Skip to content

Sweetmeats from TWA Conference 2009

“Who does Robert Olen Butler think he is?”

I was trying to explain to a young man why you always, always carry a writing notebook and a pen, so I showed him this genuine, overhead-in-the-hallways, can’t-make-this-stuff-up line I had jotted down minutes earlier, and no,  I’m not telling you who said it — not here on this blog, anyway.

But every time I repeat that line  (wickedly including the source) there is much covered-mouth tittering. Not at ROB, of course, who thinks he is a Pulitzer-winning author with a gorgeous reading voice, and he would be right, and who generously gave of his time at this conference, as did Philip Gerard, Pat MacEnulty, and others. And of course, the point is made: you can’t be a writer if you aren’t ready to write good stuff down the moment you hear it.

This was my first year attending the Tallahassee Writers’ Association conference. It was much bigger and better than a conference that size would appear to be, and I really can do little else than blurt out some of my cryptic notes and say, if you are a writer in this region, be at this conference next year!

I also met with an agent, and one thing I said is why can’t I put together a collection of published/publishable writing and publish it to Kindle? Well, she asked, then why do you need me? My response was for the expertise on the things I don’t know how to do.  She had never had that question before. But why not?

Stuff Heard, and Written Down

Speaking of Mr. Who-Does-He-Think-He-Is, Robert Olen Butler told us in his keynote, “Great writing comes from the place where you dream.” The only craft you legitimately earn is the technique you have forgotten. A short-short story has as its center a character who yearns.

Butler also said the Kindle is the future of publishing. He has a Kindle II, and read from it.

Philip Gerard had many good things to share. The persistence of vision is a nearly-perfect metaphor for how scenes work. A character goes into action to satisfy a yearning or escape a fear. If we don’t care about the characters, we don’t care about the story.

“Action is character; we watch what people do and thereby we know them.” (He says this is a second-hand quote.) Plot is often derided, but he holds it dear. (I knew these notes would appear nonsensical out of context.) Setting: he thinks of this as if he were staging a show. Setting is a stage of action. Also consider the apparent subject and the deeper subject.

“Choose language carefully,” Gerard said, noting that this is something “you can rarely do in the first draft.” Be sure you “earn the emotion.” As for creative nonfiction, it has to pass the “eulogy test” (alas, I no longer recall what that is!).

On building a book, Gerard first quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Every person should have a bottle of champagne chilled at all times.” The minute you give a book to someone else, you’re no longer alone. The writer’s work ethic involves a “peasant mentality” — the willingness to work a 12-hour day, all the way through.

In the first stage,  you work on the pre-vision.

What is the aboutness of the work? It can boil down to something very simple; it’s somebody in motion toward a goal.

Why do you want to write this book? Nobody can tell you what book to write. What’s in it for you?

A good ending has rectitude.

Pat MacEnulty (Sweet Fire, among other books), spoke about voice. “Once I find the voice, then the book writes itself.” “Most writers are actors,” assuming roles. As writers, we are allowed to hear voices in our heads. “Don’t censor the voices.”

Try having your characters say one thing and think another.

There are many approaches, but try layering: build a skeleton of your writing. She likes beginning with dialog and then adding action and description. For description, be sure to note the quality of light.

What is it like to be inside that character’s body?

Every scene does not need conflict and resolution, but a scene is more engaging if there’s tension in it. Let the reader experience the events.

Try writing scenes as if they were in a play (just as an exercise).

More Gerard (workshop, The Retrospective Narrator): If I’m a retrospective narrator, ask, how retrospective am I? Where am I in reference to this story?

A story is told by somebody, to an audience, at some time, for a reason.

Gerard also mentioned the Kindle. (The Kindle would come up at least four times at the conference.)

Have a business plan for your writing career.

Yet more Robert Olen Butler: Write what is authentic. Write every day. Begin close to your demographic. Go straight from sleep to writing. Use muscle memory. Listen to your writing (thrum thrum thrum… TWANG).

It’s always a struggle, but you learn how to struggle.

Books and other Writing Recommended, Seen, Desired

Pat MacEnulty, Sweet Fire

Robert Olen Butler, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain [since borrowed and read -- quite fabu]

Robert Olen Butler, Tabloid Dreams

Philip Gerard, Secret Soldiers

River Teeth – see Gerard’s essay, “Thirteenth Hour”

Posted on this day, other years:

Add a Facebook Comment


  1. Jon Gorman wrote:

    It’s sad, but I have for years tried various forms of an always on me notebook/journal/scraps of paper. (Or recording it some other way). Each and every effort either ends with me losing the thing or forgetting about it.

    Maybe it’s time to try again. After all, I think I’m actually starting to understand the basics of using of notebooks for projects, after only using them for several decades.

    Smilies look sillier in journals though, a drawback for a smiley addict like me.

    Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  2. Light. I remember reading the third volume of Three Californias (Kim Stanley Robinson) and suddenly realizing that the light was different in each book. The three books are three alternate futures for Orange County. The first is mostly outdoors in the winter, foggy and cloudy. The second is indoors and at night. The third is during the summer.

    Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Dinah PHillips wrote:

    “eulogy test” (alas, I no longer recall what that is!).”

    Look what Gail gave me for my birthday, my fellow gadget geek. It’s been really helpful at press conferences and budget meetings, and would be even more so at lectures and conferences:

    And she found me an electronic device that I didn’t even know existed! That’s true love!

    Friday, May 1, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  4. I’ve taken a shot at a notebook but never had much luck. I either sit on it and break the spine, or it goes through the wash, or I never use it. Now, if there was something like Google Docs I could always have on me without buying an Iphone, or a Blackberry, or any sort of cell phone…I will probably always just be a sticky-notes on the desk guy.

    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  5. David wrote:

    Josh, the latest crop of very small “netbook” computers with long battery lives are getting very close to what you describe.

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  6. When I can inconspicuously write on a netbook the way I can in my paper notebooks, well, game over. That said, I wish my paper notebooks were searchable!

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *