Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

Tag: Reading

AWP Post-Mortem: What Was That?

This past weekend I went to the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP, though obviously it would more accurately be “AWWP”) in Washington, DC. It was fun. I got to see some great writers read, among them Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Amy Hempel, and Gary Shtyengart. I got a good, large dose of Richard Bausch, who is as entertaining, wise, and funny in person as are his stories. (Actually, he’s way funnier than his stories, which rarely “work blue,” in contrast to the man.) And I dropped in on a couple panels preoccupied with my own preoccupation, making a living as a writer (while not giving up on my personal, creative work).

But as I made my way back to Pittsburgh, the dominant feeling was something like “So that was AWP.” Kind of a flat feeling, like “Why did I do that again?” My hope for the conference was that I’d come out of it hungry to write, inspired by what I’d seen and heard. And while that sort of happened, to a greater extent, it didn’t.

I’d been to AWP once before, three years ago when it was held in New York. But in some ways I considered this my first conference because in New York I slept on a friend’s air mattress up in Queens, and it seemed that my days divided neatly into AWP Time and Friend Time. AWP Time featured panels and perusing the tables at the Bookfair. Friend Time began with a subway ride north, and was centered more on bars and strip clubs, with not as much overlap between the two as you might expect. In the time between conferences, I’d come to understand that a lot of AWP’s value stemmed from networking, and that a lot of that was done outside of panels and the Bookfair, at off-site events and over drinks (though never, that I’ve heard, at off-site events hosted by strip clubs, or over watered-down strip-club drinks).

My first reaction to the “flat” feeling mentioned above was that the trip was a waste of money and time (during which I got zero writing done, it bears mentioning). I opined to my traveling companion that it would have been better to do a writer’s retreat kind of deal, where a part of each day was spent actually writing.

That’s probably true, but in the fullness of time—two days later—I think that such a reaction misunderstands AWP’s purpose. I have a friend from grad school whose AWP schedule was positively packed, and the reason is that he attended a few of those writer’s-retreat deals—Breadloaf, Sewanee—and met a lot of people there. AWP’s function seems more to refresh those connections.

And/or to solidify them. My roommate, Sal “Chugg-a-Lugg” Pane, knows a lot of literary people only by way of the internet. It was interesting to see him talking with people in person whom he’s “known” for some time, but never actually met. (These observations also served to bring home the fact that a lot of literary people are quite awkward in person.)

These are incomplete thoughts, but when an experience feels flat or vaguely unsatisfying, it’s usually useful to think about why that is, and whether or not you’re “doing it” wrong. (Heh, heh.) I didn’t do AWP wrong, exactly, but it was less than it could have been. The way to do it, it seems to me, is to use AWP as a meeting space for old friends, understanding that it’s not going to help your writing transcend previous limitations, but, if done correctly, it might help you renew your commitment to the writing life.

Seemingly Unrelated Addendum: The writer Pam Parker (whose blog, Finding Meaning with Words, is well worth your time), is a Green Bay Packers fan and jokingly suggested some kind of wager between the two of us (as the Packers just played the Pittsburgh Steelers, my local team, in Super Bowl XLV). Nothing came of it, but in the spirit of friendly sports-wagering between writers, I thought I should acknowledge this “rivalry” and give Pam a small shout-out for having backed the winning team. Congratulations to the Packers, who also mowed down my real team, the Philadelphia Eagles, en route to becoming champs.

(This addendum is related, in case you are wondering (and still reading), because the Super Bowl was the culmination of my long, eventful weekend—i.e., I was home for maybe 90 minutes before kickoff—and thus the conference and the game are tightly linked in my mind.)

Here’s to Giving up

. . . on books you don’t enjoy reading, that is.

For most of the new year, I’d been working on Adam Levin’s mammoth (i.e., 1,030-page) tome The Instructions. And for most of that time, I was waiting for it to go somewhere. Finally, on page 272, I put it aside for a little while. I picked up Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics), have found it to be awesome, and am now reconciling myself to the fact that I probably won’t be going back to The Instructions. It will join Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospitalon my bookshelf as over-long, over-hyped novels, published by McSweeney’s, that I found to be all sizzle and little steak (though in both cases I didn’t/won’t finish, so I should really be less confident about dismissing them; all I can fairly say is that both novels completely lost forward momentum, making their enormous length (700+ pages in the case of The Children’s Hospital) unjustified and thus all the more tedious).

It got me thinking about the ethics of giving up on any book, no matter how little I’m enjoying reading it. I’m sure lots of people are like me in that the thought of giving anything up carries a certain stigma. Even considering giving up on a dull book is a new phenomenon for me. I suspect the stigma of quitting comes from years and years of schooling, when I literally couldn’t have stopped reading something for fear of failing class. But bundled up with that fear is the idea that with any book, no matter how dense and seemingly terrible, if you can just push to the end, there will be something revelatory in the experience of having finished it; that’s very much the implicit promise an English teacher makes when he/she assigns you to read 1984 or Julius Caesar.

But once you recognize a stigma as coming from your years of schooling, it’s fun to celebrate the fact that you’re no longer in school by defying said stigma. I’m going over my list of books read in 2010 (yes, for the first year I kept a list) and realizing that it was a banner year for flaunting my ingrained prejudice against quitting books. I thought I’d share my list of abandoned books (which I also penciled in, mainly so that, if I’d ended up reading like 17 books, I could comfort myself by looking at all the books I also spent time on without finishing), for whatever such information is worth. Read the rest of this entry »

Presumed Innocent

As has been mentioned, I had a recent encounter that softened me up somewhat to considering “genre” and “mainstream” fiction with more generosity than I typically showed either. The first book I read afterwards was Stephen King’s Under the Dome (which was a great read; it’s proving not to linger on in memory but, you know, whatevs). But I also took the step of ordering a couple books that my conversational counterpart (the one-time Franklin W. Dixon, author of the Hardy Boys series) suggested as being particularly good “genre” fiction. (An aside, to be filed under Reasons I’m Glad to Be out of Graduate School: How nice merely to put “genre” in quotations and trust that my readers have a vague-but-close-enough sense of just what I mean, without needing to strictly define, problematize, historicize, put in a specific cultural context, or otherwise footnote the term.*)

One of these books was Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. I’ve been working on it for a few days and though it was slow going to begin with, I’m now one late night away from ripping through it. In this case, Franklin W. Dixon’s pitch to me is worth paraphrasing: to wit, that though people get them confused, Scott Turow is no John Grisham; his prose is respectable, shapely, precise; there is nuance, depth, and great intelligence. Since I honestly had conflated Grisham and Turow, and from years of seeing Presumed Innocent‘s gawdy blood-fingerprint on the paperback cover had lumped it in with the pulpiest of pulp novels, this was news to me and I snagged a copy of the book with some trepidation, but with high hopes as well.

All of which have been justified. The novel is thorough and deeply intelligent, in structure as well as in the ordinary details of each scene. (The plot, in a nutshell, is that a deputy district attorney is falsely accused of murdering a former lover, and must defend himself against the prosecution of a political rival. The set-up is an elegant way of allowing the narrator to move from the prosecutor’s table to the defendant’s seat, where he picks apart the strategies of both his defense attorney and the prosecution team. It may not sound like much, but I feel I can now understand why Law and Order re-runs are constantly playing: the law is fascinating, and an endless source of conflict and human drama. To be ushered through it like this is a real pleasure.)

I won’t say that much about the novel, which was a big deal almost 25 years ago—I fear I’d be embarrassing myself, like if I’d just discovered the Star Wars trilogy and couldn’t shut up about it. At some point I will have to process some further thoughts on so-called “genre” writing; I feel at the moment that reading Presumed Innocent is only deepening my earlier conclusions, namely that there’s nothing wrong with it.

In terms of my own writing as of this moment, reading these more mainstream books has increased my desire and willingness to “go for it” in the sense of making the story exciting, as well as in terms of using the oldest, sturdiest fictional tricks: surprises, secrets, unadorned conflict. It’s very much a continuing development, but it’s certainly a welcome on.

*Re-reading that aside, it seems not so surprising that I’d be contemplating a move away from canonical “literary” fiction and toward the stuff that’s sold in airport bookstores and consumed voraciously on beaches, Greyhounds, diners, etc. etc. I’ve always reacted nastily to the lit-crit side of things, whether it was during my undergraduate studies or while earning an MFA.

On Under the Dome; or, 1000+ words on literary versus genre fiction

I’m using that previous post to segue to a brief snapshot of where I am right now as a writer, by way of a long rumination on different modes of fiction.

About a week ago, I was at a party thrown by a Pitt creative writing professor. Invitations went out far and wide, and a lot of old students turned out. I ended up in a completely fascinating conversation with a guy who went through the program in the early nineties. For a few years during grad school and afterwards, he wrote under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon. If the name means anything to you, you may be freaking out now, as I was: Franklin W. Dixon is the author of the Hardy Boys series of novels.

Read the rest of this entry »