What is the Hands On Literary Festival?

Hello everyone,

I’m still getting back to normal after the Hands On literary festival and masked ball in New Orleans–an amazing time.

The Hands On Festival is a four-day writing conference, now in its second year, which my wife and I run with the help of friends and the remarkable New Orleans writing community. At this moment, we’re back in Knoxville, trying to relax and rewind, excited to start the planning for the next festival, scheduled for the last few days of 2015. 10919015_10100640200998889_8925025802051682707_n My role in the festival is largely technical: I do the design work for the posters and brochures, write a lot of the promotional text, troubleshoot the website and so on. The heart of the festival–and all the really hard planning and administration–comes from Jeni. She has a genius for this kind of thing. The festival is her vision, and it’s a remarkable experience, these last two years, to watch it unfold.

Here’s how I would explain that vision, and the festival’s purpose:

It’s hard to be a writer alone. Part of wanting to write is the desire to share one’s spirit and individuality with others. While, of course, that’s the end goal with publishing novels, plays, essays, and poems–to make what is inside my consciousness, my being, join someone else’s consciousness and being–for most of the arts, this process of creation and publication is very slow. Years go by and you feel like you have nothing to show for it. So it’s enlivening, en-spiriting, to meet with other writers, and to meet more people who love books, and see in them the same long, wonderful process you’re going through.

On a practical level, too, it’s good to make friends with people like oneself, and this isn’t always easy. Particularly in America, everything is so spread out, and distances are so vast, it can be hard to form specific, intentional communities among the miles of freeway and Taco Bell.

Writing conferences offer a way to do this: to meet up for a few intense days, and forge a community that can then live on through the Internet until the next meeting. And one particular conference that many writers want to go to, or feel they should want to go to, is AWP. AWP is the largest conference for certain segments of the US writing crowd, and it’s unparalleled for hearing your heroes speak, for listening to great craft talks, and for discovering exciting small presses and literary magazines in the enormous book fair.

However, AWP is so big now, with upwards of 10,000 attendees, that it is also exhausting and overwhelming. Some years, to get a seat in the audience of the more popular panels requires such a struggle and advance planning that it’s hard to really feel receptive once the talking begins.

I’m delivering a talk at a panel at this year’s AWP, and I’m really excited about it. I imagine there’ll be a few hundred people in the audience, and I hope I’ll get to talk to lots of them afterwards. But there is an undeniable truth that when a conference reaches that size, not only does the scale itself become daunting, but everyone starts to feel like there is a hierarchy of attendees. One feels injured and irritated by the feeling of not being high up enough on the writing totem pole, and this feeling limits the opportunity for the en-spiriting I talked about earlier.

Alternatively, there is another kind of conference, a retreat where the focus is on sheer writing, on getting pages drafted in a judgement-free zone. From my very limited experience of such conferences, they can be amazing chances to get work written. You have no choice but produce something when your seven classmates are also in the hotel library scribbling away–the muse is kicked into gear and surprises you with how much she has stored away. Plus, because everyone is doing the same thing–writing–you feel a great sense of community as the festival proceeds.

Yet, while I love attending that second kind of conference, I think it’s okay say that it’s not quite what the Hands On Festival is aiming at. At the Hands On Festival, it’s more about presenting finished, or halfway completed work, than about starting something new — although that does happen. We arrive, we share the work that best represents us, we explain what we’re struggling with in our current projects, and form new friendships based on the art and arguments we have shared. 10847473_10152504454055965_4168501445659837703_o Jeni’s vision is to create a writing conference where writers share their best work and ideas, where scholarly papers sit happily alongside a reading of family memoirs, but where everyone has a really great time, and where everyone feels like an equal, able to talk to and befriend anyone else in the festival they choose. 10899954_10152521379575965_6480188511332119346_o How she achieves this result is partly her own magic, but from what I can tell, it also involves hosting receptions most evenings, with food and wine, where the whole festival gathers to hang out. And it involves choosing key note speakers who contribute to that “Hands On” feeling, who seem excited to be around the energy of other artists. The first year, Dinty W. Moore was brilliant, and, for this latest festival, Joy Castro was kind of dazzling. She wowed everyone with her keynote address and with her willingness to talk to everyone and ask questions. IMG_0665 That spirit of the festival also seems to be connected to New Orleans. NOLA is a dangerous, troubled city. Yet it seems interested in beauty in a way that few other American cities appear to be. Its architecture and cultural traditions appear to the newcomer like an embodiment of the artist’s inner self, and so it’s natural, if you are a creatively-inclined person (i.e. that you are a normal human being), to suddenly feel at home there.

As a result, you experience the festival’s readings, the book launches, the introductions to several authors of a specific small publisher, as well as the discussions of craft and politics and history in a relaxed, encouraged, at ease state, eager to talk more with the participants once the hour is up.

The festival ends with a masked ball on New Year’s Eve. This is a chance to have a drink, eat tasty food, dance to classic 80’s hits, to dress up and look good in a mask. Then, on New Year’s Day, when everyone is feeling tired and grateful, the whole conference has (or has had the last two years, at least) a standing invitation to visit the house of local writer and historian Nancy Dixon, where she serves up food to get you started for the year in the right way.

You realise, all of a sudden, that you’ve made firm friendships with exactly the sort of people you were looking for, and then you travel home, recharged.

I think the festival’s third year, 2015, will be the best yet. I’m looking forward to watching Jeni start planning it, and hope to meet you there.



How to Sell a Literary Magazine at the AWP Bookfair

If I could change one thing about the AWP bookfair, I would ask the people at the tables and booths to try harder to take my money. This blog post offers some tips on how to do that: to sell more magazines and books at the bookfair.

I realise that attempting to sell a product is not a very elevated human interaction. But it is a human interaction. It would be preferable to sit down with the editors of each lit mag, perhaps on a hotel’s roof in a warm North African city, drinking wine under the stars and sharing life stories. But that level of interaction is not possible in a bookfair. The ceiling lights are harsh. My shoulder is hurting from my overloaded laptop bag. I’m nervous about my publishing history. At least 10% of the other attendees (over one thousand people) have the sort of well-thought-out hair that marks them as a very successful writer.

In that sort of atmosphere, I’m longing for any easy way to start a human conversation. And yet, in all the bookfairs I’ve attended, many of the magazine and book publishers don’t seem eager to grab my custom. There are exceptions. But I can remember many times I’ve attempted to talk to people who didn’t seem that excited to talk to me. Sometimes they just seem shy or tired. Sometimes they act as though their lit mag is so remarkable it’s simply my duty to buy four issues. Sometimes they appear to think that having put the magazine together, their work is done, and that selling it is something to be left to God’s will.

Perhaps, however, you are about to be on a table at the bookfair, but aren’t sure how to sell. For you, I offer five suggestions to help you shift your entire stock. Because when I’m on a table, I really try to sell. I try to talk to everyone I can.

Use some or all of these tips to get more people interested in your magazine.

1. Try to catch people’s eye as they meander past. “Meander” is the key word: anyone who avoids looking left or right, or is pacing at speed, you should let go on. But most people are tired and unsure what to do in this huge space. You should reach out to them. I find it best, on making eye contact, to say “Hi.” Then I ask a simple question, like, “Do you know Story Quarterly?” or “Have you ever been to New Orleans?”

2. Tell a story about your magazine that makes it useful to the person you’re talking to. When I was selling Story Quarterly, I stressed its pedigree, its reputation among literary magazines, its exclusivity. I would suggest that any serious fiction writer had to know about Story Quarterly.

The goal is to give the person a plausible reason to benefit from buying a copy. Once they ask the price, you should pause, seem to consider the question carefully, and then explain you can offer them a special deal. People seem to enjoy the silliness of it all.

3. Let uninterested people go quickly. If someone seems bored, or says, “I’m a visual artist, sorry,” there’s no point in trying to “sell” to them. Firstly, it’s not very nice, and additionally it makes you look desperate for their interest, when the whole idea of tip number two is creating the air that you have something useful for them.

Plus, people are going to circle around the bookfair several times. Plus, writers are so starved for human interaction in the book fair, they even love it when you tell them to move on. “You’re a painter? Sorry. Our magazine can’t help you.”

4. Have multiple things to promote. Not everyone will buy a copy, especially before the final day of the book fair. But if you can hand out fliers, get their name for a mailing list, invite them to a reading or book signing, you’re still doing the good work of promoting the magazine. This work should definitely include recommending other tables, other publications and panels. Few people find the bookfair easy to take in: part of your job, as a good literary citizen, is to help them figure it out. I like to recommend all the nearby tables to passersby, as well, whether or not they end up purchasing something from me.

5. If the person says, “I’ll come back later,” say, “All right, but last year, we sold out. I had to wrestle people just to keep the last copy in my hands. So come back early.”

The good thing is that if you do this, when it’s your turn to walk around the bookfair, dozens of people will recognise you, and will be relaxed about introducing their literary magazine in turn. Selling isn’t the best way to connect with other human beings, but it does offer a way to connect to them, and in a space like the bookfair, it’s a good place to start.

Party, Reading, Reception at AWP Seattle

Hello everyone,

Are you going to the AWP Conference this year, or perhaps live in the Seattle region? Or both? If so, come to this reading and reception, on Friday the 28th of February, at the Pine Box.

I will be reading some of my work, alongside some much more famous people, and the bar will be open (i.e. free) for a brief period after the reading (until the money runs out). You can meet other writers, talk to editors, have a good time. It should be one of the best parties of the conference.