I've been to art festivals, jazz festivals, strawberry festivals, logging festivals, Polish festivals and festivals whose themes were hard to figure out. At every single one, I've found something beautiful, engrossing, strange, entertaining or tasty. Yet nothing inspires me like a book festival.
Thousands of people, all gathered to celebrate the written word, to listen to favorite authors read from their work, to discover new authors, to have conversations about books! In this age of quick-hit info-bits and constant distractions, it's good to know that so many people still choose to engage deeply with a 300-page tale.
I found abundant evidence of that phenomenon at the Tucson Festival of Books earlier this month. My main reason for going was to participate in a masters workshop for winners and finalists in the festival's literary awards competition (I was a finalist). I'll share more about the workshop in a moment, but first, a few impressions of the festival, which itself was worth the trip.
The two-day Tucson Festival of Books attracts more than 130,000 book lovers to the University of Arizona Mall and nearby venues, making it the nation's third-largest book festival (behind the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Library of Congress National Book Festival). And the event enriches more than minds: visitors pour at least $3 million into the local economy.
Some 400 authors participate in presentations and workshops on topics ranging from current events to zombies, and still more authors are on-site, selling and signing books at their booths.
A legion of 2,000 or so volunteers assists with the event, welcoming festivalgoers, greeting and escorting authors, selling books, carrying boxes, managing lines, posting signs, answering questions and giving directions (especially in that one wacky building where all the odd-numbered rooms are on one end and the even-numbered rooms are on the other!), and making the ubiquitous announcements inviting attendees to become Friends of the Tucson Festival of Books.
Consider this: the whole festival—readings, lectures, panel discussions, musical entertainment, kids' activities, even a literary circus—is free of charge to the public.
And this: All proceeds from the festival go to sustaining the event and supporting local literacy programs. Since 2009, the festival has contributed more than $1,450,000 to groups that work to improve reading and writing ability among children and adults in Southern Arizona.
That's only a small sample—the tip of the saguaro, if you will. I couldn't even begin to hit all the sessions that appealed to me.
With sixty performances taking place during the festival, there are ample opportunities to give your brain a rest and listen to music instead of words for a while.
During one mid-day break, I feasted on blue corn tamales to the accompaniment of the most indefatigable yodeler I have ever heard. Honestly, she went on for what seemed like half an hour. And she was good. (So were the tamales.)
By far the most entertaining hour of the whole two days, though, came courtesy of author Michael Perry. I mean, how can you not laugh at a guy whose website is called Sneezing Cow? I had bought his book, Truck: A Love Story, when I came to the festival and masters workshop two years ago, and I enjoyed his funny and tender accounts of life in rural Wisconsin (kinda reminded me of another rural community I know well). So when I saw his name on the program, I made sure to get to the Arizona Daily Star tent early enough to nab a seat.
Oh, was I glad I did. Perry had the audience cracking up—and occasionally tearing up—for the whole hour. My favorite was his piece on farmer yoga, from his new book, Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from on and off the Back Forty (which I couldn't resist buying in spite of limited space in my luggage).
Want to know more about Arizona insects? There's a tent for that. Take a virtual tour of nearby National Parks? There's also a tent for that. Learn about self-publishing? Yep, that, too.
Meanwhile, the indoor lectures offer tips on writing and publishing fiction, poetry and nonfiction; getting your book reviewed; promoting your artwork; navigating the entertainment industry, and other helpful topics. I took advantage of three of these free workshops: "Nonfiction – Finding an Agent," taught by Daniel Connolly, author of The Book of Isaias; "Telling Your Story – Biography v Memoir," by Lisa Napoli (whose memoir, Radio Shangri-La, is a favorite); and "The Ethics and Personal Issues of Writing," by Joyce Maynard (whose memoir, At Home in the World, is another favorite).
Striking up conversations is easy—after all, you can always talk about books. And you never know what else will surface. I shared a lunch table with a Tucson couple who, I discovered, were originally from Kalamazoo, had relatives in Fremont, and used to spend summers at Diamond Lake in White Cloud, all close to my Michigan home.
At another mealtime, a lively bunch of strangers saw me eating alone and invited me to join them. All members of the Western Writers of America, they enlightened me on a genre about which I knew nothing. Among other things, I learned that western novels are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Plus, the authors get to wear some mighty fancy duds.
Outside the booth of a Muslim organization, several young men put a different spin on friendliness. Smiling, they held signs that read, "MEET A MUSLIM. ASK ME ANYTHING." I stopped to talk to one pair and asked what kind of response they were getting. Their smiles widened. "Overwhelmingly positive."
As the festival wound down, the masters workshop warmed up with a Sunday evening get-acquainted reception. Monday morning, we got down to business with a full, two-day schedule of craft talks and readings by the faculty, poets Dana Levin and Monica Youn and authors Joyce Maynard, Michael Tolkin and Mark Beauregard.
I have pages and pages of notes from their talks, full of gems that I will return to again and again. One comment stands out as especially relevant these days. In her opening remarks, Joyce Maynard noted that, at a time when compassion is lacking, it falls to writers and poets to be "the holders of empathy."
Each day we also split up into groups of ten, sorted by genre, and spent two to three hours discussing the pieces of writing we had submitted. Joyce Maynard led the nonfiction workshop, and she wasn't kidding when she warned us she'd be tough. She zeroed in on misleading lead-ins, flabby prose, irrelevant details, rambling sentences, sloppy structures, vague and timid language. Ouch, ouch, ouch. She counseled us to write with intention, spending as much time thinking as putting words on the page. She told us to throw out writing that isn't working, rather than trying to patch it up. Most of all, she urged us to write our most difficult stories, honestly and shamelessly.
"Go to the nerves that are alive, the dark places, the things that don't work out, the odd things you're obsessed with."
I came away with a freshly-sharpened set of writing tools and the determination to use them on the essays I've been struggling with. I also came away with nine new writing friends. I've been in workshops where participants developed a strong rapport and others where the group just never clicked. This one clicked, perhaps, as someone joked, because we bonded like trauma survivors after enduring Joyce's critiques. Whatever the reason, I look forward to trading work and encouragement with Kelly, Gerry, Jane, Sara, Steve, Lee Anne, Arlyn, Roz and Kirsten.
Not ready to leave Tucson? I don't blame you. Come along on another walk through the festival and its surroundings.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.