Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Getting to Writers' Conferences

My novel, Leave the Frigging Marshmallows, has been in process for a while. Years.
Novel notes. Photo by Robin Israel.
Part of this is because I question myself. Part of it is because I want it to be great. And part is that it is just difficult to find my way through a character-driven novel with multiple complex characters and their individual stories without any real instruction beyond other novels.

I can read all the books on craft in the world, but they never seem to fully apply to my characters and their stories. They often help me expand and enrich my characters more, and I'm grateful for that, but it often complicates things further. Often, books on writing focus on plot and structure and, when I impose such things on my characters, they fight back and story becomes forced. I really want to find a way through this messy thing.

That's the reason I started attending writers' conferences last summer. I had avoided them for a while because I thought of them as pitch sessions and I wasn't ready to pitch anything, but then I started
feeling starved for a comprehensive critique from literary writers and I signed up for the UNM Summer Writers' Conference in Santa Fe. It was close, one I could drive to, and it had some really great writers. Sandra Cisneros, Jonis Agee, Antonya Nelson, Debra Monroe--these are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Sadly, there is no reference back, since the funding for this conference was mined by the university after last year and the event no longer exists. It stands, however, as the first conference with workshops that I have ever attended.

It was different from AWP, which is all panels and book fair... and huge. It was different from Desert Nights, Rising Stars because it was a week long and you share your work in a workshop setting. I hadn't been in a workshop that I wasn't running in more than 15 years. AWP and Desert Nights are both really useful (and I will write about how in a later post) but it's this workshop element that I needed. I needed to not be the teacher, to not be the leader.

I longed to be the student again. I needed to learn something that I wasn't learning as a teacher.

At the conference in Santa Fe, my workshop leader was the lovely Jo-Ann Mapson, She was kind and supportive and I was happy to be there, getting a harder look at my work. Something about this conference changed how I thought about myself as a writer. It wasn't just Jo-Ann's workshop. It was the interaction with other writers from all over the country. It was meeting with editors and agents--one who confronted me about self-sabotage. I came back with a mindset that made me rethink what I was doing as a writer--not my writing itself, but my attitude toward writing and myself as a writer and all my insecurity as a middle-aged woman coming back to writing. It made me think about how I was spending my time as a writer.
Sometimes you need more than your weekly writing group, as awesome as they are.

I'll tell you something else about these conferences--more comes from them if you're not trying to pitch a book. I had a satisfying experience there. And I want to learn more.

That's why I applied to four conferences this summer. This is also different from most conferences. Generally, you find a conference you like, sign up, pay, and (hopefully) choose your workshop leader. For the conferences I applied to this summer, there is an application fee, sample writing (some up to 50 pages), an application essay, and for some, references. Last year, I applied to Sewanee--one of the most prestigious and most difficult conferences to get into--and I didn't get in.

This year, I chose to apply to all the big ones and just hope. Tin House Workshop: Rejected outright. Community of Writers at Squaw Valley: Accepted! With funding! Yay! Bread Loaf: Still waiting to hear. And Sewanee: ... accepted?... wow! ...oh, but no funding...

Even without funding I feel incredibly honored to be accepted as a contributor. Check out the faculty at Sewanee. It's pretty darn impressive. Every participant who attends receives assistance that covers two-thirds of the actual cost, leaving them with $1800 in tuition and boarding. There is some additional funding on top of that, if your manuscript resonates with the readers strongly, or if you're lucky. I'm not. And they don't take credit cards. Financial anxiety ensues. (I probably shouldn't put $1800 on my credit card anyway.) And they wanted to know if I was planning on attending within 4 days and get the deposit to them a week later.

I contemplated not going. I thought, is it useful to go? Is it too much to attend two conferences in a summer? Maybe I should wait. But maybe I'll never get in again! Is it entirely stupid to not go when given the chance?

I checked with the Arizona Commission on Arts, talked to Arizona Humanities, called the MFA program I graduated from in 1998--I figured if I'd get my hustle on, I'd be able to find a grant out of cycle. But I came up with nothing.

Several of my (younger) friends suggested a GoFundMe campaign, as did the AZ Arts Commission, so against my Generation X beliefs that no one will give me money and it's sleazy to ask for it, I set up a campaign. Now, 3 hours into the campaign, I'm a little more than a quarter funded.

I'm a little freaked out by this. It's great that people are contributing, and it's mostly donations of $25-$50. I am grateful that I could possibly be going. I love that people support me and want to see me go. I'm happy that people believe in me. But there is still some sort of anxiety that I have, and I'm not sure what it is.

  • Is it that the beliefs I've had about asking for money for so long are inaccurate? 
  • Is it undignified? Is it somehow related to vanity publishing?
  • Is it that I don't see a lot of difference between this and visiting all my friends and family to ask for $20? 
  • Is this, in a way, worse than being that mooch because I'm not facing anyone and there is no expectation to be paid back? 
  • Is it that I hate solicitation and I worry that all my Facebook friends will un-friend me, or that people I have loose connections with are cursing my emails and my name? 
  • Is that I worry I will fail these people who support me or that I will make a fool of myself when I get there? 
  • Is it that, when I told my dad I was doing this, he said, "Why would anyone help you with that?" (Thanks, Dad.)
  • Do I worry that I owe people who contribute? Or that they will hold something over me?

Maybe all of these fears are true. I've gotten better as asking for help and accepting it over the years, but money is still uncomfortable. Maybe I am a cadger who will say something really stupid and embarrassing to Alice McDermott. What writer hasn't made a fool of himself at some time or another? What writer hasn't failed people?

Maybe the biggest concern is that, by asking for help, I'm committing to completing my book. I'm committing to it being strong enough to be published. I won't allow myself to fail--thus putting pressure on myself that may not be helpful.

Or maybe it will be.

So I'm trying to get through all these things and get myself to Sewanee, so that later, when this book is done, I can watch a heavy stack of papers turn into a book and say to everyone who helped, "Thank you. It wasn't for nothing."

If you can contribute, I'll be really grateful. Stop by and take a look at my story. If you can't contribute, and you're willing to pass the campaign on, I'll be happy about that, also. And if you think you can't go to the conferences or workshops you really want because of the cost, consider a GoFundMe campaign, too.

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