“People don’t want to pay $25 for something they know.” David Magee, author of 12 published books (in just 8 years) and owner of Rock Point Bookstore in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was speaking at the Escape to Create Fall Writers Conference at Seaside, Florida October 14-16. His point was that it’s important to find the angle (about a story, person, or event) that no one else saw coming and then understand and frame the story in a simple and clear manner. David is “in love with the romance of a small book package,” adding that “you don’t have to be clever—it’s so clear.” That was on Thursday.
On Friday morning, David joined the five other speakers at the morning session and shared the news he had just heard: Wal-Mart is going to start selling $25 hardbacks for $9. Silence fell over the room of writers, readers, and booksellers gathered in the lovely home in Seaside for the two-day conference. This could be a death-knoll for so many in the writing and publishing business. The news cast a dark shadow over David’s otherwise outgoing countenance. I immediately thought about Richard and Lisa Howorth, owners of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and Corey and Cheryl Mesler, owners of Burke’s Books in Memphis.
Cheryl’s brother-in-law (the world of Southern literature is small) is Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts and another of the presenters as the E2C Conference. Neil is also an excellent teacher, and his talk on the art and craft of memoir was worth the price of the conference fee on its own. (At the bargain price of $125, each presentation was worth the ticket.) I could write pages about his talk, but I’ll try to condense the best parts for you:
The difference in memoir and biography is that memoir is “a glimpse into a life,” whereas biography usually starts at birth and follows ‘til the end. Neil says to “start your memoir where your inspiration is.” What makes memoir work (it’s selling like hotcakes while literary fiction is struggling) is a many-faceted discipline. At the top of Neil’s list is “intimacy,”—“it’s as if you are whispering in the ear of the reader.” Following close on the heels of intimacy is conflict—“where the protagonist wants something desperately and there’s something in the way.” Neil’s third nugget is “the creation of scene”—and he expounds on the age-old “show, don’t tell” tenet by saying, “don’t tell the reader what to think.” He wrote 150 scenes for his book, and then “strung them together with exposition.”
Details was next on his list, and he emphasized the importance of using concrete language instead of “universal” language.” So, instead of saying, of the leprosy patients living in the same facility in which he was incarcerated, that “they were shunned by the outside world,” he gave specific instances of how that happened in their lives. Next on his list was vulnerability—the importance of the writer examining his own prejudices, with help from a friend, therapist, or even group therapy. Creating a sense of urgency, even when writing about the past, is also crucial in memoir. So, instead of saying, “I remember feeling this way,” show how you felt by writing as though it’s happening right now. He spoke about not writing for revenge or out of anger at those who might have hurt you. “It’s not about others—it’s about you.” Which leads to credibility—how do you gain this with you readers? Confession. Which is tied to the search for meaning—why are you writing this?
Neil spoke as eloquently about the “Art and Craft” of Memoir next. This was, in some ways, the most valuable part of his talk for me, because he separated the “art” from the “craft” for us in specific ways that I hope to try to emulate when I get home and back to work. The “art” part should happen in a free, childlike manner, where the writer leaves the inner critic behind and let’s the imagination go.. ranting and raving, not worrying about how it looks. “It should be messy.” I think I struggle with this process because I don’t like things to be messy. I tend to edit as I go, and it stifles my work.
Once the “art” is done (one page, one chapter, or the entire book) let it sit for a while and then pick it back up and do the “craft” part—the critiquing, the shaping, the analysis. This is where you “gain clarity that throw you back in the artistic realm,” according to Neil. At this point you “find balance—if you were angry, find peace. If you hate a character, find a redeeming aspect….” You should still keep it to yourself for a while, telling yourself, “I may never show this to anyone.” The puzzle starts to fit together and the work of revision begins.
I’ve only touched on the gems Neil shared with us, and I’ll add his encouragement to “know you genre—read great memoir and personal essays,” which I devour regularly; and his words about practicing the art and craft of writing every day, even when you don’t feel like it. “If you don’t show up every day, you have no idea what you might have missed.”
Returning to David Magee, it was fun to learn that his father, Dr. Lyman Magee, was one of my husband’s professors at Ole Miss (biology) in the 1960s. But also that David was adopted, and his search for his birth father is the topic of a story that he actually got a book deal for but backed out because “the time wasn’t right.” Instead, he wrote a business book (How Toyota Became Number One) and it started his career. None of his 12 published books are his “soul story,” but he says “you can drive what’s in your soul with stories other than memoir—you can immerse yourself in any subject, golf, business, etc., and bring what drives your memoir-to-be to another topic by putting a piece of yourself into it.” Great advice for struggling memoirists who aren’t ready to put all the personal stuff out there yet.
Growing up in Oxford, David was always intrigued with the racial issues, and asked himself, “how does this division of people bubble to the surface?....” His latest work, The Education of Mr. Mayfield: An Unusual Story of Social Change at Ole Miss, is a 230-page jewel that has a lot going on, “candy in a wrapper,” as David says. Mayfield is a gay, black artist in Mississippi who is invited to work as a janitor in the art department by art professor, Stuart Percy, ends up studying under Percy in secret and eventually becomes a successful artist. David always wanted to write a civil rights book, but he wrote 11 other books first and he’s glad he waited because he found himself “at the right place” to right this story six years later. “The story of Mayfield and Percy isn’t really the story—it’s a device through which to tell the story.” My mind is still spinning with ideas of different ways to spin the stories I’m trying to write, personal, spiritual or regional.
I was equally blessed by the talks given by the playwright, Rich Orloff, the poet, Erin Belieu, and the musician and songwriter, Melanie Hammet, although their genres are different from my own. Good story telling is good story telling, and good writing crosses all genres. Erin’s words about poetry are so true of fiction and nonfiction: “A good poem should have mystery, and intelligent and emotional authority.” Maybe a difference is in the reader’s understanding: “You can read a poem and say, ‘that’s awesome” even if you don’t ‘get it.’” Even though Erin believes that anyone can write a great poem, I still feel that poetry it a gift. (One that I don’t have, by the way.)
Melanie Hammet is a songwriter, but she also served as a city council person. She’s written songs about urban planning, which she defines as “how we live on the land with each other,” that are priceless. I loved hearing Melanie sing outside Sundog Books as well as during the Conference sessions. She talked about synesthesia—combining acoustic guitar with urban planning, or with songs for children ages 7-12 who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
She contends that songwriting is not all that different than nonfiction writing, in which cross pollination, or unusual collaboration infuses the work. “You see blue and you know what it tastes like.” Her emphasis on commitment to the work mirrored the other writers’ encouragement, with the added challenge to “make a vow with your work: we torment our relationship with our writing…. We nag it, saying, ‘why don’t you put the toilet seat down, writing?’”
Fiction writer Scott Morris who has led two of the three Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshops I’ve attended at Ole Miss, gave a wonderful reading during his session, a short story called, “Watching Homer,” about a pair of special needs kids in high school. Scott’s writing is beautiful, literary, like poetry and music and fiction all rolled into one. It was a joy to listen to him read. Scott is a true artist, as unaffected by all the “issues” that drive so much that’s out there today. I love what he said during the panel that all six writers led, “The Art and Realities of the Writer,” when the discussion drifted into how hard the writer’s life is: “There’s a rumor going around that all these problems can be cured with medication,” which drew lots of laughs.
Rich quoted Hemingway as saying, “with each novel I write, I die a little,” and
then Erin said, “bring the pain.” Neil’s experience was different: “I absolutely loved writing the story…. You got to find some redemption in the story.” And Melanie summed it all up with her wit: “Let’s not take ourselves so seriously—just write a piece of shit and get on with your life.”
I’m leaving the beach tomorrow with all this inspiration and information spinning around in my head. With several writing projects on front and back burners, I’m going to try to look at them through the prism of the wisdom I gained from these incredible three days at the Seaside Writers Conference.
It’s always hard to leave the beach, with its pristine beauty, even when it’s 50-something degrees!
What a joy it was to have my writing group buddies, Doug McLain and Michael Risely and their wives, Charmaine and Jennie here with me and my husband in this amazing house on Seagrove Beach. We’ve had a great time at local hang-outs, like the Tarpon Club (Bud and Alley’s) where we enjoyed music and dancing with Neil, Scott, David, and new friends from Seaside.
We ate delicious fish at Lake Place and Café 30-A and the best wine and sushi anywhere at the Café Rendezvous.
And yes, I added to my collection of leather and pearls made by Wendy and Jean Noel Mignot. Loved that Wendy stopped at my table (they also own Café Rendezvous) to make some adjustments to the earrings I bought on my last visit, just before she hurried away to pick her up daughter from cheerleader practice. She returned with her son, who had been catching redfish. Yes, they live a charmed life, but they work hard at their crafts.
Also found some funky boots at the Perspicasity shops in Seaside.
As I finish this post, hubby and I are watching the Giants (go Eli!) and Saints game with a view that’s to die for. It’s half time, so I’m going to take a book and head down to the water’s edge. Hope to get into Seaside to some wi-fi to post later today. If not… Monday night back in Memphis. So, here we are again at the Rendezvous Wine Bar (which has wi-fi)....
Can't get many photos posted here... go to my Facebook Page to see more pics....