The second weekend in August—or, rather, the second Thursday, Friday, and Saturday—I did something I’ve never done before: I attended my first writers’ conference. It’s the first time I have ventured into a writers’ space: they belong to my grandmother, you see, who attended them, and taught at them, and guest lectured, and after years and years of being told it was so cute that I thought I was a writer like my grandmother, or that my family’s other writers were geniuses! (such a pity that I write genre, they insinuated), I had come to dread even approaching such spaces: they belonged to her, even beyond the grave.
Once I had determined to go (or, perhaps, been “supported” into registering, which is sometimes necessary), I approached it much as I approach everything else: with a lot of (over)thinking and some extensive research. I would, you see, never miss an opportunity to do some overthinking, which is no doubt aided by my long-time conviction that I am guilty (of something: it is undefined and unknowable, and probably comes straight at me from my long heritage of Irish and German Catholics). So, after considerable thought (and no little guilt, and a lot of imposter syndrome), I decided on a slate that included almost every single business-oriented workshop they offered. I needed to learn the business end of the business—I’ll always need to learn more, because that’s the way of things—but I think that, for some reason, it was also the space where I felt my grandmother’s shadow would loom least large, and give me space to breath.
I might give you a full, careful review of each session—in fact, I had done so, once, when the systems glitched and ate it, which may have been for the best: I write overly long, on almost every first draft (unless it’s a novel, in which case that shitty first draft, or the notes draft, or whatever term one prefers, is almost invariably too short), and this gives me a chance to shorten my wordiness down—maybe. (Rewrite everything from memory, Juan Martíntez told us, and maybe that’s just as well in this particular case.)
I was very fortunate: nearly every one of the workshops I attended was excellent. I learned from Renée Rosen about finding an agent, and from Juan Martínez about editing (there are no shortcuts, he told us, in a session entitled “Make It New: Five Revision Shortcuts,” and, masochist that I am, I was delighted: everything he said meant I was, indeed, not doing it wrong after all: I was even getting the seventeen drafts, or something close as makes no nevermind). From Charles Finch I learned about thrillers, about suspense, about the trick and the art and about today’s masters of pure suspense (they are, we were told, J.K. Rowling and Lee Childs, and I’ve read everything Rowling’s ever written, and nothing by Childs, and probably won’t change that). I even walked away with some excellent illustrations to further aid my understanding of what I’m doing—of what we’re all doing—when we write.
I got a PowerPoint and a discussion of novel structures from Christina Sneed, and that was a tad frustrating: I hate PowerPoint, you see, and I have a Master’s in (Spanish) literature, and I know my novels. (I needed, as T and I have since discussed, something more in-depth. So did she. Así es la vida.) From Sara Connell I got 21 Ways to Get Published, which was, despite its moments of new-age-y-ness, one of the most pragmatic, and thought-provoking, workshops of the whole shebang. Then I got an introduction to point of view, and another PowerPoint (I still hate PowerPoint, dear reader) from Jarrett Neal, and it would have been the better, if I hadn’t already had a Master’s in literature. (It was another one where I probably needed advanced, and had time only for intro, since that is what is offered at such a workshop.)
The panels and the keynotes: they were a bit odd, and rather uneven, and rather than telling you about the frustrations, and the rage-inducements, and the moment when I almost yelled at the panelists to speak to a damn librarian already, I will tell you about Roger Reeves, whose keynote on Friday, about memory and the ecstatic, was exhilarating and heartbreaking, devastating and joyful, a call to action and to joy. Remember the ecstatic, he reminds us, and, as someone whose nature tends towards darkness, it was a reckoning and a reminder, not to sink too low, though it is easier, for me, to sink back and to fall away into the shadows than to step forward. Reeves is a man whose career I shall watch; I hope I will have another opportunity, soon, to hear him speak, and to read his next publication, or maybe even this keynote, when someday it makes its way to a journal, as it must. And you? If you should ever have the chance to hear Roger Reeves speak, or to attend a reading of his poetry, take it. You’ll not regret the chance.
But I was reminded of something else, as I meandered through the workshop and met writers and got names and took my copious notes, and it was simple: stop feeding the not-enoughness Gremlin, as Sara Connell told us in her workshop: if you cannot love your own work, then no one will. I’ve not always been good at this loving my own work, you see. Whether it’s the years of living in the shadow of my grandmother, and of my family’s other writers, the geniuses;1 whether it is our society, or my desire to blend into the background even as I seethe with pure Slytherin ambition; whether, even, it is simply that I have a degree in “good” literature, and I am snobbier than I have perhaps thought—I’ve had my moments, particularly with the manuscript that waits for me to have the courage to submit it. (I don’t write short stories, you see; I’ve got two. Or, at any rate, two that I care to show.)
I write, apparently, literary-tinged horror. It’s not a genre I often read (sometimes I’ll read it in young adult; I think The Handmaid’s Tale is horror, though I believe it is not classified as such), and it was not something I would have recognized, had it not been pointed out to me. It feels, I have been told, like a dude wrote it, and like it was written, and should be read, with a cigar and a glass of brandy to hand, just because. Hero is, to speak kindly, an asshole: my mother would just say he’s a pig. He’s horrible, and I love him, not least because he’s been in my head for more than a decade, now, and I had to do something with him—but I also had to wait until he told me what that something was. (They talked, at the workshop, about outlining one’s tale, and I was like what the hell? My people tell me what to do! Which makes me sound troubled, no doubt, but I mean, Fitzgerald was right about writers, basically.)
Write down five things you love about your work, Connell said, and it made me stop and think, a lot. The writing might reek of cigarettes2 (because Hero sure as shit doesn’t smoke cigars) and of alcohol, but it is surely rather lovely. I think I captured Finch’s Trick, and I think I may have gotten the Art, too, at least in places. It’s a tale of place, and of old stories, built on the darkness of the tales my parents, and my grandparents—or, at any rate, my grandmother, small and fierce and raging—fed me. It’s tangled and entwined, and maybe that’s not always a good thing, but it is, in my world, true: everyone knew everyone else, when I was a kid in Hyde Park, and half the time we knew secrets, too—and my roots lie deep and tangled in the soils of an old mill town in Wisconsin, and when there are only 2,400 people in a town, believe me when I tell you: everyone knows everyone else; everyone is related—half the town looks the same, my family being perhaps the worst of all (we really look the same, for generations, amen); feuds last longer than life, and, well, there are never any secrets, even if no one ever knows the truth.
Maybe someday I’ll have the guts to send it out. But here’s a thing, at least, for which I’ll strive: whether it’s that piece or the shorter (and, possibly, meaner, although that’s debatable) of my short stories, I’ll try to submit something. Because my grandmother’s shadow may be long, and the stories of less-than and the not-enoughness Gremlin may be hulking, but I am, indeed, not she—she never wrote an asshole in her life—and, in truth, I do not think that the woman who told my parents I was dyslexic would have wanted me to slink forever in her shadows.
1 Please realize that the geniuses are wonderful people; they’ve never said such things in their blameless lives, and I am very close to them. Así es, así será.
2 I don’t smoke at all, in case you’re wondering; I’m allergic to everything, and cigarettes are a killer. I also don’t drink.