Top 5 Things to Take from a Literary Conference (not just swag)

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Saturday, I attended Conversations and Connections, a one-day writer’s conference organized by literary magazine, Barrelhouse, chock full of practical lessons from published literary authors, editors, and publishers. Note: I said practical. (Leave your insta-agent-three-book-deal fantasies at the door.) Really, it was like transporting myself back to my MFA program for the day–complete with the insecurities and boxed wine! All right in my world.

  1. Advice: The first of three panels/workshops I attended featured a memoirist, a novelist, a nonfiction writer, and a poet who all engage with the past–and endure much historical research–for their writing. Some of the most helpful advice suggested writers utilize first-person accounts to better instruct our characters in how to engage with historical fact. There was also an interesting discussion exposing the differences between creative nonfiction and fiction when making meaning of historical events. In fiction, the research must become a part of the narrative arc; in nonfiction, the journey to understand can become another part of the story, a knew way of knowing.
  2. Beginnings: For my second session of the day, I attended a hands-on craft workshop on developing short story openings that grab a reader’s attention. Flash Fiction author, instructor, and editor Tommy Dean led us workshoppers using four prompts for four different story openings. All the prompts started with character/setting/conflict, then added another element to complicate the story start–like subverting the setting or flipping a normal, everyday activity. I am not a prompt person, relying instead on the ideas that fly at me and then stick–usually long about 4am–but even I came away with a few solid story starts, a real win.
  3. Connections: MFA programs are a wealth of information on the art and craft of writing. But then what? How do we get our work out there, and just where is there? Enter the literary journal editors with hands-on experience in the world of literary publishing for a 10-minute editing session, a la speed dating. I took a flash fiction piece of mine; however, I knew going in, I wanted to use that precious time to ask advice of the editor on the other side of the desk. My question was about chapbooks (short collections of poetry or stories). But the point is I used my 10 minutes to connect with someone I could learn from. Not to leave out my fellow conference attendees, time waiting in line for the editor session was a good chance to meet local writers (shout-out to Sonora!).
  4. Inspiration: With the growing popularity of spoken-word and oral storytelling heard on programs like The Moth Radio Hour, today’s creative writing readings are not the cure for insomnia they once were. The featured author readings at C&C did not disappoint. Going in, I knew of the work of only one of the authors, essayist Randon Billings Noble, who I connected with in an online critique group years ago (the writing world being both huge and small). I was delighted to be introduced to the poetry of Kyle Dargan and the fiction of Ivelisse Rodriguez and of Gabino Iglesias, who read their work with such passion–the highlight of my day and very inspiring.
  5. Books…and more books: Want to make an author (and their small press publisher) happy and earn your good literary citizen card? Buy the book. I came away with autographed copies of Billings Noble’s essay collection, Be With Me Always; Iglesias’ horror/crime novel Coyote Songs; Matthew Ferrance’s memoir, Appalachia North; and the poetry collection, Haint, from Cleveland native (yes, we are all over) Teri Ellen Cross Davis, who sat on the panel for the third of my three sessions, focused on publishing and offering great advice on connecting with the local literary community. (These last two authors, I plan to talk about more here on the blog!)

For writers across genres, and for bloggers alike–there’s a conference made for you. This one was a good fit for me, and I’ll be back next year.

Do you conference? What are your top tips? Have you read any of these books? How was your weekend? Comment below–I always love to hear from you… ~Rebecca

Sport in the Art of Place

I went for the art of the place: the earthy poetry and fiction borne by writers tied to the ever-evolving American Rust Belt, which has seen its share of glories and struggles, stemming from the rise and fall of mining and heavy industry.

And, I admit, I fretted just a little bit about what to wear. Stay with me…I haven’t gone all fashion blog on you.

No surprise that among the students of creative writing, the authors, editors, publishers, and poets attending the literary conference–there were ensembles of black, a poet skirt or two, and a pair of cat face-festooned flats (for real; they were fabulous shoes).

There was also a Browns cap. Yep, those Browns. The NFL team that went win-less last year (after which the people of Cleveland held a perfect-season parade).

At the sight of that beautiful brown and orange hat at a literary festival, I knew I’d found my people.

It got me to thinking, if you Venn diagram a place (and this is as math-y as I get), how much overlap is there between the place’s art and the place’s sport? Let’s think on that a minute, while I take you with me on another trip.

Earlier this month, as the fall foliage reached its peak color, my family visited the lovely village of Cooperstown, New York.

 

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At Cooperstown’s Farmers’ Museum’s 19th-century Historic Village, a lovely way to spend an afternoon with the kids

For its small size, Cooperstown is a place with impressive arts offerings, but it is known far and wide for being the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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3 Reasons to Connect with Your Creative Community; 3 Words of Thanks; 3 Inspiring Writers

The writing life is often, necessarily, an isolated one. To create a world on paper (or screen) takes holing ourselves up, cutting ourselves off from the myriad distractions of modern life.

For our writing to matter to anyone outside our own heads, however, we must connect.

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3 good reasons to connect with your creative community:

To find readers: Not surprisingly, most of the followers of this blog are other bloggers; the readers of my short fiction are other writers. You will find readers in writers, and v.v.

To research that next WIP: Let’s not research entirely online (pleads this former college composition instructor). Speaking of research, heartfelt Kiiitos paljon (Thanks a lot!) to all the wonderful folks at the Finnish Heritage Museum and to Lasse Hiltunen, president, in particular for the wonderful tour and background information on everything Finnish! (If you ever find yourself near Fairport Harbor, Ohio, don’t miss this gem of a museum.) Lesson-learned: take your research on-site, when you can.

 

To gain inspiration: How inspiring is that library carrel? As delightful as isolation can be, even the most introverted writer needs to get “out there” once in a while.

While online writing communities and critique groups, library databases and catalogues have been invaluable to my perspective, there’s no substitute for the in-the-flesh writing community.

I’m a writer interested in exploring place, specifically the U.S. Rust Belt (more specifically, Ohio), and yet I no longer live in that place. No, the irony isn’t lost on me. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog–to connect with readers and writers and photographers in my native place.

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But virtual connection is not enough. Sometimes one has to be boots-on-the-ground there. And so, after some preparation to make the most of the conference, I drove my proverbial boots the five-and-a-half hours to attend Lit Youngstown’s 2nd Annual Literary Festival this past weekend. 3 inspiring festival highlights–not just to plug this literary festival (but do come next year, if you’re in the area; I plan to) but every and all such excuses to communally share our stories:

Dave Lucas, Ohio Poet Laureate and author of Weather: Poems, presented a piece about the mythic in poetry for an audience of fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and poets. (Poetry not your thing? I get that, and have talked about my on-again-off-again relationship with poetry. But Lucas is all about finding the poetic in the everyday; he talks about that here–from about minute 8 on).

Lesley Nneka Arimah, author of the amazing short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, read a few of her stories and graciously shared a little from her formative years. Arimah told a story about visiting the public library in summer with her sister, where they would each check out the max amount of books–50–and when finished with her tower, trade, and read her sister’s. Sure, Arimah read literature with a capital “L”, she joked; but she also read romance novels and fantasy, and continues to do so today–and her literary short fiction is all the more playful and magical because of it.

Jon Kerstetter, read from his memoir, Crossings: A Doctor-Soldier’s Story, which chronicles a life begun in poverty on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin to a life in business before Kerstetter pursued his dream of becoming a physician. When his days as an emergency doctor weren’t proving exciting enough, he volunteered for tours as an emergency military medic. After three tours in Iraq, Kerstetter returned to the U.S., injured, but this was only the start of his stateside struggles, as he suffered a stroke–leading to his reinvention as an author through the writing of his life’s story.

 

Inspiration abounded at this literary conference–and not just from the big names but from the poems and stories bravely shared by writers at all stages at open-mic and in conversation.

Me, I braved the mic to read a flash fiction piece of mine set not far from where we sat, amid the rolling hills and history of Northeastern Ohio. I also took part in a publishing panel to extol the virtues of connecting through traditional and nontraditional publishing, including sites like this blog–when we can’t connect in person.

And today I returned to my writing desk feeling inspired and connected in a meaningful way to the stories of home. Thanks a lot to all who made it happen!

Have you done the conference thing–for writing, blogging, or anything else? What are the benefits to in-the-flesh arts and literary communities?

Are you a Rust Belt author, blogger, or photographer? I’m always looking for stories to share.

 

*Photos from top down are of Youngstown, Ohio, buildings, the Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor, and interior shots of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Youngtown, where the Arimah and Kerstetter readings were held.

 

 

 

 

Making the most of a literary conference…with a card and a queen

On my writing desk sits a small box filled with even smaller business cards I ordered for the Literary Festival I will be attending next month. These cards are, in effect, the professional “me.” On one side is listed my freelance biz; on the other (shown below) my creative writing credentials.

My two-sided business card mirrors the divided roles I play in this writing life of mine. This is the gig economy in action, folks, and I am a 2 inch-by-3 inch fraud. OK, no, there are no untruths on my business card, but still I feel like a fake sometimes.

It’s natural, self-doubt–especially when pulled in many directions–and inherent in this introverted writer. But business cards? Networking? I mean, networking is no less than 5,000 miles away from my natural habitat. So, what to do to make the most of my time at a literary (or any other kind of) conference?

Come along for the ride…

First, strike a power pose. What does that look like for an introverted writer? Particular pose aside, power-posing is all about boosting your confidence and is key to overcoming “imposter syndrome,” says super-talented career coach and humor blogger, Becca–who encourages those of us who unjustly feel like frauds to “Fake It ‘Till You Become It.”

OK, so I’ve got my business card. And practiced body language (time to break out the full-length mirror I don’t have!).

Second, follow a three-tier plan for getting what I want out of this conference (and by extension this writing life, but…baby steps).

Let’s be clear, I’m attending this festival for the backside (ahem), the creative side of me. With so many talks, readings, and panel discussions to choose from, I need to choose wisely to return home not exhausted but ready to write.

Craft: outside of an online writing workshop or two, it’s been a good while since I took part in a proper fiction workshop, so this tops my list of must-dos.

Connect: one big reason I started Rust Belt Girl was to connect with writers writing from and about the post-industrial Midwest, and I’ll have ample opportunity at this Ohio event; I also hope to meet a few of the many literary journal editors who will be there–always helpful to hear what they’re looking for in submissions.

Soak it in: with a schedule full of creative readings–from poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers–I hope to come away inspired enough by the stories of others to return, re-energized, to my own.

And then there are the side-perks of discovering a city I’ve never visited before and of being close enough to an Ohio site I want to research for my WIP that I can make the weekend a two-fer.

But, even before that, there’s the preparation*, and I don’t just mean packing “serious writer” outfits and a wrap for cool conference rooms. And, of course, having my own stuff together for my creative reading and appearance on a panel about publishing from the writer’s perspective. I mean reading up: not just writer bios, but the book of collected stories from the keynote speaker, Leslie Nneka Arimah; and poems from the Ohio poet laureate, Dave Lucas.

Many thanks to super-knowledgeable blogger, Lorna, at Gin & Lemonade for helping me to develop this plan for slaying it (insert power pose here) at the literary festival and for passing along this post with helpful tips for making the most of a conference as an introvert: “Breathe” is a good one to remember. So is: “Grab People’s Business Cards.”

If all else fails, I’ll just summon my inner Ally McBeal–yep, showing my age here–and come to the literary festival ready with an inspirational song in my head.

With the recent death of Aretha Franklin, followed by the singer’s Detroit funeral that included a procession of 130 pink Cadillacs (more details on that here), I thought I’d take a confidence cue from the Queen of Soul. So many powerful songs: “Respect,” “A Natural Woman.”

My fave: “I Say a Little Prayer”

Have any tips to share for making the most of a conference–literary or otherwise? I’d love to hear them!

*Update: One more item to prepare before a conference–literary or otherwise: the 30-second elevator pitch. Do you have one? “It’s a good idea to have one of these prepared for your art,” says poet and former marketing executive Danielle Hanson, in a wonderfully-informative article in the latest (Sept/Oct) issue of Poets & Writers magazine, which is pretty much the bible for literary writers. Your elevator pitch should answer the question: What do you do?

Here’s my working elevator pitch: I write fiction. I’m interested in exploring the idea of the American Dream in place–both during wartime and at peace. My historical novel manuscript explores lives on the WWII home-front and tells the largely unknown story of the internment of Italians in America during that time. My short stories explore the contemporary American Rust Belt, with many set in my native Ohio. I also blog at Rust Belt Girl to connect with authors, photographers, and readers in the region and beyond. There I feature discussions on “ruin porn,” author interviews, and my own craft essays, drawn from my experiences as a writer and as a former college writing instructor.

What do you think? What am I missing?