If you like to write and live in the Boston area, you must check out Grub Street. (After reading the title, you probably thought I’d be a little more subtle than that, right?) But one of the cardinal rules of writing is “Show, don’t tell.” Therefore, I will show you why you should check out Grub Street.
Grub Street offers many writing classes as well as weekend workshops and one-night seminars, all taught by experienced, successful writers. My thesis in college was a young adult novel and the novel I’m working on now is women’s fiction, so accordingly, the two seminars I’ve been to were on young adult lit and on chick lit (which, as I learned in the class, is now called “commercial women’s fiction”). At the chick lit one, I learned a lot about the current state of women’s fiction and got a pretty enthusiastic response when I described the premise of the novel I’m working on. At the young adult one, I got a lot of great advice from Emily Franklin, including her suggestion to become a reviewer for Teens Read Too. She also later helped me with my query letter.
But I think the easiest way to convince you to check out Grub Street is to describe the day I had last Sunday.
When I heard that Grub Street was offering an event called Muse and the Marketplace, I signed up right away. I’d have the chance to meet with an agent; attend several writing seminars with professional writers, editors, and agents; and go to a lunch with a keynote speech by one of my favorite writers in the world, Jonathan Franzen.
Muse and the Marketplace was last Sunday, and it was everything I could have hoped for. First, I met with an agent about the novel I wrote for my senior thesis. She’d read the first twenty pages, and although she expressed some concerns about it (which I agreed with), she wanted to read more, so I’ve sent her more. Fingers crossed!
Then it was time for the workshops. The first one was on children’s and young adult literature, and it was taught by…Lois Lowry. As in The Giver, Number the Stars, the Anastasia Krupnik books, etc. As in one of the greatest children’s authors of all time. It was great and she had a lot of interesting things to say, but my mind was going, “LOIS LOWRY! Ooh, that was a really good point she just made…LOIS LOWRY!…Yeah, that makes sense about children’s literature…LOIS LOWRY!…Ooh, I like that book she’s reading from…LOIS LOWRY!”
One thing she did mention was that they’re making The Giver into a movie. I’m not sure how I feel about that. On one hand, I think it would be really cool visually, with the black-and-white becoming color and all. On the other hand, though, The Giver was an amazing, very original book that’s possibly one of the most intelligent novels ever written for children, and I kind of think it might get lost in translation to the big screen. It would have to star unknown actors, too, I think.
Anyway, my next workshop was fun. It was called “Agent Idol.” The idea is, you submit the first page of something you’ve written (I submitted the novel I’m working on right now), and a woman reads it aloud to a panel of three agents, who raise their hand at the point where they’d stop reading. Once two of them raise their hands, they stop and explain what they liked and didn’t like about the piece.
They were pretty brutal with some of them, sometimes only reading a sentence. There was also one that they absolutely loved and couldn’t find anything wrong with. They were actually more positive about mine than they were about a lot of others. One agent didn’t raise her hand at all and said, “What is wrong with you people?” when the other two agents did. One said the subject matter just wasn’t her thing—fair enough. The third one thought there was a little too much description too early and had some questions about the content (both of which were actually addressed in the next paragraph), but she said that out of the ones she’d heard thus far (mine was read somewhere in the middle, before they heard the one they really loved), it was the one she would have read the most of. It was kind of a wake-up call to know exactly how quickly agents stop reading a manuscript, but I ended up coming out of it feeling encouraged.
Then was the keynote lunch with Jonathan Franzen. The lunch itself was kind of cool—I sat down next to some people and talked to them about their experiences with agents and workshops that day. But then it was time for Jonathan Franzen. He looks exactly like his picture on the book jacket. For his speech, he mainly read part of his essay “The Foreign Language,” from his book The Discomfort Zone and added some remarks at the end. Then he took questions, and I was kind of surprised by the way he answered them. He seemed to have a good sense of humor, but he also seemed a little uncomfortable, and almost…shy. That definitely wasn’t what I expected.
I should say a word about him. I’ve read three out of his five books (and I’m reading a fourth right now). I enjoyed Strong Motion. When I read The Discomfort Zone, a book of essays which my coworker Nate recently lent me, I was struck by his ability to find meaning in commonplace situations. And The Corrections is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s amazing—I’ve read it several times since February 2002, and every time, I pick up something I didn’t notice before. The characters are so real, and you sympathize with them even if you don’t really like them. It’s funny in some places but heartbreakingly sad in others. And most importantly, like all my favorite books, it touches on truths that I’ve felt but could never articulate. I didn’t pick up on this quote the first time I read it, but on a subsequent reading, it jumped out at me:
“And when the event, the big change in your life, is simply an insight—isn’t that a strange thing? That absolutely nothing changes except that you see things differently and you’re less fearful and less anxious and generally stronger as a result: isn’t it amazing that a completely invisible thing in your head can feel realer than anything you’ve experienced before? You see things more clearly and you know that you’re seeing them more clearly. And it comes to you that this is what it means to love life, this is all anybody who talks seriously about God is ever talking about. Moments like this.”
I’ve never found a better way of expressing that thought, and it can apply to so many things. But my admiration of his writing has always been tempered with my disdain for his snobbery. I think he came off as a jackass in the whole Oprah incident, and while I see his point, you’d think he’d be happy about his book being exposed to a wider audience rather than being disappointed that the mainstream had tainted it. So my greatest wish, as a writer, is to have a tenth of Jonathan Franzen’s talent with none of the snobbery.
After the speech, I took my old, beat-up first edition copy of The Corrections and went to get his autograph. I got up there and realized that I had absolutely nothing interesting to say to him. I ended up stammering something like, “Um…I really liked this book!”
So. After lunch I had my third workshop, “Agents on the Hot Seat,” where you could ask a panel of agents anything. I asked how important it was to have published short stories before selling a novel. Surprisingly, they said not very, just like the agent I met with in the morning did. Every successful query letter I’ve ever read lists numerous literary magazines, and while I’ve written some short stories I’d like to get published, I don’t know if I have the patience for it when most literary magazines have less than a 1% acceptance rate. So that was good to know.
And the last workshop I went to, in the “Hour of Power” where you could pick between four options, was “Moms Who Write.” I’m obviously not a mom, but someday I might be, and I can always use time management tips. Interestingly, a lot of other people in that seminar weren’t moms, either.
So, getting to my point—I got all that in one day. For a fraction of what an MFA would cost. From Grub Street.
Therefore, if you are in the Boston area and you write, you must check them out.