"Christeene Fraser is a vibrant new voice on the poetry scene. Starkly confessional, yet warmly human, her writing strikes a nerve in the audience...a poet to watch."

Bruce Haring, Director, New York Book Festival

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What I Learned at My First Writer's Conference

The Mount Hermon coffee shop is brimming with very important looking people, click-clacking away on the keyboards of very important looking laptops. In addition to looking important, those with Macs get bonus points for coolness, and double bonus points if they have BOTH a Mac AND horn-rimmed glasses.

I am in a room composed almost entirely of writers, or rather, people making a living (some monetarily and others only metaphorically) off of the written word--poets, novelists, editors, agents, publishers. I am surrounded by my fellow near-sighted, English class-loving, Espresso-worshipping, Walt Whitman-quoting soul mates. We have all come to this place, lovely and perfumed by earthy Redwoods, hoping to catch some part of eternity through the written word.

In 48 hours I will return to my little sullen (but beloved) corner of Georgia. When I return, I most likely won't have a book deal, but what I will have is some valuable information as I embark on my journey to the New York Times Bestseller's List (hey, you should always aim high people):

1) Industry words/phrases are important: As pompous and foreign as they may feel in the mouth of a new-comer, you must learn to embrace the jargon that gets you noticed by editors. Phrases on my industry vocabulary list this week include: "dramatic narrative non-fiction" and "felt needs."

2) Being a writer is SO much more than writing: Being a writer in the 21st century means embracing the new ways people consume media, which increasingly blurs the lines between the personal and the professional. Books will always have a place, of course, but no longer can a writer assume that he/she can get away with being a surly, unshaven recluse without people skills. Blogs, speaking engagements, and at least moderate attractiveness are required in addition to your ability to craft a mean sentence.

3) In the presence of power, just be yourself: In the course of pitching my own ideas, and overhearing others do the same, I've learned that the best way to sell your idea is by NOT sounding like an overly-rehearsed, contrived, infomercial salesperson. People want something real. Apparently animals, children, and editors can smell a fake. So breathe deep and drop the three-point sermon already.

4)Research, research, research: Since we're on the topic of pitching, it should be noted that it is appreciated if you know WHO you're pitching to. If a publisher specializes in Christian devotionals, don't come with your YA romance novel about a teen who falls in love with (fill in the supernatural being), and expect anything more than crickets chirping. It's not just about wasting their time, its also about sparing your own(as well as your ego).

5)Writer's conferences are conducive to crying: Apparently it's perfectly normal to have a complete and total breakdown during the course of a conference; we're talking full-fledged, toddler sob, snotty-faced breakdown, with a dash of 'Oh God, why do I suck so badly?' thrown in. But I wouldn't know personally of course, I'm too mentally strong for that (she says as she throws away the soggy ultra-soft Kleenex crumpled in her pockets).

6) It's perfectly okay to change your project on the fly: After one VERY unsuccessful pitch (the impetus for a truly pitiful breakdown. See #5), I was left baffled about how I could have done better. At the next pitch, still shaking and unsure, I let the conversation begin to seep into my own understanding of the project rather than approaching the conversation with an immutable and fixed product. This was a turning point for me. Editors stopped being gracious, and started being interested. Four requests for proposals later, I am thinking that this whole "listening" thing may actually work. Who'da thunk?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

No Other Gods Before Me

"We are left alone with our imagination and our arithmetic"

--Salman Rushdie,
"Wonderlands" lecture at Emory University

A few days ago I watched Salman Rushdie lecture before an enthralled group at Glenn Memorial Hall at Emory University. He is in the process of writing a Children's book, and spoke about the power of narratives, the necessity that we as a species have for stories. It is as fundamental as the need for food, shelter, love. Stories are those things by which we understand the world, understand ourselves, and transmit culture across the ages.

After an hour of basking in his presence, I rushed to my car, my heart on fire to go home and create, to write, to form a story by which someone else could understand the world, understand themselves, and trasmit culture across the ages. My facebook status proclaimed to my friends and family that Salman Rushdie was timeless, brilliant--that he was in fact, and or rather colloquially, "the bomb-dizzle." I could not contain my enthusiasm, and shared this thought with every victim I encountered, like a deranged PR rep or starry-eyed fan-club president.

But then I talked to Grant.

Grant, an intelligent friend and adept conversationist, shared with me an article that Rushdie had written called "Letter to the Six-Billionth Person." I had never read this before, so naturally I was eager to gobble it up, particularly after the night of inspiration I'd had. Approximately 1,500 words later I felt deflated, disparaged, and off. I felt irritated in the same way that someone feels when they discover a stain on their favorite blouse when I read:

"To choose disbelief [in God or religion] is to choose mind over dogma, to trust in our humanity instead of all these dangerous divinities."

I choose belief. To choose belief means holding love and selflessness over the lies and self-aggrandizement of the world, to trust in the righteousness of a holy God instead of the faulty knowledge and fickle adoration of academia. It is not infantilism or suspension of disbelief. It is real. It is power. Oh Salman, I still love you. Your writing, your quotes, and your lectures still thrill me. But I love God more.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Music that Amps Me Up

Sidonie Gabrielle said "Music is love in search of a word," and I could not agree more. Often times when I write, I have various different playlists that I use to inspire me. For me, the music is drawing the words out, pulling my mind into the realm of emotion and experience and expression. Music opens the third eye. It is the muse for an otherwise quiet brain--lyrical lube if you will. Here are some songs I return to perennially:

1. "Saeglopur," Sigur Ros
2. "Moonlight Sonata," Beethoven
3. "Bachelorette," Bjork
4. "La Valse d'Amelie," Yann Tiersen
5. "The Killing Moon," Echo and the Bunnymen
6. "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday
7. "Death is the Road to Awe," Clint Mansell
8. "Gnossienne no. 1," Erik Satie
9. "How Soon is Now," The Smiths
10. "Yes," Coldplay

What's on your creativity "hit list?" Scroll down to the very bottom if you'd like to sample mine.

Friday, March 12, 2010

5 Books I Wish I Wrote

As we speak I am sitting in Barnes and Noble typing my blog, drinking my dark cherry mocha, and dreaming. Somehow I'm hoping all the collective inspiration and talent lining the shelves around me will seep into my brain and onto my laptop via osmosis. But if I could steal just a little genius, I'd take it from these authors whose books I keep coming back to for various reasons:

1. Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman: Prose so painful and romantic and haunting that it physically hurts to read and/or makes you want to marry the author. His characterization is also phenomenal; his characters are so real for me that I fear I may run into one of them at the grocery store. If I didn't absolutely adore my spouse, I might've flown to Australia and stalked this writer.

2. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov: Let me preface by saying, that I am so torn about this book. As a Christian who genuinely wants to hate what God hates, and love what God loves, this book shakes me because of its almost blatant glorification of pedophilia and sexual abuse. Or does it? That's the genius of Nabokov's writing, the sheer power of his use of the first person; it is so convincing that it almost makes you sympathize with a rapist, a predator. As a writer, I want to peer into Nabokov's brain, figure out how in the world he does it. Brilliant and awful. I don't know whether to kiss this book or burn it. I think the latter.

3. The Giver, Lois Lowry: It's a small children's book that packs epic punch. I think about this book a lot, it surfaces in my mind not for its "literary" value (whatever that means), but rather for its originality, its brutal revelation about the world. It makes me ponder the value of human emotion and imperfection, and our futile efforts to perfect life at the risk of cleansing it of all that makes it exciting, messy, vital. This "children's" book achieves what so many "adult" books do not: it makes you think, makes you question, makes you feel.

4. Crazy Love, by Francis Chan: Get on your boots, Christian soldiers. I had to take a day or two after I read this book, and just examine my life for a bit. This book is an indictment of the beige, safe, and passionless life that so many Christians (including myself) succumb to in pursuit of a life that doesn't offend God, rather than chasing a life that pleases Him. I want to thank Francis Chan for writing a Christian book that tells me the truth, without the sugar coating. It is his conviction, strong sense of voice, and brutal honesty that I am inspired by and hope to emulate in my own writing.

5. Philippians, Saint Paul: Ok, so technically, this is a letter and not a book. But what is so remarkable about it is Paul's life, his peace, his urgency. This epistle is riddled with highlighting in my Bible because almost every line says something that makes me want to sell everything I have and open a school in Honduras. Writing like this has REAL power in the lives of people, it breathes hope into the believer, and at the very least shows the non-believer what a Christian life should look like; it is an earthly benchmark. Paul, in prison for his faith writes: "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation...I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" (Phil 4:12-13). Above all, if I can learn anything about writing from Paul, it is that powerful writing, writing that carries through the ages, comes from a life that is full of passion and devotion to something larger than onesself.