I know what you’re thinking. Where are all the leaf-peeping pics? We know you drove along the PA turnpike to Ohio, climbing, winding, glimpsing down into little hamlets surrounding the sweetest, steepled white churches. All around were reds and every other burnished color. Oh, the autumn leaves!
Hold your trees for a moment, reader friends. First, a literary roundup. If you’ve never been to Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival, I’ll see you there next fall. In the meantime, here’s how I made my way through my favorite literary conference of the year (yes, even besting AWP, which I made it to in the spring).
This year’s festival featured the theme, The Places that Make Us, and I was so happy to be able to return–5th year running for me–to this conference held not far from the place where I grew up in Northeast Ohio. Big shoutout to all my fellow festival planning committee members. We did it (again)!
Special in a lot of ways, besides all the usual literary goodness, this year’s festival provided attendees front-row access to three film screenings.
But really, year in and year out, this festival always impresses me. What’s so special? Lit Youngstown’s director, Karen Schubert, is a literary conference alchemist, joining poets, fiction writers, memoirists, and even filmmakers this year for just the right mix of craft talks, generative workshops, creative readings, and roundtable and panel discussions. What do you get? Literary conference gold, no exaggeration.
OK, onward … Thursday evening featured the Gathering In, with a reception and open-mic to begin the conference. This year, I had a special guest in tow. My dad drove in from Port Clinton; we had dinner beforehand (your meatballs are outstanding, Bistro 1907) and then headed to the Gathering In. I will tell you, my dad did not even doze at what I believe was his first-ever open mic and found it delightful. We salute you poets and writers who can whittle your words down to a few minutes of magic!
My first full day of the festival began with a craft talk by novelist June Gervais titled Honoring Others with Our Fiction Research. Intentional and inspirational are the two words that come to mind when I think about this talk. In it, June described her research process for her debut novel, Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair. Braving the sometimes-fraught conversation around appropriation, authenticity, and sensitivity, when it comes to depicting readers from different professions or backgrounds, June exuded positivity. So, how do we honor others with our research?
First, have a goal. For June, she decided, “to make the most beautiful and honest book possible.” Second: do the research well–whether that’s in-person interviews, archival research, or hiring authenticity and sensitivity readers in later writing stages. Third (and this is June’s whole beautiful thing): show gratitude by thanking the helpers along the journey. Sometimes this means generous payment. Sometimes this means reciprocity–trading literary favors. Always this means a real thank-you in the mail and on social media and all the shoutouts possible, including on the old Acknowledgements page. “I try to be a living acknowledgement,” she said.
This year, I was intentional about attending the sessions (there are so many, I wish I could attend them all!) in my writerly “lane.” But I don’t seem to be able to resist the poets. In a roundtable discussion called “Moving Past Influence,” poets Mary Biddinger, Ali Black, and Dylan Morris talked about influences in creative writing–model writers and how they influence a poet’s style, and moving past influences as we develop our craft. When asked why she writes and why poetry, Ali talked about writing as an act of remembrance for those who’ve gone before her, those she’s lost. The stories are hers to tell, and poetry her form, she said, before she delivered one of the best lines of the weekend: “Poetry is my baby, and I’m poetry’s baby.”
Marketing-me felt right at home in Gabriel Welsch‘s craft talk Marketing Your Book–Tips From a Professional Marketer and Writer. How to generate pre-orders for your book … how to get it reviewed … how to develop a (shudder at the word) platform … and, ya know, actually sell your book. These were just a few of the practical tips covered. We listeners were asked first to consider our goal. What do we want from our book: readers? high regard? money? Gabriel covered Marketing’s 4 Ps: product, price, promotion, and place. Who said it first, I can’t remember now, but he repeated this gem a few times: “All arts marketing is local.” Along those lines, he said, don’t underestimate the wideness of one’s potential audience. Think about local clubs that aren’t book clubs, local fraternal organizations, historical societies, etc., etc. And, as if he and June had shared notes beforehand, he stressed gratitude. “Don’t underestimate the power of thanking.” (Thank you, Gabriel!)
Short story writer and poet Kelly Fordon (of Let’s Deconstruct a Story podcast fame–do check it out) led a generative workshop. I caught the second of two parts: the first, a workshop to deconstruct a story to understand its parts and how they work together; the second, a chance to get some words of our own on the page. There’s something about a good writing prompt. The simpler the better seems to work for me. Kelly gave this prompt: “Start with ‘We lived then …'” I’m not always in the writerly frame of mind to churn it out on demand, but here’s what I got:
We lived then spitting distance from the train tracks, the river, and the West Virginia border--so much winding, the running tracks leading not to any home I understood. A limbo, the twins not yet in school, not babies either. How many times did we stop the car by the tracks, watch the train pull tractors east and west--Kubota, Deere. In our rental house, the boys slept on a mattress on the floor, when they slept.
One positive of the pandemic was finding a new writing group. I guess Zoom is good for some things. Among the Cleveland-area members is Jeremy Jusek, Parma, Ohio’s poet laureate, host of the Ohio Poetry Association’s podcast Poetry Spotlight (check it out), and consummate literary citizen. Jeremy’s craft talk, Strengthening Artistic Communication Through Podcasts, covered how podcasts can be used by small creative groups to humanize its members and strengthen communities. I love bookish podcasts and meeting the person behind the book. He called podcasts “the ultimate bridging medium,” and I can totally see that. He said that when he edits the podcast interviews of poets–the last one was with Hanif Abdurraqib(!)–he shoots for no more than 7 percent Jeremy, the rest the interviewee, an impressive stat I will remember when I conduct interviews.
OK, this isn’t a great pic (sorry Karla, thank you, Rebe!) of one fantastic panel discussion with the featured presenters (minus Laura Beadling). The gist: the writers Karla Murthy, Candace Fleming, Joy Priest, and Kelly Fordon weighed in on “the element of place, real and imagined, in the literary arts.” Side note: if you can catch a Joy Priest poetry reading, run don’t walk to catch it.
Now, don’t let my festival book fair’s book haul–pictured below–throw you, I guarantee there was plenty of time in the evenings for catching up with literary friends over jazz and a local craft beer (and pierogi and pickle pizza–someone saw me coming!).
June Gervais started off the second full day of the conference tackling a subject close to my heart–and that of anyone about to dive into the query trenches. In her craft talk, Persevering to Publication: Some Practical Tips, June covered her (long) journey to the publication of her debut novel. Again, she walked the line between inspiration and practical steps to take. “Expect difficulty, but leave room for wonder,” she said. Now, could I please have a June Gervais quote-a-day calendar?
Along the practical side of things, she discussed making a practice of community while writing a novel (or anything else really). My favorite analogy she offered: think of the novel as the Thanksgiving turkey. It’s not enough. You need to support the turkey-novel with delicious sides, including the writing and publication of short pieces (short stories, essays, craft pieces, poems, etc.) Other crucial sides: an author website, a social media presence, and a literary community. (Check!)
Oh, the literary agent querying-getting-sustaining process. Should you want to endure the agent search, be prepared for it to be long and winding, June said. Most of all, enjoy life in this tough stage of the writing, find gratitude in the work and in your community, and “become a master of the polite check-in.”
I was happy to moderate two sessions during this festival. The first was a creative reading featuring poet and memoirist Jennifer Militello, whose love poems were nothing short of arresting and awe-inspiring. Youngstown native, poet Rikki Santer also read from her vast portfolio of poems, many centered on place–including some that explore the imaginary realm of place through old Twilight Zone episodes. And novelist Janet Beard read–and sang!–from her latest novel, The Ballad of Laurel Springs, which shares with readers some of the stories delivered by the old murder ballads Janet grew up hearing in her Appalachian hometown in East Tennessee.
The second session I moderated was novelist Erin Flanagan’s The Window or the Door: Transitioning from Writing Stories to Novels. (Or, The Plight of the MFA Grad–ha.) This craft talk was super instructional and featured 13 handy novel-writing tips. I’ll give you just a few and you’re going to have to hunt Erin down for the rest. #2: Start a novel-writing journal. #6: Figure out where your novel ends in time. (Also check out The Art of Time in Fiction for help with pacing.) #10: (Oh, this one is hard–but so necessary–to swallow.) Keep in mind that chapters aren’t short stories, meaning your chapter end needs to create more questions, more tension, etc., to pull the reader through.
If I have pulled you through this post this far, you have shown your readerly diligence and win a star! Or, how about a slideshow of the foliage, cliffs, boulders, and even 200-year-old petroglyphs I enjoyed with one of my oldest (she’s not old, our relationship is) and best friends and her son (who poses for pics like a Jet from West Side Story–and this is my everything now!). Please enjoy the treasures of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where I visited on a post-conference side trip.
Have you attended this festival or another literary festival? What’s your favorite part of a writing conference? Have you been to this national park? Let’s chat in the comments.
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Find me on FB and on IG and Twitter @MoonRuark. Find me at Goodreads and learn what novel I listened to on my way to and from the conference. Hint: I’m recommending it for fans of Tea Obrecht’s latest novel, Inland.
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*free header image of a fall foliage-colored door from Pexels