The Joke That Tells You Your Future: Day 2 of the Literary Writers Conference

A few days before the conference, as I went through my magazine files, I found an old copy of Might. Might was a magazine Dave Eggers edited in San Francisco in the early ’90s, and in this particular issue, he sold every space in the magazine to advertisers, from the front cover to the masthead. Every article had a corporate sponsor that made it possible, and it told you, down by the byline. It was magazine genius and also satire, and it made money. It was like a joke that tells you your future.

I remembered it made everyone a little nervous and then they went and bought it.

I find I keep thinking about it, during the conference. I wonder if Dave Eggers ever thinks of doing this again, now that McSweeney’s is having money trouble.

——————————————-

After listening to the editors last night tell us about the difficulties of selling a book, today we listen to writers.

We go to the lunch conversation between Myla Goldberg, the author of Bee Season, and Amanda Stern, the author of The Long Haul and sit in the very back row. Amanda Stern is an old friend of mine from The Writers Room, which she and I used to sometimes call the Talkers Room, because of how everyone would procrastinate in the kitchen, having conversations. When I met her, her novel was unpublished, she was doing Ashtanga yoga at her brother’s studio, and had not yet gone off with Cirque du Soleil.

This public conversation with Myla Goldberg is on the 5th floor of the New School, in a large glass-walled room, and feels to me like an outgrowth of the Talkers Room—as if the Writers Room kitchen had expanded somehow and moved through time and space. All of the attendees have cardboard box lunches and sit in the rows of plastic and metal chairs. I realize I’ve taken a chicken salad sandwich that is room temperature–never a good sign. But I’m hungry and I feel guilty about taking another box, so I eat it. I pretend the mayo will be fine and then it is.

Up front, Amanda is taking Myla through her life. Myla is a writer’s writer, and when Amanda asks her about the beginning of her career, about when she first really started to try to be a writer, Myla responds, I always wanted to be a writer and have been trying to be a writer as long as I can remember. I don’t know what you mean.

Amanda looks out at us with a grin and presses forward. When did you start really trying to make money from it, though, Amanda asks, smiling with love for Myla. Trying to get a story out of her.

Myla recounts how she first went to Prague after college when it was cheap and she could live there for 200, 300 a month while she taught English. This is what she calls her Struggling Writer rule number 1: live somewhere where you can work just a little and write a lot. I experience the sharp awareness that this is less possible right now for my students, except perhaps in Dubrovnik—all countries on the Euro are off-limits for this sort of experience now, and Prague, while still cheap, is not as cheap as it was. She spent a year there among the other struggling writers and artists also doing this, and says in some ways it was her MFA. They met and traded work and encouraged each other. She wrote a novel there that she didn’t get published, though it did get her an agent. She then moved to New York, where she spent a year trying to do normal jobs, which she assures us are not possible for writers. She was glad she learned she couldn’t have a normal job.

This leads her to another Struggling Writer Rule: You’re a freak, she says. You can’t have a normal job. We laugh. Some of us know this and others are surprised to discover they know this.

She doesn’t feel it was a mistake her first novel wasn’t published, and she feels fine about it. I would feel weird, she says, when someone asks if she would publish it now. I basically want my next novel to always be something that represents me as I am working at my most recent.

Myla describes how grateful she is at each point in the process: grateful to have an agent submitting her first novel, grateful to have the time and inclination to write a second, grateful to have the second sell, and then become an enormous commercial literary hit. She didn’t mind the rejections, she says, because she felt lucky to have an agent. When the book sold, she felt lucky to sell the book. She tells us how she didn’t have to do much to market her book because her house did it. They marketed it successfully.

In the audience, we quietly marvel at this, after the events of the night before.

Amanda jokes about her small advance, typical for independent publishers, and how more commonly there is no money to market books. She describes some of the ways she created attention: a contest on her website to get someone to drive her across country on her tour, which she set up herself, was picked up by Publisher’s Weekly. From 45 contestants she then chose a winner who did in fact drive her on the tour she set up herself. My experience is very different, she says.

Amanda is the queen of the nontraditional do-it-yourself marketing campaign. She runs one of the hottest reading series in New York, The Happy Ending. Each reader has to perform one public risk in addition to reading from their work, and their books are sold on-site. She could train new publicists. I remember how I saw her book for sale in the Drake Hotel, in Toronto, in a glass case in the lobby, the only book on sale there. I remember getting an email from her about a designer throwing her a party for the book out in the Hamptons.She admits she feels she sold her personality at her readings, and isn’t sure how many books she’s sold, and that she doesnt’ want to know. Too often for her taste, she finds, all this self-sales makes her tired when she sits down to write.

It’s hard to imagine her tired. Amanda Stern is one of the most vitally alive people I know. Her hair is palamino gold and her clothes are impeccable. But I know what she means. There’s a displacement that’s occurred, where somewhere, someone doesn’t want to do what they once did in this process. The editors at the conference assure us they read at night and on weekends, as they spend their office hours being interrupted by email and phone calls, which they don’t like, and which means they get very little editing done during the bulk of their work week. The editors have to sell us, where before they had to edit us–and then we have to sell us, where before someone else sold us. We have to blog, we have to go to bookclub meetings, we have to go on tours we often organize ourselves, we have to send and return emails and instead of writing during the day we are often interrupted by calls and emails also. Who is calling and emailing? Who needs us so much to write back that we can’t write? And there, so far, no one to write for us yet.

And everything that goes wrong, if it goes wrong, lands at the author’s feet. Even though we wrote the book and thus did the first thing of what we were supposed to do. The only thing we know how to do well.

Things are not going well, it seems to me, because everyone is being asked to operate outside their specialty. I don’t know where this initial displacement has occurred, though. Worse, because we are a profit-driven operation, book publishing, that is trying to sell things with very little marketing, I try to think if there’s any other profit-driven industry that would try to sell things with no advertising for most of their products, and then be upset when nothing sold well.

In the audience, I wonder if soon MFA programs, will teach you how to market yourself. If there will be an admissions test, like the GRE. The MRE, for self-marketing. Will we eventually see only the literature of people who know how to sell themselves, I wonder.

Myla is now talking about her film deal, and the way she perhaps should have made more of the teaching offered her at the time, but how she feels fine about where she is now with her life and career. She has a child who cries a little from the back of the room. At one point she tells Jay Nicorvo, one of the conference organizers, who is watching her baby for her, to use the bottle, which is endearing. By the end she has basically outlined a career founded in gratitude.

We leave. We’re shopping. Steve, one of my students, needs a jacket for the reading at the National Arts Club. We go to Starstruck in the West Village, a place I used to go to to get waiter shirts sometimes when I was headed to work and didn’t have a clean shirt. We find a perfectly fitted slim blazer that makes Steve look very sophisticated. He buys it, along with a slim black tie. We go back and change and then meet again at the Old Town, where I’m meeting my friend Meakin Armstrong. We all order burgers before we go over in the rain, cold and wet, to the National Arts Club, where we find the place full to capacity. The night’s readers are Joshua Furst, Luis Jaramillo, Rebecca Curtis and Porochista Khakpour. A man at the door asks us where we’re going, and when we mention the reading, he directs us to the basement. There I check my bag and scarf and immediately see my old friends Dale Peck and Lisa Dierbeck. Tao Lin is also there, and then Porochista arrives, with her fashion designer boyfriend, Bryan. She looks immaculate. Her makeup is perfection, as is her black wool dress, made for her by her boyfriend. Josh looks like a young man who wore a tie for the dress code, a little, which is what I’m also doing, and we smile at each other in understanding. Stephen and Anna go and save seats near the front, and I get caught up with my friends. I introduce Porochista to Dale and Lisa, and it turns out they have a friend in common.

I see Fran Gordon, the organizer of the series, and we hug. She’s trying to find Rebecca Curtis but can’t. No one has ever seen her in person, of the people there, except me, at a party in the spring, and I don’t see her.

The reading begins. Luis reads a hilarious excerpt from a story, Porochista reads a mesmerizing description of insomnia and then a sex dream from her novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Josh reads from his novel The Sabotage Cafe, an excerpt describing an affair between restaurant staff that includes sex in an inflatable kiddie pool on the roof of a building. Rebecca Curtis has arrived by intermission, and she reads from a notebook, but she begins it as if it’s really her, telling us a story about her (it isn’t) and the illusion’s amazing. I am introduced to Wah-Ming Chang, a writer who is Fran’s cohort in the organizing of the series, and she turns out to be someone who received a NYFA the year I was a judge. My memory of her manuscript turns into the image of her standing in front of me.

Afterward we all go to the Old Town again, for beers. My students, Steve and Anna, head out on their own at around midnight and I stay with Josh and Porochista until 2AM. Josh wants to drink whiskey and I feel like he should be indulged.

The writers at the reading were a lot happier than the writers at the conference, Steve says, the next day.

Yes, I say. They were. That was the fun part.

Coming up next: Part 3, in which I go to the litblogs panel.

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4 thoughts on “The Joke That Tells You Your Future: Day 2 of the Literary Writers Conference

  1. lance reynald says:

    with this. today. you made me cry.

    one of these days I’ll write the story of my early days here in Portland. Perhaps one of those places a writer can get by on the cheap and find some stories. There are some stories in this loneliness of being out here all alone, knowing so few here, none that I would consider deep enough in my heart to rely upon. A few characters that certainly aren’t worthy of getting there, a few kind strangers…

    but, essentially alone. All those dear gone or far away.

    and a great friend, dear and far, writes a beautiful post that makes me cry in the beauty of it’s message…

    not so alone.

    confident. courageous. fearless. happy. at home.

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