It's New Orleans. It's Tennessee Williams. It's a Festival.

Need I say more?

Okay, I will.

During the blur that was St. Patrick’s day in NOLA, I saw a poster in a small coffee shop. It had an illustration of man with a fat white face, and funny bow tie. Later on, after I recovered a few days later, I realized this was suppose to be Tennessee Williams and there was to be a 27th annual Literary Festival in in the French Quarter the following weekend.

Fast forward to Saturday morning. I arrived at Canal St. via street car (naturally to a T.N. Fest), not really knowing what to expect. I dressed for success wearing a black suit, and khakis, only to realize mid-day some of the panel speakers were wearing Knicks t-shirts and dirty jeans. Anyway, I arrived at the Hotel Monteleone around nine a.m. to pick up my tickets. Most of the festivities took place in the grand hotel ballrooms while a few other events were either around Jackson Square or inside the Williams Research Center. All of which are relatively close by, and I found seating wasn’t too bad. The plays, however, are a little more spread out, but I chose to remain in the French Quarter bubble. The only problem I found was that too many interesting discussions/ classes were scheduled right on top of each other. You really had to pick and choose. Make sacrifices. Life and death decisions. Okay, maybe not, but I should’ve packed a lunch. Nobody enjoyed me reaching into my bag of Popeyes during one of the last panels on Saturday. Sorry y’all.

Anyway, I bought what are called “panel passes” which guaranteed me a seat at any of the twelve discussions on either day. Plus, I was able to see the winning one act plays from last year, and this year, read or performed. All in all, I thought I really did get my money’s worth. There was, just like at any of these things, an “all-access-get-to-do-whatever-you-want” type of pass, but it does set you back like five hundred dollars. Just saying, go with panel passes. You can always buy tickets separately if you want to check something out that’s not included with these babies.

So, thinking back here, there were two panel discussions, as well as, “pitch-a-palooza” that really made an impact on me.

Over the past year and half, I’ve really been trying to write seriously in my spare time. Not like trying to get successfully noticed by the Chicago Tribune (like one of my old friends), but you know, actually finishing stories. Taking the time to edit. Asking for readers opinions. Growing as a writer. Blah. Blah. Blah. So, that’s why the “Sparkle and Polish: Creating Successful Short Fiction” really caught my eye. The panel featured Manuel Gonzales (go figure him out, seriously), Danielle Evans, and Geoff Wyss who gave their audience some food for thought. For instance, Evans quoted someone when she said “have a fictional character say ‘yes’ to everything a real person would say ‘no’ to.” Also, they all kind of agreed that if you have a stale story change up the point of view, shift the tense, change characters genders, or move on. Sometimes stories just go limp. All of them, too, kind of called the whole “write what you know” b.s. to some degree. Someone named Johns once wrote “if you know what it’s like to be trapped in an elevator than you know what it’s like to be trapped in a spaceship.” At the end, one of the audience members also tried to ask a question about research and facts when it comes to short fiction. Basically he was getting so hung up on the facts that story was falling apart. “Don’t get hung up on the facts. It’s fiction. Your reader knows that, and that’s why they’re reading it,” explained Gonzales whose written a story about a commercial jetliner that somehow keeps flying over a city for twenty years! I have to say it was a fun discussion. I laughed a lot.

Another part of the festivities over the weekend was this event called “Pitch-a-palooza” where you have to pitch your novel to an esteemed panel of publishers, editors, and published authors, in under a minute. It’s was truly the American Idol audition for future novelists. The winner then gets in contact with a publisher of their genre. It was held at Muriel’s in Jackson Square. I have to say, it’s was a wonderful thing to watch even if you aren’t pitching anything. You hear a ton of great ideas, and the panel gives super duper constructive criticism on your pitch. What I kept hearing a lot is that the authors didn’t really have a target audience/age group, and they’d say their manuscript was a combination of two authors. “You’ve gotta tell us who you think would read this book!” I heard so many times. “You can’t just say everybody or anybody.” Another thing I kept hearing is “don’t say your novel is a combination of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. A publisher would look at that query and laugh at it. It’s pretentious. Instead, describe it as a combination of ‘Great Gatsby’ meets ‘Old Man in the Sea’. These are more reasonable deductions, and you won’t be setting the bar so high for yourself.” The guy who won it wrote this memoir about his journey from England to California by foot after the loss of his wife to cancer. I thought it was a little unoriginal, but it was self-realized. There was an obvious emotional appeal, too, that I don’t think many of the other pitches had. You really have to be full circle when you’re talking about your novel, and I think the audience really could see that as pitches were thrown.

Okay, this is my “wow-I-can’t-believe-I-was-in-the-same-room-with” paragraph, essentially. Imagine this: Pulitzer-prize winner Michael Cunningham, Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan, New York Times book critic Dwight Garner, and NPR’s Susan Larson all on a panel talking about reading in the digital age. Awesome, no? Listen, you’ve probably had better, but for me this was jaw dropping. All in all, I think the mutual sentiment felt by the panel was that it’s amazing to have media (books, magazines, newspapers, periodicals, etc) at your fingertips, but there’s something disturbing about not having a tangible copy in your home library. A lot of the panel members, especially Cunningham enjoy making their own notes, and annotations in their books. When asked what novel he couldn’t live without, or was his most cherished, Cunningham adamantly admitted “Madame Bovary from my first year of college. It’s written all over, and I know exactly where it is right now.” Another interesting thing about this panel is that two of the orators were on part of the Pulitzer committee this past year. To anybody who doesn’t know, a Pulitzer was not awarded. Some audience members tried to ask Corrigan and Cunningham why, but they said, “really wasn’t our decision. We had to read about two hundred books, and were just as surprised about the decision as I’m sure you are. It really wasn’t up to us. Honestly, this was a panel of stars (in their own rights) and that’s about it.

As far as Tennessee Williams is concerned, I probably should’ve gone to more of the panel discussions about him . I attended only one (although there were several, as well as some plays) called “Telling Tennessee’s Story”. It was paneled by three leading biographers which included John S. Bak (Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life), David Kaplan (Tennessee Williams in Provincetown), and William J. Smith (My Friend Tom). Kaplan was by far the most animated, and particularly knowledgable, I felt because he also co-founded and, curates another Tennessee Williams Fest in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Get on a plane y’all and head up there in September (26-29). On a side note, he told the audience Williams was as attentive to color as a painter. “So the next time you watch ‘A Streetcar…’ pay attention to the blue and white to “untangle” another complex meaning.” Anyway, getting back on track, the best way I can think of to describe this whole festival is kind of like how I imagine Jazz Fest will be in the next few months. You know all of the headliners, but they’re really not jazz musicians. Though there will be lots of good jazz, it’s more of a celebration of music than anything. The same is true with the Williams Fest. If you want to know more about the playwright, and/or the man, there’s plenty for you, but I don’t think it’s the main attraction. It’s all definitely worth going to, and experiencing. New Orleans creates the perfect backdrop, too, as Williams rented different rooms in and around the quarter.

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