My Day at a Writer’s Conference – or – The Benefits of Showing Up

by Jerry Waxler

On Saturday morning, a sunny autumn day, I left my home amidst the browning corn fields of Philadelphia’s northern exurbs. Thirty miles later, turning onto estate-lined roads of the Main Line, I reached Rosemont College, rich with serious stone buildings nestled amidst old-growth trees, the perfect setting for an intellectual feast. The college’s MFA program was hosting a regional writing conference called Push to Publish, organized by Philadelphia Stories magazine, a literary journal founded and run by Christine Weiser and Carla Spataro. I was looking forward to this opportunity to spend a day soaking up the ambiance of writers, learning, and networking.

In the lobby, looking for the registration desk I felt the buzz of writers, with our desire to put words on paper, to organize thoughts, and reach out to people. This ever-present tension between writing in private and reaching out to the public is at its most paradoxical when we get together in person.

The keynote speech turned out to be invigorating and liberating. Beth Kephart, whose work I did not know, started as a memoir writer, who, as her career proceeded, extended her writing to other forms, most recently winning awards as a young adult novelist. As her writing skills and interests develop, Beth follows her creative compulsion and then finds people who understand it. This is the refreshing message I drink in; it’s okay to speak from my heart and then find a market, rather than the other way around.

The writer’s journey is a long walk through a desert and talks like Beth Kephart’s are the oases of cool succor, mixed with a bit of prophecy that if I keep going, I too will reach ever more interesting connections with readers. (Click here for Beth Kephart’s blog.)

Outside, tiptoeing around the stinky ginkgo berries, whose smell I knew well because of the tree outside my grandmother’s house in the Logan district on North Broad Street, a professional-looking man with a rich German accent introduced himself. He’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and wants to publicize science. I told him my interest and asked him about his writing style. When he told me he was still writing in the academic mold, I launched into my pitch that the best way to reach readers is to bring himself into the page. “That’s interesting,” he said. “When I show my students photos I’ve taken around the world, they ask me what the trip was like. They want to know about me.” It was really fun sharing this insight about popularizing science with a university professor. I need to do this more often.

At lunch I sat down with a couple of women and asked what they write. One of them said, “I’m Ethel David. I wrote a book called, “My Lover the Rabbi, My Husband the Doctor.”

“How interesting,” I replied. “I saw that book on the display table. How nice to meet the author.”

The other woman said, “And I’m Cheryl Grady, her Boswell,” referring to the fact that Ethel spoke and Cheryl wrote.

“So,” I said. “Your husband was both a doctor and rabbi. That’s incredible.”

“No. I really had an affair with a rabbi while I was married to a doctor.”

Pause. “Don’t you feel awkward writing about it?”

“At 92 years-old, honey, I can say anything I want.” I had to ask her to repeat her age several times. Her voice was so lucid and strong, I would have figured her to be around 70. After she showed me family photos from 1916, I went back to the table where Larry Robin, owner of the oldest independent bookstore in Philadelphia, Robin’s Book Store was glad to sell me a copy of the book.

While most conferences provide the opportunity to speak with an editor or agent, this one offered “speed dating” letting you talk to more than one for a generous 15-minute block. First I spoke with Michelle Wittle, a blogger for Philadelphia Stories, and then Peter Krok, publisher of the Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told Peter about my interest in memoir and essay writing. He expressed interest in my writing because he too is interested in memoir. He said his book of poetry, “In Search of An Eye,” is essentially an introspective journey. I have thought about the fact that poetry is an expression of the poet’s life, and so I decided to look more closely at Peter Krok’s book of introspective poetry to learn more about this relationship between memoir and poetry. I went back to Larry Robin, and bought a copy of “In Search of An Eye” by Peter Krok.

For a review, of this chapbook, click here.

Another unusual aspect of the Push to Publish conference was that all the meetings were panel discussions. Workshops at other regional conferences I’ve attended, like the Philadelphia Writers Conference, and the Lehigh Valley Writers Group are taught by individuals. I felt that the bevy of writers in each session was more in keeping with the boutique flavor of the conference, and made the publishing journey more accessible. The panelists’ varying perspectives and conversations generated energy. Perhaps it felt refreshing simply witnessing that there are lots of writers who are out there “doing it.”

One of the women who moderated two panels was Susan Muaddi Darraj a Palestinian-American and Senior Editor of The Baltimore Review. Her book of short stories called “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly,” won the Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction from Foreword Magazine. This was a curious regional twist, since in my day, South Philadelphia was synonymous with Italian. I wondered what it would be like growing up a generation later as a Palestinian immigrant.

And since I’m interested in everything about turning life into story, I wanted to learn more about what it would be like translate her ethnic childhood into fictional stories. So I went back to Larry Robin and bought Susan Muaddi Daraj’s book, “The Inheritance of Exile.” By this time Larry was very pleased with me.

“So, Larry,” I said while he was writing up my order. “What do you think about the state of the world?” Larry has a huge white beard, and I knew from several years of acquaintance and work with him that he is one of those radicals who never got the message that the sixties were over. He said, “It’s about time. People are starting to wake up.”

I laughed, getting flashbacks to my own radical days in the sixties, when I tried to make sense of Marx’s dire predictions about the inevitable fall of capitalism. “So,” I said, “We’re finally reaping the fruits of our greed.” Larry’s eyes sparkled. Ah. Two old hippies sharing a laugh over a pile of books. On the walk to my car, I felt weary. In this morning’s bright sunshine, the cool wind blowing through multi-colored leaves felt invigorating, but now in the spreading afternoon dimness, the same breeze felt foreboding. It was time to go home.

I’ve heard that Philadelphia has a burgeoning art scene. Art, and most interesting to me, writing, shape the imagination of a community, and I’m delighted to participate in, and contribute to that pool of creative energy. At the end, I felt a vigorous passion, having met these people with their interest in sitting alone and putting words on a page, and then lifting their attention from the page to the public, reaching out to offer those words as part of the binding, the substrate, the collective communication that helps pull together a bunch of individuals into a society.

Earlier this year I read a book of short stories, called “Apologies Forthcoming,” by a Chinese American author, Xujun Eberlein about growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. (Click here for an essay I wrote about her book.)

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13 thoughts on “My Day at a Writer’s Conference – or – The Benefits of Showing Up

  1. Wow. This was great to read your impression of the day. I am so glad that you were able to get so much from the conference.

    Also, Ethel is great. I wanted to get her book, but I spent my book money already so I have to wait until next month.

    I would love to hear your review of it.
    Take care!

  2. Hey, thanks for attending. Lots of interesting people there. I met Cheryl too–I think I got to critique one of her pieces. Very interesting ladies! Anyway, I’m glad you could make it.


  3. Ritergal, That’s strange you being envious. I thought Pittsburgh was the in-place for nonfiction writers.

    Michelle, it was fun meeting you, after reading your blog. Okay, now that you’ve read my blog, how do my comments compare with the real thing?

    Aimee, you were one of the panelists, right? Your name was written on the back of Christine’s badge, and you kept making me laugh about serious subjects.

    So here we are back “home” on the internet with the other 100 million, one space more expansive, one more intimate. Which is more comfortable? I’m looking forward to seeing you all around one world or the other. 🙂


  4. Dear Jerry, I agree! Great conference. It was my second year of doing speed dating and this year I also served on the chapbook panel. Great atmosphere, lots of new people. I wish you had had time to check out our chapbook session. People think of chapbooks as mainly for poetry but I think they are an ideal form for memoir. I’d love to see more memoir writers publishing this way!

  5. Hi Tree,

    It’s true I’ve only heard the term chapbook in connection with poetry. I googled the word and it looks like it just means an artistically put together self-published book. I love your suggestion that it is a good concept for memoirs. Sorry I missed your panel. Now that you have me curious, I’ll be on the lookout for more about this idea.


  6. Hi Jerry. What an impressive list of vivid impressions, contacts, and links resulting from one conference. I can learn a lot about writing and publishing by putting your blog in my reader. I am writing a post that mentions you right now. Check it out in an hour or so. 🙂

  7. Thanks for the comment Shirley. I love the way blogs can develop into a virtual community. I’m looking forward to seeing you around the blogosphere.

    I think at least some of my essays have furthered the mission of the Fetzer Institute: “To foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community.” For example, this is one of my favorite, an essay about Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea:

    Best wishes,
    Jerry Waxler

  8. Jerry,
    I agree that the panel discussion works better for aspiring writers. The field is is such disarray these days that having differing viewpoints creates a more useful perspective for the writer trying to get a foothold in the chaos we call publishing.

    You also remind me that titles are everything. I gotta read My Lover the Rabbi, My Husband the Doctor. Utterly intriguing.

    Wanted to mention to you too that I just saw the show in NYC of Marc Chagall’s drawings for the Hebrew Bible. He called memoir “presence in absence.” Gave me chills.


  9. Ethel and I had a great day. This is late because I was away for nearly two weeks after the conference and life has gotten in the way of my media consumption.

    Jerry, I’m putting your blog on my favorites list, so I can find it again. I’m so glad that Christine mentioned it in her newsletter.

    Best regards,

  10. Jerry, I forgot to note: it was loud in the room while we were talking — Ethel’s “affair” with the rabbi wasn’t exactly at the same time…though she has retained feelings for him for her whole life.

  11. Cheryl, Thanks for setting the record straight! I was so shocked that she was bragging about having an affair, and then when I asked her about it, shocked she was 92, I didn’t have the presence of mind to sort out the timeline. Okay, now it makes more sense. It was great meeting you both, and witnessing the pleasure you both found in offering the story of Ethel’s life, so far.


  12. Pingback: Push to Publish report by Jerry Waxler « Philadelphia Stories Weblog

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