The Sunday Salon: The 41st Agnes Scott Writers’ Festival

Every March, my frankly awesome institution hosts a Writers’ Festival, boasting three writers (one of whom is usually an alumna), three readings, three workshops (for finalists who made it into the magazine), and one question and answer session. The invited writers this year were writer Benjamin Percy, poet Joy Harjo, and playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, who graduated from Agnes Scott in 2000. This year, I was a bit more involved than wandering into events; I was a volunteer, which especially meant carrying luggage and trying to find our guests to get them from Point A to Point B. It was nice, but it does complicate this year’s post, as I went to so many events that I didn’t know which one to cover for the blog! But I think Thursday’s question and answer session will give you a good overview of the Festival as a whole.

I always have a bit of trouble trying to cover question and answer sessions, so this time I’m going to try just collecting the answers and linking them, rather than just posing the actual question asked.

Region both informs and is a subject of these writers’ work; Percy writes mostly about the Northwest, Harjo about the Southwest, and Goldfinger is focused on the particular subject of Southern women. Harjo actually began writing poetry when she moved to the Southwest, and stopped when she lived in Hawaii for a while. Percy finds modern American culture to be placeless—in the sense that it’s so the same—so he, and other writers, are fascinated by the uniqueness of their own backgrounds and how diverse they can actually be. Goldfinger talked about how specificity is very important in writing for the theater, and beginning from a place one knows well helps to get the creative juices flowing.

Percy took the next question as an opportunity to talk about how he was discouraged from writing the “genre fiction” that he loved as a kid and adolescent in college, and how a lot of his stories are “genre seen through a literary lens”.

They then addressed audience, especially their conception of the audience as they write. While Harjo writes to communicate with her community, she does not write with an audience in mind. Percy talked a bit more about his experience in college with the disconnect between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction”, going on to mention Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon as “hybrid writers” who straddle the line between the two. All of this was to say that his audience is his workshop. Goldfinger pointed out that in the theater, the audience is different—it’s actually involved in the writing process, which she proved the next day when I attended a reading of four new monologues read by my fellow students.

They then moved on to the best advice they’d ever received. Percy’s is thus: “Read your brains out. Write your brains out.” He also mentioned The Ecstasy of Influence, but whether that was just a phrase that popped to mind or the book on my dresser at the moment, I have no idea. He also mentioned the time he mapped out a Flannery O’Connor paragraph by paragraph to better understand structure, which Goldfinger was quite taken with. Goldfinger said that one shouldn’t get stuck in their art form; writers should go out and see films, theater, museums, and other creative avenues. Harjo mentioned that she actually assigns her students to do so.

A student brought up masculinity and misogyny in Percy’s writing. Percy talked about how he sees masculinity in a crisis point—rural men at home and not knowing what to do, for instance. He also points out that authors evolve over time, and his writings reflect him at the ages he wrote them at. (“There are no child prodigies,” he stated, taking a swipe at Christopher Paolini, which I thoroughly enjoyed.) “Writing is an act of empathy,” he told us. As a writer grows older, they become more capable of understanding and writing other viewpoints, as their own sense of empathy expands and develops.

Harjo closed out the question and answer session by telling us that “All of these arts are about learning how to listen… it’s a human discipline. …We are story-gatherers.”

This week has felt like two, since I spent last weekend in Louisiana for a family wedding! It’s nice to finally have some time to myself. I finished Trinity and began Imaginary Girls this week.

Tor/Forge is giving away copies of Living Proof, So Damn Lucky, and The Next One to Fall until Wednesday. Tor/Forge is giving away a prize pack of eight of their spring releases until April 6; you have to sign up for their newsletter. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

If there’s anything else you want to know about the Writers’ Festival, let me know!

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