Sunday, April 17, 2011

Conversations and Connections 2011

The 2011 Conversations and Connections, held yesterday at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, was an incredibly good time.  I met up with a number of my classmates, attended craft lectures and panels, listened to an awesome keynote speech by Steve Almond, had three speed-dates with different editors and barely managed to wolf down a soup and sandwich from Panera for lunch.

Session 1, The Form of Fiction:  Exploring Experimental Forms, with Matt Kirkpatrick was an eye-opening experience for me.  I'm not the most experimental person on the planet (okay, I'm afraid I'm probably quite mundane), but his craft lecture really made me think about the process of creating experimental fiction and what use it has in writing today.  I don't know that I'm going to let my experimental freak flag fly anytime soon, but it's something new to play around with and I walked away with the names of a half dozen new authors I've never read to check out--bonus!

Session 2 was a panel discussion on What Editors Love and Hate, presided by Mark Drew of The Gettysburg Review, Mark Cugini of Big Lucks, Reb Livingston of No Tell Motel, Rae Bryant of Moon Milk Review, and Zachary Benavidez of Potomac Review.  Although I knew most of their pet peeves already (double space everything, don't print double sided, know your market and for God's sake, read the submission guidelines) it was still interesting to hear them talk about the mostly unglorious and unappreciated role of being an editor for a literary journal.  Zachary Benavidez mentioned that his journal only prints 500 copies, of which most are given away.  This makes me sad on many levels.  One, this means very few people actually buy and read that particular journal.  Two, it means that the authors contained in that journal aren't being widely read.  Three, it means FAT CHANCE of getting published.  This made me want to throw my short stories in the trash can and walk away forever--maybe get into a more lucrative career like chimney sweeping or something.  At least then I'd get to carry a cool broom and wear a fancy hat--and maybe even get a paycheck every now and again.

For the "Speed-Dating with an Editor" session over lunch, I had three dates with an editor.  It's really not as romantic as it sounds.  Basically, you say hello, act a little awkward, ask them about their publication if you've never read it, and then give them something to read.  So I guess it kind of is like a blind date, minus the fiction.  They speed read it (and these guys and gals are seriously good at speed reading), or most of it if it's a longer piece, then they tell you their impressions and what they think.  First, I have to say that this has got to be incredibly hard.  I read things for workshops twice, and I'm a pretty fast reader, then I have to formulate things that I want to tell the author, and present them in a positive way.  This can take forever.  I can't imagine reading something cold, then looking the author in the face and telling them what's working and what's not, right away.  These folks have some serious cojones.  And then go on to do this another eleven or so times in the span of two hours.  So for the sole fact that my writing didn't get thrown back in my face with a disgusted ugh, I thank these editors for even taking the time to read my dreck and drivel.  Now I will go make it better and submit it somewhere.  Thanks to the editors I saw:  Steve Himmer from Necessary Fiction (who is easily the fastest, most comprehensive reader I've ever seen), the aforementioned Mark Drew of The Gettysburg Review, and Chris M. of the also aforementioned Big Lucks.

We were then treated to an uproariously funny keynote speech by Steve Almond, who, in spite of the fact that he claimed to be "setting the bar low", did in fact deliver by knocking my socks clean off.  Seriously, I was sockless at the end.  (And here's where I'd make an inappropriate joke about having lost some other item of clothing as well, but I'll behave.)  Steve is a seriously funny guy, and I feel qualified in saying this for listening to him speak for twenty or thirty minutes on the subject of the publishing industry and how it's gone all wrong.  Steve is the author of Candy Freak, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, as well as countless other publications.  He was talking up his "one crap" books like This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey (links for those are available on his website), which I unfortunately did not buy because I'd spent my last ten dollars on lunch.  Steve's a self-publisher and self-promoter, and he seems to be doing pretty well for himself, so he's a god among us mortals in my book.

For Session 3, I attended a craft lecture by Matt Bell, Everything Worth Saying is Worth Saying Twice:  The Power of Repitition.  I'd never read Matt Bell's stuff before, until I saw something he'd written that was handed out in the experimental fiction craft lecture that morning--and I liked it.  I'll say that I didn't choose this craft lecture because of that, but it was a kind of "Oh, that's neat" moment where the stars aligned and I got to hear someone speak that I'd actually (now) read.  His lecture was intense, that's about the best way I can describe it.  I'm not sure if Matt's a really intense guy himself or maybe he had too much coffee that day, but his enthusiasm for writing is definitely infectious.  I sat there listening to him give a lecture that was meant for a PowerPoint presentation (the projector was, I suppose, not working), and it was nuts.  He said a lot of really awesome stuff, and some of it I just totally couldn't follow--but I felt like maybe it was sinking in by osmosis.  Or maybe by repetition.  I began to think, as I listened to his strong, vibrato voice, that maybe this was some kind of performance art.  I fully expected him to finish and for the class to sit there in a kind of stunned silence until he gave a bow--and then we would applaud.  That didn't happen--at least not until the very end when there was some polite applause and few thanks, but what I understood of it was a great lecture.  He had us do some writing exercises using repetition, which a few of us then read in front of class.  I really dig what I wrote, but I'm not exactly sure what it is.  Is it flash fiction?  Prosetry?  A vingette?  Part of a novel or a short story, or... what, exactly?  I don't know, but I like it.  I'm going to clean it up and see what comes of it.

All in all, it was a great day.  I picked up a hardcover copy of The Calligrapher's Daughter by the local Entasis Press before heading home (they accepted credit cards using this cool phone app)--it's now somewhere in the pile of 200+ books I have on my to-read list, but I'm looking forward to reading it!

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