Linda: Notes from Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference 2014, part three

Courting Lightning

Carol captures yours truly note-taking furiously

This plenary session on inspiration and creating a writing life was moderated by Erin Coughlin Hollowell and featured panelists Kwame Dawes, Lee Martin, Eva Saulitis, and Sherry Simpson.

Lee Martin kicked off the conversation by asserting that he believes more in perspiration than inspiration. However, there’s always something that brings him to the page, a story out there waiting to be told. With nonfiction it’s usually a question that’s bothering him—why people did what they did, why he did what he did. In the process, he often discovers things he didn’t even know he had questions about. By the end, there’s not necessarily an answer but the questioning has deepened a few layers. When he’s not writing he’s engaging with the world; then he retreats to his writing space where he decides what to make of that engagement. Pay attention to the present moment or you miss a lot. In closing, he quoted Isak Dinesen, who wrote “a little each day, without hope and without despair.”

Eva Saulitis likes to write her way into inspiration. Tell yourself you only have to write one good sentence a day. Words are like keys on a chain, you just need to find one good one that opens the lock to let you in. Like Lee, she encourages you to “engage with the nitty gritty of the world.” It’s almost an alchemical relationship: writing feeds life, life feeds writing.

Sherry Simpson and Erin Hollowell

Kwame Dawes declared immediately that he hates the inspiration question: he doesn’t know and if he did know it would mess everything up! A better question is “how do you prepare yourself to write?” He’s motivated by the desire to create language and enjoys the small victories of writing—that’s what makes him come back. The key is finding what drives you to the page. Everyone has a good idea, the difference is skill and craft. If you have a good idea—write, using the craft you’ve learned. He thinks writer’s block is a great invention: sometimes you just don’t have anything to write. Inspiration and writer’s block are two sides of the same coin.

Sherry Simpson related the story of her fascination as a child with the original tale of The Little Mermaid (not the Disneyfied version), whose fate never failed to move her to tears. In it you find beauty and love and sorrow, all parts of the full dimension of humanity. This is what we learn from art and life, the emotional effect of crafted words. Sherry has spent her whole life writing towards that feeling. She reminded us that inspiration is “the drawing in of breath.” We need to fill ourselves up through life: decide what matters, discard the parts that don’t.

As we heard in other sessions at this conference, there is no formula, no right or wrong answer. It’s a personal journey and we need to find our own path, which comes from both knowing ourselves and being willing to experiment and take risks.

Reading Like a Writer

It was a relief when Sherry Simpson gave us permission to first read a book through and experience it for pleasure. The good books always carry me away, and only afterwards do I find myself wondering how the author pulled it off. So no need to chide ourselves for not paying attention to craft on the initial reading. That, of course, is the case with good writing—when the not-so-good writing isn’t working, we quickly wonder “why am I losing interest?” That’s an important question to answer, lest we fall into the same trap ourselves.

What we should be asking, when we’re ready to examine a writer’s craft more closely, is “how does this story communicate meaning?” Good examples to analyze are “Death of a Pig” by E.B. White and “Someone I Love” by Naomi Shihab Nye. What are the elements of the story that make it work? What is it about the writer’s style, their diction, how they structure the story and the release of information, that resonates with us? In each of the above examples, the writer lets the reader know that the narrator has already come to terms with their loss, which reassures the reader that we’re going to come out of this at the other end.

Why did the writer choose to begin the story where he/she did? What metaphors are used and why are they successful? Good imagery is fresh and surprising. As Kathleen Dean Moore said, metaphor should be “astounding but inevitable.” We tend to see the strengths and weakness of our own writing in that of others, so pay attention to what you notice. When it comes to making choices about language and structure, remember that the editor in your head should be advocating for the reader!

Writing the Things We Carry

Scott Russell Sanders reads from his own essay “Buckeye”

This session with Eva Saulitis on object poems was instructive for writers of all genres. “The objects that we hold dear, save, hoard, squirrel away, and/or use on a daily basis help to define us.” Tangible things can act as triggers to our writing and ground our ideas. They also offer the possibility of powerful metaphor.

For those of you interested in the object poem, Robert Bly dedicated a whole chapter to it in News of the Universe. For examples of the form, look no farther than Pablo Neruda, who brought the ode down to earth by writing about the artichoke, a chestnut on the ground, onion soup, a hummingbird, and even socks! In his celebration of the ordinariness of these things, he connects them to the whole world.

Here’s a partial list of object categories to get you started:

  • Given away to the second-hand store
  • Let go of in a move
  • Broken or awaiting fixing
  • Scared you as a child
  • Given to you that you don’t like
  • Used in hobby
  • Belong to someone who’s dead
  • Lost/stolen
  • Coveted
  • Found objects
  • Tools you use (Read Scott Russell Sanders’ wonderful essay “Buckeye” in
  • Taken everywhere you go (non-essential)
If you do write an object poem, why not submit it to the Alaska Shorts feature on this blog?

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