Sunday, July 10, 2011

Oh, The Writers' Conference

As of my last post, I've received two messages about what I should try--and write about--while in Santa Cruz. The first, submitted by a reader named Rona (who I may or may not know but can't tell because I have a memory like a sieve and the facial recognition powers of a goldfish), was to go downhill mountain biking. Will do, Rona! I am hoping that what Rona means by this is regular mountain biking with a downhill portion added to it, rather than actual downhill mountain biking, which would--as I've learned from evenings smoking weed and watching the X Games (makes more narrative sense that way)--require that I let almost all the air out of the tires so as to keep me from bouncing out of control off branches, logs, stones, small children, and the occasional rattlesnake over which I'll be riding. As it is, this activity will require me to purchase a pair of padded biking shorts, which will take some doing. The only thing more demoralizing than buying a pair of shorts stuffed with Depends is trying on string bikinis in Forever 21, the clothing chain I pray will someday be put out of business by a store called Passably 35.

But trust me, Rona, I WILL get to this. Clara, on Facebook, told me to go drinking at a bar called Nepenthe, in a town called--wait for it--Nepenthe. This I will be doing sometime between August 3-8 (or, depending on how good the bar is, THROUGH August 3-8), when my friend and fellow poet, Susan, will be flying out to join me. We'll be doing Napa and Nepenthe together. This is the plan, at least. All Susan has to do is buy the ticket. NO PRESSURE, SUSAN.

In the meantime, I'm holed up in my house, frantically writing an essay for the Port Townsend Writers' Conference where I'll be teaching in the next week. (This is meant to be read as fact, not shameless self-promotion, by the way, and is also to help me reacquaint myself with the IPad Blogsy feature of posting photos from the web, something that took me three hours to master on the recalcitrant Ling Ling the other week and which, if I forget how to do it now, will FUCKING KILL ME. So here's a photo of Port Townsend, WA.)

The essay is of that mysterious genre called "The Craft Talk" which every writing conference seems to require its faculty to master. It's a strange category of writing about writing that is meant a) to elucidate some of the finer points about literature while b) not being too academic, abstruse, or--from what I can tell from a lot of craft talks I've attended over the past 15 years--in the least bit useful. The craft talks I've loved have been close readings of particular authors, but the time constraints of the conference suggests that what people might actually get more use out of is something hovering between Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and the Idiot's Guide to Writing The Da Vinci Code. (Which, to me, is redundant. An idiot DID write The Da Vinci Code.) I, myself, am constantly dogged by my Idiot urge, understanding that the presentation of the primarily evaluative (examining the evolution of post-confessional lyrics, say) versus the primarily practical (show don't tell, try ditching the adverbs, etc., etc.) will leave most people more frustrated when they leave my talk than before they arrived. I'm only teaching for a week, and these people are paying good money, dammit, and moreover taking time away from actual paying work and hopefully a fulfilling home life to get a little help. I'd like to help. I completely believe that writing can be taught. However, I also think that most techniques can only be demonstrated through close reading, and if there's one thing I've learned from teaching at writing conferences, it's that a certain number of writing conferees (and writers too, let's be honest) hate to read.

Which is a problem.

I don't want to get into any kind of discussion about whether writing can or can't, should or shouldn't be taught at conferences. For me, it's a moot point: whether we think it can or should, the profitability factor means that it IS being taught and will continue to be until literature itself collapses. This seems unlikely. The real question, if anyone cares to keep going down this path (I really don't) is whether anyone these days has the time or attention span left to LEARN to write. Regardless, I find it amusing to see the various species of writers converging at these conferences for a single week, and even more amusing to see how we each teach writing (or, implicitly, what we teach ABOUT the teaching of writing) via our own taxonomical rankings.

Let's run down the taxonomy, shall we?

First, there's Big Name From Big Program Guy (usually Guy, but can be Gal), here to represent Iowa or Columbia or Michigan and whose stellar personal achievements and famous friends, students and colleagues make everyone around him/her giddy with speculation, but more often vaguely nauseous with intimidation. Big Name is the kind of person who proclaims, rather than speaks, hits on almost all the junior female (sometimes male) fellows/scholars/faculty in the vicinity but gives great craft talk. Big Name is the only writer at the conference who will not only know the name for the big fancy ship in the photo above but, when on board, be the only one who feels at home. Big Name will use the term "matey" not at all ironically. Big Name oozes gossip. Big Name may also ooze gin. "Oleaginous" may be the first word that pops into your head upon meeting Big Name. Big Name can't drive well but loves cars for some reason, has a second house by a large body of water, and may or may not have dated Carly Simon. Big Name is the one you most want to sit close to (but not near enough for his hand to reach your thigh) to catch all the gossip after the third cocktail.

Next, there's Hot Thing With Big Book, who might also be called The Prodigy, if this writer is under age 26, lives in Brooklyn but hails originally from somewhere near the Baltic region, and possesses no graduate degree. This writer is spectacularly talented, but also seems to be a magnet for Job-like happenings. Prodigy is the one who loses her rental car at a shopping mall, say, or sets fire to all her student manuscripts while doing a sage-smudging of her room. Prodigy is the one who leaves his girlfriend for another writer in the middle of the conference and then, because he believes in emotional transparency at all costs, SENDS HIS GIRLFRIEND THE OTHER WRITER'S MANUSCRIPT to get her opinion of it. Or Prodigy is the one who, in less than two hours in a hotel room, racks up over $400 worth of incidental charges that get left to the conference or program to pay. Like the erstwhile band, Prodigy can't dance and has a lot of Terrible Moods. Prodigy is a writer you enjoy drinking with, but never alone, and never in a darkened room. At all costs, if Prodigy is a poet, never let Prodigy drive.

Then there's Freelancers, a group of highly gregarious, highly talented individuals in their mid-thirties who have been academically trained but have chosen (because they aren't stupid) not to enter the teaching profession. Freelancers also live in Brooklyn, occasionally Los Angeles. Freelancers supplement their book deals with newspaper articles and the occasional teaching gig, but mostly live by their writing alone. Freelancers, if in fiction or nonfiction, are almost always happy, eager to pull out their newest stolen wine bottle or pack of American Spirit cigarettes from their purses to share with you. They are always rifling the local Yellow Pages for a strip club address or heckling the bartender to stay open an hour longer, but they are NOT the ones getting into hissy fits with the waiters (that's Big Name). They have no cars, but the best drugs. Freelancers are the life of the conference, unless they are Freelance Poets, in which case they can be found drinking with Prodigy, whining nastily about their last botched Paxil prescription as Prodigy dims the lights.

Finally, there's my species: Working Stiffs, those teacher-writer combos from decent schools with decent publications who are known to be decent folks with decent drinking habits who most of all have the decency NOT to be criminally insane. Working Stiffs dutifully follow all the conference guidelines, including meeting individually with ALL their students, AND for the full 30 minutes, even while Freelancers keep forgetting their appointment times and, if they do remember, talk about OK! magazine the entire time, while Big Name dispenses each brief meeting with a cursory, "You'll have to read my last book to understand what I'm going to say to you," and Prodigy just sets fire to his scheduler. Working Stiffs give dutiful craft talks about the metrical subversion of Robert Frost which do nothing to advance Frost scholarship but work as fantastic soporifics, as evidenced by the 50 poets now drooling helplessly onto their notebooks ("I have no idea what happened!" whines Freelance Poet, waking up and wiping his mouth. "I think Prodigy SLIPPED me something last night!"). Working Stiffs aren't flushing their lives down the drain, but they aren't going to be Big Names anytime soon, either, which is the species closest to them on the taxonomic ladder. This is why Big Name excites and repels them beyond measure, and why the recent announcement of Big Name's newest book prize at the final night of the conference induces a choking fit in at least one Working Stiff, the result of his frantically stuffing a fist into his mouth to mask the squeals of rage. Working Stiffs are the backbone of the conference, but they are never, ever the draw. They're what make the conferees feel like they MIGHT have learned something. This, at least, is the same timid compliment conferees dully offer up to Working Stiffs on closing night--something about the semicolon perhaps, or Robert Frost's use of dactyls: they'll hold on to that forever!--all the while casting longing backwards glances at Big Name and Prodigy, and glaring at the feckless Freelancers.

Because what conferees are really starting to learn at these conferences is not just how to write, but how to be a writer. And while Freelancers and Working Stiffs are how the bulk of writers live, they aren't glamorous. Their shirts are too small, their hair too unkempt, they have holes in their sweaters. They aren't, overall, the kind of people that make you feel like the future of literature is in safe hands. You can smell the nervous effort on them, even as they appear--from a distance--not to struggle very much. The ones who make it truly look effortless are Big Name and Prodigy who, in their various guises, keep alive our most cherished stereotypes about writers: their genius is natural, untamed and untaught or, if taught, taught somewhere in the literary ivy league alone. Actually, not taught at all, but transmitted, via osmosis, through a largely male, largely white literary landscape my undergraduates like to call "universal writing, you know, like Shakespeare" or "The Canon." This is a landscape we imagine has been shaped by superior and highly individualistic talents, writers marked by impeccable taste and an abhorrence of social convention as demonstrated by the impoverished situation of the academy today, a sort of John Geilgud meets Ernest Hemingway meets Lord Byron perhaps.

All of which leads me to the final rung on the taxonomic ladder: The Conferee. The Conferee is someone who must be perceived as Other to all these things that are The Canon, even as they are, frankly, The Canon-makers--or at least social shapers--themselves. Conferees are the bulk of the readership America has left. And yet, I'm always amazed at the kind of hostility certain conferences--mostly the really big-name ones--generate or hold towards Conferees, especially the older ones who haven't come from MFA programs and have only written sporadically, if at all. These Conferees are extremely bright, curious, and utterly strapped for time because of families and jobs. And yes, it's true, a lot of them won't become writers. But a lot of them will keep writing throughout their lives.

(Aside: what is the standard of success for the teaching of writing? Is it student publication? Continued curiosity and the ability to use these skills for one's personal advancement and pleasure? Those of you post-MFAers: how many of your classmates--whose names you haven't been seeing on book covers or journals--are still writing for themselves today?)

My sense of why such hostility can arise towards these Conferees comes from the fact that a) they aren't PERCEIVED to be writers (due to some of the facts above) in the ways we imagine writers to be and look and speak and dress and b) this perception itself arises because so many of them are older women.

This is a demographic fact which has tinged one or two of the writing conferences I've attended with the sour whiff of sexism. It seems more like a problem for conferences in which a certain hierarchy is already established (conferences, for instance, that distinguish between Conferees on scholarship or fellowship or working waiter-ship positions and outright paying Conferees). It also seems to be a particular problem for certain younger male writers down lower on the taxonomical rungs, I've noticed, who can experience at writers' conferences (like Bread Loaf) what I call The Franzen Effect: the sudden, irrational desire not to be associated with The Female Readership. Or, Just To Be Clear About The Status I Get To Hold In The Literary World, Any Females At All.

And that just really blows.

I should say that this doesn't happen all the time and I don't actually expect it will happen in Port Townsend. I've been to a lot of wonderful conferences that did the exact opposite of everything I've outlined here. (If interested, check out Kundiman or The Imagination Conference in Cleveland. Those were really great ones.) But there are conferences which do seem to thrive on this kind of hierarchical craziness, itself an extension of our crazy notions about what makes a writer, WHO makes a writer, all the while worrying about whether being stuck together with 300 strangers in a small town eating bad cafeteria food for a week will ever help anyone produce a decent poem. The odds are, it won't. But the odds before this weren't very good either.

(Aside: if you are thinking of starting a writers' conference, make sure everyone has equal access to the drinking facilities. This went a long way toward making Sewanee a more pleasurable experience than Bread Loaf, even though Sewanee has the same pay-to-play versus get-paid-to-play levels of distinction. Basically, if everyone can get trashed in the same small hut, people will like each other more afterward.)

Regardless, I've wasted enough time on this subject. I have to finish writing up my craft talk. Guess what? It's on the metrical subversions of Robert Frost! And then I've got to start stitching up all those holes in my sweater.


  1. You nailed the conference types. And I'm delighted that you addressed head-on the inherent misogyny of the contempt for conferees. Those (mostly female) folks ought to be treated with kindness not just because their fees are paying the faculty's salaries, but because they are the only dedicated buyers and readers of poetry books in contemporary America. To snark at them and dismiss them as naive amateurs is to argue oneself out of professional existence. You go get 'em!

  2. Great post, Paisley. I sent it to both of my writing groups, which are full of women over 40.

  3. You might enjoy Julian Barnes _Homage to Hemingway_ in the 4 July New Yorker. The narrator is a novelist who is also a creative writing instructor for hire. Of course, there are pot shots at poets:

    There was a tall poet on campus with a reputation for humiliating his students, destroying their poems line by line. But everyone knew poets were crazy and unmannerly. Prose writers, especially foreign ones, were expected to be civil.

  4. Love it, Brian. Will check it out immediately. And I should add that there was a humiliating moment with Big Name Writer who, after my reading, woozily suggested I should perform my poems like Meryl Streep. "Don't worry, it was brilliant overall," he slurred. "I'm just giving you a backhanded compliment."

    Dingos ate my ego.