Last year’s festival dinner view.

This year has been (among other things) one giant exercise in imagining. Imagine this is a regular writing workshop. Imagine enjoying this poetry reading in an art gallery (instead of in your bathrobe). Imagine actual happy hour. But if we writers are good at anything, it’s imagining.

So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that my favorite literary festival, the literary highlight of my year, the 2020 Fall Literary Festival hosted by Lit Youngstown (Ohio), was a great remote success. I was incredibly impressed at the quality of the craft workshops, readings, and community spirit–even from a few hundred miles away.

From the festival description, “This year’s conference [was] centered around the theme In Many Tongues, a conversation bringing together writing and publishing, literary inclusion, translating and translation…and the generational, political, ecological, and experimental elements that add to the wider literary conversation.” Whew!

If only I could have attended each and every session, heard each and every voice. But, there is only one of me, so I picked and chose from the many literary offerings. Here, I’m happy to provide highlights in the hopes I whet your appetite for next year’s festival–or a literary event in one of your favorite places in the world:

Jacqueline Marino, who edited two anthologies focused on the stories of Youngstown, Ohio, titled Car Bombs to Cookie Tables, taught a craft workshop, Write Your Rust Belt Story. You know I was there. The journalism professor and writer talked about crafting place in our stories, establishing voice, and finding the moment of connection in a piece. With a little free-writing, I started on a piece about my own Ohio hometown.

David Giffels was this year’s keynote speaker. In his talk, “Thank you Cleveland Good Night: How the reluctant writer becomes a performer,” Giffels shared his own personal story–from a shy, bookish kid to a newspaper columnist to the award-winning author and essayist–and spectacular storyteller–he is today. His latest book, Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America is an on-the-ground look at Ohio and its people and place in American politics. For the first time, Giffels narrated his own audio book, and he related ideas of (actual) voice and (literary) voice. You write “the way you wish you could talk,” he said. And, as for writing about place, he recommended looking for what’s odd about your spot. Further, explore “a question you know you can’t answer.” (Oh, so many questions.)

Writer Quincy Flowers’ craft talk, On Polyphony: Writing a Novel and Making Meaning in Dialogue with Others discussed incorporating texts, including historical and para-texts, along with documents real and imagined, into our fiction. For this historical fiction writer, Flowers gave me a lot to think about, including, when does historical invention cross the line into untruth… and why haven’t I read more Percival Everett?

Dr. Ken Schneck, an author, editor, and professor of education, led a session called Shameless Self Promotion, which focused on helping us writers market our work–and ourselves–to build our audience for our books, journals, or even (ahem) blogs. Top takeaways: writers need a thing to market (not themselves) and a measurable goal; writers need to know who’s doing the kinds of writing we’re doing (our “comp” writers); and writers need not shy away from self promotion. Most helpful: Schneck’s discussion on the importance of our “elevator pitch.” You know, the succinct, pithy answer to “What do you do?” (I’ll share mine in the comments.) This talk also inspired me to update my About page at this blog–let me know what you think.

Fiction writer, playwright, and teacher Toni Thayer led a session called Finding your Voice in the Voices of Others, in which she urged us participants to carefully consider short pieces by “a diverse range of writers to fuel playful, creative imitation, with the end result of expanding one’s own style.” I studied a poem by Ohio poet Hanif Abdurraqib, in which music dictates the sound and the meaning of the piece–and applied some song to a WIP of my own. Refining your own voice through imitation is such great exercise!

Keynote speaker David Giffels talked shop in Relatively Speaking: Writing about Family in Personal Essays and Memoirs, and I’m happy to share some of the best tips for my writer friends here. What’s tough about writing about family, said Giffels, is we know too much. And also too little. Our own memory of an event is only the beginning. What comes next? Research. Interview family members to get their take; research events on YouTube; refresh your memory through photos and artifacts and by revisiting the place. But the bottom line in how NOT to get in trouble when writing about family, Giffels said: “empathy is everything.”

And there was so much more literary goodness over the 2+ day festival–even a happy hour.

Have you attended a literary festival or conference in this age of Zoom? What was the highlight? Any tips to share? Do you write about family on your blog or elsewhere? How do you avoid the pitfalls while telling your story? Do you have an elevator pitch at the ready, when people ask, what do you write about, what do you blog about?

Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Are you a Rust Belt writer or poet interested in doing a guest spot at this blog? My more than 1,500 followers love to discover new voices. Let’s connect!

27 thoughts on “Lit Fest Lowdown: 2020 highlights

  1. The ever-elusive “elevator pitch”: I said I’d give you mine, but first I want to let you in on a revelation I gleaned from Dr. Ken Schneck’s session, Shameless Self Promotion: you probably need several different elevator pitches. Me, I’m working on a novel (or two); write short stories; edit a journal where I also write reviews and conduct interviews; and, oh yeah, run this blog (and that’s excluding my day job as a development writer for nonprofits).

    So, my blogger elevator pitch, with shameless self-aggrandizement:

    My name is Rebecca Moon Ruark and I’m a blogger and Ohio native who hypes the Rust Belt literary scene. There are so many writers and poets coming out of the Rust Belt, but they don’t always get visibility they deserve. I love an in-depth interview–and I’m a pretty great interviewer–so I dig deep and share some amazing creative voices at my blog, Rust Belt Girl. I’d love for you to follow me there!

    Show me your blogger or writer elevator pitch. I’d love to see it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My name is Kelly, and I’m an egg. Did you know an egg (not hard-boiled) can go right through a plate glass window? Saw it myself. One of those floor-to-ceiling many-paned windows. Dad was not happy. Oh, and I’m a chameleon. And a cat or a dog, depending on the day and the hand trying to pet me. I’d like to think I’m shrewd as a serpent, but I’m too food-obsessed to eat dirt. I write or I sit wistfully in front of a screen. I mom. I wife. I sweat every day. Walk the Metroparks every evening. Kiss my husband. Tousel my son’s curly hair while he plays video games. Drift to sleep with a book. Hope, pray someday someone will lay in bed with something I’ve written.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t do it right, but I’m a fan of the recipe-springboard, even for prompts. Haha. I don’t know what came over me. Felt like waxing poetic today. You may have given me yet another post, Rebecca! I love the idea of answering the question, “What do you do?” It can go so many ways. Thank you for always making me think!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There are quite a few interesting takeaways from this, but what really spoke to me was writing about family and the writer’s elevator pitch. I never know how to introduce myself so I have a very random and silly about page that gives zero insight of what I actually write on the blog… but I don’t have a niche so I guess that’s fitting? Lol And the family point, it’s a really tough one. What may come off as empathetic to some may be the opposite for others. I tend to leave anyone but my husband and daughter out of anything I write, unless it’s anonymous. Great elevator pitch Rebecca!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Shelly. In my next life, maybe, I’ll be able to answer the dreaded question, “So what do you do?” without feeling like a deer in headlights. As for your blog intro–I think random and silly is OK, too. Frankly, I enjoy the niche-less blogs, and yours is great!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are too kind! And if you freeze, make a joke~ an ice breaker always does the trick 😉 when I get that question I tend to reply “I make money from selling other companies’ money” and that usually starts the convo lol
        Please don’t ask what I do 😅

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Just a working, millennial mom trying to figure out this thing called life. Born and raised across the globe, I have embraced what I call a permanent culture clash that helps me see life through a quirky and unique lens. Every day is a new experience which brings along challenges best served hot with a dash of cinnamon. Life is a cookie, it’s no fun if you don’t eat it!
    Join me on this journey as I try to figure out raising a little spawn while maintaining a healthy relationship with an equally confused human.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I LOVE that! “permanent culture clash” not only sounds interesting, as a phrase, but differentiates you from the typical mom-lifestyle blog (if there is such a thing). And the life is a cookie–also great. Makes me think there could be food involved! And the instructor who was talking about elevator pitches stressed that when you deliver yours, you need to tell someone what you want them to do. And you succeeded there, saying “join me,” not just “I have this blog.” (I feel like that’s what I always do. “So…I have this blog”–pretty noncommittal). You’re great at this elevator pitch stuff, Shelly!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whoa you really broke that up in such a brilliant way… I’m sure you could sell water to the ocean 😂 thanks so much for the feedback, it’s really got me thinking 😊
        Also, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad saying “I have this blog” to be honest. If a doctor said they had a practice wouldn’t that show an achievement that they want to share and potentially discuss further?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Everything from the comfort of my desk chair. I did miss some of the usual in-person camaraderie, but the literary organization really did a fantastic job replicating almost everything through Zoom. And I do think, there’s no going back to all in-person now. My guess is they’ll do some kind of hybrid going forward. Works well for everybody!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was going to make an attempt at an elevator pitch of my own, but after reading Kelly’s anything I come up with will pale in comparison.

    I’d love to read your piece on your Ohio hometown if you’re ever in the mood to share.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I’m so there for any elevator pitch that starts with “I’m an egg.”

      Thank you for the offer–I do hope my hometown story is read-able sometime in the near future. I have a kernel, only, at this point. Need to do a little research and digging to make it grow. Likewise, I’m always happy to read something of yours. Your blog’s always such fun.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. This was jam-packed. Just reading about this was inspiring. I’ve attended two video only workshops where a host serves as the audience or person that narrates the event throughout the days. The first time I went, I loved the speakers and gained a lot. The 2nd time I joined I was less excited about the folks and the event went by without me taking advantage of it. Booo me.

    Your about page looks great, very professional with all of your writing up front so that’s good. So what’s your elevator pitch? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was jam-packed, and I was online for much of two days. I kept telling my boys ahead of time that they were just going to have to pretend I was away at a conference. (That didn’t work so well for them, but it did for me.) My husband ended up taking them for a guys weekend–so we all got to do our thing! I definitely have Zoom burnout for one-off kinds of things, but the whole festival idea was a commitment I’m glad I stuck with.

      Thanks about my About page!

      My elevator pitch for blogging is the first comment on this post. One of the most helpful elevator pitch tips is that you need to have more than one. I’d been trying to give my whole laundry list of roles: writer, blogger, journal editor…and no one’s going to remember any of that!

      So, I’ll try out my fiction writer pitch here for you: My name is Rebecca Moon Ruark and I’m a fiction writer exploring stories of the Rust Belt—contemporary and historical ones. We read so many stories of places on the coasts, but not enough of places like Cleveland, where I grew up. So I’m telling those. In my novels and in my short fiction, I’m always trying to answer: “How did I get here?” (I’m usually hearing that Talking Heads song in my mind!) And I’m a pretty good researcher, and do a lot of that for my historical novel, set partly in Ohio. [It would be great if you visited my blog and read some of my fiction.] [It would be great if you’d take a look at my novel manuscript or linked stories.]

      I’d love to see your pitch, Lani!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hmmm. More than one elevator pitch! Yikes. I tried to model my pitch based on yours. I’d love to hear more about what specific stories you write about and are drawn to, like what are Rust Belt stories? Feel free to point me to a blog post. 🙂

    Okay here it goes! *Gulp*

    Hello, my name’s Lani V. Cox and I’m a nonfiction writer currently living in her mom’s birth country, Thailand. I’ve been living abroad for about ten years and have consistently blogged about my experiences.

    In 2015, I self-published a print, electronic, and audiobook memoir called ‘the missing teacher’ which is about getting fired and getting back up again. Specifically, on my experiences as a Waldorf teacher and how we mistake our self-worth for our careers.

    Currently, I’m working on my second memoir tentatively titled ‘Misfortune Cookie’. It’s about family, being a first-generation Asian American, and finding the freedom that comes from not fitting in.

    [And if I’m honest with you, it’s been a BEAST trying to come up with my hook for this. I dance around a few themes and it’s a work in progress! Feedback is welcome, and don’t worry about hurting my feelings. 😛 Thanks!]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The stories I’m working on (and working on placing) at the moment are linked stories about family–a fictional one–and vision and visions in the Rust Belt. By Rust Belt stories, I mean those set in the Rust Belt and those where being set in this post-industrial place matters. I guess for me, it’s about writing about place–and not just setting a story in a place, willy nilly. Belt Publishing does a great job publishing nonfiction about place. One fiction writer who does the same is Bonnie Jo Campbell, whose collection of stories _American Salvage_ was a National Book Award finalist.

      But…your pitch! I love it. The fact you’ve already found a really engaging title for your second memoir is amazing. That alone is quite the hook, but my favorite part is “finding the freedom that comes from not fitting in.” I think readers expect first-generation American stories to be about feeling like an outsider–but you’ve turned that on its head. And you’re promising the reader that you’re going to illustrate the positives in that. Which, following your blog, doesn’t surprise me at all! If your pitch was an actual brief conversation you were having with someone who didn’t know you, I might quickly list after the “not fitting in” line the places you’ve lived–to quickly give an idea as to the terrain covered in your memoir. But, really, I think it’s fab. And I can’t wait to read your memoir!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks so much, Rebecca. You truly made my day. I was eager to see if you got back to me before I went to work, and I’m glad the pitch did all the right things. ❤

        And looking forward to learning more about what makes Rust Belt stories special 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I will have to add elevator pitch to the list of things I want to work on this fall. It true, my blog feels like a catch-all at the moment, and I don’t have a good way to describe it or my writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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