Spy in the House of Lit

"Go deep and go long," the magazine editor says, delivering a pass to the huddled receivers in Goucher College's Merrick Hall and, by tossing out an elongated football metaphor, summing up his theory on what kind of writing falls under the heading/euphemism-creative nonfiction.But not too long after the gridiron image has left the editor's mouth, its hard-hitting, tough-guy connotations vanish when a rail-thin, tanned, refined, and graying Gay Talese, the godfather of nonfiction writing, saunters to the podium. Calm, self-assured but measured, and dressed in a yellow silk jacket with a half-pocketed maroon handkerchief, perfectly pressed charcoal pants, and a gray-blue tie, Talese, now in his 60s, cuts a strikingly cultured figure. When creative-nonfiction practitioner and teacher Lee Gutkind introduces him as "the man who literally is responsible for all of us being here today," Talese allows a wry, suggestive smile to shape his lips.As Talese, the son of immigrant Sicilian clothiers, reads from Unto the Sons, his memoir of growing up "olive-skinned in [the] freckle-faced town" of Ocean City, N.J., one begins to notice that his first-class, boardroom duds also have an element of casino flash; he wouldn't seem out of place in a mob meeting, in a back room with Frank Sinatra, or in deep conversations with naughty housewives. All of which, of course, Talese has been privy to while chronicling America's stained undergarments in books with biblically referent titles such as Thy Neighbor's Wife (his treatise on declining morality) and Honor Thy Father (his dissection of the mob). His wardrobe allows for this complexity, this paradox: A respectable former reporter drawn to less-than-respectable things. It's a clear-cut case of the clothes making the man.I'm not the only one to notice the threads. During the question-and-answer session following his reading -- which caps off the fifth and final day of last month's second annual Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writer's Conference at Goucher -- women of middle years and older begin to melt under the pressure of Talese's considerable presence. One woman, eschewing the editor's advice, goes short and sweet: "I just want to thank you for the clothes," she gushes.Welcome to the Cult of the Writer.Along with 129 others, this woman came to Goucher to participate in the college's yearly fantasy camp for wordsmiths. Baseball fans pay big money each winter to swing bats with Brooks, Boog, and the Demper; word-wranglers do the same to swap similes and perhaps (in lax moments) dangle modifiers with Talese, literary jack-of-all-trades Tobias Wolff, noted tedium tackler Tracy Kidder, and a host of slightly less distinguished faculty. City Paper, wondering what all the fuss was about, sent one of its hacks undercover as a writer to attend workshops and talks, eat cafeteria food, absorb the tricks of the trade, and get what oral creative nonfictionist Paul Harvey would call "the rest of the story."Conferees pay between $570 and $720 to witness academia's final literary frontier, creative nonfiction, in action "to hear Kidder try to negotiate a phrase ending ass," asks Alex during a reading; to listen a little too quietly while Wolff defends Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, a memoir of her affair with her father; to ruminate on Talese's apparel. They come to worship at the altar of those who have achieved what they want: limitless literary success, measurable both in financial and artistic terms. Or at least to get a little better at what they do.It's a scene replicated a thousand times a year across the country. Writers' conferences and festivals have grown to accommodate America's fastest-growing vocational group: underemployed writers, and those who aspire to join them. To its credit the Goucher conference is largely devoid of the idol worship occasionally displayed during Talese's appearances. But some of us still wonder whether it and the other 999 conferences like it are part of a larger cultural phenomenon that portrays the writing life as enriching, glamorous, or arty -- and most important, accessible to everyone.After all, correspondence courses on writing are advertised on matchbooks; magazines for writers (there are dozens of them) such as Writer's Digest offer "master classes" for neophytes; and computer programs -- called "writing partners" show how to write a novel/screenplay/epic poem in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile memoirs (which fall under the "creative nonfiction" rubric) from former literary nonentities end up on The New York Times' bestsellers list, proving that when it comes to the literary lottery, ya gotta play to win. As novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle once observed on Late Night With David Letterman, "Writing's great. That's why 90 percent of Americans call themselves writers."Those of us who do this -- writing, not necessarily creatively, for a living -- know how many wagons loaded with snake oil there are out there. But how about the fantasy campers? Are they aware that many of them are in dreamland? Regarding the conference itself, I wondered before going if, in light of writing's popularity among the unpublished, it would be overrun with dilettantes mainly wanting to soak up writerly atmosphere. I had other questions too: How accessible would the conference's three stars be? What would there be to learn? Are writing workshops just equally expensive versions of psychotherapy? And what exactly is "creative nonfiction" anyway? Aren't terms such as "essay," "memoir," or "article" enough anymore?But for many of those gathered at Goucher, these questions were secondary -- if they existed at all. For most of the writers the reason for spending a week among the grinding construction equipment and heat was to find that ultimate literary rarity: A good, critical reader.The blank line above this paragraph is what creative-nonfiction writers call a "line break." It's used when a writer wants to set a new scene or toss in a bunch of boring but necessary information -- such as "Michel Montaigne first developed the essay in France in the late 16th century, blah, blah, blah" -- that would otherwise trash the writer's narrative flow. It's also used by journalists who, as in this case, are too lazy to come up with a suitable transition from one section to the next. It's the kind of thing that gets discussed in writing workshops.Seated in a starched-white room in Goucher's Meyerhoff Hall in an imperfect circle -- in chairs with slanted wooden pads that don't exactly encourage pens and papers to defy gravity -- are 15 conferees and their "workshop leader," creative-nonfiction (CNF) enfant terrible Darcy Frey, author of the Hoop Dreams of basketball books, The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams.Traditionally, in undergraduate studies and elsewhere, the workshop has been a hellish version of show and tell. You and classmates write stuff, the workshop leader photocopies, everyone reads everyone's work and throws in their two cents' worth and hopes their lack of talent and confidence aren't exposed in the process. Workshops can hurt. Even a passing, questioning comment from a writer you respect ("Um, why did you choose to write about median strips?") can leave a scar. These things aren't for the squeamish or mousy.But more often the workshop is a nonstop exercise in banality. Inevitably, it seems, there is that one person who goes on about how a story reminds him or her of Aunt Ida's peanut-butter cookies. Other bores include the Oblivious Talker -- the one whose quality of insight doesn't jibe with the quantity of class time monopolized -- and the Agenda Thumper, who might wonder why every story doesn't include something about, say, child sexual abuse. Like cocktail parties, courtrooms, and other milieus of judgment, the workshop is full of land mines.But this group is good. More than half of us in Meyerhoff 106 write for a living, two others teach CNF at good schools, another produces TV but is working on a murder mystery. There's a local psychotherapist, a World Bank worker based in Africa, a German who calls herself a "reader on holiday," a retired PR man/unpublished "late-in-life writer" from Roland Park whose work, he jokes, "is only in private collections," and a retired lawyer from Owings Mills who is on an inexhaustible search for an editor to help rein in her memoirs. The amateurs' comments are at least as trenchant and helpful as those made by the members of Dan Quayle's Cultural Elite. (So much for dilettante bashing.)All of those who draw checks from scribbling are -- predictably -- journalists. Two write for alumni mags, one for The Sporting News, another for a major Midwestern daily. Another -- in a move that is almost intimidating -- brings in a piece of portraiture that has been accepted by DoubleTake, a classy text-and-photo mag, for the imperfect circle to consider. Besides him, seven of us also cut open our veins, turning in material for criticism and taking the chance we won't be snapped in half like rotting twigs in a thunderstorm, to mix a few CNF-ish metaphors.During the opening session we go through the falsely self-revelatory intros and tell each other why we're here. The journalists speak almost with one voice: I'm tired of deadlines, of editors cutting my stuff. I want to stretch out and write instead of merely reporting. CNF, of course, is an obvious lure -- a mirage? -- for us. During Talese's talk I saw at least one Fourth Estater salivate at the comment, "I don't think four years is a long time to work on a book of nonfiction." It's the kind of happy thought a hack savors at a fantasy camp, in contrast with the mind-and soul-numbing expediency and brutality found when rushing both for and through a news story.Regarding CNF, Kidder and Frey emphasize finding Meaning in a mountain of minutiae. Load up on facts, sensual impressions, snippets of dialogue, and images, and pour it all forth. Conversely Talese -- champion of the nonnewsworthy -- goes for the quasi-Zen, universe-in-a-grain-of-sand bit. "Find the extraordinary in the ordinary, the big in the small," he advises.Then go on and on about it. And on. After our first session a couple of reporters remark on CNF's tendency toward, er, verbosity. Is there such a thing as too much detail? Although most of us in the class nod with approval at mention of The New Yorker's CNF godhead John McPhee, a couple of us wonder later if there was call for him to write an entire 200-plus-page book on Oranges, as he did in 1967. This penchant for "going way long" can exhaust even the most patient readers, some of us say. Who has time or energy? Who can sustain interest in the mundane for 100,000 words? How deep is too deep? Of course, we swallow these thoughts while in workshop.Also on our first day, Frey leads us through the ethics of loading up on data. Surmising thoughts and writing them without talking to a subject -- as Joe McGinniss did in his ridiculously unethical book on Ted Kennedy, The Last Brother -- is bad. Writing like a novelist -- arranging events out of chronology, setting scenes rich with sensual detail, using real dialogue cleverly -- is good. McPhee's dictum: Use whatever you can, but never make it up.By day two things begin to settle into a bit of a routine. Which means, of course, that the journalists start kvetching. Kevin, the Midwestern reporter, wonders why we spend presumably valuable workshop time rereading our essays. Not to be left out, I chime in that it seems ridiculous that our group breaks up a half-hour before the scheduled end-of-class time, while other workshops continue past that and into the lunch hour. Others contribute: Jill, the retired lawyer, seethes because we don't do any writing exercises in class, while Maggie, the World Bank worker, has begun a recurring cry of, "Where's Darcy?" to point up our fearless leader's disappearing act when class is out.The guests are restless elsewhere too. One local newspaper editor who entered the $720 "master class," designed as a more intensive workshop for writers with book-length ambitions, reports that refunds were given to at least two disappointed conferees who were told before the conference that their group would be no larger than 20 writers. Instead there were 43 of them. "They wondered how they're supposed to get individual attention," the editor says. "They aren't the only ones [in the master class] who are unhappy." (Larry Bielawski, director of Goucher's Master of Fine Arts program in CNF, says conference director and master-class workshop leader Lee Gutkind decided to keep the group together so it would benefit from classroom talks by Talese and other writers. "We added two faculty members to teach the group," Bielawski says, asserting that each student received appropriate attention.)As for our group, the kinks in attitude start to be ironed out as we dig into the verbiage. The bonds wrought from tearing each others' works apart cannot be overstated. And the critics are tough. Even though about half of the group members haven't written for the class, it doesn't stop them from sinking their teeth into others' narratives. Maggie's cleverly ironic piece on Washington, D.C., cemeteries gets torn apart -- wrongly, if you ask me -- while her entirely marketable magazine column on the female fetish for hairstyles is dissed by Frey because it has too much of "the bemused -- observer shtick." On the other hand, for Jim the Roland Parker, the group seems to hold back a bit, maybe because he's older and has written a piece of fiction, not CNF.I remain still through the morning, biting my tongue, echoing Jill's advice to herself before we arrived at Meyerhoff 106: "I'm keeping my mouth shut." It's strictly a defensive maneuver on my part. After all, my essay about a trip to Belize in which I shoot a gun for the first (and last) time is going to get its 15 minutes of shame.When my judgment time comes, I realize, despite my apprehensiveness, that this is where the whole shebang has value. I'm lucky enough to get good reviews (with this group, real lucky), but it's the enlightened criticism that counts. In the process of delivering the critiques, my workshop mates further divulge their literary personalities. There's Andrea, who suggests I make two essays out of the impressionistic, convoluted structure of the one. Structural advice is typical of her; if she wasn't a CNF teacher at the University of Virginia, I think to myself, she'd probably make a fine architect. Dale, the most vocal of us, wants one small motif to become recurring. Maggie goes so far as to examine the sentence structure, dissect the piece's content in Third World-insider terms (she's spent a lot of time in Africa), and write a long, detailed critique on the back page. She's the reader I (and many other writers, published or unpublished) am looking for. Immediately I feel guilty for being sheepish earlier in the day when her words were raked over the critical coals.The next morning (our final gathering), unencumbered by the threat of possible recriminations, I open up like a Venus'-flytrap. I take on, among others, the DoubleTake piece (How dare that guy bring that ringer in here!) for its not-quite-rounded portrait of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. By now we could almost get away with throwing spitballs at each other -- and at Frey too. As the workshops have delved more deeply into the territory of pointing out each other's artistic flaws, we loosen up. An intimacy has been achieved. Yesterday's bitchfest seems like a month ago. Determined to stick together beyond our allotted time, we commandeer a side room in the dining hall and have a final, languorous lunch together before heading back to the hackwork and the headaches, satisfied that we've fulfilled our purpose and temporarily found that rarity: fellowship among writers.Tobias Wolff wears jeans and a short-sleeved red pullover. His visage is topped by a balding head. A mustache partially conceals an overbite that reannounces itself whenever Wolff smiles, which is often. He looks like an accountant out for the night at Camden Yards. Instead he's a highly regarded memoirist/fiction writer who's signing copies of his books at a table strategically placed near the makeshift bookstore (actually another table) that functions as the conference's geographical center. I hand Wolff review copies of his last two books (which I reviewed and thus got free) for his autograph, and I ask what he gets out of these meet-the-public gigs."I like them because I get to see who's buying my books," he says smiling, his eyes twinkling. "Of course, you're not helping me much."Later, at his reading, Wolff recites his short story "Bullet in the Brain." In it a sour, smart-assed book reviewer ends up in that literary supplement in the sky -- shot through the head -- as he not-so-quietly witnesses a bank robbery. Given the glee with which Wolff reads this, and pondering my list of review assignments, I decide that perhaps having access to the literati isn't all that important after all. Access -- at least to the publishing world -- is certainly the central issue the following day, the conference's last. The conference has paid to fly in and put up agents, publishing-house reps, and magazine editors to fulfill that all-important writers'-gathering staple: the sell-your-work seminar. Goucher's glossy, five-color brochure trumpeting the conference announces that this half-day is spent "selling and marketing your work with some of the most prestigious book and magazine editors and agents in the country." It might add, " ... for whom a miniscule number of you-if any-will ever work."Let's face it: This day is rife with disingenuousness. Although the industry bigwigs in Merrick Hall take turns at a dais telling the assembled what they like and what they don't, it is probable that very few of us campers will live the fantasy of penning for GQ or The Washington Post Magazine, publishing a memoir for Viking, or having a top-flight agent from Janklow/Nesbit go to bat for us. Even though Goucher CNF honcho Larry Bielawski says two book proposals were sold at last year's get-together, the day's most illuminating moments involve recognizing the harsh market realities that keep most writers stifled and frustrated.Leslie Meredith, an editor at Harmony Books, fesses up: "It's ironic. We're here to tell you how to sell your work when we can't sell half of what we put before the public." Later Allure magazine editor Kathy Rich informs us that CNF "is increasingly imperiled" by in-house censors and lawyers. "The tabloids are the only ones telling the truth now," she says -- a comment that should turn a boatload of people off of writing.Statistics from writers' organizations evoke an equally bleak landscape. In a 1995 study of its 4,500 members, the National Writers Union (NWU) found that only half of the 1,143 respondents had yearly incomes of more than $10,000 -- even though 85 percent considered themselves "established" freelancers..Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, says editors and, yes, some conference directors, aren't being entirely truthful with writers. "There is a lot of exploitation across the spectrum," Aiken says. "There are lots of folks saying, 'Come aboard,' and the boat is already full." Part of the problem, says Naomi Zauderer, NWU's East Coast organizer, revolves around those pesky amateurs. "People like to see their name in print," she says. "People who do other things for a living will sell their work for almost nothing," creating a market glutted with product and sending writers' paychecks plummeting.Ron Tanner, associate professor of writing and media at Loyola College, doesn't claim to have verifiable figures, but he estimates "anecdotally" that "2 percent of writers who have published at least two books make their living off of their writing." In other words, the other 98 percent teach, drive cabs, whatever.Despite that, Tanner, who has taught workshops at Loyola College and Virginia Commonwealth University and was the assistant director of a writers' conference at Virginia Commonwealth, maintains that the marketing seminar serves a meaningful purpose: It "really answers the requests of many students," he says. "What they really crave is access to the heaviest hitters you can offer them. The truth about writing is that all markets are pretty much inaccessible. Why not shoot for the top editors and publishers?" Tanner doesn't agree that these events leave budding writers with a false sense of hope. "Listen, we could slam [students] with fact after fact that would discourage them, but what would the point be? They get a little education, a little reality at these [conferences]. It's a good deal for them."But Bielawski admits to thoughts similar to those of your humble correspondent. "I hear you," he says. "Maybe it's possible that next year we could get greater representation from across the publishing spectrum" by inviting reps from regional magazines and alternative weeklies along with the typical gourmet offerings.But Bielawski and Tanner agree on the need to line up stellar writing talent as a conference's main draw. "Conferences have to market themselves -- just as everything else in our culture has to market itself," Tanner says. "The best way to sell your conference is to get the big names." Which, Bielawski adds, isn't all that easy. "We're lucky in that, during our first two years, we've had great writers who think well enough of the program to come here. The competition between conferences is fierce." Adds Tanner, "Some writers make a paid vacation out of going to these things." And they're paid well. Bielawski says the rate to procure a writer for what amounts to a reading, a signing, and possibly a "dialogue" with another writer over two to three days, ranges in the $2,000 to $5,000 range and sometimes goes higher.Which proves that someone is making a living at CNF

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