April 25, 2004

thoughts at the Book Fair

The white tents up ahead so bright in the sun. All those booths. Not too many people yet. This is going to be fun.

Tiny Coconut is a great panel-going partner. Extremely compatible.

Boy, there are a lot of people in LA who read. Who knew?

Boy, these people donít look like Hollywood glamour pusses. Whereíd they all come from?

At the short story panel:

Sherman Alexie is charming. I must read his short story collection. Soon.

People really do write from their own experience even when it doesnít seem like it. Seeds of ideas are everywhere. We all steal from bits we see, overhear, read. Itís what we do with it after that that makes it our own.

When we read a writer giving us the flavor of city life in Russia or Japanese suburbs in the forties or life on the reservation, it looks exotic to us and we somehow see that writer as a spokesperson for that world, a travel guide of sorts, but to them, theyíre just writing from the life around them or inside them and it can be annoying when you want to write something more universal but you end up getting tagged as a (insert ethnicity here) writer.

Itís not just me. Short stories are harder than novels for a lot of people.

Conversely, theyíre easier. You only spend a month on one, you can afford to experiment, fall on your face. You havenít made the same kind of investment.

With short stories, you jump right into the meat of the thing. You have less time. You can write from/about a single image.

And by the way, itís extremely annoying when a panelist watches the ceiling the entire time heís talking. Even if he says interesting things.

At the truth in fiction panel:

Why are there all women on this panel? Do only women admit how close their fiction is to real life?

These women are funny.

Ayelet Waldman just hit a home run. Profound. Must read her new book. It sounds like a kick in the teeth but in a good way. When you write from passion, I want to read it.

An awful lot of authors do write from real life, thinly fictionalizing their own experience or their parentsí or their dentistís, but mostly their own.

How do they manage to get enough distance from the subject when they do that? How do they shape the story? Maybe next year a panel will talk about that part.

Apparently if you want to cast a real person as a villain, the best way to do it is to simply describe. Lose the adjectives. Without modifiers that give away your feelings, that person will read the bare description and approve of their portrayal just as they approve of their own actions in life.

Sometimes if you write about people and they read it, they start remembering what you wrote as if it really happened even when that part is made up.

At the creative nonfiction panel:

Why are there all men on this panel? Why are they all going on and on and on about their books? What makes this a discussion? For that matter, what makes these books creative nonfiction? From the descriptions, most of them sound like journalism with perhaps more of the first person POV but not really that much.

Again, why am I sitting here listening to authors sell their books to me? I wanted answers to perplexing questions or at least a bit of self-reflection. Itís the moderatorís fault. He told them to talk. They did. Then again, TC points out that when the women in the Truth in Fiction panel were asked to talk about their books, they did so but also tied what they said into the salient issue of the panel. These men? Not so much.

So what is creative nonfiction anyway? Is it just journalism with more of an I to the writerly eye? I thought it was much more fluid and personal than that.


On the other hand, the PR job kind of worked. Iím now interested in Hampton Sidesí book (Americana, full of stories of fascinating people) and Martin J. Smithís (Poplorica, a look at the origin and oddities of popular cultural phenomena like the suburban lawn). But still. Iíd have preferred a real conversation.

At the memoir panel:

Theyíre reading from their work, this is good. This is fun. This is kind of a waste of time because I can just get the books out of the library. On the other hand, it does remind me what exactly a memoir is. So personal, these people sitting up there on the stage revealing glimpses of their childhood pain.

Memoir has apparently become hot lately. I guess this is true, isnít it? Vivian Gornick posits during the panel that the reason is that since World War Two, people have felt a need for testament. Later, someone else calls it testimony. Itís an empowering, a statement that the ordinary life can be important enough to read about.

Memoir is apparently a political statement. Politics keeps coming up. Nuala OíFaolain says the fact that she, a middle aged Irish woman, can write this and have it read and recognized is a kind of political statement. Michael Datcher has a theory that we live in such a segregated society, we read memoirs as a safe way to learn about other cultures. I think this is horseshit, that heís got an racial/social agenda and sees everything through that narrow lens, but whatever. I do agree that the personal is political. Vastly so.

Oh, now theyíre arguing about whether memoir as testimony necessarily means memoir is not literary. No answers there. Is literary defined as good writing, turns of phrase, or does it lie somewhere else?

Nobody talks about how they shape their lives for the page though Vivian Gornick says she conflates events and gives people pseudonyms.

At the science writing panel:

Weíre here because TC is a science writer and also knows some of the guys (yeah, all men) on the panel. Iím fine with this. It could be interesting to hear about. I have no idea how one writes about science for a general audience.

Apparently the way one writes about anything else that fascinates. Something sparks your interest, you have a seed of an idea, you do the research, you talk to people, you get deeply involved in the world, you write.

How is this different from creative nonfiction? I mean, I believe it is in actuality, but from the descriptions on each panel, it isnít. There, the men did research, wrote about something they didnít already know from their own experience. Here, the men end up with an emotional investment in what theyíre writing. Of course they do.

Chandler Burr describes the way the scientists of smell turn away from him while heís doing the research for Emperor of Scent. They canít stand the idea of this altogether different concept of how we smell. Itís interesting the things that divide people so deeply. Not always what youíd expect. Other scientific fields, on the surface more fraught and important, are less divisive than this.

It can be a handicap to come into the field of science writing from a background as a scientist. One of the editors (Philip Hilts, I think) describes a cub science reporter who got scared when it was time to go cover something in biology. He thought it would take years to gain the knowledge heíd need to walk in the door. But reporters are reporters in every field: you dip into the subject, you gather your bits of knowledge, and you run the facts past some experts before you run the piece.

I like this panel. I love learning about things altogether different from my own experience. I can understand the allure of the field.

Outside, in the heat and the crowd:

Wow, itís like Time Square at rush hour. A veritable sea of humanity.

Books for five bucks. Cool. Here's Seabiscuit. Cool. Some good kid books too, half price. Cool. Bag now feels like I'm carrying around a bunch of rocks. Not so cool.

The guy at the Paris Review booth says they accept about sixteen stories a year out of thirty to forty thousand submissions. And I thought it was hard to get into Harvard. He says with those odds, why not submit your story everywhere at once? He has a point.

The woman at the Tin House booth says a story gets three reads Ė three different readers, that is to say Ė before it gets to her. And then if she likes it, she sends it on to New York, where an editorial committee all has to like it. So if that committee consists of five people, a total of nine jaded, tired, overworked and underpaid readers have to love your story for it to get published in that magazine.

On the other hand, they just have to love it, not to see it as a movie with Julia Roberts in the lead. Not so hard. Just write a kickass story. And then write another.

Itís hot out here.

Why did I park so far from the center of the fair? My blisters are getting blisters.

Where did I park the car exactly? TC goes one way in the garage, I go the other. We scout out the elusive vehicle. We sink into the seats. We head home. Ready to write.

Posted by Tamar at April 25, 2004 09:32 PM

Hee! So *that's* what you were taking notes for! I was wondering, but I kept forgetting to ask. It's true, though, that if there's one message that got knocked into us on Saturday, it was definitely that everything is fodder, nothing is truly sacred, and a writer writes. Which you do so beautifully. Thanks for reminding me of some of the stuff I was already starting to forget...


Posted by: Tiny Coconut at April 25, 2004 11:33 PM

The fair sounds like a blast, and the panels....the usual panels. I'm guessing the CNF panel was as blustery as it is *because* the genre is so vaguely defined (Jim Paul describes it as the "best" genre because it draws on the best of the others) and the moderator himself unclear,

The Paris Review guy's strategy would require massive record-keeping, since so many journals now ask you to tell them when a story's been accepted elsewhere.

Posted by: Chris at April 26, 2004 03:54 AM

I saw Sherman Alexie read last year, and just loved him. If you've never read any Alexie at all, I recommend starting with his other short story collection - "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven" - then reading his full-length novel "Reservation Blues" and then "Ten Little Indians."

Posted by: Melissa at April 26, 2004 06:20 PM

Just wanted to echo TC's comment about how you write beautifully. I read a handful of online journals on a regular basis, but yesterday I was too busy at work (yeah, go figure!) to read them all. I was about to skim quickly through yours at the end of the day when I decided I'd rather save it for myself for today, as a treat to look forward to. And I wasn't disappointed! I really appreciate your writing style, your perspective, your distinctly different-from-a-link-heavy-blog structure. And I'm looking forward to hearing about your publication successes, as I'd love to read anything you write!

Oh - and can you tell me which show Dan works on? I'm so curious, especially after that description of the wrap party!

Posted by: jms at April 27, 2004 12:53 PM

Thank you (deeply) for the compliments, TC and JMS.

Melissa, I'll put those Alexie books on hold at the library. He was so delightful, I can't imagine his prose is any different.

Chris, I think the real problem with the Paris Review guy's suggestion isn't so much bookkeeping as this dilemma: "I just got accepted at Podunk Tiny Journal but Huge Prestigious Place has had it for a while now, what if they turn around and want to publish me (and make my career) and it's too late?" I'd rather send to A-list, then B-list and so on. As much as I can figure it all out, that is.

Posted by: Tamar at April 27, 2004 10:02 PM