Mayborn Writers Conference

Just got back in touch with my friend George Getschow after a few months of us both being so buried in work that we’ve not been in contact.  That’s a bad thing–I miss him. 

He’s buried in work because he is the organizer of one of the best writing conferences in the country–the Mayborn Literary Non-Fiction Writers Conference of the Southwest.  That’s a mouthful and I can never remember the full name, but its an amazing conference.  You can read all about it here.

Joyce Carol Oates is the keynote speaker, along with an amazing roster of luminaries.  George has a knack for getting big names, because the conference has such a great reputation.  Last year he had Gay Talese and the first year Susan Orlean as keynoters.

I’ll be leading the book manuscript workshop this year as I did last year, working with 10 amazing writers to critique their manuscripts.  The conference is giving away $12,000 in contracts–yes, real book contracts–this year, so its really worth entering the contest.  I was impressed with the caliber of work last year, much of it coming from seasoned professionals. 

George teaches journalism at the University of North Texas, and he is the standard bearer for literary non-fiction, a passionate advocate of the craft.  Every year around the time of the Mayborn conference, he also teaches a three-week conference in Archer City.

Archer City is the birthplace and occasional stomping ground of author Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, and The Last Picture Show which is actually set in Archer City.  McMurtry owns bookstores there. I’ve traveled to the town the last two summers to talk to George’s students about using fictional techniques in non-fiction.  The place is amazing, a true western icon. 

I wrote a story about my experiences the first year that was published here.   You have to go to the archives, then click on November 2005, then click on Texas.

Anyway, check out the conference and if you have any interest in literary non-fiction, consider going.

List of Writing Prompts–1

Prompts Time yourself, (10-20 minutes), do not quit writing no matter what I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know why he does it. You’re on the wrong road. The last bus left. It’s dark, it’s cold and I am hungry. I love being lost. The Ides of March. What use is it anyway? When I opened the door…. The last time I saw his face…. Please tell me its not true. When the power goes out, life slows down. In the mountains, there you feel free (thanks to T.S. Eliot) She walked into the ocean. Along time ago, I…. The worst thing I ever did was…. I hate the way he does that. Never say that again. The best thing in life is… A long time ago, in a universe far away…(thanks to George Lucas) Life is not what you think it is.

On Writing Prompts

I’ve been wanting to write a post about writing prompts for awhile now.  Tonight while farting around on the internet, I found a contest based on a prompt (this is for women only, sorry guys).  You can find it here.

Truth is, its kind of dorky.  But then, prompts are kinda dorky, don’t you think?

Prompts are dorky because they too often reek of navel gazing, of the worst kind of journal writing.  Now, I write in my journal every morning, so I can be called an avid journaler.  But I am a practical journal writer–figuring out what I need to do for the day, resolving emotional issues.  And so I tend to get uncomfortable when I read books on journaling that get a little too precious about various journaling techniques.

So I guess its easy to see why I think prompts are dorky, because prompts and precious journaling go hand in hand.  And yet, I sometimes find prompts useful. 

I once belonged to a group of women writers who met every other week on Friday morning.  We took turns bringing prompts.  We’d sit around the table with a timer set for 20 minutes and write like mad.  I never did use any of those freewrites for stories, but there’s something glorious about spending a morning writing like a mad woman.

And prompts are really good for igniting mad writing.

Prompts are useful for your writing because they can lead you into the heart of your psyche, which is the heart of all story.  Let prompts teach you to put yourself on the page over and over again until a story emerges.  The more you use prompts to write and shape your life and your ideas into stories the more it will come automatically to you and you’ll no longer need the prompts.

Other ways prompts are useful:

  • When you are blocked.  Take a prompt, any prompt, and write for 20 minutes.  It helps.  Really it does.  (I know–when I’m blocked I tend to want to wallow in it–stare at the computer and be really, really depressed.  I usually am not in the mood to take a stupid, dorky prompt and write.  But it always helps when I finally make myself do it.)
  • When you need to find a way into your story.  Take a line from your story or novel.  Or write the character’s name and combine it with a verb.  For instance, When Emma Jean danced…., or Riley opened the door….or Trish started the car. 
  • As a regular warm-up writing practice, similar to a musician playing scales.

I’m going to attempt to save my prompt files in a manner which will not make Typepad angry at me and post them.

Writing Every Day

Last night Jonathan Lethem (see previous post for more on his lecture) talked about the one and only rule he follows for a writing schedule.  He does not write to a specific word or page count.  What he does do is write something every day, even if its only for 15 minutes. 

Lethem says that writing daily keeps his subconscious engaged and expresses his commitment. He says he’s a "tortoise" when it comes to writing, averaging about a page a day, and so its especially important for him to follow his rule.

I believe in doing this too.  Fervently.

There have been periods in my life when I have written 2000 words a day on my novel.  Notice I said, "there have been periods."  Because I’m certainly not in one now.

In truth, I’m probably writing at least 2000 words a day, sometimes much more.  But its not on my novel.  Its for SEO copy writing.

In my weekly writing group we talk about momentum, which is the same thing that Jonathan Lethem is talking about.  Its much harder to maintain momentum on a project when you’re only working on it once a week or so.

The funny thing is, I have a reputation for prodigious writing habits.  One night in my group everyone asked me to explain in detail how I get so much writing done on my novel.  I told them how I got up every morning at 6 and tried to get a couple hours in on the novel before breakfast. 

But now I’m not doing that.  I’ve had to change my schedule to accomodate the copy writing which is taking over my life. 

Part of being creative is being disciplined.  Doesn’t seem like it should be so, but it is.  And I am nothing if not disciplined. I actually work best when I’m chained to my desk, as I have been for the last couple of weeks.

Now if only I could figure out how to arrange it so all these writing hours were devoted to the novel.  Sell it and make money, I guess.

Jonathan Lethem

He talked about "insteadness" which is a word he made up.  Insteadness is when we are talking about one thing (say, Anna Nicole Smith) when what we really should be talking about is something else (oh, say, starving children in Africa, or people dying in Iraq, you name it).  Insteadness has a sense of urgency and is charged with vitality.  We are like cartoon characters running around saying, "something must be done."  Insteadness contains fragments of symbolism and imagery, but never in a complete whole.  Insteadness distracts us from the real issues.

"Sometimes it is embarrassing to be human," Lethem said, because we have such a tendency to get caught up in story and archetype.  Now isn’t that an interesting way to look at it?  I always thought of getting caught up in story as a good thing.  Hmmm…

Anyway, the man has a way with words. He spoke of growing up in New York in the 70s, referring to it as a "dystopian society" which had recently seen the passing of feminism and the Civil Rights movement.  Lethem pointed out that this is a unique American fantasy, always thinking the we just missed the Utopian past.  What came before us was always better.  And, this points directly to "the evocative whisper of the ghost of this nation’s founding."

Good stuff. 

Writing While You Sleep

Nearly every writer I know (myself included) prefers the aftermath of writing—having written—to the actual act of writing itself.  And every writer I know would pay dearly to find a way to make the tyranny of facing the blank screen more bearable.  Well, there is a way, and it’s as simple as falling asleep.

Yes, falling asleep.  When someone is trying to make a decision, we tell them to “sleep on it” for a reason—because the subconscious works on ideas and orders them for you while you are asleep.  But not only can you help your brain to do this while slumbering, you can harness your subconscious during waking hours, too.

“Each of us possesses a brilliantly creative subconscious mind,” says screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb.  “Most of the time we don’t give it credit for its creativity.”

The trick is to feed your subconscious mind the direction it craves.  I learned this when I was faced with writing two big projects at once.  My natural inclination was to wring my hands and moan and groan about my inability to write two things at the same time.  While deeply absorbed in one project, nagging voices about the other one would pop up.  You should be working on the memoir, the voice would say.  How are you going to get it done on time when you are focusing on the novel? 

Out of desperation, I learned a way to subvert the negative voice.  My subconscious is working on it, I would reply.   While I initially started saying this only to shut up the cacophony of voices, to my surprise, my subconscious really did follow my direction, and when I switched to working on my novel, all sorts of ideas were at the ready. 

So I decided it would be to my benefit to learn how to coddle my “second brain.”  The most important thing is to get in the habit of telling your subconscious what you need.  Be specific.  For example, how can I show Carrie’s unhappiness with Bart in chapter eight? Every time you think about your project, repeat the problem:  I’m working on Carrie’s unhappiness.  Now you’ve imprinted your subconscious with your writing need.  How to encourage it to provide an answer?  There are several ways:

1.Sleep on it.  Write down your problem and review it before you climb into bed.  Or, read a few pages of your manuscript and tell your subconscious, Tomorrow I want to finish this scene.

2.Take power naps.  Follow the above procedure during the day, and give yourself ten or fifteen minutes to close your eyes and doze.  Often I lean my head back against my chair for a snooze and have to keep sitting up to write as the ideas flow.

3.Exercise.  Review your problem before taking a walk or starting your daily yoga session.  Sometimes just getting up from your computer and changing location is enough to jog the brain.

4.Engage in repetitive activity.  Sew, knit, weed, plant flowers, dust, vacuum.  Something about the repetition allows ideas to come up in the spaces between.

5.Drive.  Nothing like a mini-road trip (or even a long one) to free the brain.

6.Concentrate on something else.  How many times have you sat down to pay bills only to have the best idea for your screenplay yet?  (Which means, of course, you get to delay paying the bills for a while while you run to your computer.)

With all of these activities it is vital for you to carry pen and paper with you.  No, you won’t remember the idea you had while rounding the curve on the tenth lap of the track.  You’ll forget the brilliant snippet of dialogue you invented while gardening if you don’t write it down.  Carrying pen and paper is a signal you’re ready.  When you start stoking the subconscious it will respond, and if you are not ready and receptive, believe me, it will shut back down.  Like a muscle, the more you use your subconscious, the stronger it gets.

Finally, returning to the topic of sleep, let us not forget about dreams, which are a powerful source of story ideas, symbolism and imagery.   The best way to remember dreams echoes the technique for stoking your subconscious—get in the habit of writing them down as soon as you awake.  Since you are carrying paper and pen with you everywhere, this won’t be a problem, right?

Respect and revere your “second brain” with these simple steps and you’ll be amazed at how hard it will work for you.  Before you know it, you’ll even be writing in your sleep.

Short and Sweet or SEO?

We all know Seth Godin is a god (its even part of his name).  I’ve been reading his free e-books on blogging and making lenses on Squidoo. 

(Go here to find them.)

Seth talks about making blog entries short and sweet.  Good strategy.  What I find very interesting, though, is the contrast between the blog-writing manta of short and sweet and the craft of SEO web writing, which I’ve recently been doing a fair amount of. 

SEO writing is all about verbiage.  Lots and lots of it.  You’re writing to a word count, and writing original content about things you’ve probably not spent a lot of time pondering in the overall scheme of things.  So you end up writing 10 words when 5 would do and 3 would be even better.  Its all about reaching that word count–and using the key word as many times as possible.

Truth be told, its actually quite entertaining.  I find it a challenge to come up with new topics, pad the article with keywords, and still make it informative and sound natural. 

If nothing else, its great practice for overcoming writer’s block.

Novels of the Civil War

Is it just me, or do there seem to be a lot of novels coming out about the Civil War these days? 

There’s a story on yahoo today about Robert Olmstead’s latest novel, called Coal Black Horse. You can read it here. 

Maybe its just that I am now noticing them.  Until recently, they weren’t on my radar.  I kinda tend to shy away from mostly anything to do with war. But, last time I was in Nashville, my friend Linda Busby Parker, author of Seven Laurels, drove up from Mobile, Alabama to visit.  She and I spent morning writing and afternoons visiting Civil War sites.

Now usually this wouldn’t have been my thing at all, but Linda is halfway thinking about writing about the Civil War in a future novel.   We ended up at three sites: The Belle Meade Plantation, not so much known for its Civil War significance but cool just the same, the Carter House, site of the Battle of Franklin, and Carnton, which served as a field hospital for the Battle of Franklin.

The Battle of Franklin was quite the deal–something like 10,000 men died in the four hours of the battle.  At the Carter House, you can go into the basement of the home, where 27 people huddled while the battle raged in the yard.  The house above them was being used as a makeshift hospital, and as they cowered, the limbs of soldiers that had been amputated fell in piles around the windows.  When they finally opened the door to leave the basement, the stairs were piled so high with bodies they could barely get out.

Carnton was equally interesting.  The mistress of the house, Carrie McGavock, had been for all intents and purposes turned into a grieving zombie by the deaths of so many of her children (not that such was unusual back in the day).  But when her gracious home was overtaken by soldiers and pressed into service as a field hospital, the experience brought her back to life.  Literally. 

She spent the rest of her life dedicated to maintaining a sweet little cemetery for soldiers near her home.  For several years after the battle, the soldiers’ body’s lay where they had fallen in the trenches around the Carter Home, with only some dirt shoveled over them.  In winter, when the rains came, it would wash away some of the topsoil, uncovering the stray arm or leg.  Carrie McGavock was horrified by the cavalier  manner in which the war dead were treated and took it upon herself to get the bodies removed to a proper cemetery.  You can walk through the cemetery today and view the headstones, which are arranged by state.  Many of them are unmarked.  Its quite compelling.

Anyway, I’ve been on a bit of a Civil War reading kick.  The story of Carnton is told in the book, Widow of the South, by Robert Hicks.  Another good one to read is The Black Flower, Howard Bahr.  And the one I’m really looking forward to reading is On Agate Hill by Lee Smith (because, well, Lee Smith is a goddess.  Period.  I adore her writing.)

As a minor point of interest, the guide at the Carter House told us that in state budgets drawn up after the Civil War years, one of the biggest line items was for prosthetic devices for all the soldiers who had lost arms and legs.  You know the old saying, there’s nothing new under the sun.  Isn’t it fascinating to ponder that soldiers in Iraq are often losing limbs?  And God bless everyone of them, by the way.  I may not agree with the war but I am very grateful for the men and women who serve in it.

One of the things that interested me in the Olmstead article was this quote from novelist Jennifer Haigh, who studied with Olmstead:  "He approaches writing in a reverent way as really one of the most important things a person can do," she said.   As should we all.  As should we all.

Handling Rejection

Every writer gets used to dealing with rejection.  It gradually gets easier.  Sort of. Okay, I’m lying.  Here’s a handy dandy guide on handling that I’ve put together:

1.  First, you cry.  As the first tear leaks from your eye to roll down your cheek, you feel like a wimp.  And writers are not wimps.  So you wipe away the tears and tell yourself to buck up.

2.  Next you curse the stupidity of all editors, agents and anyone in the publishing world in general and the specific person who just rejected you, specifically.  Anger is much better than wimphood, you realize.

3.  Then you decide because everyone in the publishing world is blind to your brilliance and stupid not to publish your story (or essay, or poem, or novel) that you will show them.  You return to your computer to write more lucid, muscular prose.

4.  You sit at the computer and stare off into space.  Every time your fingers hit the keyboard, you hear that nagging voice that insists you’re the one with the problem, not them.  Your work isn’t brilliant, it’s awful.  You’re an idiot for thinking you could write. 

5.  A cup of coffee sounds good.  Maybe caffeine will silence the voices.  But then you realize if you go to the local coffee shop, you’ll have to face people.  And one of those people might ask you how your writing is going.  And even though you technically aren’t required to blurt out the details of your latest rejection, you’ll feel like a liar if you simply smile and nod and say that everything is going well.  Everyone knows you’re not supposed to lie.  That goes double for writers.

6.  You settle for a cup of coffee from your home pot, ducking your head so as not to have to meet the eyes of your spouse.  You don’t want to have to tell her/him the details of your failure, either.

7.  Skulk back to the computer.  Skulk is such a good writerly word that thinking of it cheers you.  It proves you are a writer.  Yes, you are.  You’re a writer, you’re a writer, you’re a writer.  Saying it makes it so.

8.  But writing is what really makes you a writer.  And the words still won’t come.

9. You sit at the computer, hands idle, eyes locked on some far distant point outside your window, until you feel the tears come.  And then you let it all out.  You cry, you scream, you holler, you pace, you yell, you wallow in your misery.  After a good long bout of this behavior, which you are so wrapped up in you don’t even care if its wimpy, you dry your tears and take a deep breath.

10.  And you begin again to write.  You realize that the only way out is through.