Does Courage Equal Good Writing?

One of the participants in last Friday’s Mayborn book manuscript workshop, Carol Harper, asked me a question via e-mail today. 

Does courage equal good writing?

I love this question because nobody’s ever asked it of me before, and in all the years I’ve been pondering writing and talking about writing, I’ve never heard it discussed.

Carol raised the question, I believe, because in our workshop we discussed several memoirs which covered intimate, personal matters.  There was quite a bit of talk about the courageousness of the participants.

Perhaps such talk, and the word courage, is cheap.  It’s like I often point out to new writers–they need to get away from the generalities and into the specifics.  Courage, to be sure, is a generality.   It’s also the word Dan Rather used to sign off his newscasts with until everyone reacted with such hilarity and mirth that he had to quit.

Maybe that right there tells us something about how we view courage.  But back to the original question.  Does courage equal good writing?  Another reason Carol might have asked me that question is that in talking to an agent about the memoir form, he said something along the lines of what is important to the writer is not necessarily of interest to the reader.

So, what takes enormous courage for the writer to put down on paper does not automatically become good writing. 

Here’s what I believe (you knew it was coming eventually):

I believe that every time any one of us sits down to put words on paper, it is an act of courage.  If we are sitting down to write about painful personal memories or events, it takes even more bravery.  It is hard, damn hard, to put yourself on the page for the world to see–and judge, because you know they will–over and over again.

Writing in and of itself is an act of courage. 

But once we’ve mustered the strength and valor to face the blank screen or the empty page, there’s another act of courage required, and that is the courage to learn how to best present the information so that it is of interest to the reader.  That’s a different kind of courage, the courage to learn and change and transform what doesn’t work on the page into what does. 

Transforming what doesn’t work to what does is the life work of some of us, maybe all of us.  I like to think that practicing on paper makes it easier.

Bottom line?  No, courage does not equal good writing per se.  But courage is a necessary precursor to all good writing.  So in a way, courage does equal good writing.

And maybe the word courage isn’t so cheap after all.

At the Mayborn: Workshopping

It wasn’t all about Nan Talese and Oprah at the Mayborn last weekend, far from it.   While the lectures and panels and discussions and networking comprise the meat of the conference, the side dishes are the workshops.

Conducted all day Friday, they follow the standard workshopping procedure of every MFA program in the country.  (Actually, I’m making a huge assumption there.  The Mayborn follows the workshopping procedure used at the Spalding MFA program, which writer-in-residence George Getschow and I both attended.)

The workshops are designed to be supportive and nurturing, but that doesn’t always happen.  I’ve been in many a workshop where personal feelings take precedence over exalting the work.  However, I have to say that this particular Mayborn workshop was one of the best ever–and it wasn’t because of me. 

It was because of my awesome group:  Michele Myers, Anita Tipping-Wheeler, Dawn Youngblood, Marilyn Brand, Anna Louise Bruner, Lane Devereux, Carol Harper, Donna Johnson, and our wonderful token male, Stephen Eric Levine.

This was a group that brought such deep respect for the work and the process to the table that we bonded quickly and were able to get right into nurturing, supportive, and constructive critiquing.  Bear in mind that several participants had written courageously intimate memoirs.  In one case, the piece was gut-wrenchingly personal, and this was the first time the author had ever submitted anything for others to read.  The bravery that takes simply awes me.

What usually happens in workshops is that several themes emerge, and this one was no different.  Thought it might be helpful to take a look at those.

  • Start Far In
  • Over and over the group pointed out how a work could be improved by starting farther into the story, or starting with a gripping scene to pull the reader in and then filling in with back story.  Remember, you don’t have to explain everything or write chronologically.  Hook the reader, and then tell us the details we need to know.
  • Know The Purpose of the Book
  • Why are you writing this manuscript?  What story does it tell?  Why does this story need to be told?  Why are you the one to tell it?  Answering these questions can help you to designate the theme of the book, and that in turn can help you with structure.
  • Complex Characters
  • Over and over again in the May born pieces I marveled at the complex characters that people had constructed.  The writers showed the characters with all their foibles, without judging them.  The writers were not afraid to deal with paradox in their characters.  For instance, a charismatic faith healer who had multiple families–yet was a stalwart advocate of Civil Rights as he wandered the south.  Or a troubled adopted daughter who was rescued by a stable family–and ended up rescuing the mother of that stabled family in return. 
  • Dialogue and Memory
  • We talked a lot about how to write dialogue when recreating scenes in non-fiction.  How does the non-fiction writer use dialogue when he or she may not be able to remember what was said years earlier?  Not sure we ever came to a consensus about it, but the gist was that some lines are so memorable you always remember them, and beyond that, creating dialogue to go with the feel of the scene is okay.

So, I’d like to thank my group again for being so wonderful.  And congratulations to our very own Donna Johnson, whose manuscript, "Holy Ghost Girl," won the grand prize of the contest!

Oprah/Mayborn Controversy Video

The infamous Nan Talese comments about Oprah are now available for your viewing pleasure here. 

She didn’t even talk for that long, but I guess people don’t usually diss Oprah, hence the whole world is now weighing in, once again, on the brouhaha.

Here’s my own personal opinion (I know you were waiting for it).    I think that Nan Talese was grandstanding a bit, and that her comments sounded defensive.  If Oprah’s people did indeed treat Nan Talese as she said they did, and I have no reason to believe they didn’t, then their own actions were reprehensible.

However, let us not forget that all of this brouhaha is based on bad behavior to begin with, okay?  As a writer, I believe in truth, through and through.  How can you not?  That is the absolute bedrock core of what we do as writers–tell the truth, and that goes for writing both fiction and non-fiction.

It is important to remember that truth for each of us is different.  If 12 writers wrote an account of the same event, every account would be completely different because each of them would see a different truth.  But that is not the same as presenting material as truth when it is not.

I have heard–and again, I don’t know for sure that this is true–that James Frey originally tried to sell his book as a novel, but the publishers (and by extension, Nan Talese) told him they wanted to put it out as a memoir because it would sell more books. 

That’s bad behavior, folks.  Sorry, but it is.  And thus, she has just a wee bit to be defensive about.   

What amazes me is how and why we’re still talking about it, a year and a half later.  There’s something about this story that strikes to the core of our beliefs about honesty and disingenuous and betrayal. 

By the way, you’ll notice once again that I’m not linking James Frey to Amazon in this post.  I have no interest in helping him sell more books.

Mayborn, Round I Don’t Know What (And Don’t Forget Oprah)

Nan Talese is the best thing that ever happened to the Mayborn Conference.  The publicity about her remarks dissing Oprah is all over the place, most notably at the Time magazine website.  Head on over there and check it out.  You can easily find it because last time I checked, it was the number one most emailed story.  Apparently the Oprah and James Frey story has legs.

Okay, now that you are caught up on all the good gossip I can tell you about the conference.  I’m going to do somewhat of an overview today, and then post on individual lectures and events over the next few days.

I think I already mentioned that the conference is held at the Grapevine Hilton in Grapevine, Texas, 180pxgrapevine_flag just a little bit away from DFW airport.  It began for a few select attendees on Friday.  These attendees were select because they submitted their manuscripts to be workshopped and got in.  There were five essay workshops and two book manuscript workshops, of ten participants each.

I had the pleasure and honor of leading one of the book manuscript workshops.  We had such a great group.  We rocked.  We honored and supported and held the energy through some pretty intimate readings and discussions.  I love my group.  It was such a powerful experience that I’m going to devote a whole post to it.

Friday night was the Texas Barbecue night, though they had some fancy name for it that I can’t remember.  Let me tell you, those Texas boys can make a fine barbecue.  Good stuff.  That night, the delightful Mary Roach, author of Stiff, and Spook, spoke.   I loved hearing her story about how her very first piece was published in the crappy shopper section of some random newspaper.  I always think fabulously successful writers like her are sprung into the world fully formed, so it was nice to hear about the humble beginnings of her writing career.

All day Saturday and half the day Sunday, were the panels and lectures.  George packs them in.  I mean, sometimes there is barely ten minutes for a bathroom break.  But I like that–lots of bang for the buck.

One of the highlights of Saturday for me was a VIP reception for Joyce Carol Oates and other bigwigs.  They poured wine and beer liberally, of course. 

Ahem.  Not a good idea to send me to an event where they pour wine liberally.  I chatted with the managing editor of the Fort Worth paper, is it the Star Telegram?  We talked about why it is that most newspapers cannot regularly handle writing narrative journalism.  Not only is it an issue of having writers who can write literary non-fiction, it also takes a certain kind of editor.

Since I live in Portland, I’m lucky, as the Oregonian is one of the few newspapers with a huge commitment to the form. 

It’s really interesting to me to attend a conference full of journalists.  I’m usually off in cyberspace, the blogosphere, or writing fiction.  I love hanging out with newspaper types, as I find it very grounding.  It is so established and historic and traditional.  That said, the most wonderful person I met at the reception was a novelist.  Her name is Jane Roberts Wood, and I think once again its one of those "I came late to the party" type things.  Oh lord, we had fun talking and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because we were both happily drinking red wine.  I’m ordering her books from Amazon today, and if they are even half as wonderful as she is, I’m going to be desperately in love with them.  Jane rocks, that’s all there is to it.   Here’s a photo of her:

Jane72I wandered up to the dinner, sloshing wine merrily all the way and sat with Stephen Eric Levine, who is, get this, a storm chaser.  He was the only male in my workshop and he’s got a good manuscript going about birthing your dream.  He has a tour company which takes people off in search of tornados and the like.  I am terrified of tornados beyond all reason but I still think its really cool.

And, well, the rest of the night there was a wee bit more drinking.  Certain people plied poor innocent me with more wine.  Not that I was the only one drinking too much, oh no.  The group from the Mayborn closed down the bar and then we all moved out to the lobby to hang out more.   Those journalists, damn they know how to drink. (Okay, there may have been an attorney involved also, but I’m witholding his name to protect the un-innocent.)

And may I just remind everyone how awful it is to have a hangover?  Especially when you have to get up early the next morning to listen to the lecture of one of the people you were drinking with?  (Though he was smart enough to quit drinking himself and go to bed at a decent hour.) And then when you later have to attempt to navigate two airports through a weather crisis that delayed half the flights in the southwest?  And when you end up having to stay at a hotel in Albuquerque and getting up at 4 AM the next morning?   Ouch is all I can say.  Ouch, ouch, ouch.

But, damn, it was all worth it.  Lest you think it was only worth it for the good time, that is an evil rumor that is simply not true.  I learned so much and most of all I was completely inspired, both by the lecturers and by the wonderful people in my workshop.  And to prove it, I’ll be writing more about the meat of it in the days to come.

Mayborn Writers Conference & Oprah controversy

I’m in LA after the Mayborn Writer’s Conference and will do a full report on my travels tomorrow.  I’m also planning a mini-series about some of the presentations.  So check back in!

Meanwhile, for a look at some of the controversy that got stirred up (or, as my friend Leigh calls it, the "Oprah smack down,") go to the CNN website.

Round-Up: Mayborn and Awesome New Service

I’m off to the Mayborn Literary Non-Fiction Conference tomorrow.  I wasn’t going to link it, because its sold out, but you never know someone might drop out.  The good news is that I’ve finally learned how to spell the name.  There’s no "e" on the end of it, duh.

I’m taking my trusty laptop and I’ll have wireless access at the hotel, so I will report on sessions and what Joyce Carol Oates has to say at the keynote session.  At least that’s the plan.  I won’t be held responsible if those damn literary non-fiction writers shanghai me and force me into the bar and pour margaritas down my throat, when all I really want to do is sit demurely in my hotel room and write. 


In other news, I’ve found a really cool new site/service/whatever.  It is a blog back-up service.  As many of you are aware, Typepad had a wee problem yesterday when they had a power outage at their data center.  We didn’t lose any posts or info, but it has always worried me that something more drastic might happen, erasing our blogs and leaving me SOL, because I never save copies of what I write.

Enter the wonderful folks at BlogBackupOnline.  They back up your entire blog for you and then do daily back-ups to catch new content.  Mine is being backed up even as I write this.  And, best of all, the service is free while it is still in beta.  And if yahoo mail is any indication, things tend to be in beta for very long periods of time.  So check it out.

See you in Dallas!  Or at least I’ll be writing to your from Dallas!

Typepad Outage

The Typepad data facility had a power outage this afternoon and nobody could access Typepad for a few hours.  All seems well now.  So, if you tried to get on earlier and were wondering what was going on…that’s the scoop.

The Best Thing About Being A Writer

The August issue of O magazine has a special section on "Inside the Writer’s Mind," wherein they interview "six terrific novelists" about writing. 

The first question they ask is, "What’s the best thing about being a writer?"

Jeffrey Eugenides , author of Middlesex, said that, "The best thing is also the worst thing. It’s that, no matter how long you’ve been at it, you always start from scratch." National Book Award nominee Mary Gaitskill, author of Veronica, said that, "The best thing about writing is being able to clearly express things in a way you can’t express in conversation." Reading these responses made me ponder what I considered to be the best thing about being a writer. The answer came instantly–it’s that I’m never bored. Ever. Here are the ways in which I’m never bored:

  • I’m never bored professionally, because, as a writer, there’s always something else to learn.
  • I’m never bored mentally, because, as a writer, I can, and do, always make up stories.  Making up stories is how I order and make sense of my world.
  • I’m never bored in that world, because as long as I have pen and paper (and I go nowhere without it), I can always write.   

Anybody else want to tell what they consider the best thing about being a writer?

Writing: Critiquing Mayborne Manuscripts

I’m in the middle of critiquing book manuscripts for the Mayborn Conference on Literary Non-fiction (it has some long official name that I can never remember) which is in Dallas weekend after this one.

The writer-in-residence and also doer of anything remotely related to the conference, George Getschow, asked me to come up with guidelines for critiquing.  He already had one set of evaluation guidelines for essays in place, so I worked off that and adapted it for book manuscripts. 

Thought it might be interested for everyone to have a look at.  Bear in mind that this is designed specifically for book-length literary non-fiction.  Here you go:

1.  Does the first chapter–the opening of the book–draw you in by teasing your interest, creating a mystery, a puzzle or a question that in some way grabs you and holds your attention?  Does the opening immediately present a conflict?  Or do you get the impression that the author is just warming up?

2.  Does the story deliver sufficient proof to make it credible?  Does the story demonstrate that the writer has done his/her research?  Does it contain telling details, facts, statistics, quotes and other material from a variety of primary and secondary sources to validate the main themes and sub-themes of the story?  Does the manuscript provide historical context?

3.  Does the story have a beginning, middle and end?  Does the manuscript have a clear overall structure?  Are you able to identify a narrative arc for the story?  Does it start in one place and end in another, with logical steps in between?

4.  Is the story presented in scene (showing) or does the writer rely solely on exposition (telling)? Does each scene accomplish a purpose? Does each scene contribute to the whole? Do the scenes, taken together, have a cause and effect flow that adds up to a plot?

5.  Are the people in the story well presented?  Do they come across as multi-dimensional characters or talking heads?  Do they come across as human beings that think, feel, laugh, and cry? Do the characters have an arc?  Do they change and grow over the course of the story?  Is the protagonist clearly identified?

6.  Does the writer use specific, concrete detail and facts that are fresh and relevant, or resort to vague/abstract generalities?

7.  Does the writer employ metaphor, scenes, dialog, and other storytelling devices to make the story more vivid and help it to come alive on the page?

8.  Does the story possess a lyrical quality?  That is, does the story give the impression that the writer has considered the tone of the story, the sound of the language, the rhythm, the rhyme, and the pacing of the prose?

9.  Is there enough material to sustain the story over 300 pages?  Does the story being told warrant a book, or is it better told in an essay?

That’s it!  Pretty extensive, huh? 

Now I better go actually read some of the manuscripts.  In truth, I’ve looked through all 10 submissions to the workshop I’ll be leading and I’m very excited.  The work at the Mayborn is generally at a very high level, and this year looks no different.