Right to write (to publish)

I woke up on an apartment floor in Chinatown at 8:30 a.m. and did not feel well. I had intended to take it easy the night before, to down some Sleepy Time tea (with extra honey), read some self-serious essay on an ecological disaster or the education gap and hit the hay. The moment of truth came after the Trail Blazers’ ignominious loss to the Lakers (kuck Fobe), when I knew that I should leave the bar and head home for my date with my magazine and teapot.

Memoirist, fiction writer and poet Floyd Skloot delivers his keynote address at last week’s Write to Publish conference. Photo by Daniel Johnston.
Memoirist, fiction writer and poet Floyd Skloot delivers his keynote address at last week’s Write to Publish conference. Photo by Daniel Johnston.

I woke up on an apartment floor in Chinatown at 8:30 a.m. and did not feel well.

I had intended to take it easy the night before, to down some Sleepy Time tea (with extra honey), read some self-serious essay on an ecological disaster or the education gap and hit the hay. The moment of truth came after the Trail Blazers’ ignominious loss to the Lakers (kuck Fobe), when I knew that I should leave the bar and head home for my date with my magazine and teapot.

Smash cut to:

int. Sassy’s­—one hour later

So, no, I didn’t go to bed.

As I peeled myself off my friend’s apartment floor, I asked him to use his smartphone to find out what time Write to Publish started. He said, “9 a.m.” It was 8:45.

I headed to the MAX and waited, armed with a borrowed yellow legal pad, a borrowed pen and recently finger-scrubbed teeth. I was ready to go.

As the MAX rolled south toward campus, I did some mental arithmetic and hoped that, if nothing else, I wouldn’t be mean-mugged too hard for my conspicuously late arrival. I had received the ticket to Ooligan Press’ Write to Publish conference gratis, after all, and I did not want to appear ungrateful.

I shuffled into the Native American Student and Community Center at 9:19 a.m. To my surprise, there were still loads of people wandering about. Miraculously, I wasn’t late. (Incidentally, the NASCC is the best-looking building on campus, for my money.)

9:19 a.m., I wrote on my legal pad. Shit starts late when you’re a writer. I thanked the gods of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thompson and all the lesser deities in the pantheon of booze-soaked scribblers.

The powers that be at Ooligan Press had, in fact, included a glorious 30-minute grace period for the beginning of the day: The doors opened at 9 but the panel discussions did not begin until 9:30. Booyah.

This year’s Write to Publish was labeled the “Non-Fiction Edition,” which is what had initially piqued my interest: Over the last four years, I’ve studied nonfiction writing in Portland State’s creative writing MFA program.

I’m slated to graduate in a few short months, after completing a 120-plus page thesis. If anyone could use some pointers about getting published, nonfiction-style, it was me. I was hoping to glean some nuggets of wisdom from writers I’d studied in class: Floyd Skloot, Lidia Yuknavitch and Kevin Sampsell.

I found a spot in the back corner of one of the two 9:30 panels. I had elected to attend “Creative Non-Fiction and Memoir: The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Other Considerations,” which featured the three names above along with authors Sean Davis, Kristy Athens, Chloe Caldwell and a lone editorial representative, Vinnie Kinsella.

About 25 conference attendees were there for the panel, which was moderated by Ooligan’s Bradi Grebien-Samkow. The discussion was convivial and wide-ranging. Many of the panelists knew each other well, and they traded war stories of the nonfiction trade spurred by Grebien-Samkow’s initial question, which asked why these writers felt like they “had to” write their stories.

Floyd Skloot, the self-proclaimed “designated old man” of the panel, spoke about the process of writing his first memoir, In the Shadow of Memory.

“I needed to recapture what I could recapture,” Skloot said, referencing the memory loss at the center of his memoir. “There was a sense of urgency that went beyond a question of choice.”

Yuknavitch, whose unflinching debut memoir The Chronology of Water was published by Portland’s Hawthorne Books in 2011, agreed with Skloot that it wasn’t a question of choice when it came to her memoir.

“My past came forward and began to haunt me, literally,” Yuknavitch said. While working on other projects, “this other kind of writing came out so I didn’t lose my mind. This chose me.”

Skloot and Yuknavitch were Write to Publish’s keynote speakers, and they were magnetic in the small setting.

Skloot, who has now written three memoirs, joked that “there’s, like, a Thursday in 1967 I haven’t written about,” and Yuknavitch discussed how once you’ve written a memoir it goes “from a ‘me’ story to a ‘we’ story.”

Sampsell, whose 2010 memoir A Common Pornography dealt with numerous childhood traumas, explained his approach to memoir writing.

“You have to make yourself the worst person in your memoir—well, you don’t have to,” Sampsell said. “A memoir can be a way to hold yourself accountable for your life.”

Skloot gave his keynote talk at 11:00 a.m. and addressed the focus of the conference, which, its title indicates, is about the publication side of the writing process.

When Skloot, who originally wrote poetry, was younger, he made it a goal to get one poem accepted per month—and did, for 56 straight weeks.

“Publication became validation,” Skloot said. The author discussed how misguided this notion was: If he could track down all the tiny journals at all the tiny colleges that contain these embarrassing poems, he would personally tear them out, he said.

Skloot had written one particular sonnet that he didn’t want to change, despite 19 rejections. He kept plugging away, submitting it and submitting it, until his 20th attempt proved fruitful.

After its circuitous route to publication, the sonnet has been anthologized numerous times, putting it “right up there with Shakespeare…alphabetically,” Skloot joked.

Skloot’s travails through small-press publishing offer one industry narrative. His daughter Rebecca Skloot’s efforts to sell what would become her enormous, Oprah-approved bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provide another.

Floyd Skloot recounted how his daughter sold Henrietta to a commercial, New York City-based publishing house, which was then sold to another commercial NYC publishing house, which was then sold to another commer—you get the idea. Each time Rebecca’s book was sold, she was assigned a new editor, who had different expectations of or ideas for her book.

After trying to make it work, Rebecca Skloot ultimately walked away from her contract; she wanted her book published on her terms. A few years later, after publishing in The New York Times and Popular Science, Rebecca shopped Henrietta again, this time with a few more credits but a basically unchanged book proposal.

She sold the book for an advance 25 times the original and Oprah bought the film rights. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has now appeared on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 148 weeks and counting.

Floyd Skloot’s message was clear: Some authors need the big, commercial houses and some, like himself, require the gentler touch of a university press.

“I require a looooooooot of nurturing,” was how Skloot put it during the panel. The University of Nebraska Press, which has published all three of Skloot’s memoirs, has kept them in print and kept them in its listings, despite sales that no commercial house would countenance.

“Everything that kept [Memory] from being a commercially published book are the things that are keeping it alive now,” he said.

Skloot finished his keynote address to a solid round of applause. There were a few minutes until the next panel, so I surveyed the room a bit.

Two (very unsurprising) observations: Moleskine notebooks abounded—like, seriously everyone had an especially classy one and it made me feel somehow wildly inadequate and generally un-writerly—and I was apparently the only person there without an optometrist. Note to would-be writers: Get glasses and a Moleskine notebook.

My second panel of the day, “Media and Journalism: the Devil in the Details,” was moderated by Ooligan’s director, Per Henningsgaard, and featured my adviser, MFA Director Michael McGregor, along with former Oregonian reporter R. Gregory Nokes, newspaper dinosaur Joe Bianco (sorry if that sounds harsh, but meet the guy: It’s the only conceivable way to describe him), progressive advocacy writer Kristian Williams and freelance automotive reporter Kristen Hall-Geisler.

As I sat down to begin the panel, I had a moment so meta- that Dan Harmon would have been proud: Here was I, reporter and arts and culture editor of a newspaper, taking notes for a newspaper article on a panel titled “Media and Journalism: the Devil in the Details.”

And, after writing this silly note down on my yellow legal pad, I also realized that I had misspelled someone’s name in an article that I would need to change before the next issue came out. Holy meta-, Abed!

A few minutes into the panel, I became privy to one of the true pleasures of these types of events: hearing one panel member mangle another’s name. (It’s understandable, of course, considering that most of them have all just met each other.)

Bianco, who I will hereafter refer to as New Joysey Joe because of his delicious East Coast accent, called McGregor “Gregory” the one time he attempted his name and reverted to calling him “Professah” each subsequent time.

New Joysey Joe was a crime reporter both back East and in Portland and seems to have developed his self-conception from film noir about tough-as-nails crime reporters from out East.

A few of my favorite New Joysey Joe quotes: “I was sued twice: I always felt that if you weren’t sued, you weren’t doing your job.” “I’m going to throw a grenade on the table: there’s no such thing as objectivity.” “I’m one of the few remaining two-finger typists.” And “Stick to the facts, none of that flowery stuff,” which prompted Nokes to reply, “But I love the flowery stuff.”

As with most discussions on journalism, this one rather quickly worked its way to the subject of The Future and The Internet and The Death of Print. McGregor noted that, though some of our venerable newspapers may be contracting or folding, industry shifts have empowered a generation of Internet writers.

“Institutions are declining while individuals are gaining more prominence,” McGregor said.

Then, in the oddest moment of the panel, New Joysey Joe jumped in, referencing “the demise that’s being quickened by our illustrious journalism professor,” with a generous heaping of disdain for God knows what—education, brick buildings, tenure. Something that a New Joysey crime reporter would hate.

New Joysey Joe’s jab elicited a “whoa,” from McGregor, who, like most of us, was taken aback by Joe’s barb.

“Newspapers aren’t going to die,” Joe said, which felt like a brontosaurus saying that meteors don’t exist or the Titanic’s captain saying he didn’t believe in icebergs.

New Joysey Joe busted out a few copies of The Oregonian and pointed out a few stories that weren’t covered by the Internet or TV, including one story on TriMet drivers operating buses while sleep-deprived. Everyone acknowledged his point, then a few people politely mentioned that, yes, these stories exist, but they are less frequent and less in-depth.

As we got close to wrapping up, Henningsgaard asked if the panel worries about the future of newspapers.

“I worry about everything,” McGregor said, which felt like as good a place as any to end the panel, so it did.

The panelists shook hands cordially and we dispersed back to the main hall of the NASCC for some free pizza, salad and pasta. I scarfed a couple pieces of pepperoni as the sun lit up the room. It was getting sunny, improbably, in the normally dark days of a Portland February.

I checked the itinerary: After lunch, one more panel, and then Lidia Yuknavitch’s keynote address which, judging from her contributions to the morning discussion, would be compelling and invigorating.

I paged through my notes a bit more, pausing at an unattributed quote (Skloot?) in the margins of my yellow legal pad.

“Publishing is for people,” the note said. “Writing is for yourself.”

I thought on that for awhile. I got up from my chair and started mentally outlining the next section of my thesis. I think I’ve found a new way forward, I thought.

I snuck out the back door, a bit ashamed to be ditching out early on what had been an enlightening and truly successful event.

But as I stepped out into the sunny afternoon, leaving behind a building full of writers and editors, I figured that they’d understand.

I’ve got a lot of writing to do.