The morning was very full. Obviously, there was a lot going on. Something to note about this conference is that, while I’m talking about my reactions/ impressions with the panels that I attended, there were about 28 other rooms at two different hotels (Chicago Hilton and Palmer House Hilton) that were also housing panels. Some of these rooms were on the smaller side, only cramming in around 50 or 60 attendees, many had room for 200 or more. There was a lot going on.
After the “Women in Jeopardy” panel, I reentered the fray and had to leave the 3rd floor for the first time that day to find the International Ballroom South on the second floor. Now, this is not the most inaccessible room ever, but it is a tad bit hidden. You take an elevator up, but then an escalator down (or was it up) to find the Ballroom … I never did get that particular route committed to instinct, so relating it now seems almost impossible. If I had been more prepared to blog about the conference, perhaps I would have had the foresight to take some notes on the coming and going, as well as the few scribbles I got from the sessions themselves … ah, hindsight.
On the way I bumped into Kelly Hansen Maher (also from Hamline, and a wonderful poet) at the elevators and we had one of those brief “Oh my god, it’s good to see you here we should find time to talk later but we’re running so late so bye!” conversations that tend to happen when you’re bouncing from place to place so fast. It reminds me a little of high school and how so much always seemed to get packed into those few seconds at the lockers before you had to dash for your next class.
My noon session, in the International Ballroom, was titled “The Art of Writing a Joke.”
From the description:
R155. The Art of Writing a Joke
(Stephen Goodwin, Richard Bausch, Robert Bausch, Jill McCorkle, Alan Shapiro)
International Ballroom South, Hilton Chicago, 2nd Floor
A performance, discussion, and celebration of jokes. We’ll tell some jokes with pedigrees (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Twain) as well as some of our own, hoping to suggest just how artful and astute—and just plain funny—a joke can be, and how this most durable of forms can sometimes rival the most inventive turns and sophisticated tropes that any language boasts.
Does that sound like they had a plan? Well, they didn’t (and I don’t recall any Chaucer or Shakespeare, though they might have slipped in a couple of Twain’s lines). According to the folks on this panel, who have all been friends for what appeared to be forever, the idea for this panel began at last year’s AWP when they were chatting before and after other panels. They folks enjoy cracking each other up and they thought, well, perhaps if we do it on a panel then maybe we’ll discover something about the jokes we love to tell each other.
So, that was the idea.
The result was a very funny hour and fifteen minutes of jokes and funny stories and a few nuggets along the way. One was about how jokes (and funny stories) develop based on embellishments and on the personality (or associations) of the joke teller. In one case, the Baush brothers told the same joke. Richard had told it first and then a year later Bob had developed the joke into something even better, though his embellished telling. When presenting the joke to us (it involved a stuttering bible salesman) Bob told his version first, dragging it into the realm of a short story. He took a few minutes to tell it, divesting both the employer and the wannabe bible salesman (the stutterer) with distinct characters and the background of the joke with a solid sense of place (without actually setting the joke in any one place in particular). Every time the stutterer spoke, he would draw out the sentences in such a way that by the time his employer character finished them, we were already chuckling at the one word the stutterer was able to say plainly: “yes”. As the joke continued, and the stutterer kept coming back to the employer needing more bibles to sell, we both rooted for the success of both of these characters while we waited for the inevitable punchline that would push us over the edge. It finally came, as the employer was having a regional sales meeting that he wanted the stutterer to present at, since he’d outsold all of the other bible-sellers week goals in one day. When the question finally came, “how did you do it?” Bob draws out the stutterer’s response well further than he had previously, because the answer he is giving is something that none of the other characters in the joke can finish for him … “I asked them if they would be interested in purchasing a copy of this lovely bible. If they were uncertain, I said to them that I would be happy to come inside and read them a few passages from it.” This line, drawn out in the exaggerated stutters of the character kept the audience invested and laughing at the delivery of the punchline, as well as from the punchline itself. Richard Bauch’s version had all the same basic information as Bob’s version, except that the delivery was far more direct. His stutterer’s voice was only featured once (or perhaps twice) and the joke was told from a more distant perspective, something close to an omniscient perspective in writing. A man did this, a person did that, he invited the man … Bob’s version brought the audience and the telling much closer to the central characters and inside the joke being told.
The idea of association also came up, and one joke that was told was presented in both the Jewish version and the Irish Catholic version (basically a man goes into synagog/ church and asks god a question). Again, both versions of the joke had the same basic DNA, but both versions required the specifics of the characters/ institutions that they were portraying and, as a result, the punchline was as different as the outlook of the two different religions.
So, specifics in the telling end up making the joke (or story) more universal. There were other gems that upon hearing them, I thought, “well, duh. of course.” but since I spent so much time laughing and enjoying the presentation, I didn’t write any of them down. This section has no “from my notes” because there weren’t any. (This is also the reason that this session didn’t make the list of “still to come”–I was consulting my notes and not the schedule.
One other thing to note about this panel, this was the third panel of the day and it was the third way that I’d seen a panel presented. The first panel had a moderator who offered up his perspective and then directed questions to the other panelists. The second had a moderator who participated and acted as a fifth member of the panel. The third had a moderator who introduced the panelists and then got out of the way. None of these ways were more right than the others, they just provided different experiences (I might have felt otherwise if any of these panels had gone too far away from the central idea of the panel, but these three panels had been described in broad enough terms that the conversations/ presentations that we got still fit into the general framework. Also, I had gotten rid of my “I MUST LEARN SOMETHING NEW! THERE MUST BE VALUE TO THESE PANELS!” voice and was just enjoying the ride at this point. So there’s that.)
I dashed from “The Art of the Joke” and down to the Lobby Level to attend my fourth panel of the day in Continental A: “What I Wish I’d Known”.
From the description:
R176. What I Wish I’d Known
(Kim Wright, Jeffrey Stepakoff, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Rebecca Makkai)
Continental A, Hilton Chicago, Lobby Level
A panel with four novelists discussing what caught them by surprise in the publishing process: what agents can and cannot do, working with editors, the importance of publicity, launching books, being a small book in a big house, dealing with reviews and feedback, and the emotional ups and downs of the debut experience.
This was a very interesting panel, where the authors all discussed what happened after they got what they thought they wanted (with a little bit of how they got to that point thrown in). This was also the fourth different presentation of a panel that I came across–in this case, Kim Wright served as a sort of moderator, but she was also one of the four panelists. Different, but again, it worked. This panel was also originally slated to have a different Rebecca, Rebecca Rasmussen, but apparently something happened that prevented her participation. What that ended up leaving me with was an additional opportunity to hear Rebecca Makkai and larger desire to read her stuff.
One of the big things learned in this is that no matter how prepared you think you might be to have your book published, you’re still not. There is still something that will catch you off guard. Kim Wright was unprepared for the emotional toll that putting her book out there would have on her and couldn’t find anyone who would accept that there was a bit of depression mixed into all of that “OMG you are so lucky everything must be amazing” commentary that she was surrounded with. She wrote a lovely article that encapsulated her contributions for Poets & Writers current issue. There is also the matter of getting the book out there. I’ve long heard how little the publishing houses do in terms of press/ book tours, but there is still so much that the authors can do before it’s too late.
From my notes:
You need to help your editor sell your book. Not only on the road, but in house as well. You need to give them all the ideas you have and all the information that you can that can help them pitch the book to the folks in charge. Each publishing house has a lot of editors and a lot of titles to sell and if you can’t get any traction under your title before it’s published, then the publisher will write it off right away and focus on something else (regardless of how awesome/ not awesome the projects are).
You’re selling the book to the booksellers and your interacting with readers, but the most important part is the bookseller, because they’ll be interacting with your potential readers on a much more regular basis, long after you’ve left their bookstore in the rearview.
Don’t expect any treatment that you receive to be “standard”. Flowers … unique book tours … parties … or lack of all of this, none of it is par for the course. Mostly, they’re trying to do whatever they can to get an image out there. They’re marketing and you’re part of the product.
From one of the writers: “Remember, it’s a business relationship. They’re not really your friends, though they might become your friends.” Basically, tell them what you need and ask them the relevant questions that you need answers to, but always be professional about it and always keep your sense of humor. Don’t be a “needy” writer. They’re not really there to prop up your ego and tell you that you are a beautiful little butterfly. You are engaged in a business relationship and if that relationship stops being beneficial, they will get rid of you (and you should be prepared to get rid of them if they are not upholding their end of the bargain). That being said (and this was said in one of the panels, though I’m not sure if it was this one) don’t be one of those “grass is always greener” agent hoppers. They can’t do magic. Realize this and realize that you have a part to play in the equation too. Maybe they can’t sell your book because it isn’t good enough, or maybe it’s because the market isn’t right for it. Don’t always assume that your shit is always gold and if it’s not selling it must be their fault.
Finally: “Struggle is built into the process.”
Well, another long entry and I still haven’t gotten to my favorite panel of the day “There Will Be Blood” (or the end of the day, for that matter).
More later …