An A-Musing Weekend

Herewith are my scattered and mentally fried moments from this past weekend’s Muse and The Marketplace in Boston.

First off, major kudos to Eve Bridburg, Chris Castellani, Sonya Larson, Grant Patch, and all the staff at Grub for pulling off an incredibly complex and challenging feat of derring-do. And to the wonderful volunteers, those red-shirted Grubbie heros who seemed to never tire of directing glazed-eyed writers to Whittier or White Hill, just past the water station on your right.

baconFriday morning at eight AM, full of pre-conference energy, I bounce into the breakfast room, expecting muffins and coffee, and am delightfully surprised by tureens of scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, and mountains of bacon. Bacon! I am transformed into Homer Simpson. Hmmmm. Bacon. I restrain myself, imposing a six-rasher limit, despite the urge to go really crazy. People are looking.

Grub Artistic Director Chris Castellani delivers his Conference welcome, emphasizing community and connectivity, Grub staples, both of which prove out over the weekend in spades, and Eve Bridburg, Grub founder and executive director, makes an impassioned plea for the 40 For the Future drive to support the incomparable YAWP program. Have you given yet?

The first day’s sessions begin, seasoned veterans and nervous newbies fueling up on coffees to go, heading to the Beacon, Cambridge, Winthrop, etc. rooms for the morning’s seminars. The Beacon room features this year’s Town Hall Exclusive: How do you establish AUTHORity? A lively discussion ensues, led by moderator Porter Anderson, stimulating questions like, Do you need permission to write your book? I hope not.

The Friday Shop Talk Lunch Tables convene at Maggiano’s, across the street, and a cacaphony of shouting voices compete for the attention of agents and editors amid the overflowing platters of cheese and mushroom raviolis and chicken parmigian. Midway through lunch we play musical chairs and rearrange the table to give everyone a fair shot at their intended target.

Friday 5PM: After author Josh Weil receives the Grub Street National Book Prize for his novel, The Great Glass Sea, we gather in the Plaza Ballroom, with its stupendous glass chandeliers and outsized tapestries, for Authors in the House, a “live bookstore” competition amongst five self-published authors. Popcorn and “sausage pretzels” slathered in mustard, a deejay interspersing lively jams, and host Deborah Plummer Bussey’s spirited presence make it a fun, entertaining event.

charles-baxterSaturday, hump day of the three-day conference, brings more bacon, more amazing sessions, including one I attend featuring the erudite and unassuming Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love and numerous short story collections and novels, and who introduces himself as Charlie. His sparkling gems of advice are too numerous to list here, but he has the group laughing right off with the story about a Southern friend of his, to whom he had shown a story he was having trouble with. The friend, after considering the story, drawled to him that, “Charlie, somethin’ mo’ has to happen.” This was Baxter’s way of introducing his first rule of thumb. Where is Captain Happen?

Saturday’s sessions are capped off by the Marketplace Keynote: A Manifesto for Inclusion: Building a Better Marketplace for All Writers. The conversation, led by a non-panel (Chris was insistent on not calling it a panel) of four powerful and engaging women of color representing different facets of the publishing industry, ranges from how to write from a perspective outside your own ethnicity, gender, age to thoughts on how to bring true inclusivity to the industry. One of our own Novel Incubees, Gerry Whelan, responding to the question of whether one can write characters outside their own experience, offers this advice. Instead of “write what you know, know what you write,” doing the necessary research to create convincing characters. The session ends with a challenge to the audience to read three books ‘outside your comfort zone’ in the coming year, though I felt it was a little bit of preaching to the choir, given the demographic of the assembly.

By Sunday morning, I’d luckily had my fill of bacon, since it wasn’t served. Coffee and carbs would have to suffice. The conference closes with the keynote speech by Aminatta Forna, author of diverse articles, a memoir and numerous novels, including her most recent, The Hired Man. In her delightful, lilting English voice, she speaks on writing the political, noting that for her the two are inextricable one from the other. Touching on the difference between how the East versus the West considers the two, she emphasizes the urgency with which writers, say, in her native East Africa, approach their craft with political necessity as opposed to the more western weight on aesthetics. “Novels are written in blood,” she told us, and “we write to figure out how the world works.”

High on ideas, floating on the rolling sea of so many words, I stagger out of the Park Plaza into blazing sunlight, in desperate need of a nap after some fifty hours of Musing. But after that, it’s back to work, synthesizing a weekend’s worth of thought into the hard work of writing.

Wait ’til next year!

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