Ad Astra is a new conference for those aspiring to write professionally, with an eye toward commercial publication, or as the foundation for personal growth and self-expression. With that in mind, we welcome writers of all ages, education backgrounds, and skill levels. Each year, the theme of the conference will change, and for our 2017 premiere conference—on the weekend before Halloween—the theme is horror. Our faculty is composed of writers and editors who have had a wide range of both commercial and critical success, and who have a talent for teaching writing to others. Offered by the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University, the conference is co-sponsored by the Department of English, Modern Languages, and Journalism.
A little more than a week ago, I stood on a spot that might be regarded as sacred in American letters. The little clearing in front of me is the spot at Quarry Farm outside Elmira, in upstate New York, where Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. In 1874, Susan Crane–Twain’s sister-in-law, who managed the dairy farm–had a small octagonal study built at this spot so the author could write without the distractions of family and visitors.
The hillside was less wooded then, and the study had a clear view of the valley below and the town beyond. All that remains of the study today is the octagonal foundation, near my feet. My wife, Kim, and I were allowed to visit Quarry Farm for a picnic celebration following the international Twain conference at Elmira College, where I had delivered a paper earlier in the day. The farm is not open to the public, so it was the fulfillment of a boyhood dream to visit the place where Twain wrote so many of his major works.
The study was moved to the Elmira College campus in 1952. It’s open from late spring to early fall, and other times by appointment. The photo below the study is of Twain’s bust and a few of his books on the mantel of the study fireplace. Twain died April 21, 1910, at his home at Redding, Connecticut, and was buried with his wife, Livy, and other family members at Woodlawn Cemetery at Elmira. No literary trip to Elmira would be complete without paying respects at the gravesite. For more on Quarry Farm, visit this link to a page at the Center for Mark Twain Studies website.
I‘m often asked how I work. While the answer varies with what I’m writing, and at what stage of the process, a few things hold true throughout. This photo represents one of them: chaos. I had wanted to use this as an illustration for nonfiction book–a piece of possibly literary journalism about the Arkansas River–that will be out in the spring, but there just wasn’t a place for it. So. allow me to describe it here. My notes have been torn from the reporter’s notebook and are spread out desk to dry, because the notebook was soaked when I flipped my kayak in Browns Canyon. There’s some change on the motel room desk, and the room key, a bottle of water, an empty cup of coffee and an apple for a snack. There are pills and a bottle of Tylenol. There’s the ice bucket, which I had used the day before to stretch the neck gasket of a new dry suit. Next to the ice bucket is a red Nalgene flask about half full of bourbon. From the photo, you can pretty much imagine how my day on the river went.
Here’s a link to a Writers’ Digest blog about how to get the most from a writing conference. It offers some good, general advice. I especially like be courteous, make connections and be realistic. A conference is one of the few places you can expect professionals to make time to hear your pitch or discuss your plot problems. Nearly every week, I get a request to read somebody’s manuscript. But unless I know the person, the answer (for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is time) has to be no. But at a writing conference, that’s what I’m there for.
About this time of the summer eight or nine years ago, my (now) wife, Kim, and I went on a camping trip to a state park near Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It was too hot to do much except read and try to sleep, and the book I had with me was a trade paper copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The book, which won the Pulitzer, scared the living hell out of me. I mention it because, on this day in 1933, Cormac McCarthy was born. I’ve long admired his fiction–which tends to be stylistic, dark, and violent–but none of his other books gave me nightmares. Part of it was the way he tapped into our collective fear of the breakdown of civilization. But much of it was the way in which he handled a standard horror trope–cannibalism–and portrayed it in dismally believable world in a brilliant work of literary fiction.
Kansas Poet Laureate and Ad Astra faculty member Kevin Rabas has a new book out today, Late for Cymbal Line. He let me page through a copy and there’s one poem that seems appropriate to mention here. It’s titled “Poetry Reading Stipend,” and it talks about how writers slink into the bathroom and open the envelopes containing their pay for an evening’s performance.
“You don’t deal with money in front of hosts,” Rabas writes, although I’m mangling his line spacing here. “No, you do that in front of the urinal or the toilet, the money new and crisp…”
Why is it that writers have such a difficult time with money? We dream about being paid for our work, but when we are, it feels a bit shameful. It’s bad enough to deal with the business end with publishers, but the stipend is in some ways more difficult to deal with. You have to pretend the money doesn’t really matter, even though it always matters, and you have to deal face-to-face with people, when you’re more comfortable keeping a page between you and your audience. And, there’s only one thing worse than checking to make sure you’ve been paid the right amount — and that’s having to remind your hosts that they’ve forgotten to pay you at all.
Here’s something I hadn’t run across before: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, annotated by Mort Castle. It’s a fascinating take on a classic, from Writer’s Digest books. It’s the complete text, with Mort’s annotations in (what else?) blood red. “Observe, writer,” Mort commands early on, as Stoker builds the foundation for his timeless story, “an absolutely masterful transition.”
I’ve learned a lot about writing from a number of authors, across all genres. But some of the best advice I came across was in short pieces with a provocative title: “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully — in Ten Minutes.” The piece is by horror master Stephen King, and it lives up to its name. If you haven’t read it, but if you aspire to write professionally, you should. My copy is in an old edition of The Writer’s Handbook, which was part market guide and part how-to. In it, King gives us 12 no-nonsense tips. Here’ one: “An agent? Forget it. For now.” Here’s a link to the full piece.