The Forty-Nine-Year-Old Virgin: A First-Timer at #Muse17
Already getting excited about next year's The Muse & the Marketplace conference? So are we! Sadly, we still have a ways to go until #Muse18, but in the meantime, we're reliving the highlights from this year's #Muse17. Today, Kristen Paulson-Nguyen reflects on her first literary conference. Kristen attended the Muse after graduating from GrubStreet's Memoir Incubator program.
Day 1: Gray and Grayer
As I walked into the White Hill Room on the first day of the 2017 Muse & the Marketplace conference (May 5-7), I was relieved to see a few heads that were grayer than mine. I felt self-conscious about being a forty-nine-year-old literary conference virgin, but it was possible that there was a fifty-, sixty-, or even 100-year-old virgin sitting in the next row over. This wasn't a place where anyone would be judged for when or how they were starting out.
During the All-Conference Read in Nonfiction, Cinderland author Amy Jo Burns spoke with Richard Russo. “I felt that saying it [writing about her sexual assault] would cost me everything,” said Burns. My memoir is about my marriage, so I could relate, even though my work wasn’t ready for publication. “I felt I’d betrayed the mother who trusted me,” said Russo of his memoir Elsewhere, in which he writes about his mother’s OCD. Speaking about her process, Burns said she wrote ten manuscript drafts. My Incubator friend, Michelle, and I looked at each other, hands to faces, eyes wide open in silent screams. The authors talked about how they made the personal universal, an important consideration of the genre. Unable to stay upright for a fourth panel, I navigated the narrow hallways at 3:00 p.m. like a power pellet-hungry Ms. Pac-Man. In the empty Zen Den, I unrolled a spongy yoga mat and collapsed.
Day 2: Suspense, Meet and Greet, and the Manuscript Mart
My family was eating breakfast as I left the house, and my daughter wanted to show me her small water balloon. “I can’t look at that right now!” I barked, like a drill instructor at a Marine boot camp. “I need to focus on confidence, confidence, confidence!” An hour of yoga at 7:30 a.m. had taken the edge off my anxiety, but sometimes it still overflowed.
Memoirist (and incoming Memoir Incubator Instructor) Garrard Conley’s laid-back delivery in “Essentials of Suspense in Memoir” was the perfect antidote for my pre-agent meeting jitters. Later that day, I was due to attend a Meet and Greet with a room full of literary agents waiting to hear my pitch, before sitting down one-on-one in the Muse’s Manuscript Mart with an agent who had read and critiqued my work beforehand. In Conley’s session, attendees teased apart a selection by the godmother of memoir, Vivian Gornick. “Suspense doesn’t come naturally. Curate your details,” Conley advised. I glanced over at my Meet and Greet partner, Jay, repeatedly, worried that he would leave for the Meet and Greet without me.
Jay and I headed downstairs and worked the crowd of agents like farmers harvesting wheat. Halfway through the hour-long event, I took him aside. “What time is it? Is this over yet?” I asked. Three or four agents gave me cards; one grilled me about marrying a hoarder until I felt close to tears. It was good practice for maintaining emotional distance from my story, and something I was bound to encounter, since my life was my material.
After the Meet and Greet was over, I went outside into the rain with Michelle, cried and then composed myself, grateful that I had an hour left before my meeting with Rachel Letofsky at the Manuscript Mart. When I finally sat down with her, we hit it off right away. She had suggestions for structure and a fascination with hoarding. “Do you really think people will want to read about this stuff?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said.
Day 3: Setting, Publishing, Wishing, and Leaving the Literary Bubble
Rachel said people will want to read about my stuff! It was hard to focus, but the engaging Amy Jo Burns’ talk about setting drew me in. “The great thing about writing memoir is we don’t pull a lot of tricks,” she said, energetic and loaded with suggestions (and sugar cookies). In “Many Paths to Publishing,” Sonya Chung shared her experience with publishers big and small and told us about BLOOM, a literary site dedicated to artists aged forty and over. I was definitely in the right place, and so I hung on for the final keynote, “The Strategic Writer,” though my supply of extroversion and energy was flagging.
“Time is your most valuable commodity,” said a speaker during the keynote. I had never really looked at it that way. I needed to continue to prioritize my writing, as I did during my Incubator year.
Later, as I looked around the table reserved for our Memoir Incubator class, I felt close to tears again, but this time gratitude moved me. The people who surrounded me, as we blew out candles and made wishes on birthday cakes passed out to celebrate Grub’s 20th anniversary, were more than fellow writers. They had become family.
There was a long road ahead of me if I wanted to publish, and at forty-nine I had a tighter deadline than some younger writers. I felt buoyed by my interactions with the writing community at the conference. I would make the moments count.
Kristen is the Writing Life Editor for Hippocampus Magazine. Her work has appeared in The New York Times.See other articles by Kristen Paulson-Nguyen