Me and The Hands On Festival

Over at Burlesque Press, you can read my write up of the Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball, which took place over New Year’s Eve in New Orleans. I want to be clear: I am personally involved in the press, so you should filter everything I say through a somewhat promotional lens. Even correcting for that bias, however, it was clear that the festival was a great success.

A little skill with Adobe InDesign can be a dangerous thing.

A little skill with Adobe InDesign can be a dangerous thing.

In the write up, I didn’t have space to thank most of my fellow presenters. Through an unlikely series of events, I ended up on five different panels over the three days. Clearly, this was excessive. I’m amazed no one in the audience got sick of me. Or, if they did, they were generous enough to keep it quiet.

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I read the first six pages of a new story alongside two very talented writers: Bill Loehfelm, the award-winning crime novelist, and Andrew Dillon, a poet who writes movingly about lost love, Korea, and astrophysics. I co-presented a panel on love–Victorian and Post-Modern–with the poet and PhD candidate Sara Henning, who turned out to be remarkably erudite and warmhearted. Check out her poem, “How to Pray like a Girl,” published by Sweet. And, in a reading of a new play by Merridith Allen, I played an incompetent grim reaper, out of work since the Potato Famine.

I was also lucky enough to introduce and do a Q&A with my MFA instructor and mentor, Lauren Grodstein. This was a big deal for me, as Lauren was my first ever fiction teacher, a hugely instructive and supportive figure in my life. It was lovely to be able to discuss the success she’s had as a “mid-career” (in her words) novelist. Her best-selling novel, A Friend of the Family, is not only a gripping read, but is currently being sold by Amazon, in kindle form, for the appealingly low price of $3.03. Another element, presumably, of Amazon’s master plan to rule everything.

Last of all, and probably the highlight for me of the whole festival, was the plot and suspense panel that I did with Bill Loehfelm and Lynne Barrett. I put this panel together for very selfish reasons: I wanted the chance to hear Lynne Barrett present again. Years ago, in Denver, I had heard her speak about plot at the AWP conference. She was remarkable then, and she was remarkable again, in New Orleans, as I knew she would be. Not only has her fiction won multiple awards, she possesses a rare gift for teaching the techniques of fiction.

So often, in creative writing classrooms, the professor acts more like an editor than an instructor. The premise of such classes seems to be that the student arrives with all the skills necessary to write fiction, and the teacher’s only job is to smooth the edges of that student’s work, to help him or her plan the next re-write. Unfortunately, at least in most cases, this premise is simply not true.

In the real world, most of us have a huge amount to learn if we want to write fiction that people actually want to read.

But if a professor of creative writing desires to actually instruct students, it takes not only a vast knowledge to make such instruction possible–the capacity to put all of literature into a series of mental frameworks and artistic techniques–but also the ability to break those techniques down into small enough parts that students can make sense of them. One is teaching people how to see, how to read, as much as teaching them to write.

Lynne gave a great talk, packing a vast quantity of instruction and analysis into her allotted 12 minutes. Really, she could have kept speaking for an hour or two and the audience would have continued taking notes. After her, Bill Loehfelm and I attempted to keep up.

It was moving for me because it demonstrated the kind of fiction teaching I believe is possible, and which I one day hope to do myself. Rather than starting with the student, and trying to edit his or her work into something publishable, to instead start with fiction itself, and ask questions like “What is storytelling?” “Why do people like it and need it?” “How do different kinds of stories achieve their effects?” “Why are there such changes in novels and stories over time, and what semi-hidden continuities continue through those changes?”

Then, from such questions, building up into techniques and frameworks, equipping students to see, helping them develop a sense of what they and other writers are about.

It was a great festival. I hope to see you in New Orleans next year, when the festival returns.

New Orleans style shrimp and grits.

New Orleans style shrimp and grits.

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