August 7, 2014
Richard Bausch kicked off the 2014 VQR Writers’ Conference with a sermon of sorts. After an anecdotal introduction by VQR publisher Jon Parrish Peede, Bausch (in a fishing hat and standing opposite his twin brother sitting in the first row in a Washington Nationals cap) told us he hadn’t prepared anything to say. But as the best preachers are wont to do, Bausch showed that he didn’t need any written notes before him. He launched into a recitation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and focused on Shakespeare’s line, “A local habitation and a name.” Bausch’s performance, which also included his recitation of James Dickey’s “For the Last Wolverine” (“Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate / To the death in the rotten branches”) gracefully played a note of the conference’s theme, Southern literature, and he left the stage with a befitting segue into Beth Ann Fennelly’s verse. “Open your hymnals now to page 11,” Bausch joked.
Continuing the practice of recitation from memory, Fennelly performed three of her poems in front of attentive attendees. And when I write “performed,” I mean it. She commented that she wrote the first poem, “I Would Like to Go Back as I Am, Now, to You as You Were, Then—,” as an exploration of who her husband, writer Tom Franklin, was before she met him in graduate school at the University of Arkansas, and her delivery made it seem as if she were whispering to Franklin sitting in the first row while we were merely eavesdropping. “I would go back as I am, now, bend over your ribs, / lift the damp V of your pajamas and blow on your neck.”
The two artists’ then lovingly put their relationship on display as we gushed over their tag-teamed reading of The Tilted World: A Novel, a collaborative project released in October of 2013, and their back-and-forth casual banter when answering questions from conference attendees. The couple described the process they used to draft the work (Franklin playfully admitted that his wife wrote approximately 75 percent of the novel, and they worked in a shed where their “knees touched”), and Fennelly told us why the novel took four years instead of the planned twelve months (their third child, Nolan, was born during the book’s drafting).
After Fennelly and Franklin’s intimate storytellings, conference attendees, faculty members, panelists, and organizers ventured “deeper into the night” (Peede’s words from his conference introduction) to join one another for dinner and drinks around Charlottesville.
August 8, 2014
Something to Celebrate
The inaugural Virginia Quarterly Review Writers’ Conference kicked off Thursday evening in the lush hills of Charlottesville, Virginia. In his opening remarks, author Richard Bausch urged writers to “remember that any time you sit down to write you are taking part in that amazing miracle—and then it stops being something to be anxious about, and starts being something to celebrate.”
The celebratory tone continued throughout the night with lively readings by Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin (wife-husband writing team of the acclaimed novel The Tilted World), and introductory comments from VQR publisher Jon Parrish Peede, who summoned Robert Frost and Eudora Welty in expressing his hope that conference participants would “see deeper into literature and craft.”
The fiction workshops, beginning on Friday, accomplished just that. Throughout the morning and afternoon sessions, Bausch peppered his discussion of participants’ stories with craft lessons, humorous anecdotes, and advice about persevering through numerous drafts. “You can’t screw it up. There is no fatal mistake you can make.” Bausch emphasized compelling rather than likable characters, the importance of trouble, and the real nature of tension–that which the reader knows and characters don’t.
With the rapid changes impacting publishing, the mid-afternoon publishing panel would have been forgiven for striking a less-than-celebratory note. However, Dan Kois of Slate reminded participants that “writers have always struggled to make a living. People are always eager to sound the alarm bell about publishing.” While acknowledging that social media has usurped more traditional literary and marketing routes, Folio literary agent Jeff Kleinman was still encouraged by the “very vibrant role of literate people writing beautiful books.” Author and editor Bronwen Dickey was also optimistic, pointing out that “pieces that would have never found a home are finding them,” and that the writer’s role is “to teach people what’s possible, not just give them what they think the market wants.”
When the workshops and panels concluded, the Friday sessions wrapped up with readings by poet Claudia Emerson and author Wells Tower. The unassuming Tower, who wrote the acclaimed story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and has been nominated for National Magazine Awards in both fiction and nonfiction, praised the work he had seen from participants in his nonfiction workshop, and characterized his involvement with the very first VQR Writers Conference thus far as “thrilling.”
The first workshops for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry took place yesterday morning at the 2014 VQR Writers’ Conference, and as if I weren’t fortunate enough to spend these two hours with Beth Ann Fennelly, all of the conference’s attendees saw her in action in her craft talk after lunch. Fennelly spoke about the sounds of words, especially in verse, and how sound impacts meaning and the reader’s feelings. After a brief lesson on phonetics and phonology (VQR’s Matt MacFarland tweeted, “Let’s get fricative.”), she dived into her main discussion points, some of which included the use of euphony and cacophony, how sounds affect speed and movement of a line, and how setting up and displacing a metrical theme can shape a poem. Sound bites that made attendees smile include, “Synonyms are dead to you for the rest of your life. Words are different and have a different feeling,” and, “It’s a bad poem when the rhymed words are not more important than the other words.”
Fennelly ended her talk with a printed quiz for attendees that, given two sets of lines from a poem, had them choose the correct set of lines based on sounds. For example:
3. Elizabeth Coatsworth
A. All day the fleeing crows croak hoarsely over the snow.
B. All day the out-cast crows croak hoarsely across the whiteness.
(Answer: While A’s rhyme is pleasant, the sound of “out-cast” fits better with the harsh feelings of “croak hoarsely.” Only one group managed to receive a score of 100 percent.)
After a quick break for conference attendees, VQR’s Ralph Eubanks moderated a discussion open to the public entitled, “Publishing Panel: From Online to Books.” Panelist Dan Kois, culture editor of Slate, wasn’t afraid to speak first by declaring he can’t publish reviews of all the books that deserve the attention because there is “too much good shit.” Jeff Kleinman, an agent with Folio Literary Management, then picked up the discussion from the perspective of selling manuscripts to publishers. He commented, “Social network followers have never been more important,” with respect to writers needing to establish online platforms before they attempt to sell a manuscript, and he opined that “publishers don’t know how to sell books anymore.” They are “terrified,” Kleinman continued, and they have turned into “glorified printers.” Panelist Bronwen Dickey then gave us a glimmer of hope from her experience as an author. She urged the audience to think, “It’s okay if small magazines are your habitat,” though she lamented that “the book is now your membership card to whatever.”
To improve work that might make it into our “membership” books down the road, we then headed to our second workshop. The day ended with memorable readings by poet Claudia Emerson and nonfiction writer and conference faculty member Wells Tower. Emerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and served as Virginia’s Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010, read several of her poems she wrote about her cancer, including a series of eight sonnets inspired by the meaning of the word “metastasis.” While undergoing treatment in a teaching hospital, she realized, “There is no reason why the teaching of poetry shouldn’t be as serious as the teaching of medicine.” Tower then followed Emerson’s soulful poems with humor to close the evening. He told hilarious stories about trips with his father, one of which ended with Tower waking up with excrement on his chest from a dead rat in New Zealand, before performing (in different voices) a laughter-inducing reading of his February 2013 GQ piece about taking his 70-something father to Burning Man.
Workshops started yesterday, a sacred place where—for a young writer, certainly—you get the increasingly rare pleasure of engaging with serious readers about where your writing is at and where it could go in the future. This weekend is a marathon of workshops, so much so that it’s easy enough to sit dazed in the audience during the presentations, hoping that genius comes nearby through osmosis. The afternoon publishing panel, with agent Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management, Dan Kois, the culture editor for Slate, W. Ralph Eubanks, the editor of VQR, and writer Bronwen Dickey, whose book on pit bulls, DOG/FIGHT: On Pit Bulls and Their People (Knopf), will be released in 2015, yielded a range of options for how to be in the world of “publishing.” Whether it’s comforting or not, Kois noted, rightly, that despite the daily handwringing over the state of publishing, there’s still a “tremendous amount of interesting and creative work coming out in an unstoppable flood.” He cited that there are seventy-five good books out a month, and Slate’s typically culling that horde down to fifteen for the book review. Kleinman sounded the alarm about the fact that publishers are “beyond terrified,” looking to people with platforms and social media presence in order to deliver… book-type things. Dickey noted that, related, book deadlines are getting tighter—for her book, they wanted a full manuscript in eighteen months, and the depth of reporting (hundreds of interviews) and traveling (across America) needed for the book made that timeline impossible. Yet even if there’s some scary contracting in the publishing industry—making the ideal straight climb up the ladder obsolete—there’s still a vibrant ecosystem out there, the panel noted, with magazines, online and smaller, filling in the gaps. “You have to find the home that fits the work,” Dickey noted, a sage truth.
That night, we closed out the day with a pair of readings. Poet Claudia Emerson read a sharp and touching mix of poetry with fire and grace, from “Chain, Chain, Chain,” a poem that she said was inspired by a wild dance to Aretha Franklin in her wedding dress, thirty years past, which then got burned. She had a series of poems wrestling with the term metastasis, a word that’s become all too familiar as she’s been dealing with cancer. She wrote about her ninety-five-year-old father, who spent one lovely day watching an icicle. Wells Tower, an author who makes fiction and journalism both look distressingly easy, read his recent GQ piece about a trip to the desert—well, the Burning Man festival—with his elderly father. Fully aware of the innate hippie nudist absurdity that classifies this particular event, the piece is hilarious, jokes galore, absolute desert silliness, and then it pivots into a punch-you-in-the-gut melancholy about fathers and sons and life and death. Hearing both authors speak was a complete pleasure, making you feel just a little bit more human, alert, and alive.
August 9, 2014
“Every single type of art on Earth is about the senses,” said Richard Bausch. Day two of the inaugural VQR Writers Conference kicked off in the fiction workshop with more discussion of student stories, more anecdotes, and more craft lessons by the author of twenty-some books of fiction. Despite his enormous body of work, Bausch reminded students that every writer is a novice when beginning a new project. He cautioned fiction writers away from placing too much value on verisimilitude—“You want life on the page, but that is a mistake.” Unlike journalists, fiction writers are interested in “felt life, experiential truth,” and as craftspeople “life that is shaped and organized.” At midday Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; The Tilted World) gave a craft talk on avoiding sentimentality, or “unearned emotion” in fiction. Contrasting two Christmas stories, one cliché-ridden and filled with overly emotional descriptions, the other finely detailed, with fully drawn characters (a hospital-bound orphan says, “Fuck Frosty”), he urged writers to focus on the complexity of characters, the “good and the bad.”
Bausch’s fiction workshop concluded in the afternoon with a roundtable discussion about craft issues and the writing life. He warned fiction writers against expecting “that…characters matter out in the world in a political sense,” urging instead that their troubles “matter to them and to the writer.” He called on fiction writers to read more, to read constantly, and deepen their sense of craft.
In the afternoon the Atlantic Editor Scott Stossel joined journalist Delphine Schrank and GQ contributor Wells Tower for a panel on magazine writing moderated by Paul Reyes. They discussed the landscape of long-form journalism, changes brought by the digital age, and the enduring importance of “story” in magazine writing.
Fiction auditor Kristin Swenson said she “learned a tremendous amount” through attending the workshops and panels at the VQR conference, and, “really appreciated Bausch’s discussion of craft and gently demanding nature.” Darlene Taylor, fiction writer and Board Chair of the Hurston Wright Foundation said she drove from D.C. to attend the VQR public panels to learn from and join with a “community of writers.”
The third and final full day of the VQR Writers’ Conference began with a third workshop session for each genre, and after lunch, Tom Franklin treated us to a craft talk on the use of sentimentality in fiction. He began, as he does with all of his creative writing classes at the University of Mississippi, with Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for creative writing, which include,
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Franklin then launched into a reading of a short story entitled “Red Christmas” from a magazine in Mobile, Alabama, but not before telling us it would be terrible. He said he could say this about the work only because he knows the guy who wrote it. Attendees acknowledged the tale, about a man who kidnapped Santa Claus, was a bit rough, and Franklin admitted it was one of his earliest published writings. “See, you can write bad shit and still get published!” he exclaimed. Franklin then read Mark Richard’s “The Birds for Christmas” from the anthology New Stories from the South 2010: The Year’s Best and left us wanting to laugh and cry by the end of it. Franklin compared the two narratives to emphasize appropriate uses of sentimentality, or over-the-top tenderness. It doesn’t have a place in literary fiction, he noted, but in stories that include “crippled orphans at Christmas…how can this not be sentimental? How can [Richard’s] not pull this off?” Franklin asked.
After a short break, the conference’s subject matter changed gears to nonfiction magazine writing, and VQR’s Paul Reyes moderated a panel on the topic with the Atlantic’s Scott Stossel, VQR contributing editor Delphine Schrank, and conference faculty member Wells Tower. The panelists discussed how magazine pieces differed from book-length projects and newspaper articles, and the conversation then turned to a comparison of print to digital writing and the use of technology in reporting. Most panelists remarked that devices, from audio recorders to GoPros, changed how their subjects interacted with them, and they preferred to use only a notebook. With respect to writing for a digital audience, Schrank commented, “You can leave a little bit of the silence and space you need” on paper and not on a blog. Wells followed up by noting, “I don’t know how the internet has changed my writing.”
The day winded down with an outside cocktail reception for attendees before selected participants, such as poet Edison Jennings, novelist Virginia Pye, and writer Jacqui Shine, read from their work. Conference faculty member Richard Bausch followed them by reading two sections from his new novel, Before, During, After, and his short story “The Knoll.” Everyone then migrated to the dining room of Boar’s Head for a long dinner filled with laughter, stories, and promises to keep in touch.
Yesterday’s conference was a marathon of workshops. The nonfiction group had interesting things to say about a 240-page book’s length of topics, an impressive feat in the light of how compressed this weekend was, and the net effect from all that talking was the need to take a swim in one of the many, many pools at the conference’s hotel. Admittedly, I mostly attended the magazine writing panel, with the Atlantic editor Scott Stossel, Wells Tower, whose writing can be found most often in GQ, longtime foreign correspondent Delphine Schrank, whose book, The Rebel of Rangoon, is due out in February 2015, and VQR editor Paul Reyes. The panelists talked about how they got into magazine writing—for Schrank, she was a Washington Post correspondent, and she was starting to find stories that strained against the limitations of 800 words of information. “Only in a magazine can you unpack these long stories,” she said. Tower, on the other hand, got his break in the Washington Post Magazine, when he pitched a story about living with a traveling carnival and delving into the world of carnies. Stossel “finds writing in editing,” a consequence of his day job. His first book was assigned at 100,000 words and he worked it down from an initial draft of 400,000 words. Collectively, the panel admitted that the economics of magazine writing is changing at a rapid pace. It’s complicated with the Atlantic—famously successful online — and for Stossel, the future will be lying in video, where “we have more ads coming in that we can handle.” The beautiful thing, ultimately, is that really great reporting, despite all the sturm und drang of “the industry,” boils down to two things. “A notepad and maybe a recorder,” as Tower said.
The night closed out with a banquet of good food, good drink, and good talk. Readings from conference participants—including Jacqui Shine and Melanie Thorne from the nonfiction workshops—and Richard Bausch left us on a note of beautiful words. I will miss the luxury of spending days in a room with good readers, all engaged with the work—it’s a privilege, and perhaps it gives some strength for the grey days of writing, where you are grim about the mouth, knocking people’s hats off, ready to take to the sea. Thank you for the opportunity, VQR, and may this happen again, next year!
Win Bassett is a writer and attorney whose nonfiction has been published in the Atlantic, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Guernica. His fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in the Southern Poetry Anthology, Image, PANK, and Pea River Journal. He’s a former assistant district attorney and serves on the PEN Prison Writing Program Fiction Committee. He is the Legal Advisor for Asymptote, Managing Editor of Yale’s Letters, and Community Manager for Bull City Press.
Leah Griesmann’s stories have recently appeared in the Weekly Rumpus, Union Station, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, and PEN Center USA’s The Rattling Wall. The recipient of a 2010-2011 Steinbeck Fellowship in Fiction, a 2013 DAAD grant in fiction, and a 2014 MacDowell Colony Fellowship, she is currently at work on a novel and a collection of stories.
Elisabeth Donnelly is the nonfiction editor of Flavorwire whose work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the L.A. Times, the Cut, the Paris Review Daily, the Awl and the Boston Globe, among others. She is also the cowriter of the young adult book The Misshapes under the pseudonym Alex Flynn. Her article on Harry Potter-themed rock bands was named with an honorable mention in the “Best Music Writing of 2008” by Salon. She lives in Brooklyn.