Saturday, May 22, 2010

Two Days with Sandra Beasley

It's been a wonderful two days. On Thursday, a friend and I headed to the Rubell Family Collection to hear Shannon O'Neill and Sandra Beasley speak. Then, on Friday, it was back to Miami to Books and Books with some friends. Sandra Beasley gave a great poetry reading. I look forward to diving more deeply into her latest book; the poems she's read from them over the last two days have whetted my appetite.

On Thursday night, Sandra Beasley gave a more extemporaneous speech, full of nuggets and tips and inspiration. I didn't ask some of the questions I really wanted to ask, because they were about money, and I was raised that you don't ask people about their funding (I agree with feminist theory that explores the danger of never comparing paychecks, but that early, familial training dies hard). She said she's affording health insurance via COBRA--well that will only last so long.

Of course, I remember being young and fairly careless about being uninsured, so the idea of walking out on a job with benefits when one is in one's late 20's isn't as interesting to me as the tales of people at mid-life who do the same. I don't so much need health insurance now, thank goodness. But I know that something dreadful becomes more likely to happen as I age. And my spouse is not exactly into preventative life style choices.

But I digress. I also wanted to ask her about the details of her advance for her memoir and how it compared to her salary as a magazine editor. I assume that it wasn't too much of a difference, since I tend to think that magazine editors are underpaid. I wanted her to go into the details, because the crowd on Thursday night skewed young and naive (at least, from their questions), and I think it would have been useful for them to know that most writers don't get Steven King level advances.

However, Beasley did have plenty of good advice. She talked about diversifying and told us that in our first genre, we often find our topics. For example, she did a poetic sequence in her first book of poems about her life-threatening allergies; now she's writing a memoir that mines the same territory. She gave an example of a fiction writer who uses the setting for the novel (say a small town in Maine) as the focus of a travel article.

I immediately started thinking of some of my themes and how I might rework them. Nuclear imagery--hmmm. Life at the end of the Cold War--hmmm. Weird theology--hmm. Of course, I've been writing poetry because I don't have the time and undivided attention to write longer pieces. My poems and my short stories used to inform each other. The smart thing would be to rewrite things into articles, which I also tried to do sporadically.

Sandra Beasley also offered comfort for those of us who find ourselves spending too much time on our e-mail composition. She says that she found a lot of source material in her e-mails, and that she has often been referring to e-mails as she's written the new memoir.

She also offered us tales that remind us that no one is leading a charmed life. She talked about her publisher's delay, which meant she didn't have books for her New York reading for her first book. She talked about how she didn't even earn enough money to pay her tolls as she drove back down to D.C. She reminded us that for every great leap forward, there will be setbacks. And even in the setbacks, there might be hope. Even as she was driving that night, a publisher was sending word of an acceptance of her manuscript.

Similarly, on the day that she got to work to find that the ceiling above her desk had literally fallen on top of her workspace, she got news that her memoir had been accepted. She looked at all of her months of magazine work reduced to an irredeemably soggy mess, and she gave her notice. She took the job because she could be around books, but she never had time to write them. She said that unread books are unkept promises.

She's had many months of talking to people about the risks that she took in giving up her job. She said, "There's no such thing as a wise risk. There's only the chances that you take on yourself."

Throughout the two days I've heard her speak, she's always come back to the rejections that she's had along with the success. That comforted me. I tend to think that everyone is leading an easy life of immediate acceptance, and it's only me who sends out manuscript after manuscript. But that's really all of us, a lesson that I don't think most of the audience on Thursday night really understands. But they will. The trick, which I hope they also learn early, is to not give up, to keep your envelopes stamped, your manuscripts ready.

1 comment:

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks for this recap of Beasley's visit. I'm jealous of the great people you get to hear. I'm glad Beasley highlighted the rejections that accompany the acceptances.

Also, thanks for this: "And my spouse is not exactly into preventative life style choices." I had to chuckle, b/c mine isn't either.