First Writers Conference of 2014 – Part One

I was really looking forward to the short trip down I-81 to the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference last Friday–mostly because it was six degrees warmer than at my house. Why, it reached a balmy 32 degrees compared to the “low 20’s; feels like teens” at home.

I’m coming to know the Hollins University campus better than my alma mater’s, since this was my fourth trip there in two years, and once again RRWC didn’t disappoint. After a Friday evening networking session, we started the conference with short speeches from several of the instructors.

First was Rod Belcher, whose genre mash-up Sci-fi/Western is intriguing. Entitled “Perseverence,” it was truly inspiring. His description of getting the notification his book had been accepted for publication by Tor (a huge sci-fi publishing house) gave us all some hope. Early on, like me, he received a rejection for a sci-fi story which amounted to “why do you bother writing that crap.” Like me, it put him off writing for some time. His mother broke the impasse by buying him a typewriter. In that way he happened upon his writing process: “put your butt in a chair until you pull it out of thin air.”

Carrie Brown, visiting professor of creative writing at Hollins, spoke on problem-solving. All of writing, she said, “is problem-solving.” The writer as problem-solver comes from the fact “a writer is someone who undertakes a task without knowing what to do.” I found that a very interesting take on the writing life.

The keynote speaker was Sheri Reynolds, and the title of her talk was “Giggling Past the Funeral Home: A Look at What Makes us Laugh.” I’d heard Reynolds speak on a panel about “road trip novels” at last year’s Virginia Festival of the Book. She read from her latest book, The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, which had us all falling from our chairs. The book tells the story of Myrtle, a teacher fed up with her husband’s teasing about an asymmetrical aspect of her female anatomy. As she’s headed to an appointment to have surgery to fix it, she panics and keeps driving. Somewhere along the way, she finds a black man in the back of her vehicle, which prompts her to drive further, knowing her husband and family would disapprove. Although her other works are described as serious literature, Reynolds indicated she infuses all of her work with some aspect of humor. She also mentioned that this particular book underwent several rewrites and changes of POV, until she finally settled on first person–and that worked.

Saturday was the main day for the conference, and my first session was “Telling Stories: The Greyhound Bus, the Swedish Gal, and the Flophouse in Seattle.” If that title wouldn’t attract you to Dan Casey’s workshop, I don’t know what will. Casey is a local journalist in the Roanoke area who also does a regular column wherein he tells a story of local life. I’d gone to his workshop the year before at RRWC and knew this would be great. It was, though it also was a different kind of workshop: In between telling the story encompassed in the title, he dropped little bon mots about being a storyteller. After the workshop, a woman started chatting with me and said, “Well, that was a waste.”

“How?” I asked.

“All he did was tell his own story. I wanted to learn about how to tell my stories.”

I said, “Well, I took a page and a half of notes.”

“On what?”

“Well, let’s see. Find inspiration in everyday things. Take ordinary events and turn them into hair-raising adventures. Tell a story over and over until you fix the details in mind, and lots more.”

“Oh.” She moved on.

Next, I went to Sheri Reynolds’ workshop, “Dreamwork for Writers: Using your Dreams to Deepen Your Stories.” Reynolds pointed out how some part of her own dreams ended up in every one of her novels. “Just think of your dreams,” she said, “as a new story every night.” She encouraged the use of dream journals and explained that you don’t necessarily use a dream literally. “Take a disturbing or haunting image and explore it in your fiction,” she said. “Use your dreams as dreams for characters to show the characters’ conflict or the things they–and you–can’t face in real life. Use dreams as scenes–or reflect on a dream you’ve never had but wanted to and use that!”

The first writing exercise was to jot down a recurring dream of our own. Then, after a few minutes of that, Reynolds had us identify what in our dream hit the five senses. To conclude the writing exercise, she had us pick a person from the dream, not us, i.e., “I am the other,” and rewrite the dream from the other’s POV. This was probably one of the more useful exercises I’ve experienced.

Reynolds closed by talking about how to write down your dreams–don’t edit as you do so, don’t let your analytical mind step in, and focus on the images which resonate and recur.

To be continued in Part Two.

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