On day three of the AWP conference, I was nearly panel-ed out. I'd heard from Midwestern writers being pigeonholed, writers overcoming taboos and tackling the forbidden, I'd given my first reading and did my part on a panel about the formation of Literary Mama from a writing group with babysitting to a full-fledged literary magazine with a thriving community of readers and where I now serve as co-editor for fiction. I was able to read from two beautiful stories we recently published: "The Swimming Pool and the Sea" by Sarah Hilary and "The Crossing" by Karen deBrulye Cruze, besides my own LM contribution which started it all for me: "What Kind of Mother."
I was tempted to pack my suitcase, get some Chicago pizza and forget it. But in order to get my money's worth, I wanted to attend one more session. I missed one about sex in fiction (that would have been fun! I tend to "fade to black" and skip the mechanics) because I was chatting with women who'd attended our own Literary Mama panel. So the next available one that piqued my interest was about "The Fictional Gesture" and it was in a crowded, stuffy ballroom.
My characters used to furrow their brows incessantly, until one of my critique partners callled me on it, and then I was so embarassed. Wrinkling and furrowing at every turn! I cured myself of that habit, then in revising my recent manuscript, I had to search for the word "close" for some reason. Over and over my computer found: "She closed her eyes." Drat! I'd done it again! I gave my delete key a workout.
So I was interested in what these panelists had to say. The first learned gentleman told us how he searched for "fictional gestures" on the Internet. He then poked fun at various writing advice sites, which was amusing, but making fun of the Internet is about as challenging as my kindergartener's dot-to-dot worksheets. (Though, he did do one recently with 100 dots. It was a lion; very impressive.)
The next speaker gave us some positive examples of fictional gesture employed properly. This was more helpful, certainly. She read passes of Lolita and The Corrections and while I enjoyed both these books I had to wonder, when she said the authors were clearly mocking the conventions of the fictional gesture in these particular elaborate passages -- how do we know they're mocking? Maybe they were just having an off day.
And then we were treated to Richard Bausch. And the first thing he said was, "Go home and write. Don't think about this stuff." And then later, in the same vein, "The work room is where you go naked."
It's very "anti-conference" to say that, isn't it? If we're not supposed to analyze our fictional gestures and sex scenes and sentimentality of writing about illness, then what's the point of the travel and exorbitant hotel stays?
For one thing, the "rules" don't apply half the time. One author's overuse of fictional gesture is perhaps mocking the convention. Where one reader finds it grating for a character to have a particular tic, maybe this works to brilliant effect for others. It's subjective and a question of judgment, and anyway, this crowd was sophisticated enough to understand the basics (as is the crowd at Red Room, I'm sure).
Richard Bausch said, " Did you work today? If the answer's yes, no other questions."
Then he started to read from his own work. I wish I'd gotten down in my notes what he was reading from exactly, but I don't care. It was wonderful. It was stirring and realistic and emotional without being the least bit gory or trite. In one passage he read, a man released from prison was trying to work his way back into his family. In another, a wounded man was being comforted by his fellow soldiers as he bled all over the place. I could have listened to him read all day, and I can't wait to get a hold of one of his books.
In the end, that's the reason we go to conferences, I think. We discover writers who, if not new, are new to us. We are invigorated by the simple discussion of writing, even if we already know the answers, or the answers can't be known in the first place. We make new friends, establish new connections, and come away feeling less solitary than we were before.