Two weeks ago, I attended my ever first writers’ conference!
The Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair is a huge affair, with 12,000 writers, editors, publishers, and agents descending upon a city to talk art and the business of art. There are easily 25 panels going on during each time slot from 9am to 5pm, AND THEN there are after-hours events, where the magic (of networking) happens.
I went to soooo many panels, and they were pretty helpful overall. Here’s some tips that I picked up that I found immeasurably beneficial:
- “Memoir isn’t about what happened; it’s about what the f*ck happened,” said novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro, quoting a teacher she’d once heard. That is to say, memoir isn’t just about what happened to you, it’s an examination of the impact on what happened to you, and what was going on in the world. That’s part of what makes memoir universal: the common bits beneath the extraordinary story of each individual.
- Think about jazz as you balance scene and reflection, suggested memoirist Marie Mockett. There’s a certain momentum created in the reader similar to that which a jazz band creates in its listeners, and music listeners know when the solo should end. Try to avoid getting the reader to the point of “Could the drummer please just stop already for the love of God???” by modulating reflection with scene and vice versa.
- Don’t worry about how you will end your memoir since you’re not dead (and I hope you’re not if you’re reading this). Ask yourself, “What is the ending for now?” You could feel the crowd ease in their chairs when Mockett said, “Remember that a book is a made thing. It’s not actually you, it’s a composition, and you are in charge of that composition.”
- Avoid revealing too much about minor characters in your memoir, and keep the focus on places rather than people. This will keep the real people in your life from being insulted (if they would be) by the way they’re portrayed in your story.
- The voice of innocence relays facts; the voice of experience explains and deepens those facts with metaphor and spirituality. The voice of innocence isn’t necessarily your kid voice; it’s the voice you use at the point at which something is happening to you. The voice of experience comes in at any point after that thing has happened and interprets what the events mean in the grand scheme of things.
See? So helpful, and that was just the tiny, tiny tip of the iceberg.
After three days of conference action, I was exhausted, not just physically, but mentally, too. Looking around at the other conference attendees, I felt kinda small.
So many people who attend AWP have MFAs from prestigious universities and/or are critically-acclaimed published authors, like Shapiro and Mockett. I only just started writing a memoir 7 months ago after leaving a job in finance, an industry that couldn’t be more opposite to the literary world — how was I qualified to sit at the same table as respected authors? I felt like an imposter. Sure, I’ve been writing since I was 12, but I’ve also always loved business. I’ve loved concreteness, disambiguity, and seeing things as black-and-white, not grey, since I was a little girl. In one session, one of the panelists said that she lives in the grey because “the story is found in the ambiguity,” and, I swear, my skin crawled. I felt that I did not belong in this crowd.
I shared my feelings with my poet friend who was in town for the conference and my husband, and both of them said I was being ridiculous. Everyone has the right to write, they said.
Giving myself a good talking to, I remembered that I have a story to tell and I’m telling it, and that is perfectly acceptable. I’m trying my best to tell my story well; I want to be good at whatever I do, of course. I just have to be confident. There’s no room for feeling unworthy when you’re trying to tell others that they are. I just have to keep on trucking until I finish telling all the stories I have to tell.