Day 2 AWP Conference

Friday February 28

  • 9 am.  “Passive Characters in Contemporary Fiction: Writing Problem or Literary Strategy?”  Panelists: Stephanie Grant, Bruce Machart, Eileen Pollack, Hannah Pylvainen, and Sergio Troncoso.  The most common “mistake” that appears in the workshopped story is the passive character, or alternately, a plot that is essentially the “sit and think” story.  Sit-and-think stories take many forms – driving around, wandering by one’s self, cleaning the basement, and so on.  William Maxwell has a story called “So long, see you tomorrow” which is pure reminiscence and non-action, but which clearly has made it out of workshop and into the world.  Can these stories take flight?  The answer from the panelists was a re-sounding “no.”  Why do sit-and-think stories not work when many of us spend 98% of our time sitting and thinking about stuff, or being depressed on the couch, or taking walks in which we achieve these epiphanies about our lives or the world?  Because fiction is not about the 98% of the time we sit in our sweats on the couch.  It’s about the 2% of the time we get off our ass.  While a passive plot is not going to work (i.e. my own flash story in which an old woman sits and knits and thinks about her life), passive characters can work – as long as other characters are actively working for or against the passive character – i.e. “Bartleby the Scrivener” Herman Melville.  However, this does not mean that passivity is passé.   A passive character can reflect and illuminate a society or culture which entraps and oppresses, providing those aha! moments about ethics, religion, morals, society, etc.  Passive characters are often passive because they are undergoing extreme existential crises.    And the passive character calls into question our own passivity.  Ultimately, the passive character should only be used in those situations in which the writing is working at a higher ethical or philosophical level than what we might call commercial fiction – i.e. the passivity is a call to arms or a reflection of societal/cultural changes that the writer wants to bring attention to, thus making the reader become active in asserting his or her own activity in the face of a passive-making world.  (Had some great aha! moments myself on how to make “Knit to Purl” as well as “A Second Chance with the First One” active stories rather than sit-and-think or sit-in-my-dead-mother’s chair all day stories.  Love the inspiration that comes from panels!)
  • 10:30 am.  “Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family.”  Panelists: Joy Castro, Ralph Savarese, Sue William Silverman, Faith Adiele, Stephanie Elizondo Griest.  This panel addresses the pitfalls of writing about family – our children, our parents, our own lives.  The panelists ranged the gamut from writing about their impaired, though very bright and independent, autistic son, to incestuous parents – an evil family secret, to family history that is embraced by the clan in a way that welcomes the writer as family historian.  The panelists ranged in their beliefs about what the writer should divulge to family before going to press.  One panelist indicated that full disclosure and rights to deletion were granted to family members, while another panelist did not tell anyone before it went to press.  The question is one of asking for input versus preserving the writer’s integrity of telling his or her own story.  Offering family members a first read and the option to change or delete can help families to participate in and contribute to a book about themselves.  However, the input, fears, and drama that can arise might also inhibit the writer from writing honestly in the current or future projects.  Both sides seem justified.  The reactions from family members was also wide and varied.  Some panelists reported that revealing family tragedies brought family closer.  Others reported irreparable splits.  Joy Castro said it best: “if the relationship is already tenuous, it will likely fall apart completely.  If it is already strong, it will just be strengthened.”
  • 12n. “Author and Editor: the Relationship that Builds a Book.”  Panelists: Chuck Palahniuk, Monika Drake, Jess Walter, and Calvert Morgan.  Chuck Palahniuk’s editor was unable to attend and so his long-time workshop partner Monika Drake sat in.  The discussion tended toward how Jess and Calvert worked together on making editorial decisions on the book, as well as the way their relationship evolved in the time they’ve work together.  A few disagreements were covered, particularly how Jess turned in Beautiful Ruins to his editor and accidentally left “the” at the beginning of the title.  A debate ensued as to the thematic nuances of The Beautiful Ruins vs. Beautiful Ruins.  Ultimately, Jess won this argument (as, I imagine, all writers think he should have), and it became a story they joke about.   Chuck and Monika addressed the trust needed in a successful workshop, as well as the need for working with people you’re willing to “steal from” (Chuck Palahniuk).  Ultimately, the point is that workshopping with those who consistently bring strong work fosters a healthy competition that encourages continuing to strive for the best writing, the writing that makes workshop-mates laugh or ooh and ahh – i.e. the response that we want to have created.  This is a long-standing workshop of around 15 years, so clearly these are the folks we want to hear from about how to make a workshop last.   Finally, when asked if any of these authors believed they would get to a point where they did not need their editors or workshop-mates, the answer was an unequivocal “no.”
  • 3 pm.  “How Readers Read: A Report from the Stacks of Submissions.”  Panelists: Lisa Mecham, Jeffrey Hess, Dawn Raffel, Erin Harris, Erika Goldman.  Though this panel indicated that it would be about how readers read and thus, how works are chosen to move out of the slush pile and into the next round, I found this panel tended more toward the individual processes and aesthetics of these particular publishers.  What is also difficult here is that each panelist is the publisher and therefore is not reading the “slush,” but instead the pieces that make it past their interns and into their in-boxes.  A more generalized approach might have been helpful.  For instance, Lisa Mecham is a long-time reader for Tin House, and yet we did not hear from her about her own process of reading slush submissions and deciding which 1 or 2 to recommend for further reading – having been a Tin House reader myself, I know that this is the process – 1 or 2 out of 25 submissions given to a reader will be sent on for further reading.  Also, in my two years at Tin House, just one slush submission was published – this is perhaps a more helpful idea of what writers are up against in a more statistical sense.  Writers also face the individual aesthetic and arbitrary “likes” and “dislikes” of the reader.  Again, to use my own experience, if a story was too graphically violent against women or animals, it received a “no.”  These are simply stories I can’t stomach – although, in all fairness, the quality of the writing was my peak qualification – it just happened that people who write about beating women or animals also don’t tend to write well – at least the submissions I read, though a recent New Yorker story would call that into question (I didn’t like that one either and thought the writing was nothing out of the ordinary).  Thus, while I don’t feel more illuminated on the subject of how readers read, I do sense that my own experience as a reader is a pattern for the general trend in reading.
  • 5pm.  Queens University Alumni Event.  This was a wonderful event held upstairs at the Pine Box.  Had an Old Fashioned and then a Raspberry Beret (yes, insultingly girly – but I couldn’t pass up a vodka-framboise combination!).  Loved reconnecting with Dawn Barron, Karen Celestan, Beth Uznis Johnson (Hooray again for publication in StoryQuarterly as well as admission to Tin House’s Summer Workshop!), Christin Rice, and Anne Hillesland.  Fun time had by all.  I shared the story of how Chuck P and Monika D put together a book-tour called “Bedtime Stories” with their workshop group (also comprised of Chelsea Cain, amongst others).  They dressed in PJs, brought their stuffed animals, and read adult bed-time stories.  We will definitely be making this happen at our next Queens Alumni Event.


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