At the risk of sounding like something out of “Forrest Gump” (“Life is like a box of chocolates”), life is like a skyscraper: You can’t really see it until you step back from it.
I had that sense at the Algonkian Writer Conference I attended Dec. 11-14 at the Ripley Greer Studios on the skirts of Manhattan’s Fashion District. The conference was designed to help writers from all over the country and all walks of life achieve one goal – to be able to pitch their stories to the agents/editors we met in the hopes that they would take them on.
I certainly think our workshop group of 11 professionals, who bonded almost instantly, achieved that goal in the sense that we perfected our pitch letters. What began as something unformed came into focus at the end of four days, thanks in large part to our insightful, sympathetic workshop leader, Susan Breen, who teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. (That she’s also the author of “The Fiction Class” means she not only talks the talk, she walks the walk.) In the process, I learned something about myself not only as a writer but as a magazine editor.
There were many takeaways from the conference, not the least of which is that it is possible for 12 strangers to form an instantaneous unit. Much of that had to do with Susan’s nonjudgmental yet constructive approach. But part of it was the place itself, place being key to writing. Picture an office building on Eighth Avenue – with its vestiges of a bygone New York, peep shows and skin mags – that is like any other office building (a lobby eatery, a security guard and camera to smile for) but that opens onto a world of creativity in its upper reaches. Pink walls, potted plants, paintings. The sounds of classical singers and accompanists skipping up and down scales before bursting into “Caro nome” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” The sights of dancers limbering up in hallways or sprucing themselves up in bathrooms for their auditions.
And then the signs – “Quiet please. Creativity in progess.” That would be us.
Creativity, great ideas. Our class had them in spades. A starry-eyed junior naval officer – one hand on the tiller, the other on Cervantes – battling her own Ahab and the Great White Whale of misplaced ambition. A young mother of five and fledgling writer trying to keep her life from careening out of control. A Westchester psychologist who had it all – and walked away from it to begin a more meaningful life in Atlanta. A counselor with a series on the chiaroscuro of drug addiction. A professor writing about a monk and a nun caught up in a religious fervor that resonates down from the 16th century. A lawyer coming to grips with a beloved adopted son struggling with the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. A diplomat trying to find her footing amid an earthquake and psychological fissures in Haiti. A writer posing the great “What if?” in a tale of parallel universes. A young woman exploring how she survived the “bright lights, big city” of Manhattan’s Boom Boom Room and another confronting the familial manipulations of the past, fearing they might threaten the future.
And the romance of a gay, biracial quarterback’s quest for identity, acceptance, success and love amid the brutal beauty of the NFL. (C’est moi.)
But a great idea in New York needs a narrative. It’s not a think-tank town like Boston or a concept place like LA. New York is a city where fully developed ideas, products as it were, are tested and marketed, which is to say they are born or they die. So how many pages do you have? Is the manuscript almost finished? You heard this over and over again from agents and editors with the power to say yea or nay or not for me but maybe for a colleague (which is OK, too).
The good news: Our group, a bright bunch, heard more yeas than nays and has vowed to keep in touch. We’ll have to see how it all turns out, won’t we? In the meantime, as I offered suggestions and even books from my library, I realized 1) that this is what editors do, 2) that I have spent so much of my life fixated on my identity as a writer that it never occurred to me that I had become an editor (of WAG magazine) almost against my will, 3) that this is how people see me, and 4) that I’m good at it and it’s a pretty terrific job, too.
The conference reminded me of something Mother Teresa once said: Holiness is where you are right now.
I realized I liked who and what I am, that I am – as we all are – in the right place.