In Conclusion, Emily St. John Mandel

(This is the last post from my notes at the Writer’s Digest conference in New York City.)

The last keynote speech was a welcome change in tone.  Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and the author of Station Eleven, gave a nourishing talk.  Station Eleven is about a group of Shakespearean actors in a post-apocalyptic world, and after her talk I put it on my to-read list.  What she said about writing was not, as it seemed to be in all the other talks I attended, about the desperate business of meeting the needs of publishers. It was about why we write.  And why we read.  *We read, she said, because we turn to other notions of home in hard times.  We find a home in books, though we use metaphors of travel and movement.  She mentioned The Republic of Books:  America in Three Books by Azar Nafisi, which is about the importance of novels even in our bizarre world and about being a reader in a repressive state.  Reading was important to her, too, when she was on tour.  Readers have dual citizenship.  Writing is not a frivolous pastime.  People have died for this.

She went on to say that we (we attendees) are not “aspiring” writers.  We are writers.  What we are aspiring to is being published.  It’s easy to get caught up in the noise about writing; networking is not writing.  Be ruthless about it.  Write around the margins of your day job.  Say “I have plans” to people who want you to go out with them in the evening.  Avoid getting too precious about your writing environment; write wherever and whenever you are.

And don’t assume the publishing world is closed to you.  Nothing matters as much as a compelling query and chapters.  You don’t need an MFA.  She herself doesn’t have a high school diploma.  There’s luck involved; no one actually knows what makes a book sell.  Quality of writing is important; people who are decent human beings have a slight edge, and she hears many stories about jerks who will never be asked back.  So be kind.  It goes to the heart of the work.  She quoted Eleanor Catton, ““Kindness is a core value for any artist, but most especially for a fiction writer: a self-centred person can’t see the world from another person’s point of view.”

As for keeping yourself going, you just don’t know if the book you’re working on is any good.  There’s nothing romantic about knowing when you’ve finished a book.  Find a way to not panic.  Embrace uncertainty, and remember that you are not really wasting anything when you “waste time.”  Emma Straub and Jeffrey Eugenides had several unpublished books, so you need to find a way to love the process.  **

She talked more about the nuts and bolts toward the end of the talk, taking questions from the audience.
A few other notes:

  • It can be complicated to keep track of plots, especially in non-linear structures like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  She talked about using Excel spreadsheets, and said Scrivener helped her understand technical problems.  You shouldn’t have any dead weight, but don’t speed through.
  • She is not a member of a writer’s group, but you get “snowblind,” so you should find people you trust who will be honest.  Sometimes, however, she rejects comments.
  • She does presentations on craft, Station Eleven, panels, moderated conversations, and readings.
  • Favorite tools:  Microsoft Word, Scrivener, and the Freedom app that turns off the Internet.
  • Revision:  Read aloud, retype, take a random page and edit, look at it in the print format of a published novel.

It was a lovely talk.

And so I come to the end of my WDC 2016 notes.  I took them in tiny Moleskine notebooks, 2 1/2 x 4 1/4″, a few pages per presenter.  Why did I type them up like this?  For one thing, because I am impatient.  Yes, I know that’s paradoxical.  But I have been to so many conferences in my professional career, and I remember so little of most of them.  All I have left are my notes, and after I take them, I file them and never look at them again.  When I retired from my last job, I realized I had binders full, folders full, of notes about things I once desperately wanted to remember.  I don’t have the luxury of re-learning all this stuff.  I don’t have forever.  So if I’m going to learn from the experience, I need to revisit my notes and make sense of them for myself.

Another reason is this conference was expensive.  If you’re not making a lot of money, it’s hard to blow it on a conference.  So I’m sharing what I learned with my fellow writers who couldn’t afford to go.  I hope it helps. ***

The last reason was that I just started a new Moleskine bullet journal notebook, so I don’t want to keep carrying the old (full) one around.  I spend a lot of time desperately trying not to have EVERYTHINGINTHEWORLD in my bag.  I pare away constantly; I unpack my bag every day, put everything away, and repack it in the morning.  I’m about to take a trip abroad as I write this.  If I pack too much, by the end of my trip I am always desperately confused by my possessions.

* It’s easy to get a little panicky about selling yourself when you’ve spent a boatload of money on attending a conference.

** Which is why we should do anything.  I taught for 23 years because I loved teaching.  Eventually, it paid pretty well, and I had plenty of respect from others when I was finished, but that wasn’t why I stayed.  I stayed because teaching was one of the most interesting things I could possibly do.

*** Was it worth the expense?  I don’t know.  I met some nice people, bought a good book or two, heard some good speakers, and saw the landscape of people who read Writer’s Digest and write for a living.  It was a beginning.

I am reminded of what I tell novice fencers who tell me they are waiting to go to tournaments until they know what they are doing and have a chance.  “No,” I say, “You go to your first tournament to get your first tournament out of the way.  You go to get your ass handed to you.  You go to look around and find out what it is like, so that you can decide to do it completely differently next time.  It’s part of the training process.”

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