Monday, September 3, 2012

Decatur Book Festival - Part II

Yesterday was a whirlwind, a full day that felt even busier and more inspiring than Saturday. I hopped from event to event while still making time to wander the exhibition booths again. I love the chance connections I made with people and the insights gained by paying attention to the writers on the stage and from simply people-watching. Both Saturday and yesterday I called my friend Mary to talk briefly, because last year, my first DBF, she came over from South Carolina and introduced me to the wonder that is the Decatur Book Festival. It was great to have a DBF-experienced friend along, and we discussed what we saw and what we learned. But this year she couldn't make it, and I realized I like the festival just as much when I go it alone. There may even be perks to going alone, even though I love company. Mary (who had been to DBF solo before) and I both agreed that as wonderful as a companion may be, there are just some ways in which having time to contemplate, people-watch, and let the fates guide you, without worrying about another person, is better. I'm very grateful for the time I got to spend in the wonderful city of Decatur at the largest independent book festival in the country.

  • First of all, my still-recovering-from-a-cold body overslept and I had to rush out the door with the pbj sandwich lovingly made by my husband so I could get to my first session on time. I was a few minutes late, but they let me in anyway! The first event was at my beloved Eddie's Attic, "A Celebration of Short Fiction." The guest writers were Alix Ohlin, talking about her short story collection Signs and Wonders, and Adam Prince, author of The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men. Wyatt Williams moderated, guiding their conversation from the themes in their own work to what's different about writing a short story (and collecting them) and writing a novel. I wish I could write down everything they said, but here are a few snippets:

Alix: The short story is like a playground, it's a moment of crisis or intrigue or mystery in the characters' lives, and you can really stretch the techniques of fiction in a short story in ways you can't easily sustain in a novel.
Adam: You can dwell inside a novel--it's its own world. A short story is a moment. A short story is a form that because of size restrictions creates its own tension.
Alix: A book has a life of its own once it leaves the author's hands & is sent out into the public. The readers' interpretations, reactions, are separate from the author's control, aesthetic, etc. in working on the stories.
Adam: The stuff that surprises you [as you're writing] is often the best stuff.
Alix: Once the voice is right in a story, it's like "lift-off," the story achieves a feeling of buoyancy as you write. Often if the story is not coming along well, she'll work with different voices until she gets that lift-off.
Adam: Details in a story are there because of who the character is--the details are what the character will notice, not just what the author thinks would be interesting.
Alix: Personally, it's difficult to set a page-per-day goal for the daily writing life, but having a set time at the same time each day helps even when the writing's slim or shoddy some days. At least you're not sitting around saying you'll write "when the inspiration strikes."
Adam: On the days when the creative highs flag, get in there, and feel bitchy, and keep writing!

  • Next I attended a seminar on "Portraying the Natural South through Photography and Writing," featuring Janisse Ray author, Wayne Morgan photographer, and Charles Seabrook author. "Humans have an innate love of trees, water, and grass. Artistic expression is one of the key ways to connect urban citizens with nature again." Mr. Seabrook grew up near the salt marshes along the coast of Georgia, which have been threatened by commercial activity, and now as a writer he's spent his life trying to "make the salt marsh sexy." He said if we feel strongly, passionately, about the ecological subject we write about or photograph, that love will come through to the reader/viewer. Wayne Morgan photographs remote stretches of the Satilla River, which he grew up fishing. He began taking pictures shortly after he was given a pacemaker at the age of 35 and realized he needed to do something for the river in the precious time he had left. Often finding trash along the river from hikers and fishers, he'd clean it up before taking photos, but recently he started taking pictures of the trash before cleaning it up, to show our impact on the natural places around us. Janisse Ray spoke about her role as both an artist and an activist. She said that more important than activism is action, doing something yourself and in your own community, above and beyond working to change or influence leaders & legislators, which is important too. She read a quote that said essentially, "Obligation comes out of relationship," and if art helps create and nurture a relationship between people and their natural surroundings, then they will naturally want to help take care of it.

  • After that session, I wandered the booths and ran across a local small press I'd found online a while back, liked, then let it slip my mind. They're Universal Table / Wising Up Press, and they're based in Decatur. I talked to one of the co-founders, Charles Brockett, about how they find their writers and what kind of work they publish. He talked about their mission and outlook of fostering empathetic narrative conversations over sticky social issues, how they publish highly credentialed writers as well as first-time-published authors from all over the world. I bought a book of short stories from them, said goodbye, and proceeded to my next session on "The Importance of the Small Press," at the Old Courthouse, where I ran into Charles on the stairs. Turns out he and his wife/co-founder Heather Tosteson were on the panel along with Bill Boling of Fall Line Press, and Bruce Covey of Coconut Poetry. They talked about how small presses can foster community, find niche audiences more effectively, and reinvent the distribution of literature. To these small press mavericks, it's about passion rather than economics. As Mr. Boling humorously put it, "We're not the Dippin Dots of the book world," but I really appreciate the hard work they do for little or no payoff, all to champion great writing and art.

From L-R: moderator Jared Dawson, Bill Boling, Heather Tosteson, Charles Brockett, and Bruce Covey

  • Gail Tsukiyama was next, talking about her novel A Hundred Flowers. Hearing her was a delight since she spoke a lot about her writing process and challenges. Echoing Alix Ohlin earlier in the day, Gail said that finding the right voice in a novel is crucial to getting the story right. For A Hundred Flowers, she rewrote the first 100 pages four times and couldn't get it right. She finally found the right voice and the novel took off. This idea of finding the right voice for the story or novel is something I admit I haven't consciously considered as I'm drafting. When I get stuck, I tend to try to plow through, hoping a breakthrough will come, but now I'm going to try playing with the voice. Maybe switch from third person to first (or vice-versa), maybe switch the main voice from one character to another, maybe give the writing a lighter tone or a more sarcastic tone. Play is the key idea. Gail said, "If you think you're going to write anything, it never turns out that way." She often discovers what she's writing as she goes along, in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of way, going back to revise the previous day's work, then carrying on from there. She advised writers to write what you feel over what you know. She has written several historical novels set in the China and Japan of her parents' ancestries, as a way for her to understand where she came from. "Every book is written for a reason," she said when someone asked her which of her novels is her favorite. "You write a book because you needed to learn something you could only learn in the writing of it."

  • Finally, back at the Old Courthouse, I sat in on Austin Kleon's talk "Steal Like an Artist," based on his book of the same name. He read some from it, talked about originality and creativity, and took lots of questions from the audience--even though he was almost hoarse from a bad cold he was still getting over. Cheers Austin! Here are a few highlights from his talk: Embrace influence instead of running away from it. We can trace the genealogy of our ideas--what we make is a mash-up of our influences. Climb the family tree of your influences by picking one writer or thinker you love, studying everything of theirs, then study their top influences likewise. It's in the act of doing things and making things that we find out who we are. In imitating and failing to perfectly imitate our heroes, we find our unique voice. You have to start doing the work you want to be doing.

I highly recommend finding a book festival in your area and attending. They're usually free, and I didn't go the first year I found out about it because I was afraid to go alone, but they're usually filled with kind bookish people and kindred spirits. Nothing to lose! If there's not a book festival in your area, consider starting one. You don't have to be anybody special to start a book festival, just start talking to people in your area. Contact libraries, independent bookstores, writers clubs and get the conversation going. Google "how to start a book festival" and see what you can learn.

As I walked to my car yesterday evening, I passed the exhibitors taking down their booths, white tents flapping vacantly in the early stirrings of a thunderstorm. Their signs were gone, their tables were empty or emptying. In my waking hours this morning, I imagined the grounds of the festival as a kind of castle, an enchanted domain that appeared magically this weekend and has disappeared until this time next year. As I said Saturday, the fates guided me throughout the weekend, and the fates were very good to me. Thank you, Decatur Book Festival!

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