One Story Summer Writers Conference 2019 Recap

Last week, we hosted twenty writers at The Old American Can Factory for a week of workshops with instructors Lisa Ko or Will Allison, craft lectures, readings, and panels. Our intrepid interns—Evy Constant, Carly Frederickson, Jacob Maren, and Andrea K. Oh—spent the week documenting the events. Here are their recaps!

Day 1: Welcome

As temperatures climbed into the triple digits outside, we welcomed twenty writers into our home at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn to kick off the 2019 One Story Summer Writers Conference. Students were introduced to the entire team and got to know each other during an hour filled with cocktails and conversations with fellow writers. The classes only last a week at One Story, but many came to realize that the friendships made this week can last a lifetime. —Jacob

Day 2: It’s About Time!

During the first craft lecture of this year’s Summer Writers Conference, One Story’s editor-in-chief Patrick Ryan discussed the importance of economy and time management in writing. Ryan explained that, although writers often attempt to illuminate their character’s experiences by extending scenes and trailing their actions very closely, this can sometimes lead to stagnation in the story’s action—the dreaded “boredom” all writers fear their readers feeling.

Rather than attempting to control everything in every moment of a story, Ryan pointed out that writers must avoid over-choreographing: you must determine what your story is really about, then use that knowledge to figure out which scenes should take up time and which you should compress. Essentially, Ryan explained that “it’s about keeping the reader’s attention where you want the reader’s attention to be.”

Ryan emphasized that this is something all writers do; we all tend to expand scenes unnecessarily because “nobody’s got it figured out. It’s not about trying to be an expert when you’re writing.” Instead of trying to get it perfect the first time, writers should work to incorporate narrative compression into their revision processes. To this point, Ryan shared that his ideal reader—and perhaps to some extent, all of our ideal readers—should be one who suffers from extreme impatience; one who urges us to “spit it out. Get to it!”—Evy 

Day 3: How Does She Do That?

How does she do that? This the question Myla Goldberg posed at the start of yesterday’s craft lecture, a discussion of Lauren Groff’s short story, “L. DeBard and Aliette” from her short story collection Delicate Edible Birds.

During this craft talk, Myla went into a deep analysis of the short story and covered a lot of ground, discussing everything from time to suspense to POV to character building to sex. One of the overarching lessons that Myla presented was how Lauren Groff builds worlds through different perspectives. Groff’s ability to alternate point of views seamlessly, going from a God’s eye view to different close character perspectives, draws us into the world of the story.

In a short Q&A following the talk, Myla addressed the crowd’s questions about her own personal experiences in the literary world. She ended with this piece of advice: “Take ten minutes a day to read over what you’ve been working on.” Our lives might be too busy for us to write every day, but we always have time to interact with and think about our writing despite all the distractions inhabiting the space around us.—Jacob

Day 4: The Vampiric Research Method

During the third craft lecture of this year’s Summer Writers Conference, One Story co-founder Hannah Tinti provided listeners with an abundance of practical tips for getting one’s work out of the slush pile. Her talk guided conference participants through various aspects of the publishing process, such as how to prepare your work for submission, how to decide which magazines or agents to send your work to, and how to handle rejections and acceptances.

She stressed the importance of submitting a manuscript that conforms to industry standards (double-spaced, 12 pt. Times New Roman font) and went over how to write a professional, informative cover letter. She also introduced conference attendees to a variety of anthologies such as Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, all of which can be used as tools for becoming acquainted with different literary magazines and discovering which ones best fit your work. Tinti shared her method of creating different tiers of magazines to send work to as well, making sure you have a variety of different options.

Tinti reminded us that along with submissions often come rejections, but also that many extremely successful books faced a large number of rejections before they were published and praised. She concluded her talk with an important piece of advice: Publication is not what makes you a writer; writing is what makes you a writer.—Evy 

On Wednesday night, One Story co-founder Hannah Tinti talked with Irina Reyn at Community Bookstore about Reyn’s incredible new novel, Mother Country. Their conversation was filled with writing tips and tricks, anecdotes about the creative process, and laughter, ending with an audience Q&A that (surprisingly) included vampires!

“I operate on what I call ‘vampiric research,’” Reyn told the crowd, “which is that I’m only sucking the blood that I need. You’re only using what you need, and you’re not getting distracted by things you don’t need. So, in other words, you’re only using the things in service of the story you want to tell.” —Andrea

Day 5: Writerly Self-Compassion

On Thursday’s craft lecture, Rakesh Satyal drew on anecdotes from his vibrant literary career to advise our summer conference participants as both a fellow writer and as an editor. Above all was his desire to see them—to see all writers, really—develop their writing lives. Satyal emphasized that one needs to be intentional about one’s writing life, highlighting the importance of dedicating time to writing. This, however, was not to say that writing must, or even should, happen every day; in his words, “You have to identify for yourself what feels productive. You know when you’re doing the work.” Later, Satyal discussed the need for writers to allow themselves the space to think on a macro level, to have a sense of the larger ideas or themes they’re writing towards. “Be a good literary citizen,” he said, which, at its core, means treating writing as a legitimate and necessary profession. Up-and-coming writers, he said, can practice good literary citizenship by paying attention to what’s happening in the “literary world,” talking with others about their own writing and buying of books, and, instead of trying to emulate prominent authors, working on honing/owning their unique perspectives. Of perhaps the most importance, though, was his view on writerly self-compassion: “Let yourself know when you’ve done good work.” —Carly 

Day 6: Pay Attention To What You Pay Attention To

For the final craft lecture of our Summer Conference, our very own Ann Napolitano discussed the importance of writers living in service of their work. In the first of three sections, titled “Paying Attention,” Napolitano centered on the need for writers to pay attention to the things that hold their interest—namely, inexplicable obsessions that lodge themselves deep in their brains. Drawing on David Lynch’s book Catching the Big Fish, Napolitano explored the idea of the “internal magnet,” which she defined as certain ideas “sticking” to one’s subconscious in the same way magnets stick to a refrigerator door. There is often no discernible rhyme or reason for a particular idea to stick around, she said; something inside you decides, and one’s job as a writer is to lean into the resulting obsession with intention. “Your calibrating magnet is the you of you,” Napolitano said, and listening to it can lead to your best work. In her second section, called “The Inside Job,” Napolitano emphasized the need for writers to turn away from their end goal(s), instead focusing only on the work at hand. Through writing for oneself (instead of for external validation) and, as Rakesh Satyal spoke about in his lecture, having self-compassion, writers will, hopefully, realize that they have agency in choosing where their thoughts go. In turn, this could help writers to experience more mental clarity when writing. For her final section, “The Practical Side,” Napolitano gave practical advice on how to develop one’s writing life with intention and mindfulness, including a list of different lifestyle choices one can use to aid in the development of a regular writing practice. Quoting Annie Dillard, Napolitano said that “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” One’s writing—as well as one’s quality of life—improves when treated seriously. —Carly 

The One Storys Summer Writers Conference ended with memorable readings from all of our students and jokes from the One Story instructors and staff. Tears might have been shed. It has been a pleasure to talk with each and every writer who attended this week-long conference and helped create such a generative, supportive space. We hope your time with us was meaningful and that you created life-long literary friends.

As a parting gift for our fellow writers, some final words from Hannah Tinti: “Your writing is not you. It’s something you have done.”—Andrea

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Lisa Ko

On May 12th, at our 8th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating nine of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Lisa Ko, author of One Teen Story Issue #14, “Proper Girls” and the novel The Leavers.

The Leavers is a story about family and identity, spanning nearly twenty years. Eleven year-old Deming Guo lives with his mother Polly in the Bronx. One day, Polly goes to her job at the nail salon and never returns. When Deming is adopted by a suburban white couple in upstate New York, he becomes Daniel Wilkinson, beginning the arduous journey to discover not only his true self but the fate of a mother long lost.

Wynne Kontos: Where were you when you found out The Leavers was going to be published and how did you celebrate?

Lisa Ko: I lost my phone while I was on vacation. I hadn’t been able to get my voicemail or email all week because there was no reception, and when I got back to New York I checked my email and found a message from Barbara Kingsolver saying she had been trying to call me for days and to please call her immediately. It was about the PEN/Bellwether Prize, which Barbara established and funds, and which comes with a book contract with Algonquin Books. I’d submitted my manuscript months ago and promptly forgotten about it. When I called Barbara with my boyfriend’s phone, she told me I’d won. I was too jet-lagged for it to really sink in — I think I celebrated that afternoon by drinking coffee and then passing out— but the next morning I woke up at five in the morning and was like, OH MY GOD!

WK: There seemed to be a parallel between Deming’s biological mother Polly and his adoptive mother Kay when it came to the concept of “motherhood.” Both have very different journeys that lead them to being Deming’s mother. Both women are not without faults, but feel real love for the same child. Can you talk more about your exploration of motherhood and its variety of roles?

LK: Polly and Kay are both imperfect women doing the best they can. They also want the best for Deming, or what they feel is the best for him. On a more thematic level, they are inseparable from larger forces of class, race, language access, and citizenship status, and this impacts their parenting and expectations. Kay and her husband Peter can provide Deming with economic resources, but Polly can provide him with connections to culture, family, and identity. I wanted to explore the differences between the two.

WK: Deming (later Daniel) performs poorly in academics, which causes him to struggle as a child. Being a bad student is an example of how Deming’s life and family defy cultural stereotypes we see about the Asian community. Did you intend to confront these racial stereotypes?

LK: I didn’t set out to strategically write against stereotype—I just wanted to create a fully developed character. Deming’s poor academic performance is tied to the upheavals in his childhood, some uninspiring teachers, and his interests being more in art and music than in the traditional academic areas that his adoptive parents value and pressure him to pursue. I do hope my characters reflect the full diversity of Asian Americans. There are definitely plenty of Asian kids who are terrible students!

WK: Deming/Daniel also struggles with a gambling addiction. The addiction seems to come out of nowhere, though it’s obvious he is incredibly isolated without a lot of support systems. What role did the gambling addiction serve in exploring Deming/Daniel’s character?

LK: There’s a certain obsessiveness about Daniel’s character, as well as a desire for risk-taking. That, and his perfect poker face—a skill honed from having to pretend, to hide his true feelings in his new adopted family and town—make him susceptible to succeeding as a gambler. The theme of gambling is also prevalent throughout The Leavers. Chance, luck, the arbitrariness of immigration policies, and even being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time affect my characters’ lives in pivotal ways. From a storytelling point of view, Daniel’s gambling addiction is something he needs to face as part of his character’s journey. He treats others poorly because he’s not being honest to himself, and he has to learn to make decisions for himself rather than doing what others want him to do, whether it’s his parents or his friends.  

WK: In conversation with Barbara Kingsolver, you mentioned getting inspiration from the New York Times reports about women who were separated from their children and imprisoned in immigration camps. Immigration has been a growing cultural and political issue in recent years, but it has taken on new meaning after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. This just four months before the release of your debut novel about how unethical immigration practices can cause enormous harm for families and individuals. What role do you hope your novel has had and will continue to have in this growing conversation?

LK: By personalizing one fictional family’s story, I’d love for The Leavers to clear some misconceptions about undocumented immigration, as well as raise awareness about the for-profit prison system and its ties to U.S. immigration policies. These policies have been in place for years, and didn’t start with the Trump administration. There are “bed quotas” that mandate that a certain number of immigrants need to be imprisoned at any given time—during the Obama administration it was 34,040 immigrants per day. Trump would like to double it. Private prisons are profiting, big time, off of xenophobia, racism, the criminalization of immigrants, and the separation of families like Polly and Deming’s.

WK: The concept of “identity” is at the forefront of this novel in almost every way. Deming/Daniel and his mother both explore dual Chinese-American personas, the Wilkinsons learn what it means to be an individual versus a parent, even Deming’s best friend Michael uses academics to reach a new phase of adulthood. Each character in the novel is searching for their truest meaning, either because they have yet to find it or they feel it has been lost. Why is identity such an important concept for you as a writer and what does it mean to you?

LK: American culture in general has always been obsessed with identity and the right to define ourselves—self-determination, right? If we’re referring to racial and ethnic identity, I think that Asian Americans are often so invisible in media, and when we are visible, we’re often being defined by others. So to define ourselves and center our stories is to assert our own humanity in a way, and that can be critical. Polly and Deming deal with this, too: their own search for belonging is also a desire to be fully seen, understood, and to be able to define themselves on their own terms, rather than to be forced to fit the more limiting definitions that are placed upon them.

WK: What are you most looking forward to at the Debutante Ball?

LK: Having my story “Proper Girls” published in One Teen Story was a big turning point for me during a time when it felt like nothing was going well with my writing. I’m so excited to celebrate with One Story and the other authors!