The Children of Magicians and Librarians
Dr. Andy reflects on what he learns from talking to authors about their books
*Editor’s Note: Dr. Andy is reading from new poetry at his own poetry series on Thursday, March 2nd at 7 PM at the John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis. Also, he will be hosting an in-person Davis Pub Quiz as a fundraiser on March 9th. Details to come.*
Do you learn best by listening, reading, watching, or doing? I think I learn best in conversation, or at least that’s what my recent experiences at the San Francisco Writers Conference confirmed for me.
I’ve been serving as faculty at the SFWC for about 15 years, or almost half the time that I’ve been teaching classes writing and literature at UC Davis. In the early days, my University Writing Program colleague Brad Henderson and I helped to run the poetry track at the conference, a track that was created, I believe, because Brad and I volunteered to manage it and to give most of the presentations.
In those early days of the conference, Brad and I gave talks about putting poetry into prose, running a poetry series, or sound and texture in poetry. We also ran critique sessions where attendees would read a poem out loud before an audience of 30 or more, and get critiques on the spot. Brad was an accomplished cowboy poet with an MFA from USC, while I was a PhD in poetry who kept many poetic examples and micro-lessons in his head.
As many talks as we gave, back then I appreciated the gaps in our presentation schedule, so I could sneak into the back of talks on the book trade, an author’s platform, unleashed shareable content via social media, eBooks, and the pitfalls and advantages of independent publishing. I also got to have long conversations with some important authors, from Davis’s own John Lescroart to perennial favorite Joyce Maynard to the author of more than 430 books, R.L. Stine. By the way, Stein has sold more than 400 million copies, outpacing even his friend Stephen King. I learned so much from listening to those wise and experienced authors, and I’ve written several books (and published three of them) since attending my first SFWC.
I feel adept by now at giving formal presentations. I’ve been doing so since I first presented at the my first academic conference at MIT back in 1992, just a few years after I concluded my undergraduate studies in Boston. But what I love most is the give-and-take of the academic panel, the Q+A session, or the impromptu speech. About ten years ago when the writers conference was held at the International Mark Hopkins Hotel, President Obama was staying across the street at the Fairmont Hotel, so the city halted all the streetcars on California Street, thus delaying one of the speakers. A conference organizer tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would run that speaker’s session. As we walked to the room, I asked just one question: What was the planned presentation topic? I was told five seconds before I walked in the door, and then gave his talk. What a delightful challenge and resulting triumph.
These days the SFWC puts me to work as a book coach for attendees. I “charge” $100 for a 30-minute session, with all of the money going to pay for scholarships for the subsequent year’s conference.
While we shouldn’t limit participation only to people who can pay outrageous prices for Dr. Andy’s time, I’m grateful for these brave souls. I love meeting with the aspiring authors, most of them working on novels, and a few of them on memoirs. I learned so much from their pitches and their answers to my clarifying questions. For some of them, I helped them shorten their pitches for agents; for others, I helped them think about their projects from their readers’ point of view. As journalists will tell you, your having written something obligates no one to read it. Some attendees just wanted to know how to get the most out of the conference.
Last year my favorite conferee was a woman whose father was a magician and whose mother was a librarian. I told her that she probably expected to go her entire life without hoping to meet another person in the world whose father was a magician and whose mother was a librarian. Well, I was that other person in the world.
This year I met with almost ten authors, including a winery owner whose novel pitch seemed like that of a romance novel rather than what she called “a serious work of fiction.” I asked her when she had last read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Her response was expected: College. I showed her the way that her plot resembled the book which the critic Daniel Burt called the "first histor[y] of the private consciousness." The novelist before me was thrilled by the realization of the helpful echoes, and then brought me back a revamped pitch an hour later.
I was also thrilled. Rarely does my PhD in English turn out to be helpful in everyday conversations, but of course these conversations were not everyday. That’s why I love them.
I hope you get to have such a conversation this week.
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I hope you can join me Thursday at the Gallery and on the 9th for a big in-person Pub Quiz! Meanwhile, here are some bonus questions:
German Names. From the Latin name Ursus, the German name “Urs” means what?
Historic Periods. What historic period (or “age”), lasting approximately from 3300 BC to 1200 BC, was characterized by the presence of writing in some areas and other early features of urban civilization?
Pop Culture – Music. Jimi Hendrix was born the same year as Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, and Jerry Garcia. Name the year.
Sports – Race Car Movies. In the first scene of what race car film does Matt Damon’s character ask his pit crew if he is on fire before getting back into his racecar?