Aspen Summer Words

I drove my friend Evie and I to Aspen on Friday, so we could attend the Aspen Summer Words writers conference this year.

Two notes on this:

1. (Unfortunately for Evie…) I drive really fast in the mountains. I don’t endanger other drivers with my speed (I’m not an outright maniac, and I’ve never caused an accident behind the wheel), but I drive mountain roads like a lane-conscious Italian: which is to say, unconsciously fast. Or speed-demon fast. So I don’t think Evie is looking forward to our trip home on Wednesday at all.

2. Evie (full name: Evanthia Bromiley) is an amazing writer. Her books will be available in bookstores one day. She’ll also win major writing prizes. She’s someone I have a lot of faith in.

3. I am not attending a writing workshop this year. I simply came to bring Evie, and attend the public events, which are $20.00 each for a ticket.

After three days of attending Aspen Summer Words, I can say that, while I’m happy to be here this year, I’m also really glad I attended this event years ago, when the literary festival was still in full bloom. I loved listening to all of those brilliant writers flown in– not to teach a workshop, but simply to speak at panels– I loved having access to all of those incredible people.

This year, I’ve discovered that kind of literary festival no longer happens. Now the panels are chaired by people attending the event as faculty, as well as the literary agents and editors who have consultation times scheduled with attendees. (I attended the agent/editor panel yesterday, titled “Trends in Publishing,” chaired by a mix of four agents and editors.)

There are so many fewer panels to attend– the difference is drastic— which means I only have one or two events to attend each day. I miss the constant stream of brilliance and awesomeness that Aspen Summer Words used to have. I’m so very grateful I was able to witness this event when it was still an all-out literary festival. I feel very, very lucky that I came in ’09, ’10, and ’11. Very lucky indeed.

But I know a lot of other writers felt overwhelmed by all of those panels on offer in the past, and I know that very few workshop participants attended them. Their brains would just be too fried by the intense morning work they had done, and they’d be too mentally exhausted to take in all that extra information throughout the afternoons and into the evenings. Even Evie has returned to our hotel room in the afternoon for a nap, and would have returned to nap today if she didn’t have her agent consultations this afternoon.

taking a nap






In the 3 years since that summer of 2011, I’ve become a very different writer than the one I was then.

That writer still wanted a literary agent and a publishing contract. That writer was still dazzled and confused by so many things.

Being here this summer, I’m acutely aware of how much I live in the world of commercial fiction now, and how different the landscape of literary fiction truly is from that world.

Take some comments I’ve heard at panels over the past three days, statements shared by faculty and industry pros to aspiring writers seeking traditional publishing contracts:

“You don’t need to worry about book cover design. Those decisions will all be made for you.”

“You don’t need to worry about how your book will be marketed. You shouldn’t think about that at all.”

“Authors who don’t want to Tweet are never forced to be on Twitter.”

I could go on, but I thought those 3 statements were probably the most powerful– as they directly contradict what I know to be true. Authors should know the basics of cover design, even if they publish with a traditional house. Authors should definitely be aware of how their book will be marketed, as that also goes hand in hand with who your audience is.

(And if you don’t know who your audience is, then you are nowhere near ready to publish, anyway, because you can’t write a great book without knowing who you are writing for.)

And authors can be “forced to be on Twitter” in contracts, regardless of whether they want to Tweet or not. I follow author blogs, and I’m aware that this happens– but someone not as in tune with the industry could easily believe otherwise.

Which isn’t to say I don’t find the panels useful. Because I still enjoy hearing everyone speak, and share their opinions, and wow me with their brilliance. And I’m definitely listening to some brilliant, brilliant writers– Melissa Bank, Andre Dubus III, and Billy Collins, just to name three– and they are infinitely wonderful to hear speak.

I’m just saying, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of some of the aspects of writing and publishing, I have this other tool kit of information I draw from now, the tool kit that belongs to anyone who self-publishes, and everything I hear these days is filtered through that.

The Aspen conference this year has shown me that– even if I’m not selling tons of books, and making mad tons of cash at my chosen career– I am still deeply, quietly proud of myself. Proud of what I’ve accomplished so far. Satisfied in a way that I could never have been if I was still collecting rejection emails from agents. I am an author, and even if I only sold 6 ebooks last month (May 2014), there are many traditionally published authors who sold the same number, or less.

So how could I call my self-publishing venture a failure? I’ve taken the long approach in this race, happy to be the tortoise rather than the hare. And many authors are tortoises, anyway, even if they have traditional publishing contracts. It’s just that a traditional house operates like Hollywood– either the movie has a great opening weekend, or it’s a box office flop– and books are often launched with an equally narrow window for success. And when books fail to “take off” (as a great many do) they are pulled from the shelves and remaindered (sent back to the publishing warehouses to sit for eternity, though they used to be destroyed when this happened– sad but true).







I chose to self-publish, and I regret nothing.

Though there are still people warning how “dangerous” self-publishing is, how much it “destroys” your chance of getting a traditional publishing contract, et cetera, et cetera.

Yes, I’ve heard it all before.

Yes, I know that more than 99% of self-published books will never, ever sell enough copies to even pay for their cover design or publishing costs, to say nothing of earning an actual profit.

But I am still happy. And proud. And if I never make a dime doing this, who cares? I’m not scared of failing. To stop writing and give up would be failure. There is nothing wrong with being a tortoise. They might not be flashy and fast, but they are amazing animals. Some would say they are ugly, and they look pretty funny when they eat, and when they blink their little wrinkly eyes, I think they’re pretty adorable. Plus, they carry their home wherever they go, and that’s how I feel about writing. My home I carry wherever I go.

I’ve come across some great people that I’ve met in past years, people I haven’t seen since the last time I was here. One was particularly amazed that I had self-published. It was like announcing I went on a trip to Mars, it seemed to shock him so much.

Yesterday, I went into a thrift store and bought a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry for $2.00. I was so happy!

Emily Dickinson







I also bought a copy of Dirty Love, Andre Dubus III’s new novella collection, and had him sign it for me. I asked him to sign it for my brother Mitchell, but he signed the book to me instead. I was sad at first, but then decided it must be a message from the universe (because I tend to take everything as patterning, as a great many people do, especially when it’s too random to look anything like patterning at all). Because this was the message Andre wrote:

“For Melissa, Here’s to you & your Mark of the Pterren, your art! Peace, [illegible, beautiful Andre signature]”










Guess who’s writing a fangirl letter to Andre Dubus when she gets home?

I read Dubus’s memoir Townie a few years ago (and loved it) and I read House of Sand and Fog after that. Townie is a brilliant book, just amazing, and meeting Andre was incredible.

I love meeting authors. Oh my god, do I love meeting authors– fangirl me knows no greater pleasure. These are my rock stars, and I might as well be one of those screaming girls at a Beatles concert– though I don’t scream, but sometimes I do have tears of joy. Occupational hazard, of course.

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