Going to a Writers’ Conference? Be Prepared!

I just love spring in Arizona, don’t you–especially that six-week period in March and April when I want to dig a pit, line it with cinder blocks, roof it with steel, and not come out until the battering wind stops.

High-positive-ion wind messes with people’s neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that affect emotions. More serotonin and less norepinephrine is a formula for irritability and depression in a lot of people. The wind even inhibits thyroid function. That’s why I own an air cleaner with a negative-ion generator.

(Digression: Writing about what you know about is good. Writing about what you want to know and have to research makes you stretch.)

Still, I do love spring in Arizona. Why? Because three of my favorite writing events take place in that season:

(Digression: Okay, you can argue that Pima takes place in the summer. Any season in which you have to turn on your car’s air conditioner at eight in the morning is summer. Humor me anyway.)

Having listed these upcoming delights–and having read a couple of newsletter and blog pieces about writers’ conferences–I want to pass along two doable, down-to-earth logistical tips that have helped me get the most out of my time at these events.

Take food and water. At the very least, it gives you options for getting enough glucose to your brain cells in case the caterer’s truck breaks down, a fuse blows in the hotel restaurant, or the incoming water pipe is breached by a backhoe driver digging to install cable. This is especially important if you need to regulate your blood sugar more frequently than coffee and meal breaks allow, are on a tight budget, and/or have food sensitivities or other considerations.

For instance, the Creative Writing Celebration provides a catered lunch the first day. It’s beautiful, it’s healthy, and there’s rarely anything on the serving table that doesn’t contain meat, wheat, milk, sugar, and/or chocolate. So I brownbag it.

Dress/take clothes for any conditions from Siberian auditoriums to Saharan hotel meeting rooms. Shivering and sweating can distract you from participating fully, keep you from learning what you came to learn, and cause you to miss the serendipity that, frankly, is my biggest motivation for going to conferences.

Air handling systems are idiosyncratic, perverse, and sometimes downright malicious. Their quirks are poorly understood by the people who design and install them, never mind those who have to run them. Dress in layers and carry a jacket. I don’t go as far as packing sandals and mukluks, though it’s crossed my mind.

Ross reminded me to add:  wear shoes that are comfortable to walk in.  Venues at some events are spread out, especially Tucson Festival of Books.  Blisters are not conducive to fun and learning.

You can’t plan for every eventuality, but if chance favors the prepared, a little preparation can increase the likelihood that you’ll have a good time and get all the conference has to offer.

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The Poetics of Place

Tucson Festival of Books is coming up in a little over a month. If you’ve never attended this readers’ and writers’ extravaganza, I urge you to dedicate at least one day to it. (More information at the bottom of this post.)

I like to prime myself for events like this by reading my notes from the previous year’s presentations. It puts me in a writerly frame of mind and primes my synapses.

Last year a wonderful novelist and children’s book author named Ilie Ruby came from back east to give a workshop called The Poetics of Place. While it was aimed at fiction, what she taught is useful in any kind of writing where setting is important–in other words, almost everything we write other than grocery and honey-do lists.

Here’s the exercise Ilie gave the forty or so people who attended her workshop.

Step 1 – Close your eyes. Imagine something happened in a real or made-up place. Look for sensory connections to other experiences, real or imagined. Pay particular attention to the tug of place in your thoughts and emotions.

Step 2 – Set a timer for ten minutes and do a free write, using your memory or imagination of that place. Describe it after something unpleasant or upsetting has happened. Keep writing; don’t let your pen stop. Doing it by hand gives you an organic, sensory advantage.

Step 3 – Set the timer again and describe the same place after something wonderful has happened. Compare your two descriptions.

Here’s what I wrote for Step 2: Her father had slammed his way out the back door, rattling the windows. He had slammed the wooden gate and then come back to latch it in that resigned way he had. The girl had retreated to her bedroom, climbed onto the quilt, and hugged her stuffed horse. Maybe she had slept. When she became aware again, the house was silent in that underwater way it was when the fog came in off the bay and climbed the hills. She lay still, cheek pressed against the horse’s dingy pink hide, and one breath told her that things had changed. That invisible thing her mother called mold had awakened and crept up her nostrils to inform her.

I was writing toward her discovery that the house is full of fog. This actually happened in the Berkeley Hills in California I was three or four years old, and my mother, brother, and I had taken a nap and left the bay-facing windows open.

We had less time to finish the second exercise, where something wonderful has just happened: How had she not known how much she loved this house, this wooden womb, this only place she had lived since her mother’s body? Had she, in her nearly six years, never noticed the bright trails of slugs across the fallen bay tree leaves, the smells of dust and wet decay that excited her nose, the patterns of light wedging itself between the leaves of the canopy?

The point of this exercise is to develop the habit of noticing sensory details of setting and how they relate to a character’s emotions. Give it a try and see what your imagination serves up.

Dates for the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books are Saturday, March 10, and Sunday, March 11, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Information is available at http://www.tucsonfestivalofbooks.org. From the website you can get on their e-mailing list. There are a raft of panel discussions and individual presentations, not to mention a wide variety of foods. (Lines are sometimes long, so it doesn’t hurt to bring something to keep your blood sugar up.) Hope to see you there, or at least pass you in the crowd.

Announcement – Correction – Again!

The Cochise Community Creative Writing Celebration is sponsoring two open-mic readings in conjunction with the Celebration:

  • Saturday, January 14, 2-4 PM, at the Oliver House, 24 Sowles Avenue, Old Bisbee
  • Saturday, January 28, 2-4 PM, at the Sierra Vista Public Library, Mona Bishop Room, 2600 East Tacoma.
Everyone is welcome.  Admission is free, and refreshments will be served.  Bring poetry and prose to read!

The Creative Writing Celebration will be held on Friday, March 30, at the Ethel Berger Center, and Saturday, March 31, 2012, at Sierra Vista Campus of Cochise College.

Deadline for the writing competitions associated with the Celebration is February 24.

For more information about the Celebration, check out the Cochise College website.

Consistency

Nice to be back for my regular Wednesday blog post after a vacation to another realm of social media. I dove head first into Facebook. Learned so much, connected with so many old friends, and had such a good time that my husband prevailed on me to set up a Facebook account for him, too. When his super-tech son, Denny Jr., found out, he posted, “OMG, my pop has made hell freeze over!”

The downside is that it’s taken me a week to re-orient my synapses. If you’re writing a regular blog–or doing any other kind of writing–consistency is essential. If you don’t believe me, read Robert Olin Butler’s account in From Where You Dream of his move from New York to Louisiana. He was away from his writing for eight weeks, and it took him that long again to get back in the fiction groove.

Butler’s agony is an object lesson for us in two ways. The obvious one is that we need to write regularly to keep our minds in gear. The less visible aspect is that some people are so discouraged by the process of getting their creative machinery up and running again that they give up. If that were all there was to it, it would be painful enough, but of course giving up on a dream chews at the back of a person’s psyche and makes it harder to start again.

I’m not suggesting that we should never take a break from our writing. A hiatus here and there can bring us back to our work refreshed. Rest and new input are useful. Sometimes, our brains form new patterns, and our writing may be better than ever.

Putting a piece away for a while can bring us back to it with new insight. But then it’s beneficial to be working on something else in the interim. It keeps your creative gears meshing.

Consistency–that’s our creative lubricant.

Creative Quotes

I like Debrah’s idea of offering the T-shirt sayings she found in a catalog.  It inspired me to  pass along a few quotes about the challenges of writing and other art forms.  These gems come from the wide margins of Julia Cameron’s books on creativity, the series that begins with The Artist’s Way.  (I love the white space in her books.)

I hope you find one or more bits of wisdom to sustain you through the holidays and the coming year.

To create is always to learn, to begin over, to begin at zero.  –Matthew Fox

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all . . . that is genius.  –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before but in saying exactly what you think yourself.  –James Stephens

Poetry often enters through the window of irrelevance.  –M. C. Richards

Only a mediocre writer is always at his best.  –W. Somerset Maughm

Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss it, you will land among the stars.  –Les Brown

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.  Persistence and determination are omnipotent.  –Calvin Coolidge

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.  –Vita Sackville-West

This is the practice school of writing.  Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it.  –Natalie Goldberg

I don’t wait for moods.  You accomplish nothing if you do that.  Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.  –Pearl S. Buck

The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.  –William Cowper

We learn to do something by doing it.  There is no other way.  –John Holt

Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.  –Sigmund Freud

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.  –André Gide

Let the beauty we love be what we do.  –Rumi

I don’t have a lot of respect for talent.  Talent is genetic.  It’s what you do with it that counts.  –Martin Ritt

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.  –Joseph Chilton Pearce

Moose Mystery Explained

Last Saturday, I was driving down Davis Road from our isolated home in the hinterlands of Cochise County, Arizona. I was counting the turns–how many left and how many right–so that during the week, I could stop at the County Recorder’s office, look through one of those big books of maps, and find out who owned that property on the outside of the curve around the thirty-one-mile marker.

Why? Because back in September–as I mentioned in a post on this blog–I spotted a moose-crossing sign at that spot. Burned up a week’s worth of rubber, skidding to a stop and backing up to see if I’d really seen what I thought I’d seen. This was in the Sulphur Springs Valley, about a dozen miles from the Mexican border and hundreds of miles from moose habitat.

In that September blog post, I said that mysteries were good for writers because they can kick start the imagination. But then solving mysteries is good, too; it’s satisfying. Which was why I pulled over next to the white pickup parked just off the road, introduced myself, and asked the man behind the wheel if he could tell me about the moose sign.

First, he told me that the story was on the back of the sign. I gave myself the flat-forehead salute because it hadn’t occurred to me to walk behind it. Then, in tears, he told me that on January 6, 2011, his friend, Marvin S. “Moose” Barker III, had rolled his pickup truck at that spot and had died.

We sat quietly for a moment. Then I told him I was a writer and had posted a picture of the sign on our group’s blog, along with a piece about my surprise at seeing it. In response, he handed over a small notebook where he’d written a few thoughts about Moose. By the time I read his last line–“those who didn’t know him missed out”–I wished I’d known the man whose death had inspired such grief in his friend.

I told him how sorry I was for his loss and pulled back onto Davis Road, determined to stop next time I came this way and read the back of the sign.

Until then, thanks, Mike from Mud Springs, for sharing your loss with a stranger and for satisfying my writer’s curiosity.

Gratitude List

‘Tis the season to be thankful, and I have a lot to put on my gratitude list, in general and in my writing life.

For one thing, I’m blessed with a wonderful bunch of writing partners, the Cochise Writers’ Group that puts out this blog.  For years, I tried to pull myself up by the bootstraps as a writer.  It was only when I found classes and critique groups that I began to grow in my art.  This group is serious about writing and publishing–and we often laugh so hard at our meetings that the librarians come in for a dose of humor.

I grew up in the Age of Manual Typewriters and thought correcting electric typewriters were the ultimate technology.  Now we live in the Age of Computers that make revisions so much easier.  On a computer, my fingers can almost keep up with my thoughts.  Grateful?  Oh, yeah.

I’m also grateful that we can afford to be a two-computer family, partly because Dennis and I shared a computer for a long time and partly because I can use his while mine is recuperating in the computer hospital, also known as Two Flags Computer in Douglas, Arizona.  (Over the phone, Charles said I brought in a computer, and he’s giving me back a rocket ship.  I’m both excited and apprehensive to find out what that means.)

Technologically, I’m grateful for the Internet and its proliferation of information, notwithstanding the frustration of getting 37,000,000 hits for the query “writing rules.”  In the late 1980s, I was dating a techie from Los Alamos National Laboratory who impressed me by dialing the computer he’d brought home from work (even he didn’t have a personal computer) into the Internet’s predecessor, set up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  I was awed that he could search for data on a computer in Germany.

I’m grateful to have more ideas written down for poems, short stories, and novels than I would have time to write if I were twenty again and expected to live to be a hundred.  Those ideas are like gold coins in a treasure chest.

Did I mention how grateful I am for my fellow scribblers?  Thanks, Annette, Bob, Debrah, Jeri, JoySue, Pat, Priscilla, Ross, Steve, Terry, and everyone who’s dipped into our meetings and found that life had other plans for them.

I couldn’t do it alone, any more than the Pilgrims could have done it without the Indians.