Fantastic finish to the conference. Can't say I attended the big, last night, blow-out dance party; can't say I met a Nobel Prize winner in the elevator; can't say a panel discussion changed my life--but it was a good day. I actually attended three panels yesterday, each quite different from the other. In the morning, the staff at the NEA's literature division explained the procedures for applying for a literature grant if you are an arts organization--the day before they'd presented on how to attain an individual fellowship--and also described common mistakes made by past organizations who failed to procure a grant. This session would have been mightily helpful if I'd been able to attend it prior to applying for a NEA for Toad Suck Review last year. Even with the help of the Sponsored Programs division at my university, there were some fundamental matters that we didn't understand and that could have changed the outcome. Oh, well. We'll be better prepared for next year, which is when we'll try again.
In the afternoon I attended a session featuring Richard Russo and Jennifer Haigh on setting in fiction. Fortunately, AWP scheduled this session for a very large room because not surprisingly, given the participants, it was a very popular talk. I didn't go figuring to hear anything new. I know how Rick Russo feels about location in fiction, but I so much love hearing him speak about what he does that I couldn't stay away. He's probably our best novelist--yes, I'm serious about that--and he is unfailingly honest, energetic, and self-deprecating in his commentary. As I've told many folk, he came to UCA as a visiting writer once, and I still remember it as one of our all-time best visits. He didn't fail to entertain yesterday either.
The last session I attended was my own, about teaching novel writing workshops. I was honored to find that one of the other panel members was Mako Yoshikawa, author of One Hundred and One Ways. She delivered an eloquent paper that described her own coming of age as a novelist and how she helps teach those lessons to her graduate students at Emerson College. Given how late in the conference it was, and a couple of the other sessions we were up against, I was happy our panel attracted the audience it did. Everyone listened attentively, no one left early, and several insightful questions came to us when we were through speaking. Not surprisingly, the few in the audience who teach novel writing to undergraduates were quite curious about how I structure my class and asked me to email them my syllabus. Of course, I'm happy to. One misperception out there that I hadn't realized until I was through speaking and answering questions was that anyone undergraduate can wander into my class. Thus, the panelists and the audience didn't understand how I could trust the students to work so well together in peer groups and on their own novels. I quickly explained: We have a very ambitious undergraduate creative writing degree; none of our students take Novel Writing until they have already taken Introduction to Creative Writing, Forms of Fiction, and Fiction Workshop. By the time they get to Novel Writing, I know them pretty well. And when I put them into peer groups, I know who is likely to work well together and who isn't. (I also have them write up an explanation of their novel plan in the first week of the semester, and this helps guide my choices as well. Often times I will put students in the same peer group who are working on the same kinds of novels.)
A colleague of mine, Robin Becker, who was kind enough to attend the session, paid it the highest compliment possible afterwards: "It wasn't boring like most AWP panels are." Before I leave this topic I should say that Grub Street in Boston, a non-profit that offers continuing education for writers, runs a really intriguing, year long novel writing program in which participants enter with a first draft already completed. The draft is read by two Grub Street instructors and feedback is given. The participants then workshop parts of the novel for the year and revise it entirely. At the end of the year, the entirety of the (now revised) novel is again read by the two instructors and more feedback is provided. Lisa Borders, the panel moderator and one of the Grub Street instructors, said that she and the other instructor were quite relieved to discover, in the pilot year of the program, that indeed all of the participants' novels had gotten much better by the end of the year.
The Book Fair rooms, meanwhile, were as busy as ever as publishers all slashed their prices in hope of getting rid of stock and the public was invited in free of charge. At the Toad Suck Review table we certainly moved our merch, and, even better, we visited with a lot of interesting writers who wandered by. Unfortunately, I missed Erika Dreifus, a great person who maintains the great blog The Practicing Writer. Sorry, Erika! Will you be in Seattle next year?
The end of a perfectly pleasant day--made especially so by the sunny weather--was capped off by dinner at Lucca with my sister, her husband, and their younger son Peter. Peter, a high school junior, is hardly so young anymore. He's taller than I am and built like a mountain. It was great to see him again and to compare notes on his college search with my own son's college search. Even better, for the first time in my life, I ate wild boar! (In the sauce with the gnocchi.) Fantastic.