Wandering Through the Downturn (and Finding a Home) « PREV | NEXT »: Collected Stories

March 7, 2010

Ladies who write and read

I have had the good fortune to be invited three years in a row to the Festival of Authors, put on by the grass-roots organization, Literary Women of Long Beach, CA. Envision this: 730 women in a football-field-size ballroom at the Long Beach Convention Center, listening to women authors talking about the intersections of their writing and personal lives.

It is reassuring, and somewhat amazing, that this is a difficult and prized ticket to get your hands on; an Oscar after-party is probably easier to sneak into. I arrived "early" at 8 a.m. Saturday to make sure I could get a table for my party of eight, and despaired when I saw there were hundreds ahead of me. Luck was with me, this time, and I managed to score a table.

It's always a long day. Happily, this year's authors had differing styles and wonderful stories to relate. The four headliners were: Joan Silber ("The Size of the World"), who started with her bookworm childhood (a common theme) and her writing process; Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison ("An Unquiet Mind" and "Nothing Was the Same"), a memoirist and psychiatrist who often addressed her bi-polar disorder; Jane Hamilton ("A Map of the World" and "Laura Rider's Masterpiece"), whose talk - "Is life tragic or comic?" - was a clothesline on which to hang hilarious tales about fighting Wal-mart, a sex show on HBO, and other absurdities; and Jincy Willett ("The Writing Class"), who read the opening chapter of her work-in-progress. The large group split into three for lectures by first-time novelists Jennifer Cody Epstein, Padma Viswanathan and Debra Dean. Book were sold in a separate room. Lunch was chicken salad, rolls and a chocolate-covered strawberry confection.

Everyone takes home separate truths. The struggle of writing, and then the difficulty of receiving some monetary reward for it, was a sub-theme, even when it was not explicitly stated. Winnowing through real life to create fiction, was another.

For 13 years, Silber could not get a book published. "You want your writing to contain the best of you," she said. I appreciated her concluding nugget that "it does actually pay to knock yourself out."

Willett's writing "career" (her quotation marks, not mine) had stalled until David Sedaris began speaking glowingly of her short fiction and reading from it on his own book tours. "I have been read from at Carnegie Hall," she said proudly. Thanks to the Sedaris stamp of approval, her publisher reissued her collected stories "Jenny and the Jaws of Life," and promised to give it the marketing push they hadn't the first time around in 1987.

Two friends started Literary Women in 1982, in reaction to the reading list at the local high school. Out of 96 recommended authors, only four were women back then. (I can't tell you what the ratio is today, and I wish that there was a separate day for Literary Women in the local schools. As I eyeballed the room yesterday, it appeared that the majority of the attendees were older than 40.) In my current cynical state, I imagine the list has improved only slightly; hopefully I'm wrong. All the more reason, however, to enjoy the camaraderie of Literary Women. Next year's Festival of Authors is March 12.

March 7, 2010 3:31 PM | | Comments (1)


I love writing and reading books. I love the notion that people can make things up in their mind and then make them real on a page, for the pleasure or utility of someone else. One of my favorite mentor on learning how to write a book is Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

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