Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Musing About the Muse

I spent this past weekend participating in the 6th annual The Muse and the Marketplace conference, organized by Grub Street. The conference is dedicated to both the craft and the business of writing, and in addition to the seminars led by various writers, it includes panels and presentations by agents, editors, and publicists.

I’ve participated in the Muse before, as a panelist and moderator. This year, though, I was one of the authors. I taught a seminar on Sunday afternoon, but the rest of the weekend I spent actually attending classes. This was the best part about the conference. (This and the free lunches.) Since my own writing has become almost non-existent lately – I blame it on the job search, apartment hunting, upcoming move, and many other silly excuses – I needed to feel like a student again.

So that was what I became for much of the weekend. A student. Darting in and out of conference rooms, taking notes, collecting handouts, and sipping water.

Here are some highlights.

The first event was actually on Thursday. A seminar taught by Sheri Joseph, a fiction writer, whom I first met several years ago at Bread Loaf. Sheri’s newest novel, Stray, won the first annual Grub Street Book Prize, and the seminar she taught on Thursday (and then on Saturday) was titled, “Have You Got a Novel or Not?” A million-dollar question. And as is often the case with writing (or any sort of art), there's no clear answer to that. There were, however, some interesting ideas and guidelines that seemed to apply to my situation. (1) If you think of the beginning of your novel as a set up before the good stuff begins, then it’s probably a mistake. (2) Another common mistake: a novel that’s not a novel, but a novel-sized portion of someone’s life. It’s got to be about something. It’s got to have a purpose. (3) Yet another mistake, which applies to short stories as well – starting with an establishing shot, i.e., we are shown a scene, but we are not told the story. The story hasn’t started yet. (4) Question: How is a novel different from a movie script? Answer: The novel is usually driven by a narrative voice. (5) The idea of “profluence” (John Gardner’s term) – that as we read a novel (or a story), we are getting somewhere, we are being told things for a reason, that there’s a purpose, and that things are adding up.

On Saturday, the conference itself started. The first event I attended was a lecture by Margot Livesey, “Mrs. Turpin Reads the Stars.” It was about creating characters. Margot Livesey is a wonderful speaker, funny, charming, and self-effacing. She began the lecture by admitting that when she starts creating characters they always seem flat and you would think they were written by a hairdresser or an optometrist – since the descriptions always focus on eyes and hair. These early characters also seem to be capable of few physical gestures, mainly they turn and they shrug. Now, that pretty much describes how I feel about my own characters, the early versions of them at least. We looked at a number of good examples of character development, and even attempted a list of useful strategies – although in the end, the list was replace with one word, ATTITUDE. (Also, a side note made in the course of this talk: When a character in a story draft appears too solitary, it’s likely done out of laziness or convenience.)

Michael Lowenthal’s seminar on Sunday (“Astonish Me!”) was another highlight. It involved a lot of close reading and much focus on sentences (which I love!). As a result, I think I finally understood why so much of Call it Sleep had to be written in that excruciating dialect. I also discovered some authors that I intend to look up: Daniel Woodrell and Claire Keegan.

Charles Baxter, another fabulous speaker, delivered the keynote address. It was called "Losers". He made a good point that our society is way to focused on losing and winning – just look at all the reality TV. Such thinking, though, doesn’t really apply to writers. After all, F. Scott Fitzgerald died thinking himself a loser (his last royalty check was something like $13). Charles Baxter also mentioned Jaroslav Hasek and his hilarious book The Good Soldier Svejk, which I read as a teenager in Russia. (Aparently, Hasek was an incredible scam artist.)

Only one event I attended proved to be disappointing, a panel on Promotion and Publicity. Without getting personal, I will just say that the publicists on the panel seemed to share a strangely contemptuous attitude toward writers. It wasn’t even what they said, but how they said it. The endless smirking and raising of eye-brows as they exchanged exasperated looks. I mean, people, this isn’t a support group for beleaguered publicists. You were invited to talk to writers. I understand that you suffer greatly, which must explain your facial ticks, but please, restrain yourself.

Almost by accident, I stumbled on a seminar called “Blogs into Books,” led by Leslie Talbot. You guessed it, her blog, Singular Existence, has become a book. Of course, to have this happen, as we soon discovered, one needs a blog with a purpose and a voice. My blog, I feel, is much too accidental (or incidental) for that. Still, the seminar was interesting and it made me really think about the meaning and purpose of blogging. Plus, I think it’s something Movie Dictator should do. God knows, he’s got things to say. And he’s funny. Interestingly, Leslie Talbot mentioned that traditionally blog entries are supposed to be short (i.e., not essay-length), which is why she switched from a Salon blog to her own web site. I’m not sure, but I think I might be breaking the shortness rule here.