Words of Wisdom

Yesterday afternoon I traveled to Oregon City, Oregon to attend the Compose Creative Writing Conference. This wasn’t my first conference, but this was the first time I had been invited as a speaker rather than an attendee. As one of Clackamas Literary Review‘s authors (my short story, “The Closing of Joe’s Bar” will appear in the 2012 issue), I was asked to appear as a panelist for the workshop “Reading, Writing, & Craft.”

Intimidated by the idea of presenting myself as a professional writer to a room full of strangers, I nearly turned down the opportunity. Then I reflected on how long it had been since I last gave a reading (not since the ISIS Women’s Arts Festival in May of 2011) and thought I needed to get over my fears and feel thankful that somebody was interested enough in my writing to ask me to attend.

I pushed the conference into the back of my head up until a few days prior to it, when I realized that I needed to A) reread my story and make sure I was ready to read it out loud to others and B) figure out what in the hell I had to say about writing.

The first part was easy–a few minutes in front of the bathroom mirror and I had eased back into a story I hadn’t looked at for nearly two years. Looking back on an old story is a strange experience because I felt so detached from the writing that I could actually look at it as an objective reader. There were characters I had forgotten about and plot points that had faded from my memory. It was like reading someone else’s story, and this feeling reminded me that once a story is finished, it really isn’t mine anymore. It is an entity separate from me. Yes, it has ties to me and drips with my memories and the long hours I spent engaging with characters and hashing out the story arc, but once the story was finished, it really was not mine to have. This realization always causes an odd stirring in me, both of relief and remorse.

On the bus ride to Oregon City–past strip malls and vast nothingness–I scribbled notes to myself for points of interest to discuss once the workshop shifted from reading to discussion. I wrote down tips such as “take a class,” “find balance,” and “give yourself deadlines.” These are the classic tenets all writers follow, or at least tell themselves they will follow. Of course once the discussion began and I looked around a room full of people significantly older than me, all my little tidbits faded and were replaced with insecurities. Why would these writers (who had probably been writing since before I was born) listen to my advice?

The reading went smoothly. People laughed in the appropriate places, gave writerly “mmmhmms” in the right moments. But it was the discussion that really challenged me. When I confessed I was a feverish writer who never subscribed to the “write every day” rule, one of my fellow panelists posed the question, “If you don’t write every day, are you a writer?” I felt the walls close in on me as I searched for the confidence to defend myself as a writer. Yes, I am a writer. Nobody can ever tell me I am not.

Here are most of the panelists from the CLR panel/discussion.
You can learn more about the Compose Creative Writing Conference here: http://ccccreativewritingconference.wordpress.com/.

The mediator asked one final question: “If you could give writing advice in two words, what would they be?” I blurted out, “Look around,” and honestly, felt satisfied with this response. Much of my writing is observational and situational. More than one of my short stories are based on news pieces I’ve read. No, I do not write every day, but I do keep my eyes and ears open and alert, ready to soak in the oddities of the world around me and, when the time is right, to shape them into a story. The listening is an important part of the process.

I regret that I didn’t have time to share my favorite writing anecdote with the audience at Compose. It’s the story that constantly keeps me encouraged as a writer. One of my favorite short story writers, John Cheever, once wrote an essay called “Why I Write Short Stories,” in which he confesses an odd writing habit of his. Working as a full-time writer, Cheever would wake up in the morning and put on his one suit, then he would proceed to ride the elevator down his apartment complex with all the businessmen on their way to work. Cheever would stay on the elevator after the other men set off to their offices; his office was the basement of the apartment building. Inside his “office,” Cheever would remove his suit and spend the day writing in his underwear. At five, he would put his suit back on and ride the elevator back up with the returning businessmen.

I love this story. I love it because it reminds me that writers are weird. We’re not like other people, and that’s okay. The sooner we come to terms with that, the better. I may not write every day, but I have written many stories in my pajamas. You have to figure out what works for you as a writer. That’s my advice to other writers, take it or leave it.

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