Writing Workshops, Part 1

This is a departure for me: mentioning something I’m excited about, that hasn’t happened yet. I developed the habit, a very long time ago, of suppressing my talk about an event before it happened. Thinking that I would jinx it. That if my expectations were too high, they would be in danger of not being met.

Which is ridiculous. Because of course I would still hype the event, just internally. Expectations would grow, like a cancer, metastasizing into something that could not possibly be satisfied. I hope to place that unhealthy habit firmly in my past.

Thursday nights: writing not optional
Thursday nights: writing not optional

I leave for California tomorrow, and this weekend I will attend the La Jolla Writers Conference. It bills itself as “an intensive experience where writing becomes habit, habit breeds success, and writers become authors.” I feel like I am smack dab in the middle of that last part — becoming an author. And I need some guidance. I met one of the organizers at IBPA’s Publishing University this past April, and I liked what he had to say. So I’m not going into this weekend’s workshop totally blind.

Unlike my recent writing workshop experiences. Which have been like wildly improbable games of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. One experience in particular was life- altering.

I’ll begin with that one. It was three years ago, late October 2012. I stumbled across an event listing for the Louisiana Book Festival in The Advocate. I had never heard of the Louisiana Book Festival, but it sure seemed like something I should know about. I discovered they offered reasonably-priced “Wordshops.” I signed up for one that sounded interesting, took the day off of work, and went up to Baton Rouge. At this point, I had been working on The Incident Under the Overpass for about two and half years, with an inconsistent effort.

The Wordshop was titled “After Craft: The Process of Writing Fiction,” and it was presented by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler. And bam. On that Friday in late October 2012, Superstorm Sandy was about to barrel down on the east coast, and my life in Southern Louisiana was about to change.

He talked about a lot of ideas and practices, many of which can be found in his book on writing, From Where You Dream. They were all revolutionary to me. But this one thing struck me to my core: if I were at all serious about writing, I would have to write every day. He talked about this idea of a “window closing” if you don’t pass through it consistently. I understood what he meant, viscerally, in a way I find difficult to explain here.

I was devastated. What about my job? What about running in the morning before work? What about sitting in front of TV all day on a Sunday and doing absolutely nothing? I was devastated, because I knew he was right. I would have to find some way to write every day to actually finish the story I had begun. Up ‘til that point, I would write something, and then take months-long breaks, daydreaming about it while I sat in front of TV on a Sunday doing absolutely nothing.

I remember Robert Olen Butler explaining the practicalities this way: there are always other things to do, jobs to work at, family to attend to. Writing couldn’t wait for all those things to magically disappear. He mentioned that he had woken up at 3am that morning in order to write. He had this workshop to present, and meetings after that. . .

Husband Tim had told me that Stephen King writes every day, except his birthday and Christmas. I wasn’t sure what would work for me. Three years into it, I’ve determined I need about one day off per month. Plus one for good measure. So thirteen non-writing days in a year, determined by the mood and the schedule of the day. I still get my Sundays to do nothing – they just can’t be multiple Sundays in a row. I still run in the morning before work – I just get up an hour earlier for writer-ly stuff. I take lunches at the Starbucks on Upstream when I can (I am writing this, there, this very instant).

Every day, the writing isn’t equally productive. Some days I produce pure drivel (hopefully today is not one of those days). But I like to think that the drivel is necessary to get to the good stuff.

So there you go. Life altered, because I’ve discovered the act of writing (nearly) every day, drivel and otherwise, does eventually get you to a finished product. And, I like to think, an improved product, the more hours dedicated (Malcolm Gladwell and that whole 10,000 hours of practice thing).

I want to mention one other successful Pin the Tail on the Donkey experience. This is the one that has hopefully improved my fiction writing. Two years ago, I signed up for a workshop at Loyola’s Walker Percy Center. Two things piqued my interest. First – Walker Percy. I discovered him when I was seventeen. Love in the Ruins was the antidote to my unfortunate Ayn Rand phase. I suspect my mother told me about the book in the hopes of getting me out of my Ayn Rand phase. And Walker Percy is buried in the beautiful Saint Joseph Abbey Cemetery in Saint Benedict, LA, just a few plots away from where my parents are buried.

Here’s the second thing. The instructor was Stephen Rea. Not the actor, but the writer. I didn’t know who Stephen Rea the writer was at the time, but the actor plays Inspector Finch in V for Vendetta, so I figured that was a good sign.

Two years later, I still meet with Stephen Rea and many of the same writers who showed up for that first workshop in September 2013. We no longer meet at Loyola. We’ve gone rogue, and instead we meet at the lovely new bar Treo. We all get to drink (optional), and read and discuss each other’s work (not optional). I now have, what I consider, a fairly decent grasp of the craft of writing stories, and a bevy of beta readers. (We focus on writing fiction, so if you find my grasp of non-fiction less than solid, don’t blame that group).

So, tomorrow, off to California. Next week, I’ll let you know about the La Jolla Writers Conference.

4 thoughts on “Writing Workshops, Part 1

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