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JULY 2004

Marymount Writer’s Conference Features Prominent Authors
by Sybil Maimin

Connections were made all around at the 12th Annual Writers’ Conference at Marymount Manhattan College as over 200 published and aspiring writers gained practical information, advice, and inspiration from 65 panelists at twelve sessions on topics ranging from fiction, suspense, food, and children’s books to the role of the literary agent. The purpose of the day, explains Lewis Burke Frumkes, director of the college’s writing center and proud founder and guiding spirit of the conference, is to “provide writers a chance to meet top people in an intimate and relaxed atmosphere…Here, the little person is as valuable as the most famous.”

Participants came with varying goals. Michael Scotti, a decorated marine first lieutenant shaken by what he witnessed during recent tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, wants to produce “an honest, first-person war book,” but is hesitant because he never wrote before. Advised in the Biography/Memoir Panel to seek an experienced co-writer for his “time-sensitive” story, he linked up at the conference with Jerry Gross, a free-lance editor and “book doctor” who was leader of the Birth of a Book Panel. Stewart Wise, who wrote music criticism for the Austin Chronicle for 8 years, is currently working in New York as a chef and wants to do restaurant reviews. A skilled journalist, he attended the Food Panel “for inspiration” as he contemplates “the switch” in subject area. William Barbour, now retired in Saint Augustine, Florida, flew to New York for the conference, manuscript in hand (a first novel based on his background in a farm community). “I got to see faces of names I admire, like Andrew Sarris (Critic’s Panel). It’s a very inspiring day.” Junita Torrence-Thompson has published 3 books of poetry and does readings around the world. Now ready to write her memoir, she came for information and was satisfied, reporting, “I learned a lot today. The atmosphere was very receptive.”

Tips, warnings, and encouragement were offered by the panels. “Look at the publishers you send your manuscript to. Do they do your kind of book? Remember, you also have choices.” The advantage of university presses, especially for first books, was stressed. “The editing relationship is different from in the past,” explained Susan Nagel, a successful author and Marymount professor. “Editors don’t get too involved.” University presses, said writer Wendy Fairey, “get more involved and have integrity and the old-fashioned values of producing the best book possible. But they don’t have money.” More advice: “Be careful who you explain your concept to. Some people may not understand it and discourage you… An agent may have hidden motives.” Attendees at the Children’s Literature Panel were warned against sending amateur art with their manuscripts and advised to include information about how a book could enhance a curriculum. Language choice is critical and determines age appropriateness. Occasionally, publishers have lists of words to be turned into stories. Some states vet for ideas and words considered sensitive or offensive when choosing books for their school systems; guides to forbidden language can be obtained. Published work may face the reviewer’s pen. On the Critics Panel, Daphne Merkin, a columnist for The New Yorker, noted, “On the creative end, there is no underestimating what a writer feels about negative comments.” Yet there was general agreement with New York Observer film critic Andrew Sarris’ who exclaimed, “Your obligation is to the reader, not to the artist.”

The Birth of a Book Panel had the audience riveted as celebrated author Erica Jong and a prominent literary agent, publishing attorney, Harcourt editor, publisher’s rep, and bookstore owner acted out the process of seeing a work go from author’s head to bookstore shelf. Lessons learned included: Technology has entered the process. Manuscripts are submitted to agents on-line. An editor may request an e-mail of the first page (Experienced editors determine writing quality and commercial viability from one page or even one sentence). “An editor who falls in love with a book and gets involved is the best thing that can happen to you,” commented Jong. If a first book is a flop, it is hard to get another published because bookstores will not bet again on an author whose work languished on the shelf.

A highlight of the day was a wise and witty lunchtime address by Peter Carey, two-time Booker Prize winner and Australia’s most famous author who is currently director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Hunter College. Speaking about “The Writer’s Life,” he described his lower middle-class beginnings and unexpected discovery of the world of books and “sentences he couldn’t imagine even existed in the world.” He “became intoxicated with words” and, at the age of twenty, began to “doggedly, obsessively” write a novel “at the kitchen table at night,” all the while filled with “doubt, grandiosity, and hope.” This, he explained, is “the writer’s life,” an existence “being lived everyday, everywhere, in unexpected places, and by people who may not even know it.”

Alan Furst, the well-known author of thrillers and war stories (Suspense Panel), remarked, “It is important to have conferences like this…I like the idea of encouraging writers and people who are trying to be writers. They are very important in this day and age.” For attendees, after the conference it was back to the kitchen table and the world of words.#



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