Notes From the Colony

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Program kickoff addresses local writers' needs

Saturday, June 21, was a very humbling, satisfying, and scary day for me. I walked into a room of 37 hopeful writers, and all eyes turned to me, waiting for me to say something useful and relevant. How well I knew the feelings coming from those eyes.

Because I know what it's like to have a yearning to write, but never the time or the ability to get started. I know what it's like to have a drawer or a closet full of material that you've never sent out because you don't really believe it's any good. I know what it's like to have your fragile aspirations shot down by a mean agent or editor. I know what it's like to wake up one morning and realize that, if this is ever going to happen, you've got to get serious.

My goal for the day was to give each person something to take home, something to think about, a hook on which to hang a beginning, just enough confidence, just enough courage, just enough faith in themselves and the process of writing.

The other instructor, Mike Hancock, and I each took appointments every 30 minutes throughout the afternoon. There were no unfilled slots. In one way, this was a grueling exercise, as every thirty minutes, a new face, a new project sat before us. As the writer described his vision and the progress, if any, he had made on it, I was listening intently for that one important piece of information. Where was the sticking point? And what advice could I give to jack the car over the rock upon which it was high centered?

The sticking points were all over the place. Fear was a big one. And fear is indiscriminate in choosing its victims. Fear tied the hands of a Ph.D. in English literature and a Berryville woman, whom I had known in my book club, but whom I had not known could write prose so beautiful, it could be published right now. Yet, she had never submitted anything.

Then there was the question of how to begin. Not usually at the beginning. Not in this century. Dickens could begin with, "I am born." But we have to start at the moment of drama, of crisis, of conflict. And then bring in the backstory. Which is not to say that you shouldn't get a first draft down in chronological order. But you must recognize that a first draft is your wet clay, which must then be shaped and crafted into something lovely.

There were questions of how to get small pieces, poems and flash fiction and short stories, published, and we were able to direct those writers to great online sites which list literary magazines. We were able to advise them to read those publications on line and to select the ones that publish material similar to theirs. There is enough rejection in the world without setting oneself up for failure by sending an inappropriate piece to a journal that doesn't publish that sort of story.

We talked to people who were stuck in developing their plots. We talked to people who had finished memoirs full of great material, but who were wise enough to see that the structure was wrong, memoir being so much more than just a series of scenes.

We fielded questions on how to conduct, pay for, or organize research. Some writers felt that they had a good story, but needed help with grammar and sentence structure. Some were wise enough to realize they needed editing help. And others just expressed a desire to be involved in a community of writers "for motivation, inspiration, and improvement."

By the end of the day, I felt as if my brain could be oozing out my ears, and Mike's eyes were glazed over. But I knew that we had given some good directions, suggested some good connections, maybe touched a few nerves in a good way. After the last two attendees left, we gathered up the disposable cups and pens and moved the chairs back into place.

Mike said, "Man. That was fun."

The August 25th workshop, Elements of Writing Craft, the first workshop of the Community Writing Program has filled up. An identical workshop will be taught September 1. Contact me for more information at 479 292-3665 or