Getting the most out of writing conferences

Gill and Coudal at the National Arts Club

Yesterday I was studying memoir with the International Women’s Writing Guild at the National Arts Club. It was a great group of women in New York’s most beautiful brownstone.

This morning I was journaling about how much I love writing conferences and being in community with other writers. I also love Twitter chats around the hashtags #blogchat and #wjchat (web journalist).

Writing is a solitary endeavor so communing with other writers online or in person inspires and energizes me. I fill my soul with other writers’ stories and feel less lonely and more courageous when I return to my writer’s desk to write my own story.

Here is advice on attending writing conferences:

  • Sit in the front, pay attention
  • When a volunteer is called for, raise your hand
  • When a question is called for, have one ready
  • Make one friend
  • Tweet one quote from the speaker
  • Tell someone about your big secret project
  • Share the struggle, share the joy — be honest

I mostly took my own advice:

  • I sat in the back, but I paid attention
  • When a volunteer was called for, I read something funny about marriage and work being overrated (got some nice laughs)
  • I made a friend who is heading to Abu Dhabi to report from a falconer conference
  • I tweeted, “Writers make the invisible visible” -Eunice Scarfe #iwwg
  • I told Judith Glynn about my secret project
I love IWWG women’s writing workshops because, beyond the juicy substantive information, i.e., Eunice shared a ton of unknown delicious memoirs, there is always depth, laughter and understanding among women writers.

The International Women’s Writing Guild is a fabulous group that has empowered me as a writer, by giving me mentors and a sense of belonging.

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Reversals

In Poetics, Aristotle said — yes, I’m smart like that, quoting Aristotle — we move from ignorance to knowledge, from enmity to friendship, from neutrality to commitment.

Lynne Barrett taught this juicy class on plot at the International Women’s Writing Guild this week at Yale.

In stories, she said, everyone has to have a piece of the puzzle. No one character can hold the whole story.

Lynne gave us the timeline from the movie, Casablanca (which I’ve never seen) in which Bogart’s character moves from nonchalance to commitment.

The flashbacks in the story move the story forward. People don’t just ruminate on their past for no reason. The lover’s past (in Paris!) sparks an understanding that propels them to take action.

In all narratives, a reversal is necessary. Cinderella goes from low status to high status. I always taught this in my drama classes, that this is what makes for comedy — a high-status character becomes low-status — or visa versa.

This is why Lynne said the story of Spitzer is a better plot than the story of Schwarzenegger. He fell from the top, not when he’d left office.

But the reversal is not just “who’s up and who’s down.” A secret become public. A single person becomes married.

This class nudged me to reconsider the lame plot in my young adult novel from last year’s NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month).

When I mentioned to Lynne, I had a novel, written in one month, she said, “Yes, Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, wrote the book. No Plot, No Problem. No plot? Big problem!”

Incidentally, Barrett taught with my friend Dan Wakefield at Florida International University.

Book Proposal Questions

Melissa Rosati ended her workshop with these questions:

  • Is a book really the right first product for me? I love books. I have already blogged. So, yes.
  • What do I want the book to do for me? Make me a ton of money, earn me some street cred, get my distinct voice out there in the marketplace of ideas.
  • What is the relationship you want with your target audience? To empower people to share their ideas through writing. To inspire writing that leads to personal transformation. But, hmmmm, in terms of relationship, that’s a tough one. I don’t know. How committed does an author have to be to her readers? I’ll answer their emails, comment on their updates, teach workshops, attend readings, read their writing. But, let’s face it, all relationships take time. Do I have the time for another relationship?
  • If you do not have business experience, who are your trusted advisers? This is also a tough one for me. I do not like asking for help. I like being the helper. I’m not sure my peeps are business peeps.
  • What’s your budget? How much are you willing to risk? Ummm, $150 maybe?

These questions come from the workshop The New Rules of Book Proposals which I stumbled into late because the parking garage was literally a mile from the International Women’s Writing Guild classrooms on the Yale University campus. (And having a book published wouldn’t make the parking lot any closer.)

I wish I caught the beginning of the class because I have a lot to learn about book publishing.

Writing the Details

Here’s one of the sparkling gems from Southern writer Pat Carr’s Memoir and Fiction Writing class.

Set the scene with three or four details. Here are ten ideas of what Pat means by sensory details and then an example from me on my story set on a playground.

  1. Odor – wet sand
  2. A time of day or season – end of summer
  3. Temperature – warm and humid
  4. Sound – children laughing
  5. Important object – small charm bracelet
  6. Dominant color – beige
  7. Dominant shape — circles
  8. Something that can be touched – curly hair
  9. Taste – rain in the air
  10. Certain slant of light – late afternoon sun

I love number 10. Pat was inspired by Emily Dickinson. Love Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”

Light is so important, I think, as I write from a sun-soaked bench cloistered in a square at Yale University attending the International Women’s Writing Guild conference.

Pat Carr’s writing exercises, like this one, can be found in her book Writing Fiction with Pat Carr. Her new memoir is One Page at a Time: On a Writing Life.

Conflict in a Writing Workshop

I’m too tired from writing. I’ve been writing all day at the International Women’s Writing Guild at Yale University. In my first class I wrote a short short story that I love and want to get published.

I’m almost too tired to tell you about something that happened in my last class — how one of the teachers was talking about how a woman from Jehovah’s Witness came to her door. “I’m rewriting the Bible,” she told the woman. “Today a Psalm. Tomorrow a Lamentation.” And then the teacher showed the evangelist the Adirondack trees ablaze in orange and red outside her window, “These are my burning bushes.”

And the class laughed. But one woman, wearing a batik dress got up. She was behind me. The teacher asked, “Are you leaving because you’re leaving or something I said?” And the woman said, “I’m of that faith. And we believe in the Bible.” She was offended. She did not believe just anyone could write or rewrite the Bible. It was very tense. A few quick words. The student said, “I believe the word can raise the dead.”

“So can my word,” said the teacher. “Can’t we all be prophets?”

“No, not like that.” They disagreed. They stood their ground. “I have to leave.” And the teacher said, “Don’t leave without a hug.” They hugged. The teacher put on a short video. After the video, the teacher said, “We mustn’t live in fear. This is what we’re up against.”

The teacher gave us an assignment to write a blessing, a praise or prayer of gratitude.

After some of us read our writing, the teacher asked for feedback on the conflict with the woman who’d left. One person said, “We all laughed when you said a Jehovah’s Witness came to your door. I feel bad about that.” Another said, “I felt like leaving too.” I said, “I avoid conflict at all costs so I was interested to see how you’d handle it.” The woman beside me said, “It would make a good story.” More than a dozen of us commented on the conflict.

Then we went back to another writing exercise: write something from the Bible from a woman’s point of view. I wrote something funny and true about Martha and Mary.

Get Up Early

I have been posting to one of my four (yes, 4!) blogs every day for a week.

The first few days I wrote first thing in the morning, around 6:30 am, right after I recorded my dreams in my journal and sipped my coffee.  Then the kids had to be at school early or I had to be be at work early, I felt a cold coming on, so I wrote at lunch time around noon. These last two nights, I have written while yelling at my kids, “Get. To. Bed. Now.” at 11 pm. I felt the day breathing down my neck. I felt, “I have to finish this blog post by midnight!”

I want to return to my early morning blog writing sessions. I want to write before the family wakes and wants me to make them bacon, sign their permission slips or pass out money for lunch. Benjamin Franklin’s admonition to “Early to Bed, Early to Rise,” can be supplanted by Arianna Huffington’s Ted Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/arianna_huffington_how_to_succeed_get_more_sleep.html

Arianna is brilliant and funny and so right. We Type A women are not getting enough sleep.  Arianna advises that women need to sleep our way to the top. Literally. For me, that means going to bed by 10 and getting up at 6 ish. (Some studies suggest the brain is most alert first thing in the morning.)

Incidentally, I met Arianna at a women’s writing conference at Skidmore College through the IWWG (International Women’s Writing Guild) probably 18 years ago. She was memorable, curious, friendly, smart and glamorous. I think we were in a memoir writing class together. Since then, Arianna has slept her way to the top and I want to too.