Photos by Asia Morris.
There was something in the room, a kind of comforting, life-giving energy that only a crowd of 800 voracious woman readers and writers could generate together. Walking into the Grand Ballroom of the Long Beach Convention Center, where seven renowned authors were slated to speak about their passion and their process last Saturday, where attendees of the 33rd Annual Literary Women Long Beach Festival of Authors mingled with anticipation, was a breath of fresh air and a step outside the isolation experienced by every writer.
Any and all notions that a women's contemporary literature conference is not still a relevant event were not only put to bed by the 800 in attendance, but also by speaker and author, Jennifer Clement, who listed last year's VIDA statistics during her time on stage. The VIDA Count seeks to reveal the major imbalance of book reviews within premiere publications in the U.S. and internationally. In 2010, according to VIDA, The New York Review of Books covered 306 titles written by men and only 59 by women, while the New York Times Book Review covered 524 books by men and only 283 by women. Five years later, the gap is indeed smaller, but still remains significant.
Created in 1982 by two women, Harriet Williams and Virginia Laddey, who were shocked at the lack of women authors included on the reading lists in local high schools, The Festival of Women Authors brings to light the best of contemporary women writers.
To be surrounded by so many like-minded individuals with either an intense appreciation for the difficult puzzle of crafting compelling literature or born with the need to write themselves, was truly a profound experience. Celebrated authors, Kate Christensen, Cristina Henriquez, Sloane Crosley, Eleanor Morse, Jenny Offill, Jennifer Clement and Aimee Bender, spoke about writing as liberating, writing as journalism, writing as protest, writing as innate and writing as fulfilling.
Brooke Knowles, Chair of Literary Women, as part of her introduction to the event, spoke succinctly about how reading a book gives its lover an opportunity to connect with his or herself, how technology hinders our ability to disengage and dive into in-depth conversations of reflection with ourselves and each other. Reading, writing and, of course, attending Literary Women, confronts the shortened attention spans and the instant, but fleeting, gratification we demand from the social worlds on our mobile devices.
Cristina Henriquez, author of the novels The Book of Unknown Americans and The World in Half and of the short story collection Come Together, Fall Apart, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice selection, felt honored with a dose of sheer terror when she was asked to speak at the festival.
"My first thought when I walked in and saw the space was ‘Oh this is not going to be so bad,’" she said with a small smile. "Because, in a way, even though it’s big, there’s something really intimate about it and I think that there’s a camaraderie, there’s a feeling in there that we’re all kind of rooting for each other and being supportive of each other in just a really nice way. It’s not the sheer terror I was anticipating, it’s going to be okay."
Behind the podium, Henriquez ventured back to when she first began writing, all because of a boy. The throes of adolescence had her head-over-heels for an intuitive teenager who eventually gave her a notebook and said, "Why don't you write down everything you want to say to me for a year." She soon fell out of love with him and in love with writing. Writing as liberation, writing in spite of rejection, writing by hand with her eyes closed, writing so that young people, young women, people of color and minorities can see themselves and a more-than-significant consideration of their humanity in a work of art.
Diana Rummel, festival spokeswoman, who has attended every conference for its 33 years, minus maybe one, said, "For me, it was like going on vacation for a Saturday and just learning, getting inside somebody else’s head and seeing how they put that together. And I’ve always been a reader, probably got in trouble for some of the things I read," she laughed.
Now that potential attendees of next year's festival can sign up online, without having to receive an invitation, Rummel is hoping to inspire more young writers to go and also to realize that the feat of writing a novel is actually doable, despite life's obligations.
"It used to be you had to go home that day at lunch, if you worked, get your invitations in the mail, fill them out, and get them to the Redondo Beach station that afternoon. That’s how you got in. But now it will be more democratic," she said.
"And we need a younger group, too," she continued,"because younger people aren’t taking the time to read. And this slows you down enough so that you can see, ‘She did all that? And she still wrote a book?’ There are a lot of budding writers, but they think they don’t have the time, or they don’t take the time. So it gives you permission to do that."
Sloane Crosley, the witty, young author of How Did You Get This Number and New York Times bestseller I Was Told There'd Be Cake, spoke about how she felt she really couldn't articulate anything well until she had written it down, but at the same time, felt that her budding essay-writing career was just a side gig. Eventually she found through a series of hilariously unfortunate experiences, that she couldn't refuse her calling, so to speak.
Some pertinent advice she gave to listeners included always write as yourself, despite how tempted you are to reflect a favorite author and to be specific. The more detailed you can be in your writing, the more likely your readers will be able to connect with your words. She described a friend who had told her, "You'll either have a good experience or you'll write about it."
Aimee Bender, a Los Angeles native and award-winning author of the imaginative works The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own, Willful Creatures, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and The Color Master cultivates her writing routine around boredom, when the mind is left to wander, to daydream, to come up with the otherwise fleeting ideas that can then be written down and developed into a story. While in school at UCI, as a gesture toward her imagination, Bender went so far as to tie her leg to a chair so she could force herself to just sit and imagine without distraction.
It's details like these that resonate with a particular audience, that sink into the many minds of those who have lost themselves in a wonderful novel, written by none other than a creative woman with a story to tell or an idea to share. Several out of state attendees, from Washington to Colorado, took notes with the intention of starting a similar festival in their own cities.
"It allows you to stop and listen and really hear what, now seven different people have done with their lives, despite being married and mothers and working. Why it was important, tricks they learned and it was just a chance to reevaluate and then read their books," concluded Rummel.
In support of the local reading community, Literary Women donates funds to the Long Beach Public Library to purchase books featured in the festivals. Visit your local branch to read the works of Kate Christensen, Cristina Henriquez, Sloane Crosley, Eleanor Morse, Jenny Offill, Jennifer Clement and Aimee Bender. In line with the organization's mission, emerging writers from Long Beach City College, California State University, Long Beach and PEN Center USA are invited every year to meet with the presenting authors.
For more information on Literary Women and how you can attend next year's festival, click here.