Wesleyan Writers Conference One-Day Event, Part One

I woke up early on Thursday morning to drive to the Wesleyan Writers Conference One-Day Event. I brought with me my “man-purse,” a black bag I had purchased in Japan, which has a main compartment, two side pockets, a handle that comes undone in order to access the main compartment, and a shoulder strap. In my bag, I carried a folder that included a partial map of Middletown, directions to and from Wesleyan, my emailed itinerary, and a campus map that was printed from the Wesleyan website. In addition, the bag carried two pencils, a pen, an eraser, a hand pencil sharpener, my moleskin notepad, extra tissues, cough drops, and tic tacs in the side pockets; and an umbrella, one copy of Digging Up the Past, a notebook, a camera, and two bottles of flavored water in the main pocket, where they shared space with the folder.

It was a rainy and dreary day, which contributed to stop-and-go action on I-84 W. Surprisingly, once I turned onto I-91 S, traffic was fine.

I got from my house to I-84 to I-91 to Rte. 9 all right, but I turned off of Rte. 9 too soon, and ended up wandering the streets of Middletown until, after turning down Church Street near what appeared to be the center of town, I pulled over in…a church parking lot.

I discovered that somehow, I was now south of Wesleyan, instead of north. Looking at the map right now, I’m not sure how I passed Wesleyan without noticing it, unless I went down some side street not on the map. In any case, I had just passed Union Green, so I realized that the best strategy would be to continue down Church Street and then take a right onto High Street. Soon after following these directions, the campus came into sight.

Upon finding the university, I now came across my second problem: where to park? Somehow, the parking lot I had found so easily on my map, right off of High Street, was nowhere to be seen. All of the one-way streets off of High Street didn’t help matters. Finally, I found some groundskeepers and asked one of them where I was supposed to go. He didn’t know where the conference was, and when I told him it was being held in the Writer’s Conference (Building?), he didn’t know where that building was, either. So, I showed him my scaled-down and hard to read campus map. I had highlighted the building I had to go to. He gave me directions to that building, but the only parking I found there was for faculty, and the building itself looked lifeless. I think I looped around again (thanks, one-way streets) before pulling into a parking lot where a woman, probably a teacher, was getting out of her car. I asked her where the Writers Conference was being held. She didn’t know. She asked if I had the name of the building. When I told her at the Writers Conference, she asked if I had a name with me. That’s when I thought of my itinerary. So, instead of showing her my map, I dug into my bag and found the three pieces of paper that listed that day’s events. On there, it said I had to be at the Usdan University Center. Well, she knew where that was, and it wasn’t the building I had highlighted on my map. Following her directions, I found the place easily, and with ample parking for visitors.

Usdan University Center

Unfortunately, I missed out on breakfast, since I arrived on the third floor at 8:50, and the first class started at 9 am, in a different building. But, I had eaten breakfast at home, so I really only missed out on having some tea. The woman manning the table on the third floor gave me my packet of stuff and told me where the classes were being held. More importantly, she told me where lunch and dinner would be served.

Sitting on a chair, I went through my materials and found the schedule of events, as well as my name tag (I put that on). I didn’t have time to go through all of the materials in detail, so after flipping through everything, I stuffed them back in my folder, placed the folder in the bag I had brought with me, and headed off to my first class, which was held in Room 001 (a lecture hall) in the Public Affairs Center.

Public Affairs Center

My first class was on the novel, being taught by Alexander Chee. He was late. His assistant began class, but he came in soon after. I believe he said he had car trouble that morning.

As one person put it later during lunch, Alex looks like he just woke up and is disorganized, but then he’ll come up with such nuggets of good advice. I would emphasize the “looks like” part, for he keeps on task, even if the structure of his lesson plan isn’t apparent. It’s kind of like listening to Debussy; he is working in meter, but you can’t tell it’s there.

Anyway, of the three classes that I took (I’m not including the seminars or panels), this one was the most beneficial to me. Of course, if I had gone to the full conference, I would’ve had five classes on the novel, instead of one. On this particular day, he discussed the climax and ending. Since the ending of the novel I’ve been working on has been a nightmare (the possibilities are endless, though I may be close to a good ending now), I was relieved to hear him say that writing multiple endings to a novel was “a good exercise” in trying to decide how to end a book. As he said, “You’re looking for the surprise that accords.” In other words, it must follow what has happened before, and yet a reader shouldn’t be able to see it coming from the first page. On the other hand, it must be what the book wants, which is why one should never force an ending onto a book just because one wants that ending.

More practical advice included keeping a timeline of the novel up until the ending, so that one can visualize everything that has happened up to that point. I was thinking of doing an outline so that I knew what happened in which chapter, but this might be even more helpful to the ending. I’ll probably do both. Another bit of advice was to keep a list of characters (the main ones, at least) and where they appear in the novel.

Oh, and during the class, I had an idea for the ending of one of the few play ideas that has been bouncing around in my head. Yay moleskin notepad!

My second class, on short stories, was with the very structured, very rule-driven Roxana Robinson, though she mentioned that the class really covered all aspects of fiction. We were supposed to read a story for that class called “The Sock,” but like trying to find the other half of a pair of socks, I couldn’t find the story in my packet. During the discussion that ensued, I borrowed the story from one of the women sitting in my row. She (and I, for that matter) had sat in the same seats for previous class, too. Hard to read a story among the chatter of others, though. At lunchtime, I found a copy of the story near a board in the dining area, and since coming home, I’ve been able to read it under quieter circumstances.

I guess the most unique thing about the story is that it broke many of the rules that Roxana had been teaching the class for the previous three days. These rules include using beautiful language (as in language chosen carefully, not purple prose), clear voice (point-of-view), sympathetic characters (not necessarily good, but we can engage with them–though wouldn’t that be empathetic more than sympathetic?), conflict (didn’t Beckett disprove that with Waiting for Godot?), and change (some short of shift has to come in the story, which I would agree is essential for short stories, and important for novels, too).

Then, because people who had been there all week had writing assignments that carried over from one class to the next, some volunteers read what they had written for that day’s assignment. In the past, they had written a dialogue between two people, as well as some other exercises that I can’t remember. On that day, they were to have written about one of the characters they had previously written about doing something that he or she loves. The point was to show how language can convey the love a character has for a task, rather than telling the reader, “So-and-so loves doing this.” (That just made me think of something. In the novel that I’m writing, two of my characters love playing in the swamp. I should rework those parts so that they convey the joy that they feel, instead of getting all metaphysical about why they like playing there.)

In fact, that was part of the criticism that Roxana, and others, had concerning some of the stories (though the discussion felt like that which takes place in a freshman level English class–many averted eyes, few volunteers). In other words, don’t tell me that they love what they’re doing, show it through the language. Oftentimes, it will come out as great concentration on the character’s part, according to Roxana. Sudden mood changes from chaotic to calm also suggest how much the character loves what they do, as it did in one story read during that class.

Out of all the stories that I heard, several were very good, and one–about a woman caring for a mango tree–was phenomenal. Later, I got to share my praise of that short story with its author.

Usdan University Center (back), as seen from the Public Affairs Center

Next came lunch, back at the Usdan University Center. They had salad, cold cuts, rolls, and cake there, as well as some more unusual fare. I’m still not sure what it was, thought I tried some of it. It looked to be Western Asia fare, but not Indian. Not realizing that I could go up multiple times, or maybe not thinking of going up more than once, I tried to cram everything I wanted to eat onto one small plate-even dessert.

I initially sat alone, but I was joined by several people who knew each other, including the two women who had sat near me at both of my morning classes. They were all from Avon and Simsbury, which might explain why most of them seemed to work in the medical profession. They asked me a few questions, but most of the time, I listened to them. All of them were older than me, though the youngest could have been in her late thirties (since she had kids in high school, however, I would guess that she more likely was in her early forties).

As I was eating my cold cuts (with a fork, not in a bread roll), I heard a crunch. Now, nothing in a piece of roast beef should be crunchy, so I looked at my plastic fork. One of the ends had been bitten off. I guess I had bitten down too hard.

Instead of spitting out the piece of roast beef within my mouth, however, I located where the piece of plastic was within the piece of meat. Unfortunately, sometime between then and when I swallowed the rest of the meat, I must have swallowed the offending plastic. Since I don’t have any internal bleeding issues at the moment, I can only assume that it passed out of my system safely.

The rain had let up a little before lunchtime, but now it was pouring outside. Heading back to the Public Affairs Center, I had to find Room 004 for my next class: poetry. Well, that proved difficult. I finally found it around a corner that appeared to end in a room, not another corridor, but the teacher for that class, Ravi Shankar (no, not the musician), was late. Very late. He apologized when he came in, thinking that the class was at 1:30, not 1:15, as it had been on all previous days. In addition to his being late, he also noticed that none of us had the packets that should have been waiting for us in the room. That led to him calling Anne Greene, the director of the conference. Also, he asked for a volunteer to pick up the packets.

While waiting, we discussed “alternate ways to organizing poems.” In other words, poems can be organized by meter (pentameter) or stress (iambic, anapest, dactyl). Alternate ways include concrete poems (that look like the objects they’re describing), and syllabics. Syllabic poetry organizes poems according to the number of syllables in each line, and can be as complex as rhyming patterns in determining how the poem is written. The most well-known syllabic form of poetry is haiku.

We were about to start an assignment at that point, but then the packets arrived. So, we had volunteers read some of the poems in the packet out loud, while the other ones could be read at our leisure. All of the poems were syllabic. We focused mainly on self-portrait poetry that compares oneself to another object (i.e. “Self-Portrait with Insomnia, Rocks, and Fireflies” by Stephen Cramer and “Self-Portrait as a Seismograph” by Cecily Parks), though we also read “The Thin Man” by Donald Justice and (my personal favorite) “Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath. I have to say, the two self-portrait poems were weird and difficult to understand (the seismograph one more than the other), yet Ravi seemed to agree with all of the assessments that came in from the students for each poem, which is necessary to encourage a discussion on poetry, but also made me wonder what one could say about a poem to which he wouldn’t nod his head.

The assignment (which he encouraged one-day students to try, as well) was to write a self-portrait poem “composed with something” (that’s what I wrote, but maybe I meant “compared with something”?). And, we were to write it in syllabics. I did write one, though on Friday as opposed to Thursday night. You can see it in my previous blog.

Next time, I’ll discuss the panels that I went to, what happened at dinner, and something called the Padraic Colum Evening.

Click here to read Part Two.


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