where the writers are
FOR THE BENJAMINS (Part Two of the AWP)
bibliomaniac
$14.95
Paperback
Michael Chabon in his keynote address

Denver is like a giant bag of silica gel. Moisture is sucked right out of you the moment you land at the white teepee-covered Denver International.  The first thing to do in Denver is drink a lot of water and kiss Chapstick like your new lover. Coat yourself in Aveeno. That's all in hopes your throat might not become sandpaper, and your skin, scabs. The city is dry.

Just over 24 hours after I landed, meeting my friend Daniel who would be on a panel with me, staying with my cousin, Liz, in Aurora, and becoming half-hydrated, we hurried to the AWP Conference keynote address, delivered by Michael Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bon), author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and Kavalier & Clay, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2001.

Chabon was introduced by AWP President Dinty Moore from Ohio University, noting that Chabon has also been a short story writer (A Model World), screenwriter (Spiderman 2), essayist (Maps and Legends), comic book writer (The Final Solution) and young adult book writer (Summerland).

Facing about two thousand people packed into the huge and elegant Hyatt ballroom, Chabon said that usually when he speaks, he takes questions from the audience. Because the audience in this case was so large, he'd play the parts of questioners from the audience.

One of the first questions from a faux questioner noted some of the imperfections in Chabon's writing--something I can believe he's been asked because in America we like to create celebrities and then tear them down. He spoke about how when he sets out to write a novel, he has huge aspirations. When he's done and the book is published, even to acclaim, he sees what he wasn't able to do and feels a failure. He said in another interview that "anyone who has ever received a bad review knows how it outlasts, by decades, the memory of a favorable word."

Chabon spoke in the ballroom of how as writers, the stories we create are not reality. They don't have the pace of reality. Our job, however, is to make the fantastic seem real. He's someone who believes in storytelling, that we have to avoid "plotless stories sparkling with epiphanic dew" and instead engage our readers with character and what people do. In short, we can't forget to entertain.

Also our best novels, he said, are created with artifice and pattern, built on lies to betray deeper truths. 

Another question was on the value of MFA creative writing programs. He said that it was in the UC Irvine creative writing program where he grew from boy to man. The criticism he received on his first major assignment, though delivered with kindness from his professor, at first shattered him, then pushed him farther than he ever expected or knew. He's a product of a great program.

Another question asked why did he write, and he told a story about going into his garage and finding nearly thirty-year-old five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks. He was able to retrieve old files, one of them being an application for a writing program. Among the answers on why he wanted to be a writer was "for the Benjamins." He wanted "to make art that I can sell for cash money."

I find that writing literary novels--novels encouraged in all writing programs, and novels that I like to write--are a hugely difficult way to make money. People buy, for instance, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels because not only are they well written, but also they are mysteries with a reoccurring main character.

Genre fiction can be an art, too, and Chabon is now exploring genre, particularly with his recent The Yiddish Policeman's Ball, which won five genre awards, including the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He said in another interview that perhaps our definition of genre is "such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment." However, he said, "I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period."

His delivery for the nearly two hours was flawless and filled with humor. Like his books, he's an engaging person and reminds many of us in the audience what we, if we're lucky enough to get on a stage, must do when we speak. We must educate and entertain. Period.

And I walked into the night, slaked.

(More on the AWP to come.)

Comments
2 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Hmmmmm.....

The part that I've experienced rings true, but I see I have tons of work ahead of me. I feel like I'm staring at the peak of Everest from Death Valley. Okay, maybe that's melodramatic (as opposed to dramatic -- just read thoughts on writing by Ayn Rand), but I think you get the idea. Thanks again for sharing your experience at the Denver Conference. Do you have any recommendations for online writing programs?

Comment Bubble Tip

Online Writing at UCLA Extension

Christine, yes the bar that Chabon set is a high one, but surely you're not in Death Valley but at, say, 5,280 feet (that's Denver), an elevation still short of Everest but one that's closer. You'll get stronger as you take each step.

UCLA Extension's Writing Program, which offers many classes online, is fabulous. Not only do I teach creative writing there, but also I've taken online classes in the novel and had classmates from all over the world, including writers in Japan, South America, Spain, and down the road in L.A. The online classes are limited to twelve, and if you're obsessive as I am, you can be in class every night. I recommend online classes by Caroline Leavitt, Jessica Inclan, and Lynn Hightower, among others.