Ask A Pro

It was the second writer’s conference I had ever attended, I had just cracked thirty, and I had published exactly three poems in my life. For lunch, I joined some fellow attendees for an informal chat session known as “Ask a Pro.” The idea was that we, the non-pros, could sit down with an actual flesh and bones published writer and ask him or her whatever Writers Digest or Poet’s and Writers hadn’t been able to answer. The room filled up, but I did not see a pro, only a session leader. I assumed the actual pro would be arriving soon. In the mean time, the session leader began by going around the room and asking each of us what we wrote. “Historical Romance,” came the first answer. “Thrillers.” “Science Fiction.” “WWII Suspense.” “Time Travel Romance.” And then me.

“I guess I write literary fiction.”

The woman sitting next to me asked, “What’s that?”

This is a very uncomfortable question to answer, especially at a writer’s conference where you assume everyone knows what literary fiction is. It is very easy to sound like a snob as you talk about style and theme and meaning. With this in mind, I carefully described what I thought constituted literary fiction. This began a lively of discussion, one in which I became the accidental fulcrum around which the question of literary vs. commercial fiction turned. Admittedly, I don’t usually mind being the fulcrum in a discussion, so I imagine I played this role with a certain unearned authority. But why not? I liked to talk to people, and I particularly liked talking to them about writing.

Once this subject was depleted, a gentleman about one generation my senior turned to me and asked, “What about humor in fiction? Do you think it’s okay to use humor?”

He blinked at me with a student’s eager anticipation. “Dear lord,” I thought. “He thinks I’m the pro.”

I told him I thought it was perfectly fine to use humor in fiction, and that lots of my favorite writers, from Nabokov to Hemingway to Shakespeare, used humor to great effect. I felt a little guilty advising him. I believed what I said, but I didn’t believe I had earned the right to say it. I’d come to this session for the same reason he had: to ask a pro. I certainly hadn’t come to ask advice from someone like me.

He thanked me all the same, and he seemed greatly relieved by my answer, and I thought, “It can’t be that simple, can it? Someone else has to give you that title.”

There was no one in that room I could ask that question of but me.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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