I’m posting this recap a month after attending the Muse & The Marketplace conference, which is good in that I had time to digest what I learned but bad because I’ve probably already forgotten some of it. But better late than never, I suppose! I will publish notes about days two and three in separate posts to prevent further delay.
This year was my first time attending the conference, which is put on by the non-profit writing organization Grub Street. A latecomer to the Boston writing world, I only recently learned about Grub as a resource for writers. Even though I knew I was leaving in a few months, I decided to join as a member anyway, and I plan to check out their online classes once I’m in Atlanta. From all I’ve heard and seen so far, it’s a great organization. The first day of the conference is a blur more than just because so much followed it; it also occurred after I had been up all night at a birth. I missed the first lecture and arrived just in time for the second.
Session 2: “Writing Your Memoir: What to Leave Out,” Kathleen Spivack
Kathleen Spivack was a generous teacher, making me feel at ease right away. She ignored the podium in favor of a chair at our level and immediately asked us to raise our hands if we were working on a memoir. The first shock of the conference was that almost everyone raise their hands but me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised since we were in fact in a class with memoir in the title, but I guess I thought there’d be others like me who were only dancing on the periphery of the idea.
In our first in-class writing exercise, Spivack asked us to ponder a few things about why we write memoir; firstly, “Who am I writing it for?” To figure out what to leave out, she said, you should ask yourself both, “What would I be okay with others reading?” and “What would I write if I could include everything?” and compare the two answers. A writer must be careful in deciding what to leave out because if it’s a central part of the story, the reader will know something is missing. I scribbled the following quote furiously to get it all down, so it might be a partial misquote:
Memoir is a testimony. Think about lifting it beyond the personal. Think of your book as a gift to the world. -Kathleen Spivack, #Muse15
Her final advice was a piece of wisdom I’ve been given before, but it was worth hearing again. “Write an essay version of the book,” she said, “to help organize and give it structure.” I wonder if this is how many books arrive in the world, starting as essays that ignore the writer’s pleas for brevity.
I spent lunch in quiet reflection of all the lessons I had already learned, mulling over the passages of other authors’ books they had been so bold in sharing. I flipped through the list of speakers, growing increasingly bowled over by the overflowing lists of accomplishments. I closed the booklet, took a deep breath, then opened it again from the back and noticed a place for writing thoughts and notes. I decided then to set some intentions for how I wanted the conference to go, since I could see that it would be over in a blink.
Session 3: “Ask the Editor,” Pamela Dorman
Pamela Dorman’s style was the first thing I noted about her when she began to speak. I would later note the same of many of the speakers, that they were the most comfortable in their skin and wardrobe. I am not sure which came first, the intent or the success, but I choose to believe the old adage that we should “dress for the job we want.”
Another possible reason for my eyes wandering to her wardrobe first is I was in an altered state from the all-nighter birth. I willed my brain to stay awake, but the warm room and lack of caffeine began lulling me to sleep. I eventually had to jump up and go find some coffee so I could enjoy the rest of the lecture instead of nodding off mid-sentence, so I don’t have many notes from this session.
One fun fact I learned was that Dorman started as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press. She mentioned two books as examples of great works she published in various genres. The first is Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a novel by J Ryan Stradal that is being published this summer, and the second is The Middle Place, a memoir by Kelly Corrigan. She likes publishing books that are “voicy.” If it’s a memoir, it needs to read like fiction; it’s not enough to be a good story. If you really want to be noticed, make the first 25 pages “sparkle,” Dorman said.
Session 4: “How to Write a Symphonic Conclusion,” Jacquelyn Mitchard
The first thing you should know about a talk about Mitchard is bring a recorder. Her quotable phrases fly by infinitely faster than you can write or type. She lectured with authority and charisma on the topic of ambiguous modern endings; in the 21st century, she says, books just stop instead of ending, as we focus energy instead on clever beginnings. One example I managed to jot was David Foster Wallace’s first sentence ofThe Broom of the System, “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet…” (incidentally, I stumbled upon this review of the book, which I loved even more because of its spot-on mini-review of Franzen’s The Corrections at the end, which I will not affiliate-link to because it irritated me too much).
Mitchard argued writers should end with purpose, just as they do with beginnings; she offered encouragement, promising writers can be as good at endings if they see them as important. So why are there so few symphonic endings? She postulated writers and readers are both fatigued at the end of a book and have a longing for characters that clouds judgment for how the story should end. Mitchard pointed out that a good ending makes the reader feel smart and included and is generous of heart and mind. Most importantly, a great climax, conclusion, or denouement “…restores the reader to the outside world as though it’s safe to do anything.”
It’s romantic to imagine that writing is like driving in the fog, but good endings only happen if you decide how to end it. -Jacquelyn Mitchard, #Muse15
As many speakers would do throughout the conference, Mitchard reminded us of Ira Glass’ storytelling advice; describe, then reflect. She offered some examples of endings to study:
- Great endings:
- Use of grief and joy:
- John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars
- Bleak ending, when characters could have made a choice but didn’t:
- Leaves some room for reader to interpret and bring some of his/her dreams:
- Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago
- Extraordinary suffering and growth can happen in a brief period:
- Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
Mitchard also offered a few endings she was dissatisfied with because of a lack of focus on a good ending: Gone Girl and basically every novel by Cormac McCarthy, who she said—much to the delight of the room—tends to end his novels with random scenes like a man eating an egg.
My favorite part of the session was when Mitchard invited us into her own writing process. She said often an ending will not be working as it is. Instead of fighting it out, she suggested scraping it if it’s not working, saving it elsewhere for later, and starting fresh. She doesn’t believe in prologues or epilogues, which she said tell the reader what to think and how to feel. Of her own characters, she said:
If I left my characters alone, they would open a bag of Doritos and a can of Bud and sit on the couch doing nothing. -Jacquelyn Mitchard, #Muse15
Instead, she said she must intervene and tell them to get up and start acting like people. Contrary to common wisdom, planning doesn’t destroy creativity. Now there’s some food for thought.
Did you attend #Muse15 or read any good recaps elsewhere? Though I’m late to the recap party, I still see an occasional post pop up. I’ll link to some of my favorites in the next post.