Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Writer's Cross: Transcending the Existential Shorthand

Every year I wonder what new literary delights Scott Morris will bring to the table at the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi. And what erudite morsels Neal Walsh will serve up throughout the weekend. Can they possibly top last year’s feast? After returning home to Memphis on Sunday, I decided to give myself a few days to digest the early summer repast before writing about it—maybe to even savor the tasty remnants that got stuck in my teeth and allow them to remind me of nuanced tidbits I might have otherwise forgotten to mention.

Scott’s craft talk is always a highlight of the workshop for me. He built on the foundation he laid for us last year, when he opened our eyes to the importance of learning to “see and write sunsets.” I’ve decided not to try to quote Scott’s words verbatim, but to paraphrase, and hopefully not destroy their beauty in the process. So please forgive my attempt to share an hour of pure gold with my shorthand:

Like fishermen who are passionate about catching the wide-mouth bass, we are tempted to rely on plastic lures—on existential shorthand—to get the job done. But everything important and vital escapes with shorthand. Genre writers traffic in the existential shorthand, but is it really an effective way of summing up your life? Is it a fair representation of what you are? Because, after all, writers are just like fishermen, and the “bass” they are after is nothing less than the human heart. The writer’s cross, then, is to combine the judgment and wisdom of the sage with the heart of the child. There is no suitable shorthand for the morning moon. You don’t have to be an artist—you just have to be fully human.

During one of the workshop critique sessions, Scott added that an artist must have “imaginative empathy” to capture a character. And leaving the fishing analogy he moved on to cooking, saying that the writer must “go behind the veil—like going into the kitchen at a nice restaurant to see how the work is done. You have to violate the charming atmosphere of the fine dining experience to see how it comes together.”

Two of the ten workshop participants are writing memoir, so he addressed our specific approach:

“In writing memoir, even if it’s fictionalized, you have to build a bridge to your past so that you can have safe passage to your future.” He asked, “What are the stakes for you, the writer, in writing your memoir? What is the one thing that’s driving you to write this? When you can identify that, that’s where you start the writing.”

I felt like we were participating in arts and crafts for grownups at summer camp, as we moved from Scott’s craft talk, through the individual critique sessions, the faculty’s readings, and into Ace Atkins’ craft talk on Saturday. Ace’s 7th novel was just published, and he’s finished his 8th one, so we were on the edge of our seats to learn from this successful and prolific writer. He opened by saying that the most important question we need to ask ourselves before beginning to write is this: “Do I have a good story?”

Story is more than a few anecdotes and interesting experiences. All great books have a clear beginning, middle and end. While that may sound elementary, you’d be surprised how many folks sit down to write and end up with a string of unrelated events. Stories should draw people into a better world and allow the reader to be interactive with the work. Show the characters through dialogue and scenes (“show, don’t tell”) and keep the writer out of the story.

Ace said he approaches his work in three basic steps:

1. Research it like it’s non-ficiton
2. Create a loose outline
3. Write it like a fiction novel (which it is)

He talked about the difference in story and plot (the way you tell the story) and the importance of research, which makes the story authentic. Ace’s years as a journalist came through in his talks, especially when he joined Neal and Scott on a panel and organically stepped into “reporter mode” to keep the Q&A running smoothly! At the end of his craft talk, he shared wisdom from one of his favorite writers—Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing.”

Sunday morning’s talk was given by Bess Reed-Currence, who was a literary agent at Regal Literary Agency in New York City for over five years before moving to Oxford to marry John Currence, owner of four Oxford restaurants and winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef South. The marriage of literature and fine dining couldn’t have been better scripted, as workshop participants enjoyed cocktail hour on the balcony at the Currences’s award-winning restaurant, City Grocery, two nights of open mic at their second restaurant, Bourre´, and indulged in the best breakfast anywhere around at their newest establishment, Big Bad Breakfast. (Enjoy the pictures at all three venues! And my apologies for not capturing Bess on film during the workshop.... I borrowed this shot from the web.)

One thing that made Bess’s time with us so valuable is that she was a successful literary agent but is currently out of the business. So, we were free to talk with her without the tension of wanting to pitch our writing to her, and she was free to share her wisdom without the filter of protecting the business or the distraction of watching for new clients. She addressed our questions—even the most simplistic “publishing 101” kind—without condescension, and with clarity. And she was just delightfully upbeat and seemed to genuinely care about helping good writers get published. What a treat she was—the dessert in our literary picnic!

On a personal note, a huge take-home from the workshop for me is the confirmation—from faculty and fellow participants—that the essay I submitted for the workshop needs to be expanded to book-length. Although I’ve been working on another book for the past year and a half, I’ve been “stuck” in an emotional struggle over some of its content, and it feels good to hold off on it for a while. (Or just write it as “therapy” without any “watchers.”) So… I’m off and running with an outline for a new memoir: Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns. An essay with the same title will appear as a chapter in an anthology on Southern women and spirituality in the fall of 2010, so hopefully I’ll have the book finished by then and ready to pitch to agents and publishers. I learned a lot about patience and endurance listening to Neal, Ace and Scott as they served on a panel this weekend, “Getting Published: The Writer’s Side of the Story,” so I hope I remember their lessons when the time comes!

Oh, I would be remiss not to mention how much I enjoyed Rebecca Jernigan’s storytelling, reading and performance again this year. She even pulled workshop participant Michael Risley into the act, which was quite a coup given Michael’s prosecuting attorney persona!

And listening to Neal, Ace and Scott read from their own published works was also a treat. Neal's first book, THE PROSPECT OF MAGIC won the 2009 Tartt's First Fiction Prize and is due out in hard and paperback by Livingston Press in June of 2010; Scott has two published books, The Total View of Taftly and Waiting for April, and is shopping his third one around for publication now; and Ace, as I said earlier, has 7 published, and 8th finished, and the next one in progress. His most recent book is Devil's Garden.

Open mic was fun both nights, as we listened to each other’s short pieces without an ear to critique but for the pure, unadulterated joy of hearing the written word spoken aloud in the author’s voice. The reading that captured my attention the most was probably Patti Brummett’s. Patti is 18 years old, a recent high school graduate and entering freshman at the University of Mississippi. Her writing sample for the workshop was an amazing piece of prose-poetry, or lyrical prose, or some indefinable genre which Patti simply calls “fiction.” So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that her offering at open mic was a performance in a genre akin to Da-da poetry. It reminded me of a cross between slam poetry and rap, with a soft edge, if that makes sense.

It was great to meet the “new guys” at this year’s workshop, including Anne Burgan, Martha Carole Jones, Dan Stringfellow, Patti Brummett, and to be joined by my niece, Aubrey Leigh Goodwin! (That's Aubrey and me on the balcony at City Grocery.) Aubrey is a lawyer, but she’s always been a writer, and of course I love watching her jump into this exciting world of creative writing and publishing. The faculty this weekend confirmed what I already knew—she’s on her way!

It was also great to be with the repeaters (some of us for the 3rd year) like Doug McLain, Herman King, Michael Risley and Daphne Davenport. Oh, and kudos to Herman (left) who lost his virginity this month (his words, not mine)—Herman’s piece, “Southern Intrusions” was published in the June issue of Desoto magazine. You know what that means? Herman has to buy drinks at our next get-together!

Oh, and here’s one of those small Southern world stories—up on the balcony at City Grocery Friday afternoon, I met this beautiful woman sitting next to our group, and it turns out she’s Kimberly Kountouris Nelson… her father owns the Mayflower CafĂ©, a favorite downtown restaurant in my home town, Jackson, Mississippi.

And Kimberly grew up Greek Orthodox, so she and Daphne (who is also Greek Orthodox) and I had to chat about Orthodoxy for a while. (and pose for Doug, who had my camera again) Kimberly’s grandparents lived on the same street as mine, in West Jackson back in the 1950s. Here we are fifty years later, (well, only thirty-something years later for Kimberly!)and we both still recognize those common tribes from our very separate childhoods. Kimberly grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church, while I was raised Presbyterian. And of course my spiritual journey, which I’m writing about in my memoir, chronicles several decades of searching, finding, and learning to live with joy within the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

So, now for the rest of the photos. Well, not all of them. Some things that happen in Oxford should always stay in Oxford! Enjoy!

Author Jere Hoar, one of last year's workshop faculty, dropped by City Grocery for drinks with us on Friday, and to catch up with Scott, since Scott moved away from Oxford to California last year.

Jere always has time to hang out with fledgling writers and encourage us on our journeys. Jere's books include The Hit and Body Parts. He and Daphne share a moment here.


Ace, Herman, and Anne enjoying the sunshine on the balcony

Dan enjoys the view and the conversation up on the balcony.

Susan, Jere, Anne and Neal

Aubrey and Scott chatting with Dan in the background.

Ace and Scott catching up...

Doug reading another one of his terrific stories at open mic.

Catching up with Michelle, from last year's workshop, for dinner on Saturday night.

Susan and Dan talk about their shared city, Memphis...

Enjoying lunch at Ajax: Patti, Herman, Aubrey Leigh, AL's husband, Tommy, Anne, Martha Carole and Susan. (photo compliments of Doug)

Workshop participants were joined on campus by 10,000 fans who were in town for the baseball tournament. The workshop was held at The Depot, a popular parking spot for ball game fans. So, barricades were set out to reserve our parking spaces each day. No attention to detail was spared!

Many, many thanks to our amazing workshop leader, Neal Walsh! (captured during the panel with Ace and Sott) Can't wait 'til next year!

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