Lessons from Eugenides and a call for conference notes

It’s summer conference time, and though I’m staying home this year, I’m counting on the rest of you to share what you’re learning over the next month or so, so we can make our Wednesdays at 49W a little more interactive. I loved yesterday’s post on the BEA by poet Ken Waldman — and that’s just the kind of personal, pass-it-on kind of detail I’d like to receive from other lit-minded Alaskans.

But maybe you don’t have several observations to share. Maybe just one — like a single tip you picked up on during a craft talk, or one bit of wisdom shared during an agent meeting, or some inspiration gathered around a conference bonfire. Send it to me, or post it as a comment to this or other upcoming Wednesday posts. That way, we can all benefit.

Along those lines, I tried to remember what I learned from my last visit to the Kachemak Bay Conference. I attended most recently in 2006, when Jeffrey Eugenides was the keynote speaker. Middlesex is a favorite book of mine, but Eugenides is somewhat publicity shy, and I hadn’t read many interviews by him. At the conference though, he opened up. Here are a few of his keynote remarks (hazily remembered, no doubt) that stuck with me:

Eugenides used the term “reverse engineering” for reading other novels — multiple times — as models for your own work. I do that kind of analytical reading, but I hadn’t thought of it using that phrase. And yet that’s exactly what we’re doing when we read as writers, taking a work apart to see how it was put together. I couldn’t put a toaster or a car engine back together if my life depended on it. (Wait a minute — I couldn’t even take them apart!) But I’d love to be able to mentally dissemble and reassemble Madame Bovary or Atonement or Middlesex in my mind, aware of all the craft elements that make those great books work.

Eugenides revealed he is a perfectionist whose agent (or editor?) had to come to Berlin –where Eugenides lived for several years following his succcess with his first novel, Virgin Suicides — to tear the Middlesex manuscript from his hands. Now, I’m not that kind of perfectionist, and no editor has ever shown up at my door, begging me to hand over what I’ve written. But I find the idea of that kind of perfectionism to be both an inspiration and a warning. Hearing Eugenides reveal how closely he guarded his manuscript made me think about where I fall on that continuum. If memory serves, he wasn’t too fond of the idea of writers’ group critiques, either. All food for thought, and every writer must decide for herself about when and how to seek feedback.

Middlesex is one of the best historically-grounded novels I’ve read, and yet Eugenides revealed himself as a fairly easygoing researcher. While staying at a writing colony (Yaddo, I believe) he found himself stuck writing a section of the book that describes the burning of Smyrna in 1922. He wanders around, and there on some table at Yaddo is a historical work called Smyrna 1922 that he reads and incorporates into his story. (He credited the inspiration, of course.) The lesson: be open to serendipity, and take what you’re given. I’m sure Eugenides had to purposefully track down many kinds of information for his novel. (I don’t think he just returned to Yaddo until books about hermaphroditism, the history of Detroit, and other elements of his wonderful novel fell into his lap). But when some things came easily, he let them stay easy. Sound obvious? I don’t think it is. Sometimes we make research as difficult and exhaustive as possible. Sometimes we shortchange our imaginations or stall getting back to the actual writing.

Now — and for several June and July Wednesdays to come — it’s your turn. Pass on something you’ve learned, or wondered, or wanted to learn at a summer writing conference.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from Eugenides and a call for conference notes”

  1. I, too, like the term "reverse engineering." It makes great sense. On the theme of summer workshops, my first published novel was shaped around a short story I wrote for a summer workshop assignment. After that it seemed I was more often on the other side of the table, teaching or presenting, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. I've been thinking about Dan Coyle's talent code and the "master coaching" piece of the equation. How much of that do writers really get, especially now that editors seem to be mostly focused on acquisition.

  2. i heart middlesex. i had a feeling it must have taken him a mammoth amount of effort to produce (simply judging by the length of time between VIRGIN SUICIDES and MIDDLESEX publications).

    and i thought he treated Smyrna very, very thoughtfully.

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