Friday, April 30, 2010

Further thought on letters


Just an extra little thought for today, one that occurred to me after I finished my last post, about using real life letters in a historical fiction. First, I should clarify that while Van Gogh was a voluminous letter writer, at least from the viewpoint of the 20th and 21st centuries, and while his letters provide crucial insight into what he did, thought, and believed over a span of decades (and, I think, is a big reason why he is and has been such a fascinating figure to literary people), letters occupy only a small fraction of my novel. If someone is a nearly unstoppable letter writer, it's just not possible to cancel out that aspect of his character when you fictionalize him. Or I didn't think so. Even so, dramatizing Van Gogh's life is my point and my method in the novel; I never really wanted to do else.

But the dilemma that I discusssed in my last post, whether or not to present the Antwerp period of Van Gogh's life as simply a series of letters between he and Theo, made me wonder if one couldn't simply create a different sort of Van Gogh novel, one that is purely epistolary. After all, the epistolary novel is hardly a new or rare phenomenon. Couldn't someone simply do something like that with Van Gogh? And then, simultaneous with this idea, I had two countering thoughts: 1) What do we need an Van Gogh epistolary novel for when his Collected Letters already exists and is such a profound resource? and 2) There already is a Van Gogh episotlary "novel." Sort of. Irving Stone--one of the first literary figures to discover Van Gogh as a subject--published a book called Dear Theo way back in the 1930s. (And it's still in print.) Dear Theo is a volume of selected letters--a very carefully culled and arranged volume. What Stone tries to do in Dear Theo is select pieces from, and edit, Van Gogh's letters so that they make a consistent narrative with a palpable dramatic arc. Therefore the book, while purely Van Gogh's writing, reads less like a straightforward selection of letters than like a novel. (By the way, there are a variety of other Van Gogh Selected Letters available, each chosen by different editorial eyes with different aims in mind.) So, in short, if an epistolary Van Gogh novel sounds like your cup of tea, I suggest you go out and buy Dear Theo!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The power in letters


I've noted that one of my key sources in researching my novel has been The Collected Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, a fairly massive, three volume collection that features his lifelong correspondence to mostly one person: his brother Theo. When I was in the early stages of drafting my novel, and it seemed necessary to have Vincent write a letter to his brother, I would just invent the letter completely. I felt I knew enough about Van Gogh's biography, his concerns, and his passions to do so, and I knew too what specific plot points I was trying to develop in any given scene. But as I continued with both my writing and researching, and I read or re-read more deeply into the letters, I found that Van Gogh made certain points so well and so eloquently that it only made sense to borrow the man's real words. So the letters in my novel started to become combinations of my phrasings and his. Often what I ended up doing is taking bits from a variety of letters written during a given time frame or situation and combining those bits into a consistent fabric. Doing so required a bit of tweaking on my part, of course: slight changes to his phrasings, transitional phrases and sentences invented by me, the trimming away or ignoring of a lot of subjects that I didn't think were important to bring up. If I was going to use the actual letters, I couldn't see any other way to do so. After all, it wasn't appropriate to simply pull five or ten full--even lengthy--letters and stick them unchanged into the body of my novel, especially when all sorts of topics come up in those letters that might have nothing to do with the plot point I was trying to develop. So I condensed; I focused; I distilled. And hopefully the result is that the letters, as presented in my novel, go hand in hand with the dramatized scenes. Hopefully, the reader can't tell which words are originally Van Gogh's and which are imitations written by me.

I started thinking hard about this subject again recently, as I looked over the Antwerp section of my novel. This isn't a terribly long section--Van Gogh only lived there a few months--but I feature a scene with him in a bar shortly after he arrives in the city (a scene suggested by an actual letter of his), also a scene with him observing Rubens' paintings in a city museum (something also drawn from his actual letters), and a few scenes with Van Gogh in Antwerp's Art Academy, an institution in which he did indeed enroll but finally left after too many frustrating disagreements with his instructors, one instructor in particular. While all these scenes are useful in emphasizing an aspect of Van Gogh's life or character, the real drama of the Antwerp period involves the question of when he would move to Paris. Reading The Collected Letters, one sees that he had a rather fast falling out with Antwerp and very quickly began pressuring Theo for permission to move to Paris and live in Theo's apartment. Theo politely tried to dissuade Vincent, tried to convince him to wait at least until summer. Over an extended series of letters, a reader can watch while Vincent tries to answer Theo's objections. (One doesn't have Theo's letters but can take a fair guess at their content based on what Vincent says.) Finally Vincent just arrives in Paris, without forewarning--both in real life and in my novel.

An earlier version of my Antwerp section included my own approximation of this epistolary battle: My condensed and patched together versions of Vincent's letters along with completely invented letters written by "Theo" (really by me.) However, in an effort to trim away the fat from my novel, several months ago I got rid of almost the whole bulk of this correspondence. Looking over the section now, I wonder if the epistolary argument between Vincent and Theo isn't actually more dramatically interesting that the dramatized scenes I wrote. I'm toying now with the idea of reinstalling all the letters I cut and trimming down, or getting rid of altogether, the other parts of the Antwerp section. As with many crucial revision decisions, there's going to be pain involved with this one. Something will be lost no matter what I decide. But one hopes--one always hopes--that the loss will be an overall gain for the novel. I'll let you all know what I finally do with this section.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Indicting the Green Fairy?


If you're a regular reader of this blog you know that I recently attended the 2010 AWP conference in Denver, and at the amazing AWP book fair I purchased a book called Absinthe, Sip of Seduction: A Contemporary Guide. It's really turned out to be a wonderful resource as I try to find out more about this infamously favorite drink (nicknamed "The Green Fairy") of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painters living in 19th century Paris. If nothing else, the book has shown me how silly I was to just drink absinthe straight up, as I did the first time. (See my earlier post about that experiment.) Not only is that not the traditional or typical way to imbibe absinthe, but it's strongly cautioned against by the authors of this book. To quote: "drinking absinthe neat can result in gratuitous tears and choking due to the intense and bitter taste." (Yes, indeed.)

The book has also provided much useful information about the supposed connection between absinthe and madness, a connection made all the more popular given the particular form of "madness" that infected Van Gogh starting in December, 1888. Some commentators have tried to claim that it was absinthe that undid Van Gogh, but--as Sip of Seduction points out--this is a difficult case to make, because we can't be sure whether or not Van Gogh drank much absinthe at all. It certainly was the favorite drink among many artists and writers living in Paris in the late 1800s, and it was certainly a favorite of Paul Gauguin, who eventually became one of the most important people in Van Gogh's life. But no one knows how much of the stuff Van Gogh actually drank. It comes up hardly at all in his letters, but then again Van Gogh wrote comparatively few letters during his time in Paris (because the man he wrote most of his letters to was now his housemate). When he left Paris, he did claim that his health was poor and that if he had stayed he might have become an alcoholic. But he did not attest to any special attraction to absinthe. Most people who have looked into Van Gogh's condition (apparently a rare form of epilepsy) claim multiple contributing factors: poor eating habits, years of working himself to the point of exhaustion, a series of emotional crises, a diet consisting mainly of coffee and pipe tobacco, the unavoidable inhalation of fumes from paints and thinners, and--most particularly--a family history of mental illness.

That said, some very interesting facts appear in Sip of Seduction. Apparently, the psychoactive power of wormwood (absinthe's key ingredient) has been greatly exaggerated to the point of mythology, but during the heyday of absinthe's popularity, some manufacturers of inferior quality product added poisonous colorants to artificially bring about the famous glowing green shade of the real thing. According to the book: "commonly used harmful adulterants included copper salts, aniline dye, and turmeric . . . These cheap, toxic absinthes were common fare among those of lower socioeconomic status in urban areas." I think it's safe to say that struggling painters can be counted among the lower socioeconomic classes. Also intriguing is that, even before Van Gogh had a reputation of any kind at all, it was noticed that certain drinkers of absinthe demonstrated odd behaviors: "erratic mood shifts, disconcerting tic disorders, and in some cases blindness." As public opinion turned against the spirit, it began to be blamed for a whole range of symptoms: "convulsions . . . sleeplessness, tremors, and hallucinations." Even epilepsy! Whether absinthe abuse (as opposed to alcohol addiction generally) was uniquely responsible for such behaviors and conditions, it's certainly is true that hallucinations, erratic mood shifts, tremors, and convulsions were demonstrated by Van Gogh during his attacks.

So am I saying absinthe really was the culprit in Van Gogh's case? No, not at all. He had so much stacked against him to begin with--something I try to emphasize in my novel--that he did not need an alcoholic spirit to push him over the edge. He went there, I'm pretty well sure, all on his own.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Throwing the F bomb in historical fiction


I blogged last weekend about an issue that arose during a historical fiction section at the recent AWP conference in Denver. In that entry, I took novelist Ron Hansen to task for his rule that a writer of historical fiction should never "knowingly part from fact." Hansen said many things during that session that I do agree with, one of which is that a writer of historical fiction should not use slang or terminology that postdates the era he or she is writing about. That seems a straightforward rule, one that I think most people would find reasonable and even useful. Part of the joy of writing historical fiction, after all, is finding out about previous decades and centuries, including the kinds of phrases used back then. When one is writing a novel set in North America or another English-speaking part of the world, Hansen's rule is easy enough to process and to follow. If Americans didn't say "by the skin of our teeth" in 1791, then you probably don't want to have the characters in your 1790s Boston novel use that phrase.

Things become more complicated, however, when your novel is set in a non-English speaking country or, as in the case of my Van Gogh novel, countries. If you are writing in English for an English speaking audience, then part of the long process of creating your novel is finding the right tone in English for conversations that would have actually occurred in French or German or Dutch or Swahili or whatever. (Assuming, of course, that your made up conversation ever actually happened at all.) So when a word came into parlance in English is less of a pressing matter than whether or not that word effectively renders the flavor of the character's thought. To be specific: At various points in my novel, different characters have reason to express disgust or anger or severe frustration. In a contemporary novel (in English), a character might simply say "F*** it." But can I have the characters in my nineteenth century novel--set in a non-English speaking countries--say this? My answer, so far, has been yes. In fact, the F word might be one of the easier linguisitic issues to put to rest. First, when I use that phrase, or a version of it, (and I don't use it very often) I do it because I think the word fits the emotional tone of the thoughts or conversation depicted. Would Van Gogh have actually used the word "f***"? Probably not. (Although he was fluent in English.) Would Gauguin? Not at all. But that's because they were not native English speakers. In fact, none of what I have them say in the novel they could ever have said--not the precise way I write it--because my characters weren't speaking in English back in Nuenen or Antwerp or Paris or Arles in the 1880s. I realize this may sound like an obvious point, but I make it to emphasize that a writer who is, essentially, trying to translate nineteenth century continental speech into English that a contemporary audience can read and emotionally appreciate, automatically earns a little leeway in terms of the application of Hansen's rule. Besides which, those who have looked into the etymology of the F word--and, by the way, I understand there is a fascinating documentary about this very subject, available through Netflix, titled The F-Bomb: A Documentary--have discovered that in English the word has been used for hundreds of years, well before the dawn of the 1880s. Not only that, but it seems likely this English language slang word is NOT derived from some silly acronym, but from simillar sounding words in Dutch (Van Gogh's native language!), German, Swedish, and Norwegian that mean "to strike" and/or "to copulate." (In fact, the Swedish word for "penis" is fock.) So given that the word existed in English at the same time as the real Van Gogh and the real Gauguin lived in continental Europe I feel all the more justified in using the word for my English-speaking audience--if I feel it accurately expresses the tenor of the characters' thoughts.

Language in a historical fiction is an extremely tricky issue, we can all agree, no matter what we think of Hansen's rule. Some would say, "Isn't the point of any novel to reach and touch the contemporary reading audience?" And "Can any of us really know how people talked and thought day-to-day in a world from 300 or 500 or 1000 years ago?" The answers are Yes and No. Given that, can we just go ahead and use contemporary English, no matter what the era is we're depicting? My answer: Not so fast. The simple fact is that in order to be affecting to the reader the language has to be credible, and in order to be credible it has to feel as if it could belong to the era depicted, even if it finally doesn't. And that's where applying Hansen's rule can be very useful for establishing and maintaining just that credibility.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Arne Duncan's Folly


Taking a short break from my usual topic of historical fiction to blog about something I touched on a couple months ago: the Obama administration's approach to education reform, a topic that should concern any American writer. I decided to write about this after listening to Education Secretary Arne Duncan on NPR's Talk of the Nation radio show yesterday. Let's just say that it's depressing that this administration--which nearly let crucial health care reform legislation go down to defeat, and finally had to water down the reform legislation that did pass, because for months it stood passively by and let a Republican minority dominate and control (and distort) the public discussion--talk about education as if they are Republicans. Republicans are famous for assuming the worst about educators and our education system, for starting from the standpoint that it's all bad, and for questioning, underfunding, and attempting to undermine every federal education initiative no matter how promising or successful. That essentially was the tenor of Duncan's remarks yesterday on NPR. Duncan, by the way, is not an educator, having never actually stood in a classroom and taught students. This is another aspect of the American education debate that bothers me. How is it that non-professionals in the field feel they have the right to criticize and dictate to people who have worked in the field for years? In what other industry would this be permitted? Can you imagine an oil company being run by executives who have never worked in the oil industry before? Can you imagine auto manufacturers or computer software designers or giant retail companies being ordered around by people who have no inside knowledge of making cares, creating software, or selling clothes? Of course not. Such a situation would not be tolerated. Yet in education everybody assumes that they have all the answers, that they know what the real problems are--even if their last experience in a classroom was 25 years ago when they were seniors in high school. And unfortunately, as so often in life, those who are most convinced they know it all usually know the least.

And this gets me back to Arne Duncan. The man doesn't even realize the details of the very proposals he is pushing. Compete, compete, compete, Duncan says. Instead of funding existing programs that deserve it, we're simply going to create a big pile of money and individual states will compete for that money to fund the programs that they want to support. Putting aside the fact that this is utterly and completely a Republican approach to education coming from a Democratic administration (I never expected to get a repeat and exaggeration of George Bush's educational approach from the Obama administration), Duncan's argument that all the programs that currently work will be rewarded under his system is factually incorrect. A number of federal financed programs with a national infrastructure--the National Writing Project, Reading is Fundamental, Teach for America--cannot exist if it is left up to individual states to try to get money. How will a national infrastrcuture survive if some states are rewarded with money and others not, and when even the states who receive the money may not care to support local writing projects? But here's the thing. Such a scenario is not only impractical; it's illegal. I know something about the National Writing Project, because my wife has played a role in it for over ten years. And it's a simple fact that it is illegal for a national organization to compete for funding that is intended to go to states. Under federal law, they are forbidden from doing so. How come the Secretary of Education does not know this? How come he didn't find out before putting together and arguing vociferously for a proposal that would pit the National Writing Project and other federal education programs against state programs? A very valuable program that has for thirty years encouraged and shown K-12 teachers how to better use writing in their classrooms--no matter what subject they teach--is about to go under, and the Education Sectretary doesn't seem to realize that this outcome is due to his own misguided proposals.

I'm a writing teacher and I hear all the time about "How kids can't write these days." Well, some can and some can't. But if we're concerned about getting our students to write better, it doesn't make sense to allow a program to die that has been working hard and effectively for 30 + years to realize that desired end. And if anyone cares to find out exactly how successful the National Writing Project has been--and what a loss the death of this program would be--you should head to their web site (click on the above link) to find out.

No matter what we do, let's not let misinformed and arrogantly powerful Republicans-in-the-guise-of-Democrats undercut valuable educational initiatives. When Mr. Obama was elected, the very last thing I thought I would have to do is write that his administration does not know what it's doing in regards to education. Because Mr. Obama is a man who has drawn so much benefit from his own education, and he is man who clearly cares about the subject dearly. But appointing Arne Duncan was a mistake, one that becomes more aggravating and more apparent every day.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Parting ways with Hansen


It's been a week since I returned from the AWP conference in Denver, but my head is still buzzing with questions stemming from the very last session I attended, one on historical fiction (the only one on historical fiction), featuring Ron Hansen, Cynthia Mahamdi, and Philip Gerard. It was a good session, one of the best I attended this year, just unfortunately placed in the very last time slot of a three day conference. Ron Hansen is a terrific novelist, someone who never writes a bad book. He's also someone who has a considerable track record in writing crisp, illuminating, perfectly delivered, historical novels. His book Hitler's Niece is one of the finest novels I've ever read in any genre. (I think I might have said that on this blog before.) In the session, Hansen elucidated twelve "rules" for writers of literary historical fiction, and I was gratified to realize that in composing my Van Gogh novel Yellow, I've followed almost every one of them. In fact, most of his rules seemed like good, plain common sense for any conscionable writer aspiring to write something that has value. I like to count myself in that camp. However, I instinctively parted ways with Hansen at one of his rules. Hansen said that the fiction writer should not knowingly part from fact. This is a disservice to the reader, he suggested, who is trusting the writer to render a realistic, even if imagined, picture of the subject. The reader is trusting the writer to get the details right even as the writer is developing his or her story. It is a disservice to both the reader and the subject, Hansen suggested, to put a character in Rio in 1932, for instance, when according to the historical record the character never went near Rio until 1940.

I understand Hansen's point, and I also understand that almost all of the fictive work of historical fiction is not in developing the basic story but in imagining what real historical events looked like, sounded like, smelled like, and felt like for the real participants. To bring alive in scene what is a mere sentence in the historical record. This will mean making arbitrary decisions sometimes as to what someone is wearing, or what diction they use, or how tightly wound they seem, decisions that are virtually identical to the myriad decisions we make when writing a purely imagined, non-historical work of fiction. It's also true that some subjects are so barely sketched in the historical record that a writer has immense leeway in imagining what really did or didn't happen; the writer can wander off in all sorts of interesting directions without "knowingly departing from the facts." (William Styron noted, in his preface to The Confessions of Nat Turner, that it was exactly because so little was known about Nat Turner that he enjoyed taking him up as a subject.) All of this is to say that I understand how a writer can follow Hansen's maxim to the letter and still be free to write a richly felt, deeply imagined work.

But we can never depart from known fact? Never? And for the reason that we might give false ideas to the poor reader, who will mistake our books for biography? Wait a minute. I'm a writer of fiction. That Yellow is novel--not a biography--I have made, and will continue to make, perfectly clear. In fact, it's impossible not to read it without realizing that it sounds nothing like a biography of Van Gogh, just like Hitler's Niece sounds nothing like a biography of Geli Raubal. And if my book is ever published, it will have one of those big, fat, legalistic warnings labels inside proclaiming it to be a work of fiction. So I'm at fault if a reader mistakes it for straight history? No. Sorry. No way. If a reader is reading a novel, the reader should know what the definition of a novel is. If he or she doesn't, that's not the author's fault. Second, and more importantly, sometimes the writer of a historical fiction must depart from fact in order to make his novel work dramatically. There are a couple times I did this in Yellow, and I think of them as some of the most necessary scenes. Without them, I don't know how I could have held my book together as a novel. A novel certainly can't just be a dramatized version of every notable fact in a subject's biography. If you just starting writing ever inch of a person's life you end up with hundreds, if not thousands, of unusable pages. What you have to do is find a way to coordinate a person's life story into a compelling and credible fiction. And fiction--as we all know--counts on having a plot.

I don't want to sound glib here. I understand a commitment to the facts. It was because I was so interested in the specific facts of Van Gogh's life, because those facts so sparked my imagination to action, that I quickly abandoned my original plan, which was to write a novel about a Van Gogh-like painter. I found that so many of the scenes I wanted in the book were so drawn directly from, and depended upon, the man's real life that to use anything else than the his real name would have been ludicrous. And dishonest. And transparent. But by deciding to write a novel about Van Gogh, and not just pen yet another biography of him, I've made a decision that allows me, by definition, to "knowingly part from fact." I will fight to my last breath for my right, as a fiction writer, to do that; and not just my right, but my responsibility too.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

AWP, Day Three


Up and down day at the conference today. At breakfast this morning, at a cafe around the corner from our hotel, we spotted an old friend, a fellow who once taught at UCA with my wife and I but who has since moved to upstate New York. With him was his ten year old daughter, who I remember as a little babe, born as she was while our friend still lived in Arkansas. After breakfast, I stuck to my promise to myself and worked for a while on the novel. I was rewarded with some ideas on how to better arrange the Antwerp section, which has always felt weak to me. (More on that in another post.)

I hurried over to the conference at around 10:30 and attended two sessions, neither of which were completely satisfying, delivering less than they advertised. (A frequent problem at AWP.) The first session was about managing one's novel from start to finish, which sounds expansive, deliberate, usefully thorough. Unfortunately, none of the panelists presented papers; it was solely discussion. I have nothing against focused and informative discussion, but I've found in my career as a conference goer that discussions can too easily devolve into chit chat and laugh lines. That happened in this session, and as a result the scope wasn't nearly as thorough as it could have been. In a panel discussion it's imperative for the leader to keep the group on track, ask pointed questions, and keep in mind the original promise of the session. The leader of this session started out trying to do so but was almost immediately derailed by one of the panelists, a well known and charming fiction writer (who was once a professor of mine at George Mason), given to telling funny stories and/or making impassioned rants. Every time he spoke today it seemed that discussion ground to a halt. Questions did not pass from him to other panelists, but stopped, I guess because he seemed to talk so authoritatively and/or wittily. This was unfortunate because some of the questions--whether they came from the leader of the panel or from an audience member--were directed to all members of the panel, specifically asking for feedback from all of them. It was by no means a completely unprofitable session, but it was hardly the soup-to-nuts overview promised by the session description.

The second session I attended was even more disappointing. This session was centered around the "how and why of employing unusual points of view in fiction writing." I knew things were not going to go well when the very first speaker started off by saying "It's the afternoon of the last day of AWP, and I don't feel like talking very much." Excuse me? The room was jammed--worse than any other session I've attended--with people eager to hear about the advertised topic, and she just excused herself from doing so? In that case, step off the panel. This is another example of a phenomenon that burns up my wife (and about which she has written at length): writers who seem to feel that the world owes them a living just because they are writers. As teachers they shouldn't be expected to put the least energy into their teaching--despite the fact that they are getting paid for it--and as panelists they are allowed to blow off the assignment with a breezy, grinning "I just don't feel like it today." We're supposed to just chuckle and let them off the hook. Bullshit. That room was packed with people and that panelist abandoned them. As the discussion continued, the "how and why" was barely touched on; panelists more or less just described some stories they had written. How teachers should broach the question of point-of-view with their students was a subject completely ignored. Most strange was the fact that the panel was organized as a discussion (groan) rather than a presentation of papers, despite the fact that almost all the panelists had written papers for the session. Did the panel leader not know this or not care? It became frustrating hearing panelist after panelist say "Well, I said this a lot more thoroughly in my paper, but . . ." and then proceed to give a brief, watered down, and not terribly illuminating or original comment on point of view in fiction. Why, I thought, don't you just read your papers? I don't understand this attitude that written and delivered papers are inherently boring. Not if they're well written, they aren't. And we're writers, after all. We're always going to be more interesting, more thoughtful, more original, and more cogent in our written speech than our spoken words. So give us your written words! I quickly lost heart, sitting there on the floor, listening to drivel offered up as insight. (At one point one of the panelists seemed to be claiming third person omniscience as an unusual and original point of view.) With about a half hour remaining in the session, I left. Not just the panel but the building. I needed to see some more of Denver--something else I promised myself before I came. So I walked to the vicinity of the state capitol building and found myself at the Denver Art museum, where I passed (finally!) a useful hour looking around.

So I don't sound too much like a grouch, I should say that between sessions today I manned the Exquisite Corpse booth, and along with selling some copies of the journal I wrote some poems! Inspired by the incredibly energetic, linguistically swirling prose poems of Skip Fox--whose book Delta Blues I bought yesterday--I wrote a few of my own. I couldn't help myself. Skip put energy into my head that just had to get out.

In a little bit I'll head to my final session at the conference: a session on historical fiction. Given the pressing matter of getting my Van Gogh novel successfully revised and done, I'm hoping this proves to be an illuminating session. Later, my wife and I will have dinner with two old friends from our doctoral student days at University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Yesterday, we had drinks with Heather Cox, a UCA Writing Department graduate, who is really throwing herself into the MFA program at Roosevelt University, thoroughly enjoying Chicago, throughly shining, and really making our department and our major look good. She's a wonder. Way to go, Heather.

This is probably my last post from Denver. Despite today's grousing, I'm glad I came, and I hope you enjoyed following the conference with me. Next time I post I'll be back in Conway, (constructively) sweating over my novel again. See you then.

Friday, April 9, 2010

AWP, Day Two


It's been another good day at the conference. I attended three sessions but left the last one early as it seemed to be adding up to a dud. Earlier, though, I attended a superb session about the craft of writing fiction from the perspective and/or voice of a child. If you've tried that yourself, or read stories by student writers who are trying it, you know how challenging, even perilous, an attempt it is. But the panelists did a great job of explaining why writers shouldn't shirk the challenge and also suggested ways of approaching the challenge that might help one avoid sounding too precious or falsely precocious. Lots of great titles were referenced and many useful excerpts read. As I sat and listened, it occurred to me that this subject would be a great one for a Topics in Creative Writing class, a course my department offers every semester, featuring (of course) a new topic each time. I also attended a useful session on the art of the novella. Four very successful novella writers discussed the form itself and how they went about writing their own novellas. It was a well-balanced section which allowed time for tangential issues like finding a market for one's novella and assessing the apparent current rise in popularity of the genre. The panel also left time for audience questions, which certainly is NOT always the case at AWP, a pet peeve of mine from past conferences. (In fact, at some AWP conferences allowing time for audience questions has been the rare exception.)

The conference is shaping up as one of the better AWP meetings. Lots of folks here but not a crazy number. Some sessions are crowded, but mostly seats are available. The book fair has been great. As usual, it's allowed me a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones. Most importantly, a terrific number of literary journals, small presses, and MFA programs are represented. The book fair is an incredible resource for writers and would-be writers alike, a rare chance to get a tangible feel for what these different journals and presses are that you've heard about.

Lots of sightings today. At the book fair, I saw a man who has taught for decades at George Mason, where I earned my MFA. We caught up, and he pointed me to a press that publishes the books of my former MFA thesis director, the poet Susan Tichy. Along the way to that table, I saw at another table a book of prose poems just published by a man who served on my doctoral dissertation committee at ULL: Skip Fox. I bought Skip's book and am digging it. While I helped out manning the Exquisite Corpse table, a woman stopped by, a celebrity poet who joined the faculty at George Mason during my last year there. I never had a class with her--I was done workshopping at that point--so she didn't recognize my name. But I did remember her, especially the fact that she blew off my request to occasionally sit in on her workshop even though I was not enrolled. (I did not remind her of this today, of course.) At a session today I saw a writer I'd like to bring in as a visiting writer next year to UCA; I also saw Charles Baxter, the very first writer that my wife and I suggested as a UCA guest writer, some 10 or 11 years ago. We did indeed bring him back then, and he was a wonderful visiting writer, but I don't think that today Charlie had a clue as to who I was. Also saw at the book fair Tom Williams, a great fiction writer and teacher who visited UCA a few years ago to participate in our Arkatext Writers Festival. Tom used to work at ASU in Jonesboro but took a job last year at a university in Florida.

Maybe the funnest thing that happened today was discovering at the book fair a very inventive chapbook of sonnets. It's called Sonnagrams 1-20. The author took Shakespeare's first twenty sonnets and made anagrams out of them. That is, he put each sonnet into an online anagram "machine," mixing up the letters and forming new phrases and lines out of them. He then arranged those lines into completely new sonnets, but managed to keep the Shakespearean rhyme schemes and meters! Apparently, he'd have a few letters leftover each time, and from these he formed the titles of each sonnet. It's a wild chapbook, and a great example of creative appropriation, a cause championed by visiting Davis Schneiderman just a week ago at UCA. (Davis is here too, somewhere, but I haven't run into him yet.)

The weather in Denver is fantastic! Pure sunshine and temps in the 60s. Glorious. I only wish I could make it to the mountains (which I can see from my hotel window). More news from AWP tomorrow, if I can get away to blog.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

AWP, Day One


It’s been a busy first day at the AWP conference. And just as I expected, and blogged about earlier this week, I’m running into/passing/seeing from afar a rich cross segment from my writing life. In the book fair I gave a big hug and spoke at length with a former UCA student, now in her first year in the MFA program at Roosevelt University in Chicago. At my pedagogy session, where I was presenting a paper, I met the editor of Sou’wester, a woman with whom I’ve communicated frequently over email in regards to stories I’ve placed in the journal but whom I’ve never actually seen. At the same session, I also saw a good friend from my days in the doctoral program at University of Louisiana-Lafayette (he teaches in Florida now). Made a date to have drinks with he and his wife, another friend from ULL. Then, from a distance, across the enormous football field that is the book fair, I saw a man who teaches in Wales and who hosted my wife and I went we went to England for research purposes in 2006. And just now, as I left the convention center, I passed a woman who has collaborated with my wife on a few projects and who invited us to her family’s Chicago pad at last year’s AWP. More sightings to come tomorrow I’m sure. It’s part of the wonder of this conference.

I went to a few sessions today. All have been solid and useful. In my pedagogy session, I heard some good ideas about incorporating interdisciplinary research and even service learning into a creative writing class. At a jammed morning session on “Writing the Literary Fantastic,” a number of promising titles and teaching approaches were shared. This was an especially important session for me to attend since I’m teaching a course on writing “supernatural realism” (my coinage) next fall. And just now I got out of an interesting session on “Narrative Crossdressing, Men Writing as Woman and Woman Writing as Men,” something I’ve done in my own career with great pleasure and some success many times. As you can imagine, the discussion was both delicate and impassioned.

Perhaps the best aspect of the conference so far has been the book fair. As usual, I’ve spied a number of journals I’ve read or submitted to in the past, but I’ve also seen some promising new ones, including journals to which I think I should consider submitting excerpts from my Van Gogh novel . I also picked up some subscriptions at a reduced conference rate. Thank goodness; these are subscriptions I once had but let slip due to a concerted effort in our household to tighten our belts. I’ve felt terribly guilty for months about doing this—literary journals all need and deserve support; in fact it’s a writer’s moral and practical duty to support them—but at least now I’ve (partly) corrected course. I also picked up a couple of great books. My favorite find has been a book that is all about absinthe. Regular readers of this blog know that of the many day-to-day details about Van Gogh and his era that I have been trying to get a handle on one pressing detail is the how and why of absinthe. The book I bought, called Absinthe: Sip of Seduction, is beautifully illustrated and goes to great lengths to explain the history of and mystique surrounding absinthe. One paragraph from the author’s introduction suggests the allure people feel for this subject (and the spirit itself): “My life has never been the same since that moment. Enchanted, I fell under the spell, not knowing that absinthe would become for me an abode of passion. Having stepped through the entrancing absinthe door, I happened into a mystical world of herbs, forests, bistro cafes, elegantly etched glasses, shimmering topettes, embossed fountains, and intricately shaped sipping accoutrements of which, prior to that first primeval night, I knew nothing.”

Kind of like what those who are attending their first AWP conference must feel like!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Getting readier


Tomorrow morning my wife and I fly out of Little Rock to finally arrive in Denver in mid-afternoon. I ran into a scare yesterday when I went to my Orbitz account--to run off my flight schedule--and found that I "had no trips planned." Oh yeah? Mild panic. Did I forget to make the reservation? Then my wife reminded me that you can't make reservations for Southwest Airlines on Orbitz. Ahh. So I must have abandoned reliable old Orbitz those many months ago when I made our arrangements. Checked my email for a message from Southwest and there it was: our flight data. So I guess I'm going after all.

I'm packing my novel via portable hard drive, the paper I will present (along with multiple copies of a handout), and as much cash as I can pull together. AWP isn't cheap. But, truthfully, for all its unbearable size, I almost always learn something handy at AWP, something I can bring back to my classes. Besides that, it's good to get away from teacher craziness for a few days and just think about writing as a writer. I'll post when I'm there to let everyone know how it's coming. And, yes, I am still determined to work on the novel, conference or no.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Away to Denver


I'm off on Wednesday to make my annual pilgrimage to the AWP conference, held this year in Denver. For all of you non-American, non-Canadian readers, that's the meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the single biggest creative writing organization in the world. AWP is both profoundly frustrating and absolutely necessary, a behemoth of an institution that for all of its arrogant, rear guard conservatism does a lot of good in the way of advocacy for creative writing in the academy and for hiring and firing standards among its member schools. I have similar feelings about its annual conference. It's both a necessary trip--because so much of the creative writing world is there--and also an enormous pain in the ass; because so much of the creative writing world is there. This is truly a gigantic conference, and it's no exaggeraton to say that one literally see one's entire career as a creative writer walk by over the course of a weekend; e.g., two guys who were in your fiction workshop while you were getting a master's degree, the man who taught that workshop, a writer who visited your campus just a year ago, a writer who visited your campus five years ago, a professor who acted as a crucial mentor when you worked on your doctorate dissertation, the man who took over as your dissertation director when your mentor took another job, a former student of yours who is now enrolled in an MFA program herself, the white-haired lion who ruled over your college's creative writing program back when you barely understood how to write at all and had no idea who the man was, the woman who just two weeks ago you went to see read at a bookstore 20 minutes away. (And that's just a small sample.)

The AWP conference is so big, with so many competing sessions, and a bookfair that runs the length of a football field, that it can make your head spin. And then there's that annoying little fact that everyone has a novel they want to publish or an agent they hope to find or a publisher they need to impress or an established writer they need to butter up. I just try to go to sessions that sound solid, find a few new journals at the bookfair, enjoy seeing some old friends, and leave it at that. To expect anything more is to drive yourself crazy. This year I can especially narrow my focus. Given that I've been working on, and am still revising, my Van Gogh novel, I'm going to seek out sessions on historical fiction and let most of everything else fall to wayside. (Well, almost everything. I actually am giving a paper at one of the Pedagogy sessions. I will detail a revision assignment I like to use with my fiction writing students.)
While I'm at the conference I'm determined to a) see and enjoy some of Denver, and b) actually get some writing done. (Yes, it's possible. I've actually done this. Even when it was in New York.) On both counts, that means being a miser with my time and grudging about what I commit to.

I'll let all of you know how it goes. Check in with this blog over the next week or so for updates. If it's like past AWPs, I'm going to get a lot more than I expected. And that's what's got me nervous.