I spent last weekend up in Bellingham, Washington as part of the faculty of the 5th Annual Chuckanut Writers Conference. I’ve written here about the importance and value of conferences to any writer’s continuing education in his or her craft, but indulge me, because I’m about to do it again.
Creative writing is not something anyone will ever perfect. No one, I don’t care how long you’ve been doing it or how many books you’ve sold, knows everything there is to know about writing fiction or non-fiction. It’s just not possible. So that means we’re always learning, always trying new things, always open to new ideas—or at least we damn well should be.
What I love about attending conferences like this isn’t that I get another hour of “everybody listen to me” time—though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in it at least a little bit for that. What’s actually lots more useful to me than listening to myself talk is listening to everybody else—faculty and attendees alike.
Having done a couple of one-day seminars at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham and spending a little time there I already knew that this is a remarkably literate town. The rocky center of the community seems to be the independent bookstore Village Books, which is three stories of awesome. Bellingham is a college town with not just the community college but Western Washington University as well—and everybody there seems to be reading all the time. I love it up there.
That spirit infused the conference and brought in some talented people—aspiring authors of all ages.
First, I want to thank Jessica Lohafer and everyone involved in organizing the event, which ran so smoothly it almost seemed as if some supernatural power had been invoked. It was almost impossibly well organized.
After a short orientation on Friday morning, I sat in the audience as Stephanie Kallos, author of the critically acclaimed Sing Them Home and her latest, Language Arts, spoke on the importance of asking questions in “Behind Every Book is a List of Burning Questions.” She was insightful and challenged the writers in attendance to think about the little things that add up to making a character a person.
Then later that afternoon we were asked to do short readings. They brought us up in alphabetical order and so I was first up—a little nerve wracking but in the end I think I had it easiest, since I didn’t have to take the audience on any sharp turns in tone. I read the conclusion from my book Writing Monsters, and I think I got a pretty good response, but since I had to wear my reading glasses, when I looked up at the audience all I saw was an amorphous mass of color. But the amorphous mass of color laughed at my jokes, so I’m calling it a success!
But what was much more of a success was the collection of readings as a whole, from Brian Doyle’s funnier follow-up segue from my reading to his through one of those sharp turns in tone when Steven Galloway read from The Cellist of Sarajevo. I thought two of the poets, the urgently earnest Samuel Green and the fighting his way through nervousness to demand to be heard Robert Lashley gave the afternoon’s bravura performances.
Then a blissfully air conditioned night in the beautiful Fairhaven Village Inn during an unprecedented Western Washington heat wave later and I showed up Saturday morning to sit on the panel “Directions to Where I Live.” Moderated by Nan Macy, I was in the distinguished company of Brenda Miller, Lee Gulyas, and Stephanie Kallos. We spoke to a small but attentive crowd on the subject of literary influences and I found myself making notes during the seminar. I’m learning from my fellow panelists much more than I’m offering to the crowd—after all, there were four of them and only one of me!
My literary influences? In particular Edgar Rice Burroughs and Harlan Ellison and I got a chance to talk briefly about my attraction to the opposite ends of the genre spectrum, from the pulp to the literary, leaving the mainstream more or less unread.
Then fast forward a bit to early afternoon, where I gave an abbreviated and slightly revised version of Writing Scary in the hottest room on the campus—but undaunted by almost debilitating back pain and general sweatiness we pressed on talking about how to use sentence and paragraph length to alter your readers’ breathing to convey anxiety and panic. Everybody seemed to get it and asked smart questions that got me thinking, too.
And I’ve said this before: Live events are best becuase of that in-person interaction—you aren’t just listening to speeches you’re asking questions and actively engaging with the faculty and other attendees.
Author Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City and the newly released Dead Wake) kept that going in his breakout session “The Dark Country of No Ideas” in which he asked attendees to stand up and pitch their non-fiction works in progress for short but insightful workshopping from both Larson and the other attendees. There are some amazing writers out there, working on some amazing stuff. And Erik Larson knows what he’s talking about.
As things wound down I wandered over to the Village Books table trying to mentally balance my budget. Just because I wanted to buy all of the books and have all of my fellow faculty members sign them didn’t mean I could—at least not in one go—so I had to pick a couple. I bought The Devil in the White City because as an ex-patriot Chicagoan that story has always intrigued me. Erik Larson was kind enough to sign it. I felt particularly compelled to buy Samuel Green’s collection of poems All That Might be Done because I liked his reading and him personally.
I was kicking myself for not bringing my copy of Sing Them Home for Stephanie Kallos to sign, but Language Arts is on my to-buy list, as are books by other faculty members especially Robert Lashley, William Kenower, Steven Galloway, Bryan Doyle, and Elizabeth George.
By the end of the day on Saturday I hated to admit it but my back was telling me it was over, so I had to skip the closing party at Village Books, but I was there in spirit!
Now, go find a writers conference in your area—and I drove two hours to get to Bellingham, so think about the farthest reach of “your area” if you have to—and go there!
It will be both money and time well spent on both useful tips on the craft of writing like my own Writing Scary, or inspiration that will lift you out of the deepest of writer’s blocks.
Thank you Chuckanut Writers Conference. I am energized.