The Pulitzer and Velcro: A report from the Chuckanut Writers’ Conference

One of our Red Wheelbarrow Writers gives us her review of the Chuckanut Writers’ Conference. Thanks, Jennifer Wilke, for sharing your take-aways and your experience!

THE PULITZER & VELCRO

One writer’s report from the Chuckanut Writers Conference, June 21-22, 2013

by Jennifer Wilke

Jennifer Wilke

Be confident. Learn more. Keep writing. Write better. It isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. You have to leave shit out, stay vulnerable, tell your truth. It matters. Stories can change the world.

One of the best takeaways from the 2013 Chuckanut Writers Conference was Garth Stein’s keynote story about asking a producer friend to read the play he’d just written, Brother Jones (www.garthstein.com).

“Is it any good?” his experienced friend asked over the phone.

“It’s going to win the next Pulitzer Prize,” Garth answered.

“Well, then, send it,” she said.

His point wasn’t grandiosity, it was to always keep bold faith with your own work.

Suzanne Paola calls it a “Velcro moment,” when you hear or read a delicious, unforgettable turn of phrase. Notebooks and napkins are made for recording these. “Buttons are famous to buttonholes,” was another Velcro moment for me (from a poem written Naomi Shihab Nye, shared by Kathleen Flenniken).

On the first day of the conference, I made my practiced, impassioned five-minute pitch for my novel, face to face with an agent for the first time. I’d started weeks before with a dense outline, refined it, fumblingly practiced it, shortened and shortened, and shortened again. In search of Velcro. I literally felt my heart beat when I walked into the room. Then I pitched without a stumble.

The agent’s response was perfect (leaning forward, smiling, “Great pitch! Your passion for this project really shows.”). Then, not unkindly, the agent expressed concern that my first-time novel might be written literally, too respectful of its factual, family sources.

That’s when I fumbled. I said that’s exactly why it’s taken me a decade, because it had to be better than a family history. But I let the agent’s doubt in me change my smile. I could hardly use the evidence of my friend’s voicemail message declaring that my novel was wonderful and she couldn’t stop turning the pages. I had two minutes of pitch time left. The only proof is on the page, but the agent didn’t ask to read them. And, not unkindly, told me that endorsements from historians and published writers could help me bridge the divide from Unpublished to Author—someone an agent might consider representing.

My pitch time was over. Next. I kept smiling, said thank you, and departed as graciously as I could. In the sun again, I paced the grass. My pulse returned to normal. I gave myself credit for bravery. I wondered if the bruises would show.

Curiously, every other session at the conference came with an evaluation form—but not these pitch sessions. (Five minutes, really?! Someone sits at the door with a timer? This feels about as opposite as you can get to encouragement and support to writers. Shock treatment.)

One standard evaluation question throughout the conference was to describe an “Aha” moment from each session we attended.

My first Aha was Garth Stein’s keynote Pulitzer Prize boast. My second Aha was after the pitch session: I hadn’t lived up to his example. I’d let someone else’s doubt tie my tongue. I’ve worked hard to put my passion for this story onto every page. That is my truth. My better defense wouldn’t have changed the pitch outcome, but I would have stayed boldly in my own camp. I could have copped Stein’s line entirely, even (with attribution, of course!)

If your goal doesn’t make people laugh, it isn’t big enough.

Another Aha: I have to do much more to prove my first novel is worth the time to read. Endorsements. Platform. All the things other writers are doing & talking about doing. I only half-listened, because I didn’t know HOW. My magical thinking was that my route would be easier somehow, that my work alone would be enough.

It won’t. I’d heard this many times—but it’s finally clicked. I must venture forth. I must learn how by trying things.

At the conference, Alice Acheson presented great information about marketing and publicity in an open session and by individual appointments. I’d studied with her in the past, and we had a happy reunion between sessions. When she heard about my credentials issue, she offered a great idea for the how. Alice advised that I get my novel MS published on Village Book’s Espresso Book Machine, use a brown cover and title it “Advance Review Copy.” Find ways to get it to the people whose blurb or endorsement would matter to readers.

Jeff Bender’s session on Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey was a great reminder to tend to structure. Wendy Call told us that humankind has been talking for about a half a million years, and writing for about five thousand years; our brains aren’t hard-wired for writing yet. Here are two of the questions she asked us each to answer for ourselves: (1) What change do we want to see in the world? (2) What’s the big question behind all of your writing?

Now that the conference is over, I’ve written my thank you notes. This is my thanks to all the folks who helped pull off the Chuckanut Writers Conference.

 

New words I learned:

Ordure (excrement)

Bowerbirds (incredible nests)

Plenary session (attended by all)

Catharsis (release from tension; spiritual renewal)

 

Reading list from the margins of my notes:

Thomas Maltman, The Night Birds

Richard Hugo

Frances McCue, The Car that Brought You Here Still Runs

Sharon Old’s poems

Charlotte Wing, The Darker Sooner

Alice Fulton’s poems

Bruce Beasley, The Mass of the Ordinary

Suzanne Antonetta (Suzanne Paolo) Tell it Slant

Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain

Ellen Dissanayake, What is Art For? (and other works)

Elizabeth Bishop, One Art

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Vivian Gornick, The Situation & the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

Lee Martin, Turning Bones (blog)

Natalie Serber, Shout Her Lovely Name

Francine Prose, Reading as a Writer

Naseem Rahka, The Crying Tree

Karen Finneyfrock, The Spell of the Seawitch

Waverly Fitzgerald, Portraits of Plants

Kathleen Flenniken, Famous

Priscilla Long, The Writer’s Portable Mentor

Ruth Stone, In an Iridescent Time

John Dunne

Robert Frost

Pablo Neruda

Lisel Mueller, Fiction

Wislawa Szymborska, The End and the Beginning

Thor Hanson, Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle

Wendy Call, No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy

Bruce Beasley, Theophobia

Jennie Shortridge, Love Water Memory

Garth Stein, Timberland (coming)

 

3 comments

  1. I’m confident that you’ll find an agent who believes in you and your project. It’s like dating… you don’t want them unless they’re over the moon for you! Great idea from Alice Acheson. And Wendy Call’s questions struck a chord with me too.

  2. JLOakley says:

    Nicely done, Jennifer. Stepping out is the first step. It’ll happen.

  3. Many great writers had even more discouraging feedback at the beginning of their careers. But everyone has to start somewhere. Your writing is engaging and funny. You will surely get published, if you keep on knocking on the doors.

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