Yes, writing and reading. So many of the superb instructors at the 14th Annual Writers Conference stressed that reading goes hand in hand with writing. You’d think that would be obvious but I who have always been a voracious reader have slacked off and it’s not a good thing. The allure of Netflix is one of the culprits but there’s the ingrained notion, learned as a girl, that I should always be doing something productive with my time. Reading is something I can do at night before falling asleep! Of course, often I simply fall asleep!
Reading the work of talented writers is how I can get better at my own writing. I know that and I need to change my behavior when I return home to read more when I’m awake!
The first workshop I took offered by Signe Hammer was all about reading the work of excellent writers and paying attention to how they use precise observation to enrich their narrative. Using lots of verbs to bring the narrative alive. Writing sparsely with few adjectives inducing tension in the reader.
She set some interesting prompts for us and five minute quick writing exercises which were fun and very useful. Since we all had the same prompt it was interesting to hear how we all had out own take on the exercise. I was sitting next to a woman writing a memoir and one of the prompts elicited an important change in her manuscript. She went on to pitch her memoir to two agents and each of them want her to send her manuscript to them. She was over the moon!
The next workshop was by Brooke Warner who is the publisher of She Writes Press. She was excellent. Her subject was The Take Away and the take away. The capital T take away is the blurb on the book jacket. If you can’t succinctly tell or write your book’s Take Away, you’re in big trouble. I think I’m still in the big trouble camp. Small t take away is what you leave the reader with throughout the narrative. What you were feeling, thinking, what you learned. Allowing your reader to have the experience you’re telling and say “Wow! I know just how that feels.”
I took two workshops from Melissa Cistaro on mapping your memoir and on finding your way through all the maze of memory we have to identify the key memories that advance your narrative. You may love the memory of your first kitten, but does that memory really advance your story about raising sons alone. Maybe you can tie that cute little kitten to those boys but it’s a stretch. Drop the kitten!
The mapping exercise involved actually drawing a map of an important part of your story. Literally the house you were living in, the tree in the backyard, the car you took on vacation on and on. I did discover while drawing the time I lived with my grandparents during the war that I had no memory of my mother during that time. None at all. My father was in the South Pacific and my mother was working in Kansas City but I don’t remember a thing she did, said, wore. Nothing. That’s significant!
So being open to trying on these exercises and entering into each one fully and openly was highly beneficial. I’m very glad I had this opportunity. I know these pictures are not very easy to see, but they’re important to me. The top right picture is of mom’s lonely desk with no one in the chair.
The highlights of the conference were the keynote speakers. A really stellar group: Adam Gopnik, Susan Orleans, Paul Theroux (who I missed because I was sick) and three other writers I have not read. Gopnik is one of my favorite writers: a journalist with The New Yorker magazine he has also written several memoirs. One of my favorites is From Paris to the Moon. If you’re off to Paris read it!
His talk which he delivered on foot pacing the stage for one hour without notes was extraordinary. He walked us through his new book coming soon to a book store near you: Living Liberalism: The Rhinoceros Manifesto. This man is a tyro he walked us through Western thinkers from Hume and Mills to George Lewes and George Eliot and others explaining what Liberalism is and how we need it.
“This talk will be an attempt to renew and remake liberal humanism for a new century.” Gasp and pant! He is a genius, charming, and happily in love with his wife, Martha. Something wonderful to see indeed. Not jaded, not cynical, just brilliant and alive. A joy!
Susan Orleans’, new book The Library Book arose out of five years of research which was prompted by her families’ move to Los Angeles. A tour of the old Los Angeles Public Library led by a knowledgeable board member sparked her interest when she learned that most of the titles went up in smoke in 1986 unfortunately on the same day as the Chernobyl disaster. Hence the fire–started by an arsonist–went to page six in the New York Times and Chernobyl filled all the front pages in the country–probably in Los Angeles as well.
Weekly childhood trips with her mother, now dead, to the Shaker Heights library sparked her interest in and love of the library. These precious memories which populate her mind and thought still recalling selecting and checking out books and then deciding which to read first on the car ride home. I look forward to reading her book. It’s bound and gold embossed like an old book. The pages have deckle edges. She wanted to make the book look just like one you might find today in the stacks of a library. It has heft and presence. Those of us who love to do research have held many such books. I hope the books and the libraries will always be here.
Despite my poor health, I enjoyed myself a lot. The hotel where the conference was held is just a short walk from River and Luis’ home where I’m staying. It made it easy for me to get back and forth. I go home renewed and ready to finish the next nine chapters of my own memoir. I know there is an unimaginable amount of work to be done, but I feel armed with new insight and a better grasp of my craft.