Friday, November 30, 2007

A Country of Book Buyers Who Don't Read. Huh?

The country is either morphing into illiterates, or we are collectively obsessed with books.

The New York Times recently reported, “The National Endowment for the Arts delivered the sobering news that Americans — particularly teenagers and young adults — are reading less for fun. At the same time, reading scores among those who read less are declining, and employers are proclaiming workers deficient in basic reading comprehension skills.”

Meanwhile, Mediabistro adds, “The Association of American Publishers released its latest figures on book sales: an increase of 5.7 percent for the month of September, and yearly sales maintaining their climb with an increase of 9.9 percent.”

The folks at Reuters pass on results of a study showing, “Reading tops the list of favorite leisure-time activities, but it does not seem to be as popular among Americans as in previous years.”

And the Seattle-Post Intelligencer not too long ago, said, “Not only are teen book sales booming ....but the quality is soaring as well. Older teens in particular are enjoying a surge of sophisticated fare as young adult literature becomes a global phenomenon.”
So what's with the NEA's gloomy "news"?

A fellow blogger (sorry can’t remember who at the moment, but if it comes to me, I’ll update) adroitly notes that most polls, book-purchasing tabulations, surveys and other measuring devices only look at the reading Americans do in their leisure time, and don’t take into account the heavy amount of reading done in the workplace, on college campuses, or otherwise related to professional or student life.

Yes, reading is a bona fide “leisure time activity” for many (probably for you, who is just now reading a blog about writing!). But reading also permeates the average American’s life as a tool – to access entertainment or information.

If your high-schooler spent four hours this week reading The Things They Carried – why doesn’t that count? Because it’s required and not strictly leisure reading? If you spent most of last evening re-reading Beowulf to prep for teaching a unit on British lit, why would the pollsters not include that time as reading? My cousin who works in truck scheduling, pores over Commercial Carrier Journal at her desk at lunch time. Is that reading?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for reading as a pastime, a hobby, an obsession, an incurable compulsion; reading as therapy, escape, enlightenment and intellectual discourse. Reading because you love words, ideas, and how a favorite “leisure time” author plays with words. I want everyone to read to learn, feel, think and engage. But even when one reads because one “has to,” I for one, still think that should count.

Come to think of it…if the Kindle catches fire, will time spent with books that way count as reading? Or will it come under the heading, using a hand-held mobile electronic device?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Readings are great. But not all the time.

Back to the NonFiction Now conference I attended in early November at the University of Iowa. You can read my other two posts here and here. [Warning – long than usual post ahead.]

Did the conference live up to expectations? Yes and no.

The positives: It would be hard to think of a venue (except maybe for AWP) where so many leading lights in creative nonfiction are under one tent. The names on the program, readings reminded me of when I was a freelance sportswriter and an amateur (and quite average) horse show competitor, I was assigned by an equestrian magazine to cover the selection trial jumping events leading up to the Olympics: Every single one of my riding idols was there, up close – talk about a personal moment gift-wrapped in a professional ribbon. The kicker, of course, was that I was free – entitled – to walk right up to any one of them and ask questions. I usually engineered my questions about their performance that evening to also elicit information I could use once back on my own horse in the practice ring the next morning…

So it was in Iowa. Flummoxed about writing of personal tragedy? Chat up Sue William-Silverman over lunch. Wondering if it’s ever okay to blur the truth a little in nonfiction? Ask Philip Gerard. Need ideas for integrating creative nonfiction into the freshman comp curriculum? Nab Robert Root for a moment. You get the idea. Because the presentation rooms and reading venues are all in close proximity, and especially because everyone has their (included) meals buffet style in an airy ballroom, it’s relatively easy to locate and engage in informal conversations with icons, colleagues and newcomers.

So what’s not to like?

Writers who conducted their presentations with heads lowered, eyes fixed to their printed lecture and READ each and every word. Often with little or no emotion, emphasis or eye contact. Many presenters did this, and frankly it’s boring. It’s tiring. It’s uninspiring. And it’s sort of rude.

With fellow attendees (writers and teachers of writing), I speculated why this was so and here’s what we came up with: Teaching writers, who put in the time and work necessary to put together an interesting and topical (and often original) presentation for a major conference, will want to get it published, and rightfully so. Thus, the ready-to-publish printed-out, 5,000 word craft article masquerades as a “presentation,” instead of the presentation serving as a springboard for the future article.

Some presenters tailored their “performances” so that those printed-out tomes were merely outlines to guide their oral presentations. I won’t name here, of course, those who surprised me by reading, from first word to last, their entire presentation, without even one aside, or unplanned anecdote, digression, or other nod to the live audience. Frankly, it’s just too frustrating.

But I will mention a few whose lively, relaxed, engaging, audience-friendly presentations were worth the two airplane flights. Some had their papers in front of them too, but didn’t read word-for-word, and remembered that there were other humans in the room. They looked up, they paraphrased. They were comfortable off the printed page.

Gregory Martin, (author of Mountain City). Gregory brought props and did a terrific job of integrating them into his talk – the paper bags, scraps of paper, receipts and other papers on which he took notes while working for a year in his grandparents’ grocery store in the Nevada mountains. His students at the University of New Mexico are lucky.

Mike Steinberg, (author of Still Pitching), who can talk about teaching creative nonfiction probably for days without a script, and it’s fresh and personal and interesting each and every time. Readers of The Fourth Genre, and MFA students at Pine Manor already know this.

Roy Kesey, (author McSweeney’s China Dispatches), the closest thing to a stand-up creative nonfictionist as you’re likely to find at an event like this. Funny without really trying, and a unique take on most any aspect of his craft.

Hope Edelman (writer and editor of popular anthologies), had a willingness to point out her own mistakes, and little need for a script. She and her fellow panelists all talked from experience – that would be Dale Rigby, Patricia Foster, Daniel Jones and Faith Adiele.

Michele Morano, (author of Grammar Lessons). Here’s an example of someone who worked from a prepared piece, in fact she probably even was reading from it, but her ability to connect with the people in the room made it palatable.

There were others, too. These I’ve mentioned because they stuck with me, five minutes after I left the room, and now, three weeks later.

Another gripe: 4- and 5-member panels who turned presentations into readings instead of teaching-and-learning opportunities. It’s one thing to read a short passage or two from their own or another’s work to illustrate a point on topic. It’s quite another to fill a room with 30 or so paying conference attendees who think they are going to hear a discussion about some interesting facet of creative nonfiction, only to find that everyone on the panel plans to “illustrate” the topic by reading for their allotted 15 minutes from their own just-released book.

So here’s my message to conference organizers of all writerly events. Thank you for all the painfully-detailed and often uncompensated work you do to make these events happen. Really, I’m a big conference fan. But, please: Just because writers have tremendous respect for the written work of our colleagues and icons, does not mean we want to listen to them read, when they should be presenting. There is a difference. Encourage presenters to give a presentation. Unless of course, it’s billed as a reading. In which case, I’m there – lots of inspiring readings took place at NFN. Just don’t call it a presentation or a panel discussion, and don’t expect that after one has spent hundreds of dollars, taken one cab, two airplanes, a shuttle bus, and walked a half-mile across a windy campus to get there, a paying conference attendee will be happy.

Of course, panels and presentations run concurrently, so I could see only one out of three or four simultaneously running events. Perhaps in the other rooms, things were different. I doubt it, however, since my six writing buddies, who had differing interests than I, and attended a number of the other seminars, came away with similar impressions.

Perhaps the problem is this: I thought NFN was for nonfiction writers who write, but maybe it’s really intended primarily to reach nonfiction writers who write and who also teach nonfiction. Someone did point out that at other strictly academic conferences, presenters typically read their papers. I’m all for nonfiction faculty exchanging ideas and promoting their profession, and of course, I came away from NFN with pages of notes, ideas and new connections. And I’ll probably even take those cabs, planes and walks again in 2009 when NFN re-convenes. Because I did learn something while interviewing Leslie Burr and Michael Matz way back in 1984: You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t get back in the saddle the next time.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nonfiction Poetry

Bump up against enough poets in an MFA program – faculty and students—and eventually it begins to rub off. I arrived at poetry via what I enjoy reading most -- memoir. That is, it was reading two memoirs-in-poetry that fueled my poetry aha moment: We Didn’t Come Here for This, by William Patrick, and Blue Suburbia, by Laurie Lico Albanese. Patrick’s book was recommended to me by nonfiction writer and poet Richard Hoffman, back in summer 2006, just after I had been in Richard’s workshop the first week of my MFA program. I resisted. I was not interested in poetry, I insisted. Thanks but no thanks.

Fast forward one month to the Jersey Shore with my family, who had more stamina for the sun, humidity and heat than I did. A lazy hour at the air-conditioned local bookstore turned up Albanese’s book, which I opened only because I noticed on the end flap that the author lives in the next suburb over from mine, and I bought it more to support her and the independent bookshop than my own (then-nonexistent) poetry habit.

Three days later, restless from jetlag -- our vacation interrupted by my need to fly to Las Vegas, where my father was hospitalized with a stroke – I pulled the book from my poorly repacked suitcase. In less than an hour, I had finished reading and started again. Then I opened my laptop and ordered Patrick’s book. Since then, I’ve been tacking on poetry volumes to most of my book buys.

I’m going about it in a completely haphazard and non-academic way. I just pick up a poetry book, skim, read a few poems, and if I like what I read, I buy it. Or I hear a poet read, stumble over his or her work in print somewhere, or think the book’s cover is kind of intriguing (yes, it’s that illogical; but then poetry isn’t logical, is it?). Nikki Giovanni and Jeffrey Harrison arrived home with me this week; Ai and Holaday Mason got here somehow. And of course, Richard Hoffman.

And then…well, you know what’s coming, right? Rarely content with merely reading something I find fascinating, I usually need to try writing it too. And sometimes, it gets published. I’m not really a poet, I’m a nonfiction writer. But now I sometimes write poetry.

A contentious essay that just isn’t coming together morphs into verse in front of my eyes. A small moment seems to demand unusual punctuation. A misbehaving essay calls out for line breaks. I’m enjoying myself, even the rejection slips, like the one I got yesterday, from a mid-tier literary journal, which said, “This shows graceful and intuitive use of line breaks, and we especially enjoyed the spare use of language. Submit again.”

Submit again. I will. To the recommendations of writers who know better, and to the lure of poetry. Even if another is never published, I submit that reading and (trying to) write poetry, will always feed my writing.

Get started: Read a new poem each day. See what happens.

I'll be back in a day or two with more about the NonFiction Now conference.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Quotidian. Listen up: It's nothing trivial.

Quotidian. Don’t you love that word?

Continuing with my (admittedly random) posts on what struck me and stuck with me, from my participation in the NonFiction Now conference at the University of Iowa earlier this month…

Finding older, classic essays is now a whole lot easier (students and faculty alike know the frustration of hunting down an 1895 essay). Check out Quotidiana, where more than 260 essays that are in the public domain are housed, and at your fingertips, at no charge.

The site is the brainchild and passion of Patrick Madden, an assistant English professor at Brigham Young University, and excellent essay writer himself. You can search for essays alphabetically, from Joseph Addison to Zitkala-Sa, chronologically, from Seneca through Edith Stein. And who knows what you’ll find in between – thanks to Madden’s panel, “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things,” I spent an hour that evening back at my hotel reading the humor essays of A.A. Milne (yes, of Pooh Bear fame; who knew he spent 10 years penning personal humor essays for British mags about the quotidian aspects of his own life?).

Also included on the site are interviews with contemporary essayists and editors. What a find for MFA students, faculty, and others interested in the essay, to locate and enjoy the classics that often are only to be found in out-of-print, obscure, or expensive anthologies and texts.

Madden’s panel reminded writers – as Patricia Hampl did in her keynote address – of the trove of creative writing unleashed when one ponders the ordinary and ruminates on the otherwise routine; how the not-so-quotidian aspect of an everyday object, conversation, and place, can shape a story. Hampl described how a single, chipped teacup could unlock for the memoirist a torrent of memories, sensations, and feelings. Madden and his panel-mates, Michael Danko, Shannon Lakanen, Desirae Matherly, and David Lazar, reflected on creatively written essays resulting from the mundane, including – pointing to Milne again here – an outsized annoyance resulting from the cleaning lady’s repeatedly returning a single piece of bric-a-brac to the shelf upside down after dusting.

So go dust off something everyday, commonplace, ordinary, garden variety, routine, familiar, day-to-day, accustomed, run-of-the-mill, prosaic, unremarkable, old hat, humdrum, plain, pedestrian, or unexceptional – and see what happens on the page.

Monday, November 19, 2007

NonFiction Now...and Then...and Again

So many people have asked me to share my impressions and notes from my attendance at the NonFiction Now Conference, and frankly there was so much to take in and digest – and because I am still mulling it all over and thinking it all through -- I have decided to do it in short bursts over the next few weeks. I also thought this would be a nifty way for me to start my writing day, spending a few minutes recalling what it was that transpired over those three lit-rich days in Iowa.

So, today’s NonFiction Now minute will focus on the keynote remarks of Patricia Hampl. (And if you are a nonfiction sort and unfamiliar with Hampl’s work, better start reading, and don’t stop until you have made your way through a good part of her oeuvre.) Hampl started things off with a candid, relaxed and vibrant talk that challenged the conventional wisdom about the importance of a narrative arc in creative nonfiction.

“Narrative arc?” she asked quizzically, moving an index finger in the air to form an archway, then rhetorically shrugged her shoulders and deadpanned, “Huh?” Rather, she talked of memoir as “a series of tableaus, not a story,” or as “photographs, not a film,” in which “blanks, absences are expected.” She warned that the memoirist’s “chief sin is nostalgia,” and emphasized the important role that remembered objects and object descriptions can play in evoking story and character in memoir.

From a reader’s perspective, what is the point of memoir, she asked, and concluded: “You tell your story, and somehow, I get my own.”

When Hampl read from her powerful, haunting new memoir, The Florist’s Daughter, on the final night of the conference, she capped off a trend in conference readings, during which many writers shared works about a deceased parent.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Addicted to Books? Here's Help for Your Wallet, Shelf

I have no affiliation or vested interest in it, but my new favorite place on the web is Bookmooch -- simple, “green” and a little bit fun.

You join for free and list the books languishing on your shelf that you are willing to give away. Then you browse for a book you want and when you find it, you “mooch” it from another member who ships it to you, at their cost. When someone requests a book from you, you pay the postage. You can keep a wish list going and when a book you want enters the system, you get notified, usually within minutes.

In two weeks, I’ve received five books and sent off six. The point system is easy: Every 10 books you list earns you one point, good for mooching one book. Every time you send a book out, you earn another one point. Incremental points are earned in various ways, such as leaving feedback and acknowledging transactions.

Now, even though the New York Times recently ran a feature on Bookmooch, and I think it’s a brilliant way for book addicts to collectively enable each other, this won’t replace your patronage of -- and please, for all my writer friends whose livelihoods depend on it, don’t let it – your eclectic and service-rich neighborhood independent book store, or the deep inventory of your favorite online retailer, or even that nifty website where you pick up used books.

However, when faced with a groaning shelf of volumes that, for one reason or another, you doubt you will read again, swapping them for the cost of a media mail package (I paid $2.50 today to mail a heavy hardcover; and $1.15 yesterday to send out a slim paperback) sure beats selling books at a yard sale for 25-cents each--or having your local librarian look at you funny if you walk in with books to donate.

Mooch away and let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Iowa in October, Writing in the Air

- Top Shelf: Spent three days at the NonFiction Now conference at the University of Iowa last week, which is arguably the epicenter for graduate level literary writing in the U.S. Lots more on the conference in a (near) future post. Lovely weather, a setting beside the Iowa River, hanging out with some of my best writing friends from afar -- and presentations by a few dozen of the country's finest memoirists, essayists, nonfiction teachers/professors, literary journal editors, anthologists, creative writing craft book authors: Well, what's not to like?

- On the Ladder: Had a surprisingly terrific time at a small, local gathering of writers in my suburban backyard a few weeks ago. Women Reading Aloud turns the read-comment segment of the workshop on its head and puts the emphasis on active, thoughtful listening.

- Near the top: The anthology (in which my essay appears as the opening piece), Special Gifts: Women Writers on the Heartache, Happiness, and Hope in Raising a Special Needs Child has been named a finalist in the parenting/family-general category of the National Best Books 2007 Awards, over at USABooknews.

- Over and Done: That thesis I was moaning about a few weeks ago? Been there, aced that. Thanks for all the crossed fingers, well wishes, prayers and even the grumbling friends who wondered when/if I'd ever talk about/work on anything else, ever. I'm sort of sad to see it end. It was such fun (and really, an honor) to interview such an interesting group of writers, including, among others, Anna Quindlen, Peggy Orenstein, Meredith Hall, Mimi Schwartz, and Ayelet Waldman.

- Bottoming Out....and then, after the thesis, after the conference, after an October perhaps too crammed with literary doings....the inevitable crash -- exhaustion, over-stimulation and burn-out (and that was just me). Then there is my ailing computer. Cross fingers again, please.