What’s at the Core of the Core Ideas

Along with my faithful writing companion, Kelly Davio and several other writer pals, I attended Jennie Shortridge’s release party for her latest book, Love Water Memory at Elliot Bay Book Company here in Seattle. The party was a rollicking good time, complete with booze and schnibbles, and—best of all—music performed by the author and her friends/bandmates. Jennie is a brilliant writer with the most lovely singing voice, and I envy her beyond measure. I was truly blessed, and quite humbled, when Jennie graciously endorsed Girl with a great blurb several years back and I have ever since admired the way she seems to effortlessly move through this crazy industry.

While Jennie read and discussed her new book, she talked about the genesis of the core idea behind it: a newspaper clipping about a couple who found their way back to one another—and back to love—after one of them suffered a rare form of amnesia. Listening to Jennie describe how she came to weave her own story from this nugget of a core idea got me thinking about what compels writers to do what we do, to tell stories. No two writers truly accomplish the task in the same manner, but at the heart of it, we do because we cannot imagine a life without writing.

J.K. Rowling once said that the idea for the Harry Potter series came to her while she rode home from work one day on The Tube, and the train pulled into King’s Cross Station, the character of young Harry Potter suddenly appeared in her mind fully formed. Stephen King says that the plot of his bestseller, Misery, came to him in a dream. For me, the experience of stumbling upon inspiration to write has been varied. For my memoir, obviously the story was already there and was already pretty good (at least, that’s what the reviews say so far), and I just had to make sure to tell it right. The idea for my current project came up a little more adventurously: while skiing in white-out conditions on the Summit at Snowqualmie with my brother, Dylan, about three years ago, he turned around to ask me if I was alright and I assured him that I was. Then, he asked, “It’s kind of ominous, isn’t it? Looks a little like the end of the world.” Boom—in a single heartbeat, the concept for a post-apocalyptic, volcanic winter story waltzed right on in to my mind, my protagonists desires and conflicts, trials and allies, mentors and loves all swirling around in my head just like the snow whipping around my face as I moved down the slopes. And poor Dylan had to endure my wild, ceaseless and barely coherent brainstorming for the remainder of the day.

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All Grown Up and Stuff at AWP

I’ve just returned from my fifth trip to the annual AWP Conference (the Association for Writers and Writing Programs) , and am proud to say that I’ve yet again survived the thrilling ordeal. It’s taken me two days, three loads of laundry, about six servings of pasta, and many hours of sleep to recover and recombobulate after the exhaustion and overstimulation of the chaotic, 12,000-attendee conference, but I am once again walking and talking like a human being.

This year’s conference was almost like a homecoming, in a way: I caught up with old friends, signed and swapped books with said friends, reminisced over the silly foibles of my not-so-distance youth in this industry, and looked back at the distance I’ve traveled thus far in my writing career. When I first attended the AWP conference in Chicago five years ago in Chicago, I was fresh out of my MFA program and had no idea what trajectory my career would take. I had only submitted my work to a handful of literary journals, and had only been published in one. I certainly never dreamed that in a matter of years, I’d be editing one of the industry’s most reputable literary magazines, and would have published my debut memoir, A Real Emotional Girl by a New York-based publisher of substantial prestige (In hardcover! With a photo insert!).

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The Girl on the Cover of Girl

Next week is the annual AWP conference, to be held in Boston this year, and I’ll be attending the weekend’s festivities for yet another round of literary gluttony and general mayhem along with my faithful companions and fellow editors of The Los Angeles Review: Kelly Davio, Ann Beman, and Joe Ponepinto. In addition to the densely scheduled and attended panels, workshops, and readings, as well as the whirlwind of nearly ten thousand like-minded artists crammed into one overburdened convention center, there is also the delightfully overstimulating chaos of the AWP bookfair.

I spend about 90% of my bookfair time manning the LAR booth where we sell issues and subscriptions, say hello to all the contributors we’ve come to positively adore over the years, and–of course– participate in some of the best people-watching around. But that other 10% of my bookfair time belongs to the decadent hour or two or five I get to spend blissfully wandering the crowded rows upon rows of the world’s best literary magazine, arts programs, small presses, and writers. For those of us in the writing biz, this is heaven. I savor that experience of say hello to old friends every single year, and every year I buy too many books and magazine and merchandise because I find myself wanting EVERYTHING. Best of all, though, I look forward to drinking up the sights of so many gorgeous, hard-won books on display, all those richly crafted nuggets of knowledge and emotion and art wrapped up so finely in the kind of design feats that can knock your socks right off. Heaven, I tell you, heaven.

One of the things many non-writers are surprised to learn about the publishing process is how little control an author will usually have in the selection of his or her cover art. Luckily for me and Girl, the incredible team at Skyhorse Publishing included me on the decision and welcomed my feedback in what proved to be a thrilling and highly educational search for that perfect image to represent my book. Because I’d been dreaming of publishing this memoir for so many years, I came to the table with images already in hand. I’d held onto a photograph taken by progeny photographer Holly Henry, and was delighted when the designers at Skyhorse responded well to it. Galley copies were printed with that original image, which was a haunting and somewhat polarizing image, and I was elated. While all the little loose ends of font choice and alignment were still being settled, word came down from on high that we’d have to choose a new image, and do it quickly.

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