Against Writer’s Festivals: A Manifesto

Next week is the second annual international writer’s festival in Jerusalem, where authors from all over the world congregate in Yemin Moshe to engage in a dialogue with one another. The festival is open to the public, and for a 40-shekel ticket, one can hear David Grossman in conversation with Paul Auster, or Jonathan Safran-Foer sharing a podium with Etgar Keret. A rare opportunity, and the talk of the town among the literati of Jerusalem. Since I work in publishing, and since my friends know me as a lover of books, everyone I meet keeps stopping to ask: “So, will I see you at the writer’s festival? You must be going to everything!” Contrary to their expectations, I am attending nothing.

Why not? Well, it is true that my life revolves around books. During the day I sell translation rights for books to Israeli publishers; I also moonlight as an editor and translator; and in the corners of my time I organize and edit the book reviews section of a Jewish magazine. In addition, I write study guides about books for reader’s groups; and I critique the manuscripts written by the friends of the friends of the friends of my friends (since I don’t seem to know how to say no to anybody, ever). On Shabbat, and when I am too tired to translate or edit or review, I indulge in reading books — not those that have yet to be published (which I must squint at on screen as my eyesight continues to fail me), but those that are already printed and bound and available for sale on Amazon. And so yes, I love books. But loving books is very different from loving writers.

I do not love writers, certainly not most of them. In fact, having made a career out of working with them, I find most writers insufferable. (And here I must add warily: If you are an author-friend of mine kind enough to read the blog of my amateur writing self, please believe me: I am not talking about you!) From my experience, most writers, like most artists, are extremely egotistical. As well they must be. It takes tremendous self-confidence to believe that you have something to say that is worth writing. It takes a healthy ego to think that the best way for you to spend your time when you wake up in the morning is to sit at your desk and write. You have to have faith in yourself, in your talent, and in the fertility of your own creative mind. You have to be patient when the ideas do not flow, and you have to be willing to stare at a blinking cursor and trust that the floodgates of the imagination will burst forth again.

As I do not. I am besieged by doubts about whether what I have to say is worth saying, and I never think that writing is a good use of my prime working hours. I write only in the wee hours of the night (like now!), after I’ve come home from work, translated my daily quota of paragraphs, edited whatever is in my inbox, and read whatever I’ve promised to read for others. I permit myself to write—because writing requires permission, as if I am still in grade school waving my hand in the air for a bathroom pass—only when I have no other commitments, or when I feel sufficiently ahead in my work to take a brief break from other people’s words and indulge in organizing my own thoughts on paper. Disregarding Hillel I say: When I have time, I will write; and then rarely do I have time. Moreover, when the ideas do not come to me as quickly as I would like, I abandon ship and fix myself a bowl of ice cream. And when I do manage to finish a piece, more often than not I am reluctant to share what I have written, convinced that the words I plant excitedly tonight I will want to uproot regretfully in the morning, bearing sheaves of crossed-out pages…..

The writers who speak at writer’s festivals are not like me. For the most part, they trust in themselves and in their craft, and they speak with confidence to a crowd of adoring fans who ask them such inane questions as: Do you use a pen or a computer? Did you always know you were an author? I’m sorry, but I could do without this literary lovefest. Yes, there is much to learn from writers – but I learn not from hearing them speak, but from reading their words. I will read a book several times over and underline and copy out and buttonhole strangers with the passages I love (most recently, the peach seduction scene in Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector). This is far more valuable than hearing an author read from his book (unless he is a poet, but that is a different meter), or discuss the genesis of his most recent masterpiece. If I love a writer, I want to inhabit her paragraphs; I want to read her words until I can recite them by heart — until I find myself unconsciously writing in her style and dreaming about her characters. I do not need to shake his hand. I do not need my copy of his book autographed. And I certainly don’t need to know where and when and how he writes.

I have attended author readings in the past, and rarely do I leave feeling satisfied. Often I become angry at myself for not writing more. Or worse, I grow jealous and resentful of the writer up there on stage, who allowed himself all those hours of cultivating his own ideas instead of editing and translating other people’s words like the lowly amanuensis that I am. What can I say? Literary events do not bring out the best in me. Books do.

I wonder if I will ever allow myself to become a “real” writer, by which I mean someone who dedicates her primary working hours to trying to write. Sometimes I hope I’ll give myself this chance. Most of the time I am just so excited to curl up in bed with a book by a writer I’ve never met and never hope to meet, and call it a day.

2 thoughts on “Against Writer’s Festivals: A Manifesto

  1. Abacaxi Mamao says:

    Ooh, Allegra has a new book? I'll have to check it out!

    I sometimes tell people that I am a freelance writer and editor, but then they inevitably ask what I've written, and since the answer is “grants and two blogs, one entirely anonymous that I would never tell you about,” it's easier to just say that I'm a freelance editor. I had claimed the title “writer” proudly in 2008, but now I think I've given it up, at least in public…


  2. Maggie Anton says:

    Loved your post. Since I have no idea how I morphed from a chemist to a historical novelist, nor do I have any advice about technique for aspiring writers, I always feel like a fraud at these kinds of events. I certainly can't explain my creative process; it's still a mystery to me.
    Maggie Anton


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