Tuesday, March 17, 2015

'Whom You are Shapes What You Make': Literary Women


(blog title attributed to Aimee Bender's interpretation of a Flannery O'Connor quote)

On Saturday, I attended my first Literary Women: The Long Beach Festival of Authors conference. Many more women than I anticipated were there, all bonded in their love for books, whether they are writers themselves or just bibliophiles who appreciate the written word and consume it voraciously like I do.

I happen to fall into both categories: a writer who is halfway finished editing her essay collection, Yes Girl, and a reader who sees new books as year-round Christmas presents and has a stack of at least five unread, pristine tomes at any given time on her nightstand.

Attendees of Literary Women at the Long Beach Convention Center

Esteemed authors there included Kate Christensen, whose latest work is scheduled for publication in the fall: How to Cook a Mouse; Cristina Henriquez, with a 2014 novel titled The Book of the Unknown Americans; Sloane Crosley, a witty essayist whose first novel, The Clasp, is scheduled to debut later this year; Jennifer Clement, whose latest novel, Prayers for the Stolen, is the culmination of 11 years of research on the widespread trafficking of girls, and short story extraordinaire Aimee Bender of The Color Master and others.

Two other authors were featured, but I was unable to see them speak: Eleanor Morse wrote the novel White Dog Fell from the Sky, and Jenny Offill published Department of Speculation in 2014.

In a ballroom full of literary-inclined women—an older crowd than I expected—it’s noteworthy that issues surrounding the struggles of female artists was a theme throughout the day. Christensen, the first speaker, said a women’s conference is “a real treat,” and added, “I feel I have to prove myself as a female writer. It’s a tremendous challenge. Being a female artist, you have a complicated relationship with your ego. I had to be everyone’s voice growing up as a writer.”

Crosley echoed this sentiment when she said women’s creative work has to be “so much better [than men’s]. It’s difficult to know your story’s valuable.”

She explained that when a woman writes about men and dating, the result is automatically labeled “chick lit.”

“The male equivalent,” she said, “is ‘they’re so sensitive.’ I would like all genders to read [my books], especially women who don’t like ‘women’s stuff,’” Crosley said.


Clement approached the subject with staggering statistics about the books reviewed by The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. Men are still exponentially reviewed more than women.

“Is it still relevant to have a festival with only women?” she asked. The answer, she said, is a resounding, “Yes.”

Bender ended the conference on a positive note, saying this particular female-centric event is the “bull’s eye of the dartboard for spinoffs.” She says many other conferences try to emulate its success.

Another notable theme of the day was that each author, while from drastically different backgrounds—from writing and reading homes to homes where their parents didn’t read books at all—had some sort of epiphany, an “a-ha” moment in her youth that set her on a path to success as a writer: a moment when she realized she’d found her calling, which tied in nicely to discussions about the importance of writing in one's own voice. 


Christensen was one who “grew up in a house with a lot of books.” She said, “I was intimidated, except for the books about sex. I was fascinated with sex as a kid.”

Born in Berkeley in 1962, she “grew up in turbulence” because her father, “a hero in public,” was abusive toward her mother until they moved to Tempe when she was eight, where she experienced “complete culture shock.” She described Tempe in 1970 as “white people in pants suits and cowboy hats. There were no black people.”

As a child, “everything ‘outside’ was adult. I didn’t understand it,” she said.

Writing protected her “like a magic shield.” She felt she was “born a writer.”

The writer’s personality includes the inclination to like being alone and to like pushing [herself], she said. Writers “like to stare at people.” The innate quality writers possess is they are “riveted with people.” It’s “the bread and butter of the writer. If you see a kid staring, they’re probably going to grow up to be a writer or a psychopath.”


She added, “Public speaking is not so much part of a writer’s personality,” but a writer is “curious and never judgmental.” Writers “want to know what people are feeling,” the “subtext,” which Christensen said, “is helpful when you’re writing novels.”

While feeling like she was a writer from the outset, her epiphany came when she read Harriet the Spy. This book is a “good lesson at spying on people. She wrote the truth. She was ostracized. Then she became the editor of the school newspaper.”

What she learned was that “you can write the truth and write what you see, but then you need to be implicated.” She added, “I am implicated.”

 “Early writing was comforting myself,” she said. “Writing is the opposite of therapy. It roughs you up. It doesn’t solve anything.”

She struggled to find her voice, as she tried instead to emulate Faulkner. She attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and had a less than favorable experience.

“I barely survived.” It was a “sexist, cold, terrifying place.”

Before Iowa, she kept a lot of journals and “studied literature. Then I went to Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Frank Conroy walked into the first workshop and made a woman cry. He tore her down. It set the tone. I left Iowa feeling I’d lost my way there.”

In her 20s, Christensen “didn’t know who [she] was as a writer for the first time in [her] life.” She moved to New York and became a ghostwriter for a countess who avoided Nancy Reagan’s phone calls because “she just goes on and on.”

“My writing wasn’t going well. I was still getting over Iowa. I left that job. Suddenly, I started writing in my own voice again—the one I had when I was 13. I found my way writing again. It wasn’t Faulknerian. It was the way I wrote in 8th grade.”

This voice from her past, her authentic one, was one who originally had two readers: first her mother and second a boy at school.

“I thought I should marry him, even though I wasn’t attracted to him.”

She later wrote with him in mind as her audience and published her first novel at 37.

Henriquez’s writing epiphany and realization of her own voice came long after being an avid reader as a child.

“I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer, but I was always a reader.”


She’d come home from school with the Scholastic book order form. Her parents were “not big readers.”

But in high school, her role as a writer came into focus because of a boy she was “soul crushingly in love with.”

She persisted in reinforcing how much she liked him. She told him over and over, “I really like you.” But, “he got really sick of it. He gave me a blank journal and said, ‘Write down everything you want to say to me for a year, and then give it back to me.’”

It only took three weeks for her to realize she loved the act of writing.

“I could be who I wanted to be,” and “have the freedom to say what I wanted to say.”

She gave him the journal back after a year.

“He gave it back to me a few years ago,” Henriquez said. “It’s really, really cringe-worthy.”

And yet, it set her on a path.

“After I finished the journal, I bought another one and filled that up. And then another one. I never looked back.”

She has her high school crush to thank for starting her literary career, and they’re still friends, but nothing ever happened between them, something she seemed to regret in a nostalgic way.

However, she said, “I fell out of love with boys and fell in love with writing.”

Her second “a-ha” moment came as a result of a book, like Christensen, only it was, incidentally, at Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she had a wonderful experience in contrast. 

Henriquez attended Northwestern as an undergrad and then was “rejected to all five top creative writing schools.”

She persisted, writing stories after work at night and having the good fortune to receive notes on them from an old college professor from Northwestern who sent her feedback for two years.

Then she applied to grad school again.

“My first response was from Iowa. I had a very positive experience there. I discovered House on Mango Street,” she said. “Sandra was writing characters a lot like me, not like I’d seen before.”

Henriquez grew up in Delaware, but spent the summers with family in the Panama Canal every year. They ate pork chops for breakfast at her grandma’s house. She experienced “really rich sensory details, but she “never wrote them down” because she “thought they weren’t worth telling.”

After reading Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, “I walked through the door that Sandra opened,” she said. Seeing words on the page that she could relate to—including the name “Carlos”—meant that she was somebody.

“It opened up the whole world.”


She started writing stories set in Panama, instead of just the American stories she was workshopping at Iowa. She’d previously learned from books that her “white American experience was the only one of value.” 

She’d internalized that she was not important. So, even after she started writing stories about Panama, she continued to workshop her American stories, ones that took her three months to write, not three days like a story she wrote after being inspired by Cisneros.

After Iowa, she “finally showed her Panama stories” to an editor who told her, “You’re sitting on a goldmine. These are the stories.”

“Ordinary stories are worth telling,” Henriquez told us.

She’d discovered her voice, even though she still questions, “Am I the authority?”

People tell her, “You’re Latina.”

“That’s news to me!” she joked.

Crosley’s experience was equally enlightening and poignant.

“I didn’t grow up in a writing house. I got in trouble for reading Misery under the table,” she said. “I could have been doing drugs,” she joked.

“I always used stories to express myself. I captured thoughts by writing them down.”


One of her first childhood stories was a message to her parents to quit crowding her. She explained to us that she has a disability that prevents her from having any sense of direction. (She wears rubber bands on one wrist to distinguish her right from left.)

“I got lost in hallways. I got lost in the bathroom.”

But when she was ready to be removed from special education classes, she wrote her parents a story.

“It was a story about bunnies. The parent bunnies got shot, and the little bunny hadn’t learned to get by on her own.” 

It was a morbid story that got her point across.

In college, she took a creative writing course with an instructor—Blanche McCrary Boyd (The Redneck Way of Knowledge)—who called her in after class one day to discuss a story Crosley had turned in.

“I thought real writing was not what I can do naturally.” If she wrote in her own voice, that was “cheating.”

When the professor asked her to stay after class, Crosley thought she would get praised for her “suburban bloodbath story,” a theme in the same vein as those poor bunny gunshot wound victims.

Instead Boyd said, “Somebody up there gave you something. You don’t know what to do with it. This isn’t it.”
The witty and adorable Sloane Crosley telling humorous stories
After 11 years at Random House representing fiction authors, something happened that changed Crosley’s trajectory.

“I locked myself out of two different apartments in the same day.”

She was moving between locations in NYC. She called a locksmith twice—eight hours apart—and heard the same locksmith’s voice on the other end of the phone. On his second visit to help get her out of her latest bind, he looked down and saw her doormat that read, “Déjà vu.”

“That’s a funny doormat,” he said.

She knew she had to write about this moment.

“Essays start with one line you hang your hat on. I wrote the locksmith story. The Voice said, ‘If you clean this up and not make it stupid, we’ll publish it.’”

The authors also shared varying topics they are most interested in, the themes that run throughout their work, but all emphasized more so the importance of process, structure, and language.

“Failure has been my topic,” Christensen said. “We’re sort of together in this. We all fail. I wanted to explore the idea of not succeeding.”

She first wrote a book in the genre she labeled “loser lit” about intelligent failures. It was “hailed as ‘chick lit’” with its flawed female character and published. She read “awful Amazon reviews” after its release.

She then wrote two novels in male voices that were “received very differently.” She could “get away with saying things in a male voice. Bad thoughts. Sexual. It felt very powerful.”

Writing a novel, she said, “is a tremendous act of will. It’s the lifeline to sanity. My writing has changed. I’m sick of writing about myself. It’s an interesting place to be.”

How to Cook a Mouse is “about other people.” She is now “writing for pleasure." She no longer needs anything. It’s a “sense of new territory.”

Her next book will most likely be “100 pages of false start,” but it’s a “new kind of story, not about me. What a relief.”

Similarly, Henriquez explained, literature is “to see yourself and to see beyond yourself. That’s how compassion grows. Empathy. Kindness.” It’s about getting “rid of the fear that divides us.”

The process for her latest novel consisted of writing 20 drafts, which she saved separately as, “Novel One, Novel Two, and Novel Come on Already.”

She used to write from 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM, but now she writes from 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM. (She has children.) Most of her latest book was “written in the library.” She has been “writing a lot by hand lately,” and “on the computer, [she’s] been writing with [her] eyes closed and translating as purely as possible from here (her head) to the page.”

For The Book of the Unknown Americans, her process started from a single sentence that she built into a story.

“I sat on it for a few months. I go into a project knowing as little as I can.”

It’s a “sentence to sentence” process. “It comes from somewhere else. I’m not in control.”

She said “immigration is a huge, overwhelming topic.” She took the pain off herself and put it into the characters instead.

“I wanted to make the characters universal. They are worried about losing jobs; they want a happy marriage; they are worried about putting their kids on the bus.”

After the first draft, she boiled her theme down to “home. Where is home? Where exactly do I belong?”

All the Latin American characters in her book want to make America their home.

“Illegal is beside the point. The novel is the power of invention. We can change the stories we tell about each other.”

Her advice to writers?

“Rejection is not there to stop you. It’s there to test you for how much harder you’ll work to get what you want,” Henriquez said.

When Crosley began writing essays, she didn’t think of herself as a nonfiction writer. She thought, “This is on the side."

She said, "You have to put on a different hat when you write about yourself.”

She forgets what she writes regarding her life. “Someone will say, ‘I had a Siamese cat,’ and she'll say, ‘Me too!’”

Sloane Crosley
She was writing a novel when she discovered she was an essayist. She defined the novel as “When Harry Met Sally meets Little Shop of Horrors.” This novel, she said, “will never be published.” She was able to salvage one line after four years of work.

She realized that “observations and details worked so well in nonfiction.”

As a burgeoning essayist, she read David Rakoff, whom she called a “genius,” and thought, “I hope I can write nonfiction like this.”

When she published her first collection, she was told, “Essays don’t sell. That was true at the time,” but “I was lucky. It found its footing.”

She listed the experiences that surround the act of essay writing:

“The ideal” is the essay “you don’t know or don’t think you’ll write about.” She gave as an example her essay about volunteering in a butterfly exhibit while working at a museum. She “didn’t expect to write about volunteering. The essay came quite naturally.”

A kid asked her, “Why are the butterflies crushed on the floor?”

“Where are your parents?” she responded.

The second type of essay is the one “you think you might write about, but you’re not sure. You’re waiting.”

She mentioned a wedding in Alaska she attended, something she anticipated writing about, but wasn’t certain. Her friend said, “Either it will be a good experience, or you’ll write about it.”

The third type of essay is the one you “know you’re going to write about. This is the most difficult.”

She asks herself, “Where do I start?”  There are “too many angles.”

“Mashing stuff up that doesn’t belong together” is her “sweet spot.”

She gave as an example the hardest essay she’s ever had to write.

“I was dating a guy who had a second family. I was that girl: the girl who gave birth at the prom. ‘How did you not know?’” she joked.

In the same essay, she discussed her part in a furniture scam. “It was the shadiest thing I was part of. Again, it was not drugs.”

She tied the furniture story to the story about her deceptive boyfriend. They were “mash-ups” because they were both “borrowed.”

“I was borrowing this guy who wasn’t mine and taking furniture that wasn’t mine.”

Her novel, which she described as a “Goonies-esque adventure,” was another process entirely. “I had to tend to it so much more.”

With essays, the writer needs to “observe the world a little more.” With her novel, she “needed it to be quieter.”

While writing the novel, she says she asked her male friends for advice about her male characters. “Are they thinking about their penises enough?”

Crosley mentioned the last event she attended was that of a small group of fourth graders. One kid asked her, “Does it hurt to be a writer?”

Crosley joked, “Actually, my back hurts all the time.”

Clement’s process for her latest novel involved extensive research for more than a decade, involving, in part, interviews with women in Mexican prisons. The “birth of the book” came when she asked one of her interviewees, “What are you doing about the girls being stolen?”

“We’re digging holes in fields.”


Clement was interested in what was being done about gangs stealing and trafficking girls, not just in Mexico, but everywhere.

“You can sell a bag of drugs once. You can sell a girl many times. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

When people would ask her why she chose to write about trafficking as a novel instead of as a journalistic piece, she’d say, “Historically we don’t remember journalism of the time, but we remember the novels of the time.”

She entered the situation as she always does: as a poet.

“Most important to me are craft and form, more so than the subject.”

She wrote Widow Basquiat as if it was “a silent movie, a scene with two voices.”

Her second novel was in “three voices: the first voice, the inner voice, and the objective voice.”

Her third novel was “written like a Greek tragedy.” At the end of every story is a chorus.

A theme she’s most interested in is “how do the weak exercise their power?” In other words, “How do we get knowledge and exercise the knowledge we have?”

And her voice is affected by her bilingualism. She said, “I can write in Spanish, but I mostly write in English. In my English, the words have a gender, like Spanish.” She called it “unconscious intertextuality. One language affects another.”

Clement believes “fiction/literature can make changes in the world,” and added, “Journalists are very dangerous people.”

The “process,” Bender said later, “is the core of the writing experience. There is something unknowable about it. We can orbit it. The creative process is everywhere.” 

Where does Bender’s process start? Boredom, she claims.

“A study showed if you do a boring activity first, you’re more creative afterward.”

The first question people ask her is, “Do you write on a computer or with a pen?” The second question people asked her is, “Where do you get your ideas from?”

“Boredom,” she says.

She cited Adam Phillips’ essay On Being Bored, saying “boredom is a kind of waystation. You’re waiting for yourself. Boredom has to be cultivated. You have to make space for it. Put your phone aside for daydreaming space.”

As a big believer in structure, she said, “Boredom needs to be structured around empty space.”

In 1995, when Bender was working on her MFA in creative writing at UC Irvine—the same time I was there working on my bachelor’s in English—she thought, “I should write every day.”

While living in a kitchen-less house on Balboa Island, she cultivated her boredom-as-inspiration policy.

“I would sit for an hour-and-a-half each day.” Doing nothing. “I would just sit there.”

At the time, social media wasn’t the time-suck it is now. She said she only had “two friends to email,” so that made it easier to do nothing for such long spans of time, but it was still “really painful.”

She actually tied her leg to a chair with a scarf to “see what would bubble up.” She called it a “gesture toward imagination.”

She also started “floating files” on her computer. She created font files for character names and origins. (“Helvetica!”)

“I got quite a lot of work done. Funnier, stranger, magical storytelling came from it.”

At UCI, she wrote six days a week. On Sundays, she’d “earned a vacation. [She] didn’t think about writing at all” that day.

“I don’t know where the material is going to come from. I’m really desperate to find something that has life in it,” she said. “Most [of the files she created] are dead, flat files.”

She stressed the importance of routine. She says she stops writing “after the time limit” she has set for herself. “I’ll stop at 9:45, even if I stopped at important sentences.”

In a way, she says, she has “replicated a therapy session,” without realizing it. Even if it is going well, time’s up, and then she has something to begin with the next day.

“For 17 years, my schedule was two hours of writing a day. I have twins now. It shook things up.”

During her children’s naptime, she does the following: “1. Nap. 2. 15 minutes of writing. 3. Shower.”

Bender has “created a little microcosm. Even 15 minutes a day felt like work was happening.”

She used to have an email system with another writer who had trouble forcing herself to write every day. The other woman wanted to be held accountable.

“She’d email me ‘done.’ I’d email her ‘check.’ I was simply acknowledging that she was writing for an hour a day.”

She’d taken away the “woman’s dread about not writing.” That she’d committed to one hour a day let her enjoy the rest of the day.

Bender had some of the most insightful advice of the day: “The most useful piece of writing advice I received was, ‘If you write every day—or every moment—what you want to write, the writing will not be dutiful.”

This “gives enormous permission” to the writer, she said.

“You want to get to the end of the story earning the ending. Find the story you want to finish if you have seven beginnings. The joy with writing is no one has to see it. You can try stuff in solitude.”

She added, “In some ways, ‘everyone has one story to tell’ is reductive. We have an incredible wealth of stories to tell.”

Once an author finishes a book, she said, “The author just becomes another person around the table.” 

She referred the wisdom of Zadie Smith: “The reader is the musician; the writer is the composer; the reader plays the book. The writer and reader make the book together. You need the reader to activate the book,” Bender said.


“Meaning to me isn’t a checklist. It’s more about experience. The dance between the writer and reader” is a mystery or an unconscious or the imagination or the iceberg that’s under the surface.

The wise, talented women of this conference gave me more ideas to consider than I knew what to do with; it was overwhelming—in a good way—and inspiring. The experience gave me and my friend of more than 15 years much to ponder over happy hour afterward.

We heard these established authors say things like, “Nobody cares if [I] write a book,” and “Who am I to be standing here today in front of you? I’m not important. I’m nobody,” and “No one is going to care about this book.”

But I beg to differ.  I care about what creative women have to say about their experiences as I slowly forge my own path. Getting out of my own little writing bubble alone at home to immerse myself in a community such as this, even if just for one day, is the fuel that drives me forward.

One day I will be one of the authors signing books at a table, sharing the wisdom that only comes from endless hard work. In the meantime, I thank these lovely women for the boost they have given me to keep going.

Side note: I never raise my hand and ask questions during Q & As, especially in large rooms full of intelligent people. I’m a big chicken. I was so proud of myself for getting over the fear of looking stupid when I raised my hand this time and shared with Sloane Crosley that I, too, am an essayist who is “finished” writing her first collection. I asked her if she still thought essays “don’t sell.” She was positive about the future of the form.

Publishing companies want a writer to “know her audience” and have that eager online audience waiting anxiously for the release of her book before it’s published.

When I said, “This whole ‘platform’ thing is freaking me out,” she said, “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

I told Crosley, “I once heard a writer say she writes for an audience of one: herself.” That resonated with me. I was relieved. I figured, if I have a connection to the writing, someone else will too.

Yes, Crosley said, “The more personal the writing, the more universal it is.”

A sampling of Crosley's audience


Next year’s Literary Women conference is on March 5th. Mark your calendars.

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