do better than that,” and get on a panel yourself. Participate. Learn.

7) I really, really want this.

It’s not news to me that I want to be a writer. I’ve known that since I was ten. What In Print and meeting Elena Passarello, Eugene Cross, and Marcus Wicker taught me is just how badly I want it. I want to improve my writing until I’m good enough to captivate an audience with my words. You know that giddy, floaty feeling you get after you finish a really good book? I want to give people that feeling. I want to meet people who have read my book and like it and I want to talk to them. That’s the world I’m meant to be in. I just have to get to work and really make it happen.

What about you guys? What are some things that you’ve learned in the last week? Hit up the comments below.

The Importance of Being Literary

Sloths love both community and Oscar Wilde references.

Sloths love both community and Oscar Wilde references.

I’ve talked before about my literary citizenship class with Cathy Day, where we learn about why, as writers, we should be making an effort to be part of the literary community and how we can do that. For the class, we all had to participate in organizing a literary event. I was in a group of five (click for their blogs) that helped to promote Ball State’s 8th In Print Festival of First Books. If you happen to be in the Muncie area, In Print continues tonight with a panel on publishing and writing. Student Center Ballroom, 7:30 PM, be there or be square.

I have to give a quick plug for the attending authors – Elena Passarello, Marcus Wicker, and Eugene Cross – because they blow me away with their writing. They reminded me just how badly I want to be a writer. I dream of being able to manipulate words and shape stories – in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry – the way they do. Go read them.

Part of this assignment was to blog about the experience of organizing a literary event. I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out how to do that with promoting In Print. What do I talk about? Brainstorming places to advertise? Writing the article for the Muncie Voice? Blowing up Facebook and Twitter? What would be the point of that post? I didn’t want it to read like a homework assignment.

It was a classmate in my nonfiction class that unwittingly gave me my post. On Tuesday, she came up to me and said, “You know about this In Print thing, right? Where do I go?”

She just wanted the information because our professor was giving out extra credit for attendance. She had no idea what she’d done for me. At that moment, I finally felt connected to the festival. I was a person to go to for information – a trusted source. Compared to the huge amount of work that went into putting In Print together, I did very little, but suddenly it felt like it was mine. I was proud. My part in this amazing event may have been minuscule, but I was still part of it. It was on the inside of the literary community and it felt so right.

If you’re a writer or a reader, go get involved. Volunteer and spread the word. If you can’t find an event to be part of, go make one. Help your fellow writers. Be a literary citizen. You won’t regret it.