The marvelous Jon Katz opened the Festival with mesmerizing accounts of the dogs of Bedlam Farm and his thoughts on our national obsession with our pets. We NPR fans have heard him weave his spells on the radio many times, but he was even more charming in person. I was inspired and awed by Katz, not just because he’s such an incredibly prolific and brilliant writer, and shares my obsession — dogs — but because he is over 60 and he actually blogs daily, posts videos and photos on his blog and YouTube and communicates with his fans regularly on Facebook and Twitter. At his age I’ve just about figured out how to blog — though my poor blog was orphaned long ago by its lazy creator.
At the end of his talk I asked him why he didn’t bring Rose, the subject of a few of his books and his favorite border collie. He said, “She would have herded us all out of the room by now.” It seems border collies aren’t at their best at social events.
I wasn’t the only one who was inspired by Katz — or by the Festival. Bestselling memoirist and festival faculty member, Susan Richards, posted this on her Facebook page on Monday:
“The Woodstock Writers Fest just ended and what a week. It was a whole town event and Woodstock buzzed all week with writers and attendees filling our B&Bs, restaurants and shops. We had terrific authors — my favorite was Jon Katz who came with his wife Maria. I’ve been reading his books for years, loving every acre of Bedlam Farm and then there he was — in the flesh — even better in person than on the page if that’s possible. They say it’s often a letdown to finally meet an author you love but it was the opposite with Jon. His talk on Friday night lit a fire in everyone who was there to go home and write but also to go home and get on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the other social media that helps spread great stories. So here I am, thanks to Jon.”
Colm Toibin was the featured speaker on Sunday night and the hall was packed. What a thrill to listen to this fabulous Irish mega-star read from his work. Yes, mega-star. That’s how writers see the best of our bunch and both Katz and Toibin fit the bill. I’m telling you — it happened in Woodstock all over again — that 1969 vibe of peace, love and talent.
Another high point was our panel of publishers, editors and agents. What a thrill to meet and listen to Betty Ballantine who regaled us with stories about the heyday of Ballantine Books — the inventor of the paperback and a book list of — okay here’s that word again — mega-stars. I could go on and on but you get the point. Woodstock Writers Fest rocked.”
The Publishers, Editors and Agents Panel that Susan mentioned was a microcosm of the publishing industry from yesterday to tomorrow. In the good old days editors like Betty Ballantine actually took authors home with them to work on their novels, and got to discover future superstars like J.R.R. Tolkien in their slush piles. In today’s much more competitive publishing environment, where editors are looking for blockbusters rather than nurturing authors throughout their careers, agents like Dan Conaway of Writers House sort through hundreds of queries every week looking for the next big book; or like Debbie Allen of Black Dome Press they specialize in a very narrow niche — in Black Dome’s case it’s Hudson Valley history. Rick Tannenbaum of Red Hen Press represents the cutting edge — the publishing world of tomorrow — where books are published only digitally, not in hard copy at all. Hen House Press, is, I believe, the only eBook publisher of literary titles on the Internet. They publish local author and NPR host Susan Barnett’s short stories among others. So far, most eBook publishers have specialized in romances, especially erotic romance, which sells particularly well in the eBook format, for obvious reasons, but more literary publishers will probably soon enter the eBook market. eBooks provide an opportunity for new writers and writers who can’t get traditionally published. Tannenbaum was very encouraging to prospective authors who have written “shorts,” shorter works, or collections of short fiction, which are selling well as eBooks. If you’re looking for an agent, however, don’t hold your breath. Conaway likened finding new authors to blind dating — he doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but he knows it when he sees it. Unfortunately, this isn’t very helpful to aspiring authors.
The social media panel was truly an eye opener, especially when it came to Twitter which I (and many other writers) am still resisting. Martha and Kitty Sheehan, her co-panelist, stressed that Facebook updates are supposed to start conversations not just be dead-end statements about what you had for lunch or boring promotions for your latest book or project. I vowed to stop posting about my ailments, but focus instead on my dog’s ailments, which always get lots of responses. Katz hit the nail on the head when he spoke about how obsessed we are with our pets. One dog or cat post on social media is guaranteed a flood of responses. As for Twitter, I was finally sold that I need to be on it. Martha and Kitty get the news before CNN, meet celebrities, and get invited to gala events. Kitty actually made a close friend IRL (in real life) on Twitter.
Martha explained why you need a blog and what your blog should be about — preferably you, you, you — or something equally interesting. As for expressing yourself in 144 characters they made the point that we writers are the best at being pithy in short bursts. What can you say in 144 characters? Martha referred us to comedian Andy Borowitz’s Twitter site for examples. Sure enough I found a few good ones: #How can the US leave the Mideast? We’re not through telling everyone else to leave yet. # It’s inconceivable that we exported democracy to Iraq & Afghanistan when we had shortages of it in Florida & Wisconsin. And my favorite, # To avoid a government shutdown, Fox News suggests moving up the Rapture by a year.
By the way it seems quotes are also obsolete, tweet-wise. Those #’s are called hash tags and they do something or other on Twitter. Exactly what it is I haven’t figured out yet.
One of the Festival’s most memorable panels was the memoir panel, with Martha Frankel, Margaret Roach, Shalom Auslander and Marion Winik. After a discussion of how you can actually know that you’re telling the truth in your memoir because memory is so unreliable (you can’t), Martha challenged the panelists to read the most revealing passages from their own memoirs. Most of the panelists chose incidents that happened in their youth, and, unsurprisingly, all were related to sex. The bravest was Marion Winik who read from her forthcoming memoir which covered a more recent post-divorce, post-fifty, unconsummated sexual experience with a non-English speaking gardener. Winik’s hysterical tale was an inspiration to those of us whom, like me, are compelled to make total fools of ourselves in print. Shalom Auslander was a close second in embarrassment with his riotous story of his youthful adventures in hiding porn magazines, creating homemade sex dolls out of his mother’s pantyhose and tempting God’s — and his father’s — wrath.
I dragged myself out of bed early Sunday morning for Susan Richards’s workshop on memoir and got lots of helpful advice that I would rather ignore about what I’m doing wrong. I’m still using too many adverbs, doing too much telling instead of showing, and not writing every day. The easiest-to-follow strategy she showed us was how to organize first drafts into three-ring binder notebooks, demonstrating there is still a use for old-fashioned technology.
Martha Frankel says that next year the Festival will be expanded even further, possibly with panels on other genres such as non-fiction, maybe even sci fi and fantasy, young adult and children’s books, plus self-publishing. One thing is for sure — the publishing business and the Internet are changing so fast that by next year the discussions will probably be very different. For all we know books on paper and Facebook may be obsolete by then and we’ll all have to own e-readers and our thoughts will be tweeted telepathically by our iPhones. I can’t wait. ++