Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guest Blogger Ryder S. Ziebarth on Her First AWP Conference

When she walked into my creative nonfiction class at Rutgers University two years ago, Ryder Ziebarth knew she could write. She'd been a newspaper reporter, public relations specialist, and occasional columnist – but that was years ago. What she didn't know was if she could land freelance assignments or write what she wanted to write in her second incarnation of a writer's life: memoir, literary journalism, essays. She could. Now, she's a regular contributor to N (Nantucket) Magazine and Nantucket, and recently contributed to the Metropolitan Diary column of the New York Times.

Please welcome Ryder Ziebarth.

At the AWP conference in Boston last week, Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder and his long time mentor and editor Richard Todd autographed their collaborative book, Good Prose, for me. Watching, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the similar relationship between E.B. White and his professor at Cornell University, William Strunk. A mentorship that culminated in The Elements of Style (you have one on your desk, right?).

 Most writers need that important one-on-one relationship with a trusted guru —a second pair of eyes, a reliable reader, one who does not placate, is not politically polite, and perhaps, someone who is good company. Writers get lonely.  

When Lisa asked if I'd write a guest post about my first AWP experience, I was both flattered and flustered. After two years as her student/coaching client, here I was being invited to contribute, not as a student, but as a reporter, a writer, chronicling my first time on the AWP front lines: left to my own devices, just as I was at the conference, trying to maneuver among new and established writers, MFA students, authors and their admirers, genre groupies and editors, trying to find my way to the page. Any page.

Since Lisa couldn’t attend this year, I wanted to soak in everything I could over my three days of this behemoth of an annual conference, for both of us. Early each morning, I rushed from my hotel through a raging late season blizzard, and then tunneled my way from one Westin Hotel to  another like a mole, and to the Hynes Auditorium, the heart of the conference from which all blood and ink flowed, for 10 hours each day. I powered my way into overcrowded seminars, borrowed too many pens, and passed out business cards in the seemingly endless ladies room lines. 

Having preregistered weeks prior to leaving my home in New Jersey, I could choose the panels I'd attend from the AWP digital catalog before arriving, but my original list changed many times, and then again, daily.  For me, mostly nonfiction-related seminars made the cut,  but I was able to squeak in a  tribute to former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, do some quality cruising through the book fair, and catch the tail end of  a panel including novelist and creative nonfiction craft guru Bill Roorbach. Quietly ducking in and ducking out of rooms mid-seminar was the only way to pack everything in, as I wrung the days dry.

For me, the standouts symposiums and panelists I remember most: The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction (including Tom Larson, Mimi Schwartz, Michael Steinberg); I Essay To Be (Phillip Lopate, David Shields, Maggie Nelson, Amy Fusselman); The Art of the Ending (Amy Hemple);  The Urge Toward Memoir (Jeanette Winterson, Lily King); Flash Nonfiction (Sue William Silverman, Judith Kitchen, Dinty W. Moore). 

In the evenings and scattered through the days, there were keynote readings and panel discussions with noted authors Cheryl Strayed, Alice Hoffman, Tom Perotta, Tracy Kidder, Augusten Borroughs, Derek Walcott and others.  I sat, I stood, and at one pointed, lay prone on the last remaining inches of audience floor space.

Here are my top take-aways from the presentations and my overall experience of AWP:

Lesson One. No matter what topic or genre, what labels and writing-speak were bandied about  -- purple prose, literary journalism, flash nonfiction, braided essays, micro flash, personal narrative, memoirs, autobiography and spiritual autobiography (my head was spinning) -- one thing was clear: Good writing is good writing, and good writing practice is essential to becoming a writer of any import. Period.  

Lesson Two. Perhaps equally obvious, but worth repeating: write every day.  Get your process on. Malcolm Gladwell’s premise of practice, in his book 10,000 Hours, said Sue William Silverman, is how she became the author she is today.

Lesson Three. For the nonfiction writer, fight the urge to invent for the sake of narrative flow. Let memory serve the story, and even though it will not always be what someone else remembers, it will be your truth. Phillip Lopate was adamant that a writer “keep true to the artist truth. Facts and truths cannot be separated, they are hand in hand. Facts have implications and truths should never be altered.”
*Note to self: No cheating.

I won’t even go into debates and discussions on multiple narrative lines, third person narrative, or digression in story and plot lines; frankly, I am still burping-up this rich, three day buffet.

 I took copious notes, shyly asked several (burning) questions and made sure, when I could, to thank the writers and panelists for their time and contributions. Although I think most of them didn’t much care, and suspect they shook my hand while looking over my right shoulder to see if anyone more important was behind me, some were heartfelt in their appreciation.
*Note to self: be nice to everyone when famous.

Will I attend the AWP Seattle conference in 2014?  Yes, but with a lighter suitcase (fashion was low on the list), more power bars (the Au Bon Pain frequently ran out of food), and I will ask the Strunk to my White, the Todd to my inner Kidder, if she'll go with me. 

7 comments: said...

Lovely recap. What a whirlwind!

Barbara McDowell Whitt said...

Lisa, you are right. Ryder can write. Ryder, you had a wonderful time at your first AWP. I am glad you asked your questions and offered your hand. I want to volunteer when AWP has its 50th anniversary in Washington in 2017. I will be 74 and will have found a publisher for my book.

ryder ziebarth said...

Thank you fullsoul, and you, too Barbara! I hope I see you at the seattle AWP with YOUR book in hand, barbara.

Amy Morgan said...

I've read quite a few recaps of the AWP conference this week. Yours really gave that first time feel and lessons for me to live by should I ever make the journey. Thanks!

Uli said...

Wow, Ryder -- great job! And what an amazing experience that seems to have been. If I go to AWP next year, can I please sit next to you two?

Carol Berg said...

Hey Ryder,
I met you during the conference just briefly walking in together from that blowy snow, but I'm glad I got to read your recap.
Looking forward to reading more of your stuff!

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