A flood of emotions and observations occupy my head since the writer’s conference this past weekend. I am left a bit shaken and uncertain, yet it does feel like something broke free so I’m relieved as well.
I attended two formal sessions, if both could be considered formal, and a short editing session. I added the blue-pen session at the last minute, deciding on Friday that I had to hand my work to someone at some point so I might as well start with the short story I wrote for their short fiction competition.
The first class session, entitled “Fire Up Your Fiction,” was a great 1-2-3 / a-b-c introduction on how to have fun with words. It included a couple of short exercises on how to kick-start your writing, “getting in the side doors” as April, the well-named instructor, described the process. The class was free-form yet structured, with timed exercises and timed discussion periods filling the 2-hour time allotment.
April loves the play in writing and the creative energy it uses and produces, and her passion is contagious and genuine. Attendees could choose to share your exercise works or not – most, including I, did. The feedback was positive and warm. She believes writing is its own teacher so she felt it important to incorporate writing exercises. The class provided a message I needed to hear, and I found it encouraging and comfortable like a cozy blanket. It also provided me an exercise I’m already using with a bit of help from Jim, which is a nice touch.
The editing session that followed shortly after lunch was eye-opening. After marveling over my creation for a week ;), enjoying the way I successfully echoed past and present, created evocative visual images, and surprised both myself and my reader with a short story that took a surprisingly unexpected painful turn yet offered a nebulously optimistic closing, I guess I expected – or just wanted – some little “verbal embrace.”
And I got it, sort of. A very mild embrace, something along the lines of “This is very nice.” Period. Then Bernice, who I liked instantly, quickly moved to page 3, where she had placed an asterisk. She commented, “This is what I really saw as the heart of the story, and I was thinking maybe you should try to start with this.”
I listened, discussed, remaining gracious as I attempted to fumble through this foreign tongue. I quickly slipped into a typical habit, one spurred by the internal dialogue I always have at times like this – “I’m obviously no good but maybe, if I’m nice enough, they’ll like me anyway.”
Inside, or course, I wanted to say, “But that asterisk doesn’t mark the beginning! It’s not the point of the story; it’s part of the realization! In a 4-page story, you shouldn’t have to know in the first sentence where the surprisingly short journey is going to take you. It wouldn’t attract me to a story so why the heck would I want to write something that way?”
Still, it was eye-opening; and she was encouraging. Quite encouraging, actually, giving me valuable hints and insights from decades of teaching and editing and writing. She asked about my rituals to start writing each day, which I know I lack. She encouraged me in a manner that felt genuine to keep writing. She immediately shared her belief that I should focus on the novel and gave me her card, which didn’t strike me as something one would do if they felt the person in front of them had no potential whatsoever. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. But after my rather mild bruising (in retrospect), it felt good to look at it that way.
I think I understand now why writers fear – and possibly loathe – the editors to whom they entrust their life’s work, hoping for public exposure. It must be akin to negotiating with God after a long life filled with questionable dealings, convincing Him (or Her) that your heart was in the right place, truly it was. Shouldn’t that count for something?
By the day’s end, though, I felt pretty good. I skipped the afternoon panel discussion and walked around the island. It felt almost magical, the warm summer sun beaming down upon me, deer crossing the street in front of me on queue, strolling along the bluffs over a small cove, and meandering on the trails in the regional park when I decided I needed some shade. Jim joined me on the island, and we dined at “Blue-Eyed Mary’s” near the ferry terminal. As we downed a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc over a great BBQ chicken and summer vegetable dish, all felt fairly right with the world despite my lingering emotional nervousness from the first day.
Day Two, on the other hand, was a journey into the heart of all my fears. I took the ferry over, sluggish after a second weekend morning of rising earlier than normal. I enjoyed the ride, as I always do. You’re streaming out over the water in the morning sun, surrounded by lush mountains, so you have to work hard to feel negative. However, I felt myself receding from instead of embracing my brave, new world. I avoided Pat, the chipper older woman in the flowery frock who had struck up a conversation with me at breakfast the morning before. I proceeded up the hill from the cove, pacing myself between two groups of fellow writers, whom I had pegged accurately on the ferry without knowing for sure.
The session was miles from the safe haven offered the day before. The presenter, whose name escapes me at the moment (which might be telling), is a crime fiction writer with a published series of novels. She also co-founded, as she explained, one of the most respected journalistic review websites today. I was awed somewhat, yet put off by her frantic nature as well.
Around the table of 9, including myself, were 3 additional published writers, 2 other writers with nearly completed manuscripts, 2 serious crime fiction writers, and the partner of one of the published writers “just there for fun.”
My attitude was good, but the ebb and flow of the much less formal discussion was unsettling. The “most acclaimed” published author stuck me as a bit pleased with himself, perhaps rightly so. The interactions of the group often felt stunted despite the friendly surface banter at play in the conversation.
More disturbing, the guidance seemed antithetical to my basic spirit of writing. I found myself thinking I could never write the way they described, even given the possibility that crime fiction is a different animal than other forms of writing. Talk of every scene advancing plot, debates over whether conflict was required in every scene, stern absolute cautions to never use flashbacks or have a protagonist describe themselves all just seemed too sharply ruled and left me fearful that anything I ever write will be blithely dismissed out of hand.
I did chuckle at one point. My favorite attendee, a young woman not yet published but clearly serious and intelligent, made an observation that crafting images for scenes is a bit like “co-creating with the reader.” Mr Pleased seemed to enjoy that observation quite a bit, and I found myself wondering if the phrase might not find itself on the inside cover of his next highly acclaimed work.
All joking aside, it was clear what was happening. My confidence was shrinking as I sat hoping the two hours would pass more quickly. I was engaged, even witty at times, but I had labeled myself at the start as the newbie in the group, and I felt every interaction afterward was in the context of that definition.
The bottom line is that is reality. I am the newbie! I haven’t completed a damn thing, a few random short stories excepted. I’ve never faced rejection, or even sought acceptance. And I have to face that I am terrified I’ll discover I don’t have the tenaciousness to finish a work that truly means something to me, or possess thick enough skin to endure the scratches and scrapes being a writer requires.
After all, I gave up on this idea twice before – once as an 18-year old after a 15-minute conversation with my parents when I couldn’t even express what I actually wanted and again a decade ago when I finally worked up the nerve and fulfilled the basic commitments needed to dip my toe back in the water.
Now I need to learn how to produce a completed novel. And, beyond that, I must be ready to weather the potential rejection even if I convince someone in the industry to give it a fair reading. That is the reality. It’s the reason I woke up on Monday morning, equipped with a plan, yet wondering as I showered if I could yet finish the real estate coursework by the end of August deadline.
So where does that leave me? Well, the good news is not with more than I can handle. I have the power to change the things I must in order to finish the novel. I must write everyday, or at least each weekday – 3 hours minimum. I cannot watch or read or hear the news, or engage the internet until I have completed that basic effort. As the crime fiction writer said, “If you write each day, eventually you’ll have all the material you need to put a novel together.”
In the afternoons I’ll type in what I’ve written, take care of tasks, write on the blog, and engage the world however I need. I’ll work-out, either when I first awaken or sometime in the afternoon. After 4 pm, I’ll clean and prepare for dinner. I can stick to that plan, vacations and Olympic hoopla excepted.
The best news is that I did learn valuable lessons this weekend, two from the session that most terrified me.
* I learned I actually have a point of view on how I write and how stories should develop and flow.
* The crime fiction writer shared her own lessons on getting into writing, discussing how she could now admit to herself and others that she first began interviewing writers in hopes of “finding the secret.” She said the interviews taught her one key ingredient – any successful writer actually finished a work at some point. That was the common element ;).
* I learned a surprisingly simple way to start writing each day, and it seems to work.
* I learned I need to put pen to paper. As Bernice pointed out, your brain works differently when you type on a keyboard. My best first drafts normally come to me when I write in a notebook. I’ve always instinctively known that, but I never truly recognized the consistency of the observation. It is freeing for me to write in a notebook first, and then type what I’ve created into the computer.
I know I absorbed a lot, and I could probably grow that list to double or triple if I tried. It was worthwhile, in part because it was unsettling. I am a good observer, and I absorbed a great deal just watching and listening and feeling.
Of final note, I also have a goal now – a definable goal for this writing adventure, whether it is stage one or the entire journey for me. By June 30, 2010, I will complete my novel. I will compose the story I’ve had in my head and toyed with from time to time for 25 years this summer. It will be my novel. If an editor reads it and it gets published, I’ll be amazed and relieved and thrilled. And, if not, I will be as well. It will be my answer to the lingering question that has haunted me for so long.
And when I’m done, I will move on with the gifts and lessons the experience provides me. I will be a better person because of it.
Saying that isn’t quite as scary as it once was.