Salvatore Pane

Tag: Tom Bailey

Flashback Monday II: The Single Worst Personal Statement in the History of MFA Applications

It’s an absolute miracle I got in anywhere. Abandon all hope.

Sal Pane

Personal Statement Final Draft

10/26/06

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

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Personal Statement Final Draft

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

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Cash, Money, Hoes: BABY BOY’S GOT TO EAT!

A couple of great posts on The Rumpus recently focused on something near and dear to my heart: writers getting paid. Elissa Bassist–whose amazing exit interview with her boyfriend has to be read to be believed–quotes the writer Elaine Showalter who wrote:

I told… all my graduate students, ‘Learn to write so well that you can be paid for it, rather than so badly that someone has to be paid to read your work.’ Many graduate students in English deliberately make their writing so obscure and pedantic that it is unreadable. But actually getting paid as a freelance journalist demands hard work and luck, as you know, and these days the market is tighter than ever.

Elissa then goes on to discuss her decision to self-publish some of her work and implore readers Radiohead style to contribute via paypal. The second Rumpus post to deal with money is a farce about a writer answering fan mail and essentially begging for money or a job. Doesn’t seem too far removed from reality.

Compensation is something I discuss a lot with my MFA pals, but usually that conversation’s about the tiered funding system our program uses. But when I think of getting paid to write (and by write I mean publishing short stories, doing book reviews, blogging for lit websites) is it an absolute travesty for me to say I don’t think we should be getting paid, or at least not very much?

Let me back up. Many will accuse me of  having a privileged opinion, and hey, I come from Scranton. My whole family’s working class, especially my immediate family, and I have enough student debt and scholarship cash to jump start the economy all by myself. So that shouldn’t be a major issue. But something that’s always stuck with me is a scene I witnessed in a workshop at Susquehanna University, where I went to undergrad. A professor of mine, the oft-mentioned Tom Bailey, was leading a workshop of a story about an arty photographer who got really mad that they had to do day jobs. Tom got pretty angry and gave us a speech about how real artists should be willing to sacrifice for their art, that they should even do so happily.

Now I’m not saying that writers are paid 100% fairly. There’s pretty much zero way for any writer to support themselves wholly off of literary writing. But there’s other ways, right? Teaching? Technical Writing? Writing in a different field–be that screenplays or comic books or what have you? And of course, the argument is always that if writers didn’t have to do all that extraneous stuff to feed themselves, they’d be able to produce better art. Maybe. But writing is a privilege and it has to be earned (and guys, don’t forget that Chekhov was a full time doctor and I think he did just fine).

I really applaud what Elissa Bassist is doing–check out her work and donate some money here. She saw something in the system she didn’t like, and she made an attempt to change it. And maybe one day, that will be the new model, and writers will be paid for doing much of the work they now do for free. But in the meantime, I’m absolutely fine with blogging and reviewing for free and making the majority of my income through teaching or other means. But where do you guys all stand on this? Does it burn you up that writers make so little, or do you see it as a necessary sacrifice for your art (because honestly, there’s probably a billion easier ways to make better money than writing literary fiction)?

The Super-Ego: Kanye West vs. The Last Son of Krypton

All contemporary writers are inherently egomaniacs. It takes an ego of unimaginable strength for a person to look at the summation of the written word and think, “Yeah. That’s not good enough. I have something unique, vital and oh so very important to add. Shakespeare? Fuck Shakespeare.” Ego is undeniably a necessary component to the act of, if not writing, then at the very least publishing. If there’s not enough confidence, or even arrogance in the strength and validity of your own work, it’ll probably go unread on your hard drive for all eternity. However, too much ego can quickly become a danger for writers. Three days ago, I posted about novelist Tom Bailey and how he would routinely deliver incredibly harsh critiques to undergrad students, often asking them to pick one great sentence from their drafts and start completely over (meaning new characters, new settings, new plots, new conceits). This pissed off a lot of students and some even changed majors or left the program once they realized the type of rewriting Bailey wanted. And this is where the danger lies. Because although you need to have enough faith in your work to believe it is worthy of existing, worthy of publishing, writers also have to be able to deal with criticism. Otherwise you get explosions like that one time Richard Ford kind of spat on Colson Whitehead over a negative review.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why ego is so necessary to writers, where it comes from, and what other professions it applies to. This is something my novel deals with a lot, so I’ve been wrestling with these issues for awhile now. In the book, one of the central figures is Kanye West. The Kanye of my novel is an odd amalgam of true reports and utterly fictionalized bullshit (for example, there’s a scene where Kanye rides a steel horse into space to eradicate an old folks’ home on Mars). One of the things that first really excited me about Kanye is his blog. I’m not naive enough to believe that Kanye’s the one actually posting music videos, linking to art exhibits, or gushing about the latest sneakers, but every once in awhile, a post shows up that is clearly written by Yeezy himself. For an example, check out this video of South Park mocking Kanye and then Kanye’s real-life response on his blog:

Click Yeezy for video.

SOUTH PARK MURDERED ME LAST NIGHT AND IT’S PRETTY FUNNY. IT HURTS MY FEELINGS BUT WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT FROM SOUTH PARK! I ACTUALLY HAVE BEEN WORKING ON MY EGO THOUGH. HAVING THE CRAZY EGO IS PLAYED OUT AT THIS POINT IN MY LIFE AND CAREER. I USE TO USE IT TO BUILD UP MY ESTEEM WHEN NOBODY BELIEVED IN ME. NOW THAT PEOPLE DO BELIEVE AND SUPPORT MY MUSIC AND PRODUCTS THE BEST RESPONSE IS THANK YOU INSTEAD OF “I TOLD YOU SO!!!” IT’S COOL TO TALK SHIT WHEN YOU’RE RAPPING BUT NOT IN REAL LIFE… I JUST WANNA BE A DOPER PERSON WHICH STARTS WITH ME NOT ALWAYS TELLING PEOPLE HOW DOPE I THINK I AM. I NEED TO JUST GET PAST MYSELF. DROP THE BRAVADO… AS LONG AS PEOPLE THINK I ACT LIKE A BITCH THIS TYPE OF SHIT WILL HAPPEN TO ME. I GOT A LONG ROAD AHEAD OF ME TO MAKE PEOPLE BELIEVE I’M NOT ACTUALLY A HUGE DOUCHE BUT I’M UP FOR THE CHALLENGE… I’M SURE THERE’S GRAMMATICAL ERRORS IN THIS… THAT’S HOW YOU KNOW IT’S ME! (West)

Kanye’s quote might seem ridiculous to some, but I think there’s something very true and undeniably human about it that makes it worth examining. If anything, West is completely self-aware. He realizes quite accurately that his hyperbole and hyper-ego (the one that first allowed him to attempt to create something and show it in a public venue) originated in his vague, adolescent insecurities. His ego began as a way to boost his self-esteem, but in the wake of rampant success, grew completely out of control. There’s something about this admission that’s always struck me. Ego and insecurities. Are these two warring sensibilities necessary for all writers? Maybe even all “performers”? And if that’s the case, then aren’t we all performers? And are the dangers in overplaying one’s ego that are specific to writers?

These are all issues I’m still grappling with and definitely ones I plan on tackling in future work. My thoughts on the subject (much like this blog post) are kind of scrambled and inconclusive. All I can really add to the subject is this: a week ago, my mother asked me how I was doing. I’d been having a rough go of it (she knew this) and instead of answering her outright and explaining why I now felt so much better about the world, I told her a story. Because I really do believe that stories are how people make sense of reality. I reminded her that after Superman died in his climatic early-nineties throwdown with emotionless super alien Doomsday, the body of Clark Kent/Kal-El was placed inside of a magical regeneration chamber hidden away in the Fortress of Solitude that massaged him back to life with wondrous rays of sunshine imported from the planet Krypton. I told my mother that my ego had the same effect; it comforts, empowers and renews. Kryptonite is on one hand Superman’s greatest weakness, but on the other, it is the wellspring which makes all things possible. For without his Kryptonian lineage, what is Superman other than a disturbed individual who wears his underwear outside of his pants? My mother said, “That’s nice, dear.” That’s probably the best I can expect.

I wish more people understood how much of a self-serving asshole Superman really is.

Tom Bailey and the Perfect Writing Pedagogy: In Which I Discuss Abortions, Rilo Kiley and Jar Jar Binks

I attended my first workshop eight years ago (eight years! how did this happen?). We sat around a conference table in the basement of an academic building, the type from a trillion frat movies, all brick with ivy growing up and down the sides. And in came this man wearing denim, cowboy boots, and sporting the type of facial hair that could frighten Tom Selleck. The guy sat down, didn’t say a word of introduction, and opened up an anthology he edited (on the cover is a picture of him scowling alongside portraits of JCO, Hemingway, Dubus and others). He cleared his throat, said, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” and read us the entirety of John Updike’s A&P.

Needless to say, my friends and I all lived in worship of this man, novelist Tom Bailey, a southern good old boy who openly told us, “I’m not interested in experimentation. My reading list’s mostly dead white men.” And we all hurried home after that first class and poured our hearts out into Microsoft Word, producing lackluster, predictable stories about break ups, losing your virginity, the death of a grandparent, or whatever other bullshit teenagers come up with (my story was about how much the Catholic Church blows and how awesome Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is; so in some respects, my unfortunate themes haven’t changed much over the years).

But then a funny thing happened over the course of that first semester: people started talking shit about Bailey behind his back. I couldn’t understand. We read the man’s stories, and it was obvious he had chops. But more importantly he had swagger. He was a living illustration of what we all wanted to become, a real life writer we could imitate. If he did it, so could we. Right?

(Check out this creepy video where Tom Bailey cries and a younger, more vulnerable Sal gives a reading in a Rilo Kiley t-shirt and awkward sports jacket.)

I didn’t figure out why all my friends got so sick of Bailey all of the sudden until I was about to go up for workshop. I printed out my masterpiece about the anointing of the May Queen and a twelve-year-old obsessed with Playstation and left it in Tom’s mailbox. A day or two later I went to talk with him about it. His office was lined with books, most of which I had never heard of (up until that point, I’d only read comic books, sci-fi, and the respective catalogs of J.D Salinger and Chuck Palahniuk).

Tom told me that he really liked one specific line (it took me awhile to track it down, but it’s “The nuns were supposed to pick the purest girl in the school, but they didn’t want any trouble, so they decided to pick a name out of a hat.”). I nodded, took notes in my little notebook and asked him about the rest of the story. He said he didn’t like it and thought I should cut it (all 22 pages) and start again with that line. He handed me a book by Breece D’J Pancake (a writer who blew his brains out in graduate school; great encouragement, Tom) and told me to get cracking.

I’m bringing this up because (years later) now that I’ve finished grad school and eight continuous years of workshops, I’m trying to figure out what kind of criticism I got the most out of. I remember how so many of my fellow students in Bailey’s class were completely shut down by his tell it like it is method which is designed to teach you the value in cutting your work and never being attached to anything you write. And that skill’s proven absolutely invaluable to me (especially in ’08 when I threw away a completed novel I now refer to as The Abortion). But some writers are absolutely crushed by this level of criticism.

This is a CGI representation of what my first attempt at a novel was like.

Justin Taylor recently posted a critique he received from an undergrad poetry teacher. To me, it seemed perfectly in line with something a writer might say to an undergrad. But in the comments section, people were split on whether the commentary was actually helpful or just cliche-ridden and destructive. I have to admit, this kind of reaction always surprises me.  Are writers so thin skinned that honest criticism is too much for them to deal with? And if so, is this really what they want to be doing with their lives? Submitting to hundreds of journals only to get a handful of acceptances? Because, let’s be honest, any criticism in the real world is inevitably a trillion times harsher than what people receive in workshop.

There’s something to be said for the, “This is good; keep going” route of writing pedagogy. But I think it’s more appropriate when workshopping novels than short stories. If someone writes a flawed short story, isn’t it the duty of instructors and fellow workshop students to make the author aware of said flaws and point out potential solutions? On the flip side, I’ve seen writers a third of the way into a promising novel put up a first chapter and become completely debilitated by the laundry list of suggestions.

After sixteen workshops, I’ve gone through a lot of feedback. And what I remember most are the harsh critiques, the honest critiques. Those made me a better writer. What I never remember is the false flattery, the praise, and all the unearned bullshit writers sometimes feel compelled to give apprentices. Case in point, a few years back when I was really wrestling with The Abortion (the aforementioned novel, not a reincarnated Chuck Palahniuk creation), Cathy Day took me aside and gently (maybe not in so many words) told me I should put it away for awhile. At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear this and sulked for a few days, but the key here (just like in the Bailey example where he plucked out a new first line from the wreckage) was that Cathy gave me something to build on. I was spending a lot of time back then creating Facebook photo albums with long, elaborate captions that went on for entire paragraphs. And Cathy told me how much she liked that voice and how little she saw of it in my novel writing. Why not write in that voice?

Well why not? So I aborted The Abortion and began writing something completely different, all the while imagining myself captioning pictures on Facebook. Is that an absolutely bizarre method? Yes. But it worked for me, and Cathy helped me find that. She didn’t worry about my feelings. Just like Tom and a gazillion other amazing mentors I’ve had, they were honest. They weren’t afraid to tell me something I wrote was terrible.

Success in the Digital Age

One of the many perennial essays that gets handed out to would-be writers is Ted Solotarff’s “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years”. It’s a harsh look at what even talented apprentice writers have to endure: toiling away in obscurity clinging to the desperate hope that their stories will get published (with no payment) in some small, yet respected, journal. That maybe one day if they work hard enough, and they’re lucky enough, that some agent will contact them, ready to take a risk. And above all, they have to hope that their writing is worth a damn, that when the call comes they’ll have something substantial to show even when a million voices (internal and external) tell the writer to give up, that they are of inferior stock, garbage, an abomination.

Writers have been rethinking this essay ever since Solotarff’s death back in 2008. In the LA Times, Dani Shapiro grappled with the essay and how the publishing industry has undergone a sea change since its original publication back in the early ’80’s. Shapiro writes:

The creative writing industry of the mid-1980s now seems like a few mom-and-pop shops scattered on a highway lined with strip malls and mega-stores. Today’s young writers don’t peruse the dusty shelves of previous generations. Instead, they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller — and did. The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn’t reward persistence, that doesn’t see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn’t trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: “So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?” The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry — always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media — has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.(Shapiro)

There’s a lot of mine fields to be navigated here, the chief of which in my mind is Shapiro’s complete disregard of the literary brat pack of the 1980’s. Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, these were writers who seemingly appeared overnight with novel publications in their early twenties. I still remember a mentor of mine, Tom Bailey, discussing in class how he read Less Than Zero when it came out and seethed with jealousy and rage for weeks on end. Writers getting published at a young age doesn’t seem like a particularly new aspect of the literary industry, and in fact, seems to happen less and less because the major publishers can no longer spend the time developing a writer. If Andre Dubus emerged today with The Lieutenant, you can almost be sure he wouldn’t have gone on to become the celebrated master he’s seen as now. He would’ve been dropped from the majors into the world of the University Presses or be permanently saddled as a mid list writer (as an aside, check out this great article in Kirkus Reviews about the plight of the mid lister).

What I do find to be of particular interest in Shapiro’s essay is her speculation that this latest generation of writers is fundamentally different from those who came before. I’ll leave that one to the historians, but it may be relevant to take a look at some of the premiere literary upstarts of the last few years. Many of these journals (I’m talking smaller places like The Collagist, New York Tyrant, Annalemma, Dogzplot, etc. etc.) seem to have become the new training grounds for young writers. These journals publish work from established writers, but their stable of contributors is mostly comprised of the up-and-comers. And with comments enabled on the online stories, these writers are building communities and networks that are bubbling over and just beginning to get notice from the New York majors. Perhaps this is the writing in the cold Shapiro thinks is missing from the current literary community. It’s just not being done in places like The New England Review, it’s happening in online upstarts independent from the university.

However, there’s one more element crucial to this issue. Has the  definition of what success means for a writer changed in the ensuing years between “Writing in the Cold” and today? Joe Coscarelli recently wrote this piece in Gawker. Coscarelli writes:

Aspiring novelists are archaic. I know this because in four years of higher education, no one ever offered to show me a manuscript, but I’ve seen more blogs than bongs. The bearded, bespectacled Pavement fans… are unemployed or out of touch. Or dead. No one in their early twenties wants to be a music journalist—that would be absurd. These English majors want to be some super genius bloggers. (Coscarelli)

He goes onto discuss how that in a world obsessed with fame, those souls who in any other time would be drawn to the method of cultural production that is the modern novel (or even the music journalism of the 1990’s) are now obsessed with becoming bloggers or nebulous media personalities. Coscarelli thinks that our priorities have shifted, and on that account, I don’t think many people can argue. What is success for writers in the digital age? Is it publishing a book of stories with a small Midwestern press that only a sliver of the public will actually read, or is it maintaining a popular blog with a loyal readership in the upper-thousands (or maybe success means being Maud Newton who has an awesome blog AND a forthcoming novel)? I can’t really say, but what I take comfort in is that for some of us, the definition of writerly success is the same as it’s always been: publishing a superior novel of critical acclaim. Just look at the aforementioned literary journals and the Rise of the MFA Program. There are more people writing than ever before, and this is cause for celebration (even if the reading public is dwindling by the day).

Salvatore Pane’s Guide to AWP

Believe it or not, AWP is less than two months away. Hosted in Denver from April 7th through the 10th, this year’s conference promises to have its share of swoon-inducing moments for the literary inclined (seriously, George Saungers and Etgar Keret are reading at the same event. THE SAME EVENT). But you should take it from me, a past AWP attendee, and really try to not waste your time at the conference if it’s your virgin trial. With that in mind, I present to you my own personal guide on the 2010 AWP Conference.

1. AWP Is Not (even though it kind of is) a Party

This was my experience at AWP last year. I drove eight hours from Pittsburgh to Chicago in a car with three lovable lunatics. I arrived. I marveled at so many people interested in literature gathered together in one place. Then I proceeded to drink for 72 hours. Sure, I saw Don Lee and Dan Chaon in a bar. And Pitt prof Irina Reyn introduced a few of my friends to one of the friendly people over at BOMB who eventually got me my book reviewing (non-paying) gig. I also had the utmost pleasure of seeing Charles Baxter and Stuart Dybek read back-to-back.

But for the most part I partied. I didn’t go out of my way to network, and for the most part, I drank with the three friends I drove with or old pals from college who I hadn’t seen in a while. Sometimes I even drank with other Pitt MFAers who I see on a regular basis. And on the final night, I completely avoided AWP and drank my way through Rigleyville. The bottom line here is that AWP is a social event. There’s a lot of coffee and booze. And a lot of writers, agents and editors to meet. You should enjoy yourself. You should have a good time. But don’t let AWP turn into an all-out vacation, a mistake I made in Chicago. If you want to take a trip with your buddies, take it. If you want to meet some people who could point you in the right path career-wise, then get a little more serious.

Don't spend the entire conference boozin' with this guy miles away from the convention.

2. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!

Since I’d never been to AWP before last year, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t realize there would be so many panels, and I had no idea the conference was frequented by so many writers, editors and agents. And the literary journals! So many literary journals. Tables and tables of them for as far as the eye could see.

So I dabbled without accomplishing much of anything at all.  I saw a panel on applying to fellowships which has been invaluable this last year and I got that BOMB reviewer job while purchasing a ton of lit mags. It’s clear now that I could have done a lot more in 72 hours had I simply arrived with a plan. That will not be the case in Denver. I’ve already decided which panels to attend and what my two major goals are. A) Find more outlets for book reviews, and B) An agent approached me about my work last week, so I guess it’s time to begin that type of search. Figure out why you’re going to AWP and accomplish you goals. That may seem like obvious advice, but it’ll feel a lot less obvious when you arrive and are distracted by ten-million things that  seem equally interesting all happening at the exact same time.

3. General Pointers

A couple minor, yet helpful, points. Make sure you head into the book fair on the last day of the conference. There will be a ton of lit mags there and the staffs probably don’t want to pay to ship unsold issues back to wherever it is they came from. That means journals will sold with a heavy, heavy discount. Be on the lookout for major deals. I picked up nearly 20 different magazines for $25 last year on the final day.

Don’t feel like you have to stay at the same hotel where the conference is happening. The AWP hotel is going to be utter madness and pretty expensive. Shoot for one even two blocks away and you’ll have already saved major money before you even arrive.

Head to the conference hotel bar at night. As I learned last year, the major parties are behind closed doors within the hotel itself, but you’ll find a lot of interesting people in the main hotel bar if you wander in after ten. That’s where I met Dan Chaon, Don Lee and the BOMB editor last year.

Do not go to the nightly AWP Dance Party. It's a nexus to hell.

4. OHMIGAWD THE PANELS!

Below, I’ve assembled all the panels I’ve seriously considered attending this year along with commentary in red (Unfortunately: I’ll only be at AWP Wednesday through Saturday morning this year so you’re on your own concerning the last day). Read at your own discretion.

THURSDAY

9-10:15am

Room 111
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R109. Play Ball!: The Language of Sports. (Michael Garriga, William Giraldi, Michael Griffith, Cathy Day, Andrew Ervin) Our national pastimes have the unique ability to transcend lines that normally close off other avenues: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Jackie Robinson, Nadia Comaneci, Muhammed Ali, Tonya Harding, and Michael Vick have all been touchstones for greater discussions on our society, bringing together speakers and opinions from different demographics. This panel examines the use of sports in fiction, and how it can be utilized for a larger purpose while speaking a common language.

Cathy Day has been a mentor to me for the last three years. Check out her panel!

Room 108
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R106. Reading, Writing, and Teaching the Literary Fantastic. (Sarah Stone, Joan Silber, Melissa Pritchard, Doug Dorst, Sylvia Brownrigg) We’ll explore how fabulous or numinous fiction can be meaningful and believable: from completely alternate worlds to literary ghost stories to essentially realist stories that depict characters’ beliefs about the supernatural. We’ll consider great examples and describe ways for writers and their students to unlock their own inventions and move beyond genre cliches. The panel will include handouts with reading lists and writing exercises.

Sounds pretty interesting for those of us immersed in pedagogy and wackiness.

Room 203
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R113. Grants, Proposals, and Queries: How to Write about your Writing. (H.M. Bouwman, Swati Avasthi, J.C. Hallman, Matt Rasmussen) Writers spend a lot of time on the craft of writing but sometimes not enough on the craft of presentation. Presenting what you write about in short forms is a special skill set that you can develop and hone. This panel (composed of writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) will discuss how to summarize your work and make it stand out in this tight economy by incorporating a sense of voice and purpose into grant applications, book proposals, and queries.

Very interested in this as it’s always seemed so odd to me that writers spend years and years preparing themselves for a novel, memoir, or poetry collection but virtually no time working on the letter that could get them in the door.

Room 303
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R118. The In Sound from Way Out: Submission to Publication. (M. Bartley Seigel, Margaret Bashaar, Aaron Burch, James Grinwis, Jennifer Pieroni, Roxane Gay) Editors from five eclectic little magazines—Bateau, Hobart, PANK, Quick Fiction, and Weave—unpack their editorial projects and processes, quirks and anomalies, across genres, and invite questions to initiate dialogue among panel and audience members.

Great advice here for writers just starting out on the journal submission route. There’s a lot of these types of panels at AWP, but this one has Jennifer Pieroni, who picked one of my pieces for Quick Fiction, and Weave Editor Maragaret Bashaar from Typewriter Girls, a cool group that does literary events around Pittsburgh.

12:00-1:15pm

Room 110
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R153. Going Long: The Long Short Story. (Jill Meyers, Josh Weil, Suzanne Rivecca, Karen Brown, Christie Hodgen) The long short story is a literary form revered but not often published. It offers a generous scope and a larger world for readers; for writers, an opportunity to get messy. Four skillful practitioners of the form gather to read from their works and to discuss the form’s challenges and rewards. What happens when you write beyond the ending?

I’ve been working on a novella in the early stages for a little over a month now. Starting to wonder about what options I’ll have in terms of sending it out into the world. Hope this will address that very issue.

Room 203
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R156. A Pen Behind Your Ear: Gathering, Editing, Publishing, Marketing, and Promoting an Anthology. (Andrea Hollander Budy, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Kurt Brown, Camille Dungy, Michael Martone) Five editors of recent anthologies will discuss all aspects of creating an anthology, including making selections, locating and working with a publisher, obtaining permissions to reprint previously published material, working with designers, and attracting readers. As the panelists are also writers themselves, they will also discuss the pleasures and challenges of editing an anthology while trying to maintain their writing lives.

Two things: 1) Who doesn’t want to edit an anthology? and 2) MICHAEL MARTONE!

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R163. What’s Your Platform? What Agents & Editors Are Looking For in Writers. (Christina Katz, Jane Friedman, Robin Mizell, David W. Sanders, Sage Cohen) Yes, the quality of your writing still matters. But becoming visible and influential is more crucial to landing a book deal than ever, according to agents and editors in every facet of the publishing industry. Aspiring authors need to develop a platform in order to get noticed. Fortunately for emerging writers in all genres, there are more affordable, accessible tools available for platform-development and building, which make this important responsibility a pleasure and not a chore.

This is one of the worst hours of AWP because it’s so jam-packed with stuff. Any of these three panels sound amazing, yet there’s nothing I’m super pumped about at the 10 o’ clock hour. Such overwhelming sadness!

1:30-2:45pm

Room 112
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R177. Following the Paths to Publication: First Books and What Happens Next. (Dan Wickett, Seth Harwood, Anis Shivani, Shawna Yang Ryan, Lowell Mick White) The first book is an important, joyous event in the life of any writer. Yet the process of achieving the first book is rapidly changing, largely through accelerated technologies and increasingly fractured demographics. How can writers successfully react to these changes? What constitutes ultimate success? On this panel, five debut authors will discuss their varied paths to publication, the impact the book has had on their lives, and the larger implications of change in publishing practices.

As you may, or may not, know: I’ve been working on this novel. I have a second draft, and I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s time to start thinking about the next step.

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R186. Ecotone 5th Anniversary Reading. (Ben George, Robert Wrigley, Benjamin Percy, Kathryn Miles, Cary Holladay, Reg Saner) Ecotone, the award-winning semiannual magazine published at UNC Wilmington, celebrates its 5th anniversary in 2010. In its short life, the magazine has already had its work reprinted in several annuals of the Best American series and in the Pushcart Press anthology, among others. Ecotone seeks to bring together the literary and the scientific, the personal and the biological, the urban and the rural. Please join us for a reading by six of our outstanding and widely acclaimed contributors.

BENJAMIN PERCY! I saw this guy read at Gist Street back in 2007/2008, and he was ridiculous. His voice is just like the guy who does movie trailers. Also, he made fun of my current roommate for drinking a highball I ordered him. Recommended. Oh, and Ecotone is a pretty sweet journal as well.

3-4:15pm

Room 205
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R203. That’s Private!—Using Personal Details About Others’ Lives in Fiction. (Steven Schwartz, Antonya Nelson, Ann Cummins, Sylvia Brownrigg) The measure of nonfiction is how closely one adheres to the truth; the measure of fiction is how much one changes it. But what happens when a writer finds it necessary to include the exact details of someone else’s life? The panel’s four writers will chart their relationships to the private and public. In a genre that assumes transformation, when, why, and how do writers disguise the truth, and when does the unaltered truth make good fiction?

Not sold on this one, but it could turn out to be really interesting, especially if you’re the type of writer that smashes together fact and fiction.

Room 111
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R200. Just Passing Through: The Pros and Cons of the Visiting Professor Position. (David Ebenbach, Jerry Harp, Kevin Haworth, Stephanie Reents, Brandi Reissenweber, David Wright) Tenure-track jobs in Creative Writing are always in short supply. In our current climate many of us are turning instead to visiting professorships, sometimes moving from one visiting position to the next. What are the advantages of such positions? How can you use them to help your writing and your employment prospects? What are the downsides? The panelists, current or former visiting professors, offer their experiences and advice on how to navigate the world of the visiting professorship.

This could (hopefully) be my future. Better gain some knowledge.

4:30-5:45 p.m.

Room 107

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R219. Literary Laughter: Humor in Fiction Writing. (Teresa Milbrodt, Stephen Powers, E. C. Jarvis, Michael Czyzniejewski) This panel examines humor in our fiction writing and the work of other writers we admire: how we elicit laughter by delving into surreal or bizarre worlds, creating intelligent disjunctures in conversation, or finding moments for literary slapstick. While we explore the function of the comic in these writings, we also ask if humor writing can be taught, or if it is inherent in one’s style or particular way of looking at the world.

Very interested in humor in literary fiction and also whether or not this is a specific aspect of writing that is impossible to teach. Don’t know the names of the panelists but sounds intriguing enough.

8:30-10:00 p.m.

Centennial Ballroom
Hyatt Regency Denver, 3rd Floor

R237. Keynote Address by Michael Chabon, Sponsored by the University of Colorado, Denver. . AWP’s 2010 Keynote Address by Michael Chabon.

Pulitzer winner! Former Pitt grad! Friend of Chuck Kinder! You better believe I’m going to this one.

FRIDAY

9-10:15am
Room 203
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F112. University of Arizona MFA Alumni Reading. (Aurelie Sheehan, Robert Boswell, Gregory Martin, Kristi Maxwell, Richard Siken, Padma Viswanathan) The University of Arizona MFA Program celebrates its 35th year with an alumni reading featuring work of fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. Come hear some of the many exceptional and groundbreaking authors who spent their earliest days reading, writing, and pondering craft in Tucson, a literary oasis in the Sonoran Desert.

I am a huge fan of Robert Boswell. “The Darkness of Love” is one of the very first short stories I fell in love with, and two of his novels, Crooked Hearts and Century’s Son, are among my absolute favorites. If you’re a Boswell virgin, then attend this. If you know him, you’re already going.

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F119. The Place of Place: Crafting Place as Character in Fiction. (Sejal Shah, Margaret Lazarus Dean, Geeta Kothari, Michael Byers, Jesmyn Ward) It’s a commonplace notion that setting can be so central to fiction that the landscape can become a character—even a central character. But how, in craft terms, does it come to pass that place can inhabit fiction as much as fiction inhabits place? Five fiction writers will discuss their approaches to writing place—both urban and rural—in their works, drawing on settings as diverse as Bombay, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Upstate New York, Cape Canaveral, Washington State, and the American Midwest.

I’ve always been very drawn to setting in fiction and have thought about putting together a panel like this myself. Also, it’s got Geeta Kothari and Michael Byers, both Pitt people.

10:30-11:45 a.m.

Room 110
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F129. The MFA in Academia. (Matt Tullis, Joe Oestreich, Kyle Minor, Emma Bolden, Miroslav Penkov) This panel focuses on first-year experiences of MFA-degree holders holding tenure-track (or comparable) jobs in academia, including finding a job, defending the MFA as schools look for PhDs and generalists, and defending your scholarship in the face of colleagues who may not see it as serious work. It will look at how these attitudes differ greatly from institution to institution, how to move from a visiting to a tenure-track position, and how to carve out writing time amidst a heavy teaching load.

This is something I take pretty seriously: the idea that the “work” of an MFA degree holder is just as valid (if not more so) than the “work” of a PhD graduate. I have a LOT more to say on this subject, but will avoid it for now. Just be aware that this panel exists and deserves serious attention.

Room 111
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F130. Summer Writing Conferences: What they Offer, How to Choose the Best One for You. (James Jordan, Rob Spillman, Wyatt Prunty, Claudia Emerson, Rebecca McClanahan, David Lynn) The director/founders and writer-teachers of the Tin House Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Conference, and The Sewanee Writers’ Conference discuss their workshops, faculty, and culture, informing poets and writers about their communities and educational and networking opportunities, including the application process, craft and guest lectures, workshops, selecting a workshop leader, and scholarships. The panel is moderated by a recent participant of these conferences.

I need to know more about summer conferences. A couple people suggested I attend a few this summer, but Jesus H. Christ are they expensive. I’m planning on attending something by Summer 2011, but going mere weeks after finishing graduate school is just not fiscally responsible for me. Hopefully this panel will help me understand more about the whole topic.

Room 303

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F138. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, & Writers in the Field. (Abby Beckel, Randall Brown, Kim Chinquee, Sherrie Flick, Robert Shapard, Lex Williford) Join five of the twenty-five contributors to this ground-breaking anthology for a roundtable discussion on the history, cross-cultural influences, reemergence, and current practices in the field of flash. These authors also will offer exercises and read examples of stories that will be of use and interest to anyone who writes, teaches, edits, or just generally enjoys the short short form.

Sherrie Flick runs the best reading series I’ve ever been to: Gist Street. And also, I’m a huge fan of flash fiction, and Rose Metal was way ahead of the curve on this shit. This one looks like a highlight, folks.

12-1:15pm

Room 108

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F150. Indie Mags: Publishing Outside of MFA Programs and Other Institutional Support. (J.W. Wang, Aaron Burch, Dave Clapper, Mike Young, Jennifer Flescher, Blake Butler) Independent journals provide an alternative to the established journals affiliated with universities and creative writing programs, and they frequently serve as pioneers in the world of literary publishing. Join editors from Tuesday; An Art Project, Hobart, NOÖ Journal, Juked, Lamination Colony and SmokeLong Quarterly for a roundtable discussion about the workings of independently-published literary journals, what it takes to keep them going, and what these journals mean to potential contributors.

Having served as Editor-in-Chief of an online literary mag with virtually ZERO support from the institution that was supposed to be backing it, this is a definite pet interest of mine, especially in the wake of all the great new online journals that have sprung up seemingly overnight.

Room 110
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F152. An Insurgent Surging: The Case for the Novella Now. (Josh Weil, Michael Knight, Tom Franklin, Cynthia Reeves) This panel will examine the novella as a renegade art form whose time has come. We will discuss the underappreciated rewards the form offers writers, readers, teachers, and publishers. But the focus will be on the craft of writing novellas—challenges, rewards, and the unique approaches that the form—all directed towards answering this question: why is right now the right time to refocus attention on the novella?

*See thoughts above the novella above. Also, Tom Franklin is kind of a badass. I saw him give a personal reading at Tom Bailey’s house a few years back. His collection Poachers is very good.

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F164. The Future of Book Publishing: How Authors Should Navigate the New Market. (Mary Gannon, Dennis Loy Johnson, Jeffrey Shots, Michael Reynolds, Lee Montgomery, Julie Barer) Editors and agents will discuss the changes that have occurred in the practices and policies of literary publishing—from acquiring books, producing them in all of their incarnations, and marketing them. They will also offer timely advice on how authors should best navigate the changing industry and the new market.

*See thoughts about becoming more professional above.

Granite Room
Hyatt Regency Denver, 3rd Floor

F168. Pen, Screen, Action: Digital Storytelling in the Writing Classroom. (Shannon Lakanen, Daniel Weinshenker, Christina Fisanick, Kayann Short) This panel explores the ways writers take creative writing from the page to the screen by incorporating still images, voice over narration, video footage, soundtrack, and nonlinear editing to create digital poetic, narrative, and reflective texts. Panelists will share their experiences teaching digital storytelling in community and college workshops, examples of the work produced in these forums, and the challenges and advantages this multimodal form offers writers and artists.

Shit! I love incorporating digital storytelling into my work and produce a major boner when thinking about using it in the classroom. This one may demand my attention.

1:30-2:45pm

Centennial Ballroom
Hyatt Regency Denver, 3rd Floor

F189. The Southern Review 75th Anniversary Reading. (Jeanne Leiby, David Kirby, Sydney Lea, Steve Almond, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Beth Ann Fennelly) Founded in 1935 by Robert Penn Warren at Louisiana State University, the Southern Review celebrates seventy-five years of publishing the best contemporary fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction by the world’s most accomplished writers.

The Southern Review. Steve Almond. I hope he’s selling his independent chapbook.

3:00 p.m.-4:15 p.m.

Room 108

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F196. From MFA Thesis to First Novel—Five Writers Share Their Stories. (Sheila O’Connor, Geoff Herbach, Nami Mun, Valerie Laken, Patti Frazee, Margaret Lazarus Dean) Is the MFA thesis an end or a beginning? How do we know if our thesis project is a viable book or an early draft that still requires radical revision? For books that need revision, how do writers practice the necessary discipline novels require over the long haul? How do emerging writers secure agents and publishers for that first book? Focusing on the challenges and triumphs of seeing theses projects into print, five first- time novelists will share their diverse writing and publishing experiences.

I’m not even going to bother discussing why I so desperately want to attend this one.

Room 109

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F197. What We Hate: Editorial Dos and Don’ts. (H. Emerson Blake, Katie Dublinski, Andrew Leland, Denise Oswald, Daniel Slager, Rob Spillman) You won’t find this in the FAQ. Get it straight from the source. Six distinguished magazine and book editors speak candidly about what they love and loathe and everything in between. What do editors really want from writers? What do they absolutely not want? If you’re positively sure you know the answers to these questions, then don’t come to this panel featuring editors from The Believer, Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, Orion, Soft Skull Press, and Tin House.

I’ll probably end up picking the MFA Thesis to First Novel panel, but this one will probably be really great for writers just beginning to prep their work for submission.

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.

Room 203
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F222. Plot as Ritual, Not Representation. (Debra Monroe, Antonya Nelson, John Dufresne, Lynne Barrett) A reader approaches a story expecting what Iris Murdoch called the consolations of form: concordance, development, characters who matter, a past which applies, and an ending which changes our perspective on the beginning and middle. Plot is not an imitation of life’s details as much as an antidote to the random way we experience life’s details. The writer can find tension between details and use it to forge a plot that’s resonant and yet startlingly new. Plot generates, not stifles, a story’s content.

Antonya Nelson? ANTONYA NELSON! If I can see both her and her husband (the aforementioned Boswell), my life will be complete.

Room 304

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F228. This Story Based on Actual Events. (Jotham Burrello, Randall Albers, Maggie Kast, Sharon Solwitz) At the end of the movie, Europa, Europa, color gives way to documentary black and white, and it hits us: this fiction is based on reality. Does this matter? Does reality affect the reader’s belief in the story? Every fiction creates what Umberto Eco calls its small world, the part of reality needed for its telling. How do fact and fiction mesh in stories with an element of real time or place? Four writers of reality-based fiction discuss this interaction in their works and the works of others.

I kind of just picked this one because I like the movie Europa, Europa. Dark horse panel!

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F229. Navigating Chaotic Changes in Literary Magazine Publishing. (Melanie Moore, Maribeth Batcha, Carolyn Kuebler, William Pierce, Stephanie G’Schwind) Join publishers and editors from American Short Fiction, One Story, AGNI, Colorado Review, and the New England Review for a discussion of the opportunities and challenges in the current “publishing crisis.” As more readers come to expect free content on the internet, how can literary publishers continue to pay writers, sustain their operations, and build their audiences? As paradigms shift, learn how these magazines are adapting their business models and their magazines to succeed.

That is one helluva lineup of journal editors. THIS is the big lit journal panel of the conference. If you go to one, make it this one.

8:30-10:00pm

Centennial Ballroom
Hyatt Regency Denver, 3rd Floor

F234. A Reading by George Saunders & Etgar Keret, Sponsored by Wilkes University Low Residency MA/MFA Program in Creative Writing in association with Blue Flower Arts. A Reading by George Saunders & Etgar Keret.

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT!?!?!?! Saunders!!!! Keret!!!! AT THE SAME EVENT! I can’t even take this I’m so fucking happy. I didn’t think anything would top the Charles Baxter/Stuart Dybek double-punch from last year, and now they call up George Saunders! Well-played, AWP, well-played indeed.