Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How To Survive Stony Brook Southampton's Summer Writing Conference

Today kicks off Stony Brook Southampton's annual backslapping festival: the summer writing conference, and it all starts with keynote speaker Lorrie Moore. After that, it kicks up a notch with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout and Sag Harbor native Colson Whitehead. Returning to the conference are a mix of visiting writers and Stony Brook Southampton faculty members such as Roger Rosenblatt, Kaylie Jones, Melissa Bank, Peter Hedges, Thomas Lux and former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins. The full list of faculty and workshops are dumped on a release posted here at

In the interest of full disclosure (and to effectively inform this blog post) it should be noted that I am a graduate of the Stony Brook Southampton MFA program in Creative Writing and have hands-on experience dealing with some of the aforementioned named "faculty," dating back to when Frank McCourt and Peter Matthiesson were part of the program. McCourt has since died. Matthiesson is 83 and sick of talking to people. (probably.)

Here's a survival guide for all you aspiring writers and MFA candidates currently primping, tweazing, hair-gelling, and printing out fresh pages of your latest novel "just in case."

  • print out fresh pages of your latest novel/chapbook/play "just in case." There is no just in case. They don't care. Not really. Now, if you have a wine spritzer balanced on a tray, they care. Really.
  • tell anyone, under any circumstances, that your book is a "slice of life."
  • ask for their help with anything specific. In the 50+ years combined of experience in publishing and literati, they haven't met a single writer, agent, editor, publisher, or proofreader that they can introduce you to. This doesn't sound possible, but you might as well believe it, because if the truth is otherwise, they ain't sharing.
  • tell any of the male writers that you adore his work. This is especially true if you're a doe-eyed, apple-cheeked female MFA student. They will open up the world to you, but first...a drink at the bar?
  • invite any of them to an open mic or student reading. They don't care. Not really. Better you live inside the cocoon of your delusions than endure the heartbreak of the inevitable blow-off. (Note: some will do it more harshly than others. See: Rosenblatt.)
  • ask long-winded and semi-autobiographical questions during the Q & A period. Not only do they not care, your fellow audience members don't care either. You can ask Whitehead how he maintained proper emotional distance while writing "Sag Harbor" without telling him your cousin's best friend's girlfriend at the time was an 8th-grade classmate of his.
  • ask "what advice would you give an aspiring writer?" during a Q & A. This is a complete masturbatory allie-oop question that will only be met with witty, sarcastic, faux-existential, jerk-off answers, and will at worst provide a writer with a golden opportunity to share how their genius was discovered. (An example? Sherman Alexie answered the question by saying the only thing a writer needs is money for postage stamps.)
  • tell any of them about your literary aspirations. They're going to say "that's ambitious of you," and you're going to take it for what it is: rank condescension.
  • believe that by running copies for Melissa Banks, or picking up Roger Rosenblatt's laundry, or dropping off Elizabeth Strout at the airport is going to get you published. It's going to get you to a gas station to refill your tank.
  • believe that shoving a manuscript in a writer's gut is going to get you published. It's going to get you kept in the dark about where the after-reading-party is going down.


  • embrace your own arrogance. Of course your writing is much more revolutionary and game-changing than theirs, and you'll get your chance to prove it. Don't grovel. Don't falsely stroke their egos because you feel it's the nice thing to do.
  • ask broad and abstract questions during any Q& A period. "How do you write female characters so well?" is a good one. Also, "do you write every day?" And, "describe your process. Do you hand write, and then type it out?"
  • drink heavily and try to hook up with a fellow conference attendee. I'm putting out personal bonus points if you can peel Melissa Banks' panties, but that's as far as it goes with faculty-student co-mingling.
  • hide your envy. There is nothing more embarrassing and eye-rolling than an MFA student popping off at a reading or after-party about how much more talented he is than X, who everyone is surrounding at the moment. For the record: "popping off" includes shaking one's head, rolling one's eyes, looking bored while clapping, leaving the room when X is about to entertain everyone with a story, or verbally shredding X's latest tome while out of earshot of X. We know where it's coming from. We all feel the sting of watching a writer that isn't you sign autographs, take pictures, and control the floor of a room. Keep it to yourself. Scream inside your car. Write it in a journal entry. It's fuel for your ambitions, not to burn off and look like a jealous fool while doing it.
  • recognize your inherent right to barroom pugilism. Or, to add as a "don't": don't take shit from anyone. There's a good chance, particularly if you're a male writer, that another male writer is going to say something that is so enraging, so caustic and dismissive that you're going to feel like the unpublished writer is getting picked on by the published one. It's more a case of a published writer getting so stroked for so long, he feels he's above an ass-whooping. If this happens to you, don't hesitate. Punch him right in his fucking face.
  • recognize, of course, when a writer isn't picking a fight; he's just having a little fun with you. In this instance, probably a good idea not to punch him in his face.

Godspeed, you young and hopeful scribes! E-mail us at with any updates or embedded reports from the conference.

1 comment:

  1. Love this post! Am attending as a playwright for the first time this summer. As I am older than the fresh, young MFA demographic, I will probably be representing the wallflower contingent, but I appreciate the tips nonetheless.


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