Monday, October 03, 2011

Pages and Places Book Festival, Part 1: Workshops

Several weeks ago I was extended an invitation to participate in a Bloggers' Roundtable discussion at the Vintage Theater in Scranton, speaking both as the founder and co-administrator of NEPA Blogs and as the blogger for (among several other more-idle sites) Another Monkey. (Accounts of this event are here and here.)

I did minimal research into this event before I went, going in with an "any publicity for NEPA Blogs is good publicity for NEPA Blogs" attitude. Fortunately I did not find myself being indoctrinated into a cult, whisked off to the Middle East to serve - after some small changes - as a harem guard, or brought before a tribunal for crimes against humanity. Instead I learned that the Bloggers' Roundtable was actually a sort of opening shot in the Pages & Places Book Festival that would be happening shortly thereafter. After the Roundtable I met the two co-directors of the Festival, Elizabeth Randol and William Black, who extended to me and to all of the participating bloggers an invitation to the Festival, with the promise of a free all-access pass.

That promise was acted upon a week later during the Fall Blog Fest at Rooney's in Pittston. I tucked away the postcard-sized pass and started making plans to attend.

In the meantime a complication had arisen in my life: starting last Monday, I would be back at my old job on a temporary basis, just to help with the Christmas busy season production. I would be back on nights, 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM, working for four nights and then having four days off.  Fortunately my first rotation would be over Friday morning, and I would be able to attend the Festival.

Unfortunately, the transition from night-walking to day-walking was not smooth enough to allow me to attend the big fancy Prologue Party Friday afternoon and meet, among others, Michio Kaku, who would be speaking in Scranton in a related event that evening. I am generally terrible at cocktail party chit-chat, and would have probably managed to say something devastatingly insulting to anyone I met at the event. As it was, I was unconscious until well after the party was over.

I reviewed Saturday's scheduled events and noted that I was most interested in two workshops and two panels, all of them taking place in the afternoon. I considered going to another workshop (on Publishing, led by Lee Sebastiani of Avventura Press) that would take place at 11:00 in the morning, but I couldn't pull myself together in time to go there.

I made it up to Scranton and to the Vintage Theater (where the workshops were being held) with literally minutes to spare; I think I pulled up at 12:58 for the 1:00 workshop. This workshop was Non-Fiction Writing, led by folklorist Debra Lattanzi Shutika from the Folklore Studies Program at George Mason University ( I presented my pass, exchanged greetings with fellow blogger Mandy Boyle (who recognized me) and took a seat just as the presentation was beginning. I pulled out a notebook and began to scribble some notes as Debra spoke:

- The Writer's Chronicle
- Toolkit - Field Work
- Sheet of Regional Resources (this was a handout she had passed out, with links to  numerous useful sites for anyone interested in folklore studies)
- Verbal Histories of NEPA

That last one should have been "Oral Histories"; this was something that occurred to me as she spoke.. For years - decades - I've kicked around the thought of collecting oral histories of this area. With each day that passes without doing this, more of these oral histories vanish from the Earth as the people who could tell the stories die - or continue to live, but in a condition where they are incapable of telling their stories. Go out and buy a cheap little tape recorder and get started, Debra exhorted us. I developed a sense of urgency as I thought about all the stories that I could have captured over the years but have subsequently been lost forever.

I've realized that, in a sense, NEPA Blogs is an attempt to capture - or at least provide a gateway to - the ongoing oral histories of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Individual bloggers write blog posts, and NEPA Blogs points to them, sometimes even saying "Look at this! And look at this!" Debra reiterated that Folklore is "the history of the present," and in many cases that's exactly what blogs are, too.

(Somewhere along the line I wrote "The End of Textbooks." That is not related to her presentation at all, but will be the subject of a future blog post. Simply put, the rise of electronic readers in school and the increased drive toward standardization in the wake of No Child Left Behind may spell the end of textbooks in elementary schools as texts become nationally standardized and available electronically, ensuring that, for example, all U.S. students are studying the same subject matter from the same "text" in third grade American History. If the powerful textbook publishing industry allows this to happen, that is. Textbook publishing is probably the last major source of revenue in the book industry, and cutting the legs out from under it may actually lead to the collapse of the entire industry and the end of books on paper.)

Along the way I remembered a folklore project that has long fascinated me: the folklore of pre-adolescent children. There's an entire corpus of knowledge, information, and folklore that is available only to children (and dimly remembered by some adults): stories, songs, memes, what have you that are taught by older kids to younger kids - the art of making mud pies, songs like "Great Green Globs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts," the optimal way to swing a Tonka truck for maximum impact on an opponent (OK, that one is gone, as the all-steel Tonkas I played with as a child were replaced decades ago with lightweight plastic imitations with rounded corners and no sharp edges.)  These are things that kids learned almost as soon as they became verbal, and forgot as soon as they hit adolescence and discovered more important things in life. So this knowledge continues to tumble among children between, say, ages four and twelve, caught like a piece of debris swirling in a rapids, remaining more-or-less in place even as the water pours around it and beyond it. I mentioned this to Debra after the presentation, and she suggested that I look into the work of Brian Sutton-Smith, who has studied the folklore of children.

Throughout Debra's presentation I heard voices coming from behind us, from a back room. Unfortunately, due to the layout of the Vintage Theater voices from this back room project better than voices from the stage up front, which is backed by a sound-absorbing curtain and flanked by sound-muffling columns of speakers. After Debra concluded her presentation and I spoke with her briefly, I decided to check out who was in the back room. Approaching it, I spotted someone I thought I recognized - one of the members of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Poets and Writers, whom I had seen presenting poems in the hours following the Bloggers' Roundtable. (Thanks to my mild Prosopagnosia, or "face-blindness," I had to confirm his identity by his boots - black military-style high boots that lace practically to the knee.)

As the group took a break before the next workshop, I noticed a young woman emerge from the direction of the Poets and Writers group. She was rather fancifully dressed, and had a ribbon in her hair with a bow on it. My pattern-recognition software cranked into action again, and I began to strongly suspect that she was a local bow-wearing blogger whose blog I had been following (more or less) for some time. As the next speaker prepared to begin, I rose and approached the young woman, asking her if she was the person I thought she might be. She confirmed that she was, but looked at me with some bewilderment and apprehension. I chuckled and pointed out that she and I had actually exchanged a brief flurry of messages online some time ago. I drew out a blog card that I had made up for Another Monkey, handed it to her, and then excused myself as I  took my seat for the next workshop.

This was a workshop on Fiction Writing led by Laura Ellen Scott, also of George Mason University. Again I scribbled notes throughout the presentation.

- Uncanny Valley Press: This is an online journal in which Laura publishes some of her more "out there" pieces. Much of her discussion throughout the workshop ranged around online journals vs. paper journals. Surprisingly, the most respected paper journals have gradually transformed themselves into places where writing goes to die. While publication in a well-known and well-respected journal may be a mark of distinction and a badge of honor, there is also a good chance that nobody will read your published article - at least, not unintentionally. Online journals and publications - blogs, even - make serendipitous discovery much more likely, especially through the use of search engines.

- Successful novels have a three-pronged approach:
  • Very interesting, rich characters - "Characters you would watch shop for shoes."
  • Really interesting setting.
  • The "What if?" element
The first two of these were for the most part self-evident. The "What if?" element may represent a trend of the moment. It is a bleeding-over of the genres of science fiction and fantasy into other forms of stories. The trick is to use the "What if?" element without letting it dominate or dictate the story (unless, of course, that's the point.)

(I immediately thought of the Machine of Death anthology, in which stories were built around a common "What if?": What if a machine existed that, through a simple blood test, could predict your manner of death? What effect would that have on society, on individuals? Some stories were built around how people deal with predictions, or how predictions might change lives, for good or for ill; some dealt with how the machine might be marketed, or how individuals might react to the machine itself. My own submissions dealt with how predictions might alter the behavior of airlines to become more risk-averse while at the same time welcoming individuals with non-flight-related death predictions, and how an out-there death prediction could offer a glimmer of hope in a depressed economy.)

- Modular stories: This is an approach to storytelling that does not necessarily involve the normal follow-through we have come to expect. Laura offered an example of a story involving a twelve-year-old boy watching his parents' marriage fall apart, and the same boy some thirty years later watching his own marriage fall apart.

- Flash stories: Ultra-short stories, created with the assumption that individuals would not be willing to sit and read even short-short stories from the display screen of an electronic device. In a world where entire books are being read - preferentially - from the display screens of electronic devices, we now realize that this assumption is not necessarily correct.

She also presented a lengthy list of online resources for writers. I'm hoping she might have an online version tucked away on her site somewhere...

(As her presentation went on, the driving beat of techno music began to leak through the wall from a neighboring building. The techno beat would alternate with what seemed to be a polka beat, and then a familiar vocal scheme:

Buh duh duh
Buh-dup budup buh-duh budup
Buh duh duh
Buh-dup budup buh-duh budup
Buh-dup bow, bow, bow
Buh-duh budup
Buh-duh budup

After a second repitition of the chorus, I realized that this was a techno/polka - or Tejano? - remix of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." It stopped soon after.)

Laura covered many other topics, but at some point I simply put down my pen and enjoyed her presentation. Her novel Death Wishing has recently been published - a story set in post-Katrina New Orleans, a place and time where some people have acquired the power to alter reality with their dying wishes.

I originally set out to present a complete account of my experiences at Pages & Places in a single post, but I have realized this account would be more coherent if I were to split it into one post on the Workshops I attended and one post on the Panels. And by "coherent" I do not mean "better structured" or "having a more continuous flow"; I mean "not degenerating into incoherent ramblings due to sleep deprivation." So the account of the Panels will have to wait for a later post.

As I was writing this post, something came up that may allow or even require me to put into action some of the things I learned at one of the panels. I had best start reading one of the books I purchased yesterday!

1 comment:

ME said...

Very informative post, as usual... Thank you.

Cecilia Sturm