The painful truth about nonfiction Writing: At a Goucher writers' conference, the hopefuls learn that breaking in is hard to do. But they knew that.


"I had a friend who was tired of trying to support herself as a painter," said Barbara Jones, an editor at Vogue, "so she turned to writing."

A line like this gets a big laugh -- at least, it does at a writers' workshop, such as the one at Goucher College last week, the Mid-Atlantic Nonfiction Summer Writers' Conference. In fact, this was a real knee-slapper for conference participants. Making a living writing! What a howl!

And, of course, what they all yearn to do. As one participant commented to another, without seeming irony: "I write for myself. And to see myself published, of course."

For four days, the conference's almost 100 participants had steeped themselves in lofty discussions of technique and the nature of creative nonfiction. They had listened to the New Yorker's John McPhee, bounced ideas off successful writers such as Diane Ackerman and Darcy Frey, submitted their work for critique.

On Saturday, the fifth and final day, they took time out for the practical side -- "Selling What You Write." Now it was time to talk of money, or the lack of it, magazine work, or the lack of it, book contracts, or -- well, you get the idea. In panel discussions and one-on-one interviews throughout the day, the aspiring writers received a crash course from New York editors and agents.

"I don't know what the smart thing to say is, so I have to tell the truth," said Jones, who as a free-lance writer never placed an article with Vogue, where she is now a senior editor. "This is the hard edge of things. But it's also reassuring for many writers, because once you find out how competitive it is, you won't be as hurt by rejection."

Writer and editor Lee Gutkind, who helped organize the conference, said few of its participants could expect to publish in the top magazines over the next year. The good news, he said, is that literary reviews are increasingly open to newcomers and the market in non-fiction books is expanding.

"In the world of writing, nonfiction once was illegitimate and journalism was a dirty word," he said. "Journalism is still a dirty word, but nonfiction has changed."

For Mary Beth Malooly, a Velleggia's waitress who dreams of writing nature essays for Harper's or National Geographic, the day was an eye-opening experience. Malooly, who has published pieces in three small journals, is the kind of person who knows, say, Hilda Raz of Prairie Schooner, but isn't sure if National Geographic editor Priit Vesilind is a man or a woman. (He's a man, a nice one, too, although he wasn't interested in Malooly's mockingbird piece.)

And when Jones tossed out the name Binky Urban, the powerful literary agent who represents best-selling memoirist Mary Karr, Malooly didn't have a clue who she is, or that her given name is Amanda.

"Marketing is what I have to work on," admitted the 44-year-old brunette, who looked a decade younger in her flowing jumpsuit and saddle shoes. Although she was stood up by her first appointment, a Doubleday editor who arrived late, she refused to be discouraged, chatting up another editor from Viking-Penguin, then ducking inside Goucher's Merrick Hall to write down valuable tips from the panel discussions.

"They told us that some editors don't even consider unsolicited manuscripts, but ones who come to conferences like this tend to look at them," she said, showing where she had recorded this nugget in her spiral notebook. "It's good to know something like that."

Malooly has written for almost 10 years, since graduating from Towson State University with an English degree in 1987. She had wanted to major in biology but kept flunking the required chemistry course. Now, with her writing about nature, she has found a way to recapture that interest without passing chem class.

She has published three pieces and earned exactly $20, for a short story about a jaguar published in the Arizona Literary Review. But she recently received an encouraging rejection from Harper's -- the mockingbird piece again -- and is bursting with ideas, all animal-related.

The conference cost $495, plus another $75 for an individual consultation, and Malooly felt she had gotten her money's worth, although not always in the way she expected. It was the little things she found sticking with her -- McPhee's reading, the stray bits of marketing information and her sense of belonging in the group, where many of the writers were far more experienced than she.

Linda F. Willing, a Colorado firefighter who writes about her work experiences, considered the conference a present to herself, a way of rewarding her efforts to write while working full time. Others came from Iowa, Wisconsin and as far away as Alaska for this Goucher conference.

Malooly was barely two miles from where she had grown up, just off Joppa Road in Towson, and not even five miles from where she lives now. Yet one senses she has also traveled a great distance -- returning to college at age 32, teaching herself how to research such arcane subjects, writing those first query letters to magazines.

"Passion, that's what carries it," she said, summing up the lessons she had learned over five days, as she prepared to leave and begin her night shift at Velleggia's. "I have a passion for my work. And that's what has to carry me."

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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