A post from September 2008.
The first annual Orcas Island Writers Festival ended a few days ago. It was awesome. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
I’m so glad I went, too. I almost didn’t. I haven’t really written much in awhile, and have felt like work takes over my life. But I had put in for the time off back in April or something, so I said what the hell and signed up. I thought if nothing else, at least I’d have a few days away. The festival was held at Moran State Park which is a good drive from my place, so I stayed overnight in one of the cabins during the festival.
The festival blew my expectations out of the water! The instructors were EXCELLENT! A lot of them teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts which has a low-residency MFA writing program. In the mornings, we had small workshop groups. I chose the non-fiction track, and so each morning, our small group gathered to very thoroughly discuss our work. Each of us had to submit a ten-page sample of our writing before the festival, so we spent considerable time each morning, working with a few people’s work each day. It was great. I forgot how great it is, not only to get feedback on your own work, but to work as a group on others’ stories. You learn so much. I felt so engaged, like my inner artist was engaged in a way it hasn’t been in so long. I was exercising my writing muscles. It was great even to go over some of the basics of story arc and point of view. I didn’t realize I was so hungry for this sort of thing. But oh was I ever! It fed my soul, and my soul has been a bit starving as of late.
So our group looked at my piece on the last workshop day. I submitted the first chapter of my book, which I’ve worked on extensively. I have to say (and I think I’ve said before), that for the last, well, year or so, I’ve felt kinda flat, numb, disinterested feelings about my manuscript. It doesn’t really excite me anymore. So I thought, what the hell? I also picked the non-fiction track (as opposed to another workshop which was for memoir/fiction), partly because the instructor and some of the people in the group were male (in the mem/fiction group, it was all females). It may seem silly or even arbitrary, but almost all of the places where I’ve shared my work – other writing circles, friends, classes I’ve been in – have been all women. I feel like I have a pretty diverse sampling of female responses to this particular piece of work, and I wanted to see a more mixed-gender reaction. I’m glad I did. I left feeling more confident that my story could have a more universal appeal, which was good. I also got great feedback on what worked in my piece, what was effective.
And I got some great ideas for how to change it. I’ve actually been thinking recently of reshaping and re-visioning the whole project in a major, major way, and this workshop pretty much confirmed that for me. I felt like I got a real sense of where the real juice of the story is, what needs to come in and be included and what I can draw out and yeah, I would just sit there at different points during the weekend with all these thoughts, ideas and inspirations coursing through me.
I also got to rethink another book idea I had in mind. I realized the starting point was a totally different place, and really saw how perfectly that would work. It was like reframing the whole thing. And because of that, I had passages just swirling in me throughout the whole time.
I thought a lot about story structure. In our workshop group we talked about the typical pyramid of a story – the introduction, rising action, climax, denouement, ending. I kept thinking of The Kite Runner, because it’s such a perfect book in that way, it has all those elements so clearly. And because I just love thinking about that book anyway. With my other favorite, The God of Small Things, it’s so much more murky (and that story weaves in out of time, so if I think about, in chronological order the events of the book probably do follow that arc, but the telling doesn’t, not really).
Then in one of the afternoon sessions (these were lectures and mini-classes), Karen Fisher, author of A Sudden Country, said she thinks of story structure in another way. She thinks of it as the story starting out in stability, you enter the world of the story, then there’s a destabilizing event, either by ambition, wanting something, or by some sort of loss. Then follows a period of resistance – either a character is resisting something, or the world is resisting them. Then they face the inevitable, or the bottom, etc (analogous to the climax in the other structure system), and then a period of acceptance. Well this description of story structure also perfectly fit The Kite Runner. I just got such a clear picture of it, using that book as a tangible example. And from there could clearly extrapolate to a book I want to write. It just makes a lot of sense.
Another thing we talked about a lot in workshops and afternoon sessions was about reading like a writer, which is something I think I sort of do, but have never been taught to do, looking at good writing and really looking at it, getting into what makes it so good, what the author did to make it so effective. I think I do some of that just by nature of being a writer and reading a lot. I mean, my LENGTHY post on here about The Kite Runner isn’t really a review, not really, it’s more a writer’s appreciation and noticings. I want to go back to the passages from that book that I quoted in my post (there were several), or to the passages I’ve makred in White Oleander. I want to re-read The God of Small Things again, even though I just reread it a few months ago when I was in Hawaii, because it’s just so good. The writing is so fucking good it’s unbelievable. And there are so many just mindblowing things about the story structure. Oh God, I’m getting all jazzed up just thinking about it I’m getting up, walking around, thinking about it. That book is SO FREAKIN’ GOOD I can hardly stand it. Some of the most gorgeous prose ever. All these great little things that Arundhati Roy does with the writing. And the end, oh the end. Yes, I want to reread it, specifically to read it like a writer, really dig into it and analyze what makes it so good, learn from it.
I’m still DYING to post about that book. I especially want to discuss the end, the choices she made in writing it that way, in the name of the last chapter (which still, years after my first reading of the book, gives me full body shivers), and on what note she chooses to end it and all the implications. I lent it to a friend actually, who was leaving to work on a six month cruise and needed some reading material. I wish I hadn’t. I love my friend Holly, and I’m glad someone else will read the book, but I realize I wish I hadn’t parted with it. And it hasn’t even been two months yet! So, someday, I will post about it. I just feel I couldn’t really do it justice without the book here. Anyway I am anxious to dig into that book again and read it in a slightly different way.
I’ve gotten a bit off-track, as usual. I’m taking a screenwriting class starting in a week or two. I’m going to base it on a short story I wrote a bit ago, which was based on a dream I had about writing this story (now that I think about it, the dream might have also involved it being for a screenwriting class, I just put that together, weird). I’m a little nervous about the fact that my two main characters are on acid during part of the story, since I don’t know how that’ll fly in some of the writing circles of the island, but after one of the readings at the festival (each night a handful of authors/instructors read their work), I’m inspired to NEVER hold back. So that should be an interesting class. On an un-writing note, I’m also taking an anthropology class this fall, on comparative Islamic cultures. I’m really looking forward to that too. My mind is just craving something like that.
Dave Eggers’ What is the What? – I’m only a few chapters in. It’s very good, harrowing in many places, immediately draws me in.
“Fast Car” – Tracy Chapman – this is not a random iTunes pick like usual in this section. I am sort of obsessed with this song. In some other post, I totally want to write about this song the way I want to write about books. There are so many great lyrical things she does in this song. It’s also heartbreaking.
Hey, sis!Sounds like the conference was a rush and truly an intellectual shot in the arm — that's awesome! Sometime I'd love to hear more about how it's influenced the way you might rework your book, and also more about the other story ideas you mentioned.Given what you brought up, you might be interested in a book called _Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them_ by Francine Prose (http://www.amazon.com/Reading-Like-Writer-Guide-People/dp/0060777052/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1221152907&sr=8-1). I actually own the book myself, but must confess that I haven't yet gotten around to reading it (d'oh!).Great to hear the conference went so well, and hope to catch up soon!
Chris, The conference sounds fabulous – I’d love it if you could email me a list of the faculty who were there (asI’ve been playing with the idea of a low rez program and the Vermont one is definitely in the top tier).Wow. A major rewrite. I’m there for you – know that. I’m in the midst of my own, after all :^).I can definitely relate to Karen Fisher’s take on story arc – that is EXACTLY how I think of BTB. Hope you are well. I’m thrilled you are feeling hepped up again – banish thou, ennui! I’m keeping on, keeping on… tough few weeks. Peace, Linda
Have you considered self publishing your blog as a book? Or maybe you have that finished manuscript gathering dust on your desk? I found what I think is a new website, WorldWide Alliance of Writers, http://www.wwaow.com. What you get is 5 printed copies of your book and a listing on their ecommerce web site for $80. Not much is on there yet but nothing like being an early adopter…
SL – YES I hope to catch up soon. Life has been insane (as you’ll see from a post I’m about to write), but thinking maybe this weekend would be a good time. Preferably Sunday, as I’ll be off.Funny, I JUST bought that book yesterday, and a new copy of The God of Small Things. I decided I just couldn’t go four more months (maybe more) without it. We’ll see if I ever get around to reading it either. Oh I also saw a book that made me think of you immediately.Linda – the teachers from VC who were at OIWF were Matthew Goodman, Diane Lefer and Ellen Lesser. They were all EXCELLENT! Life is so much up and down. Tough few weeks is right…
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