2015, Archives, November 2015, The MFA Years

NON-FICTION-NOW: My First Writer’s Conference

Am I cheating on my genre? Will my fiction be jealous? 

Every time a writer is mentioned during the day, I open a window. At night, before sleeping, I need to close them. My browser is rebelling. Leaves are turning red. That rainbow-pinwheel-ball from hell spins like a hurricane. No more t-shirts at night. Winter is scratching at the window. Layers and layers; Mary Karr, George Saunders, Lori Ostlund, Geoff Dyer, Halidór Laxness, Wells Towers, Angela Flornoy, Betsy Lerner, Eudora Welty, Lorrie Moore, Barry Gifford—then BOOM… my browser goes down. I can’t afford a new computer. Perhaps a used hard-drive.

Our program co-sponsored NonFictionNow in Flagstaff Arizona, hosted at Northern Arizona University. We got to attend, costs to be reimbursed. Thanks UNM.

Flagstaff. What a town. NAU. What a conference. What an oasis of intellect. As I have never been to any conference of any type before, I have always tried to avoid hotel meeting rooms. I made a few rookie mistakes, like overdosing on panels and not researching the keynotes prior. (Just Roxanne Gay, who called in sick.) Nevertheless, I felt like a professional writer at a professional gathering, because, well, I was. The time spent chatting with various editors and writers was priceless; a leap in learning, a shiver to the bone, a mammoth master-class in power and beauty of non-fiction. These are the gems I collected:

Day 1

10:03 “It’s all about curiosity, isn’t it?

10:45 “Non-fiction is sitting down with a buddy having a beer. It’s parish flyers, toilet walls, instructional manuals, the local police logs…”

11:10 “Witness is the best thing we can do. We have a social charge.”

11:42 “If we tell the right stories, they will forget the murder’s names.”

13:12 “A writer only needs three words: ‘Really? Then what?’”

13:13 “Learning to shut you pie-hole and listen is the secret to great literature and (long pause) seduction.”

14:29 “Birds don’t nest in wars. Good boots are the secret.”

15:02 “Politicians are just performance artists.”

15:42 “You should surprise yourself by your own work. If you are not startled sometimes, you are not working hard enough.”

16:02 “What would happen if just one woman told the whole truth of her life? The world would split open.”

16:07 “Butch, Sally up!”

16:35 “Don’t, not tell out of fear.”

16:45 “Over a lifetime, 90% of American women will spend 2 months and 23 000$ removing hair.”

16:55 “We don’t voice out desires enough.”

16:56 “Women don’t pitch enough.”

18:30 “You need to ask, is it a stunt or a story?”

18:45 “Writing is a grant application to yourself.”

19:30 “What is this about? What is this really about? What is this about? What is this really about? What is this about? What is this really about?

Now tell me, what is this really about? And that is the secret to writing.”

(And Grad School in a nutshell.)

20:30 “Draw what is beautiful, before you write it.”

Day 2:

10:20 “I had this problem, so I threw a vacation at it.”

10:45 “Don’t whine. Writing is a privilege.”

11:35 “The writers job is to give the illusion of the present.”

11:45 “America is a killing machine. Addicted to genocide.”

11:50 “He pre-dated the urgency of the epidemic.”

13:45 “Don’t buy into the myth of belatedness”

15:15 “This is the sound of my mind thinking four thoughts at the same time.”

15:29 “You don’t see people practicing their nouns.”

15:45 “The essay is legendary flawless.”

16:40 “What is it like to be an elephant?”

17:10 “Science is the search for falsehood.”

17:12 “The trees were so godamned green, they burn my eyes.”

17:45 “Samuel Pepys wrote 3000 words a day.”

18:45 “We live in a world of increasing specialization.”

19:30 “I like to hang out in the slush pile.”

19:45 “I’ve had to reject writers I love, people I love.”

Day 3:

9:30 “Do not send me another essay on sea turtles please.”

9:45 “There are lines you don’t cross.”

9:55 “How does Velcro look under a microscope?”

10:35 “Strive to be permeable.”

10:55 “This is the age of the essay.”

11:35 “It is so boring to watch a baby.”

11:45 “This is the space to wonder about wonder.”

12:43 “She had a tattoo of a woman removing stockings on her left tit.”

12:45 “By erasing the “I” from the essay. The ego becomes the key.”

12:55 “Funny is money.”

13:10 “I consciously made my book funny. It was such a bummer. If I didn’t, you’d put it down.”

14:00 “All we seek is true stories, well-told.”

Somewhere after lunch on the third day, my pen ran dry, my browser collapsed, my brain melted, my tongue knotted and words began dancing tangos around the hotel conference room. I made for the parking lot and drove 23 miles south to Sedona.

I’m blaming the altitude.

(all dates and times are approximate due to the high altitude. All names are omitted because text trumps personality any day.)

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