Last week, I had the privilege of teaching at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and what a wonderful teaching experience it was. I got to see some old friends while also making a number of new ones. The participants were smart, engaged, generous . . .and they even laughed at my snail jokes.
My fiction class started at 8:30 each morning, which made for an early wake-up call, but we all soldiered through and had a bit of fun while doing so. I loved sitting in on the poetry class, led by Cathy Smith Bowers, and the creative nonfiction class, led by Dinty Moore, and I loved my conversations with the afternoon workshop leaders: Sherri Wood Emmons, Roxane Gay, Jeffrey Ford, Cathy Essinger, Matthew Goodman, Greg Belliveau, and Trudy Kishner. As my small-town newspaper used to say when reporting birthday parties, family reunions, or even shopping trips to nearby cities: “A good time was had by all.”
When I gave the keynote address to kick off the workshop, I said that I’d been lucky with the conferences I’d attended when I was first starting out because they’d given me a supportive group of folks who took my work seriously, who told the truth but as delicately as they could, who provided a network of friends that continues to this day. I also benefited from the instruction of workshop leaders who were more interested in teaching than in playing the role of “famous author.” I was exposed to editors and agents. I felt like a writer, and I left with the sense that with hard work and continued practice I could be better. From what I observed at Antioch, this was the experience of most, if not all, of the participants. Kudos to the organizers of this conference. I highly recommend it.
The workshop also had a Young Writers component, a group of high school students who turned out to be bright, poised, and darned talented. I listened to some of them read at the open mic one evening, and I came away mightily impressed. It was those young writers that I was thinking about when I listened to two literary agents talk about taking their clients’ books to auction in hopes of getting the largest advance that they could. These agents also were very direct about the types of books that they were looking to represent, and most of them were genre fiction. I learned terms I hadn’t previously known. Steampunk, for instance, and other sub forms of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. The agents were professional, energetic, and no doubt helpful to many in the audience. They were good writers’ conference citizens, willing to share their expertise with their listeners, and their presence demystified much about the publishing industry. So kudos to them, too. I started to wonder, though, whether the conversation about auctions and trends ran the risk of making the listeners, particularly the young writers, believe that a commercial interest was valued above any sort of literary inclinations. If we were in a cartoon, would our eyes have been flashing dollar signs?
Admittedly, my own aesthetic leans toward literary fiction and nonfiction, but still I don’t seek to diminish genre fiction or mainstream nonfiction. Every form has its place, and every book represents a writer’s individual talents and perseverance and should be celebrated. If zombies are your thing and that’s where your talents lie, then go for it. Write the best zombie book that you can write. But what if some of the people in the room, particularly those young writers, started to think, “Well, it’s clear that I have to write a steampunk-Victorian-vampire novel because that’s what sells.” What if they let what the agents were saying keep them from writing the things only they could write with authority and passion (yes, maybe even literary fiction) because they were too focused on commercial interests?
All I’m saying is this: when we start out as writers we can too easily believe that we have to write to fit current market trends. Even if we know from the git-go that we’re interested in writing literary fiction we can sometimes let the marketplace steer us away from our true material. I know I spent a long time thinking that no one would be interested in the stories that I had to tell about people in small towns and on farms in the Midwest. When I was a teenager, and on into my twenties and even some of my thirties, what I needed more than anything was the freedom to read widely and to try a number of different approaches in my writing. That’s how I began to define my aesthetic; that’s how I came to understand what world mattered most to me and how to best express it. Had I gotten the idea too early that I had to write a certain type of fiction, for example, who knows if I’d ever have become the writer I am today, one that I’m completely comfortable being, and isn’t that what we’re all after whether we be writers of literary fiction, or sci-fi, or steampunk, or any other number of genres and sub-genres? We want to spend our days doing the work that most fulfills us, writing the books that our talents lead us to write. I guess I’m saying we want a perfect match between writer, material, and form. In the final analysis, that’s what makes us the most happy.
In the afterglow of what was a fabulous workshop, I feel compelled to offer a voice to stand alongside the voices of those two agents. What I’d say to the young writers at the workshop (and to anyone still experimenting as they try to find their material, their voice, their form) is, don’t write a book to cash in on a market trend. Write the book that only you can write. Write it with all your heart. Write it for a lifetime, and be blessed.