Philadelphia Push To Publish, Lessons in Courage from a Writing Conference

by Jerry Waxler

For weeks I considered dedicating a precious Saturday to attend the “Push to Publish” conference, hosted by Philadelphia Stories. I enjoyed the event last year and thought I ought to do it again. Now, I needed to commit the time.

By Saturday morning my preference to meet writers won and I drove into pouring rain, to find myself back along the winding paths and elegant buildings of the Rosemont College campus on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The registration room was packed, and looking around I spotted a likely networking candidate, a young man sitting alone. “What do you write,” I asked. “A memoir,” he said. Jackpot. The memoir gods were smiling.

He was an undergrad in the English Department at University of Delaware. “People think I’m crazy to write a memoir when I’m so young.” I looked at him. “I think they’re the ones who are crazy. It’s your story. You should tell it any time you want.” Just then, a woman I knew from another regional writing group leaned in to interrupt us. “Aren’t you the memoir guy? There’s someone I want you to meet.”

I excused myself from the youngest memoir writer I’ve met, and was introduced to a woman, perhaps in her 40s, who had written about her family history. She told me a fascinating tale complete with twists and turns. “I’m finished the draft. Now, before I spend a lot of time editing it, I came to the conference to see if anyone believes I’m wasting my time.” I looked at her. Had she really come here searching for naysayers? “Ouch,” I said. “Why would anyone tell you that? And if they did, why would you believe them?” She shrugged and I moved on.

Waiting on line for coffee, the woman in front of me turned, smiled, and stuck out a hand. I clasped it in greeting, but instead of introducing herself, she pointed to the man next to her. “This is my husband. I talked him into writing a novel.” I asked her, “How did that work for you?” She said, “It was great” and they both laughed.

We sat down together to eat our continental breakfast, and I said, “I’m into memoir writing.” He said, “If I wrote about my life, it would put everyone to sleep.” I chewed my bagel and tried to imagine an entire life with no dramatic tension. Finally, I said, “It’s not about spectacular events. It’s about great story telling.”

He grew quiet. “Well, actually, I have written a couple of stories about myself.” He went on to describe an incident from his childhood that completely grabbed my attention, like I was back there with him, and we were in danger together. I said, “How could anyone fall asleep? That story is enchanting.” (No, I won’t tell it. It’s his story, not mine.)

On my walk through the rain to hear the keynote speech, I wondered, “Why do so many people think there’s something wrong with writing their own stories?” The keynote speaker, Lise Funderburg, didn’t have this problem. She published a memoir about her relationship with her father. Apparently, one of her goals as a writer is to share herself.

In fact, most of the talk consisted of tips she had learned about the writing life. For example, “You have to be okay with rejection. And that doesn’t stop. In fact, it still hurts me when I’m rejected.”

“Well,” I thought. “That’s a consistent message. Writing is hard work, with long periods of uncertainty, plenty of pain and for most of us not too much money. So, if it hurts so bad, why is this room full of people again?”

Funderburg went on to read a passage from her recently published memoir, which I have not yet had an opportunity to read, called “Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home: A Memoir.” It’s about discovering her relationship with her father while he was dying of cancer. The passage was rich in imagery, full of kindness and conveying the same sparkle in her words as danced in her eyes. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “How did you find your voice?” She hesitated for a moment, and said, “Finding my voice was really a very long journey around a big circle until I finally came back to just being myself.”

Dodging rain drops and puddles on my way to the next section of the conference, I thought, “Even her voice is an expression of herself. No wonder it hurts to be rejected. We’re pouring ourselves out to other people. What a crazy thing to do.”

I realized that in addition to learning the art of self-expression, writers must learn courage. We imagine, we write, we polish, and then we beg gatekeepers for the opportunity to share our work with readers. But Lisa Funderburg didn’t shrivel back from the task, and her story provides one more inspiring example of a writer pushing through obstacles to reach higher goals.

Notes

Visit the Amazon Page for the memoir Pig Candy by Lise Funderburg
Lise Funderburg’s Home Page

Click here for the essay I wrote about last year’s Philadelphia Stories Conference

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.

Note
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.)

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below.
You can also download the podcast from iTunes:
[display_podcast]