Linda: Notes from Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference 2014, part one

In her opening keynote on Friday
evening on chaos and the creative process, Alice Sebold quickly swept us up in the maelstrom of her words. The note-taking got off to a shaky start. Here are some cryptic jottings
to ponder:
  • The mess comes first in your life, just as it does in your work.
  • The writer’s job is “making order out of chaos.”
  • Success is a kind of trauma.
  • Failure is an offshoot of mortal suffering.
  • The most wonderful thing about the writing is there are no rules, only guidelines.
  • Find out what helps you and leave behind what doesn’t. Listen.
  • We need to liberate ourselves from chaos by embracing ourselves. So, dear blog followers, embrace your chaos and begin!
Yesterday lunchtime’s Q&A with Alice veered from
questions of craft to her personal writing practice and back. The following
sample should convey the flavor of the informal exchange (questions and answers
How do you go about
character development in memoir?
Specific markers in your memory help you
to build the character of your narrator. You should begin there rather than
make a personality assessment about yourself (“I’m beautiful and very
Do you have any tips
for organizing your materials?
Alice professed to not being that organized,
but she does religiously print out what she’s written at the end of the day
because she needs to have her words physically in front of her.
How do you set the
scene as you did in
The Lovely Bones, (e.g.,
high school in the 1970s)?
One reason for picking that period was the less intrusive presence of the media 40 years ago, which allowed her to concentrate on
the family story. As for portraying a different era authentically, look for
markers that are references, such as products and pop culture, language that no
longer exists.
Do you have any
pointers on reading your own work?
If you have a bad self-image that
undercuts your reading. Respect your work and deliver it to your audience.
How has aging affected
your writing—for example, has your style changed?
Alice admitted it has
affected the way she thinks about writing. She also has a different idea of
what success means, and has learned to “kill the judges in her head!” The
latter comes with practice.
If you find yourself
getting distant from a character in the middle of your novel, how do you deal
with that?
It’s largely intuitive. Alice likened it to having several
children; you understand when you’ve spent more time with one than another.
It’s never a perfect balance but you do the best you can. Your first readers will tell you where you drifted too far.
How do you choose
where to end a memoir?
In the case of Lucky,
Alice wanted to bring the reader to a place where the narrator felt safe but
not rescued. Often it will be an in-between place, there’s never a full
What’s a typical
working day for you as a writer?
Alice goes through periods of 6-8 weeks
when she gets up at 3am and is shot by 10am/noon. After
a leisurely lunch, she’ll start editing at 2pm – but not the day’s work, she
needs to create some distance from those pages. Needless to say, during these
periods she has no social life and eventually she’ll need to come up for air
and see a human being or two! She described her method as “hit it and quit.”
Don’t keep pounding yourself.

* * *

This morning, Alice began by characterizing the focus of her talk—“How Can Something This Hard Be Fun?”—as “Play and Pain.”  First, she warned us of the danger of being a
‘competent’ writer. She has heard often from agents and others that they see
many ‘competent’ novels: well-written work that lacks risk and adventure.
“Competency kills!” Let’s focus instead on meaning. We each have a different
way of bringing meaning to our work. When tackling a difficult topic, remember
that specificity makes a story more interesting to the reader and invests it
with more meaning: a sentence like “my underwear was lost in a vortex of
violence” infuriates her! You have to trust your reader, your contract with
them is to carry them through to the other side.

You must also care about your work as if it’s the most
important thing in your life. Believe that it’s worth it, as prioritizing
your writing above everything else changes and contorts a life.
Alice asked people with projects to share how they’re
getting into them or where they’re getting stuck. She was happy to hear one
writer who’s stuck begin by saying “I love my main character…” because if you
don’t love your main character she advises you to start a new book. If you find
both the serious and the “frothy” at odds in your story, you might have to
decide whether you’re writing serious literature or chick lit, which are two
different paths. In her opinion, the best approach is to identify what would
make you happy and fulfilled if you woke up every day and wrote it. If you’re
writing a memoir about trauma, sharing this story is usually more meaningful to
the reader than the journey to a better place. Sometimes healing is a little
dull to write about! That’s another story for a different book.

Ignorance is a great place to start: know what you know and
don’t know. Read, research and write the story you want to write anyway. And be
sure to find a good first reader.
Tomorrow, look for highlights from some conference sessions
and thoughts from our members and other attendees on what they gained from this
year’s event.
For photos from KBWC 2014, visit the 49 Writers Facebook
page at and the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference Facebook page at

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