May 28, 2013. It was a Memorial Day weekend of firsts: first trip to Pittsburgh, first writers’ conference, first seitan taco.
The Creative Nonfiction Foundation in Pittsburgh publishes books and a magazine dedicated to literary nonfiction and offers workshops, mentoring and online classes. It’s entirely possible there’s an excerpt from The Saltwater Twin in a pile on someone’s desk in their office from my last round of submissions. Several weeks ago I decided to sign up for their Best of Creative Nonfiction Conference and started planning a road trip to Pittsburgh.
May 24. My friend Jordan and I left Chicago around noon and made our first pit stop somewhere in Indiana at a really outstanding rest stop where we bought some friendship bracelets for ourselves and our Pittsburgh hosts – those kind made with the embroidery thread. I’ll never get tired of them. Jordan snapped my photo (wearing my new bracelet) next to the pouty McDonald’s girl and we fortified ourselves with some chocolate.
Back on the highway a truck swerved in front of us and we instinctively grabbed hands like we were Thelma and Louise flying into the Grand Canyon. But everything was fine.
Around 8 pm we arrived at our friend Adil’s house, which is quirky and charming (much like Adil). I headed up two very steep flights of stairs to our attic guest room well before midnight, figuring the next day was going to be a long one.
May 25. At the conference in downtown Pittsburgh, I met writers from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Baltimore, Boston and even Chicago. There was a talk by Lee Gutkind, whom Vanity Fair called the godfather of creative nonfiction. He had a giant cup of Starbucks and a mint green stud in his left ear. He talked a little bit about the history of the genre and offered some thoughts on craft. I liked that he described scenes as little stories and called them the building blocks of creative nonfiction work.
Post lunch, there were three talks.
My favorite suggestion from the first talk, by Anjali Sachdeva on writers’ block, was to keep a detail journal in which you just write down one specific detail from your day each day. During a discussion on the creative nonfiction market, panelists discussed where emerging authors should submit their work and whether they should blog, tweet or self-publish. And in an engaging talk on memoir, author Jane Bernstein emphasized specificity and intimacy. Then it was time for happy hour.
Afterwards, I drove to our friend Maritza’s where Jordan and I were staying on nights two and three, thinking over what I’d learned – mainly, that I need an elevator pitch and some business cards. We went to a place called Cantina for dinner. I ate a seitan taco which was wicked tasty. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture. I always forget you’re supposed to take pictures of food but here’s a picture of the wall.
Oh, I learned one more thing before bed: in Pittsburgh, if you’re the first car at an intersection and you’re turning left, the oncoming traffic waits for you before they drive across. It’s called the Pittsburgh left, and I think it’s very sensible and civilized.
May 26. The next morning I got a touch lost, but I was pretty proud of myself at that point for having successfully navigated Pittsburgh’s circuitous streets and parallel parked on hills with a stick shift. The morning talk was tips on polishing prose with CNF editor Hattie Fletcher. Then came the workshops. We’d been asked to submit 3,000 word pieces for critique. I’d submitted an excerpt from my first chapter. I was nervous nervous nervous, but I got insightful remarks from participants and instructor, Jane Bernstein, the memoirist who’d spoken the previous day. Her biggest advice to me was to find a community of writers to share critique and feedback as I craft this manuscript. Also, she suggested checking out low residency MFA programs.
That night Maritza hosted a backyard gathering with the most decadent green salsa, a fire pit and a twerking lesson.
May 27. Monday morning was black coffee on the front porch with Maritza, her nice husband Roger and elegant pooch Riley (and of course Jordan) and a rainy drive back to Chicago where I got straight to researching low res MFA programs. (Anyone out there have two cents they wanna share on that?) All in all, it was a weekend well spent.
The conference left me pondering good-to-ask questions: Am I structuring my book in the best way? Should I apply to a low residency MFA program in creative writing? What should my business cards look like? Stay tuned, friends and loved ones.
And the road trip had one more lesson to teach. Sometimes you can open it up and zip along, windows down, singing oh, I don’t know, Fleetwood Mac or LL Cool J and sometimes you get stuck in a work zone or a sudden storm and have to creep along for a while — You’ll get there when you get there.