Friday, April 30, 2010
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Saturday, April 24, 2010
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.)
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Sunday, April 18, 2010
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.
Saturday, April 10, 2010
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
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
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
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
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.)